The Company We Keep: A Case for Small Schools
Eighteenth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures
October 1998, Salisbury, Connecticut
Edited by Hildegarde Hannum
Copyright © 1999 E. F. Schumacher Society (now New Economics Institute) and Deborah Meier
By Deborah Meier
In preparation for introducing Deborah Meier I called a friend of mine in New York whose family knows her personally. A radio was playing in the background when a man answered the phone. I assumed he was my friend’s husband, so I said, "Andrew, this is Susan Witt, and I’m calling to ask about Deborah Meier." He said, "Just a minute please," went and turned down the radio, came back, and said, "Deborah Meier, the educator?" I said, "Yes. The Schumacher Lectures are this weekend, and Deborah Meier is one of the speakers. He said, "I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know anything about the Schumacher Lectures, but I do know about Deborah Meier. She is my daughter's mentor. My daughter worked for her, and her whole life has been changed by that experience." It was an extraordinary conversation.
Now in a small town like Great Barrington, this kind of thing happens to us frequently. We can reach a wrong number and still have a meaningful discussion. But in New York City? So I was very impressed with this example of how much influence Deborah Meier has had.
She started teaching in Chicago in a neighborhood where she first became an activist; later she moved to New York City to continue teaching there. What she came to love about teaching was being involved with the process of learning, finding out what it took for young people to learn specific subjects, how best to work with them to help them gain information. She also loved the community that she found in teaching, the community of students, the community of colleagues, the community of parents. But in order to keep that community it was essential to have a school of proper scale—as she says, one where all the staff can still sit around one table, one where all the children can still gather in one auditorium.
Deborah Meier’s leadership and passionate commitment to small public schools has earned her a powerful national reputation. She has received honorary degrees from the Bank Street College of Education, from the New School, from Teacher’s College, Dartmouth College, Brown University, Clark University, Harvard University, and Yale University. She was also a recipient of the McArthur Genius Award. Her book The Power of Their Ideas is available at the book table in the back.
Deborah is now in her second year as director of Mission Hill, the newly established public school in Boston. My understanding is that it’s a very special place. When she went to Boston, two retired friends there were eager to help their former colleague get things started. They laughingly call themselves OWLS, which they note could refer to their being old wise ladies or—because the children at first got them mixed up—just old white ladies.
Please join me in welcoming Deborah Meier as a Schumacher lecturer.
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I just got back from taking a walk after lunch. I realized that one of the reasons it’s so nice to be working in a school again is that I didn't need to feel foolish for picking up leaves. I was able to collect enough of them for every class, so that’s yet another argument for small schools.
It was interesting this morning to hear Frank Bryan tell about the secessionist movement in Vermont and to think about it in connection with my secret secessionism. I've always worked in public schools because I believe in public education, but a lot of people in the public school system would claim that I have seceded from it. I never go to meetings. I throw most of the memos in the wastebasket; I figure if it’s important enough, they’ll probably call and tell me that if I don’t answer I'll be fired. As it turns out, very few of them are that important.
Shortly after arriving in New York City I found a job in East Harlem, and I had the extraordinary advantage of happening to work with a superintendent who was famous for believing in, I can’t remember which it is, either creative noncompliance or creative compliance. I think they mean the same thing. He offered me the chance to start a school in East Harlem as long as I didn’t break any laws (later he broke a few himself!). Otherwise, I could do it any way I wanted. He would stay out of my business as long as I stayed out of his, which meant he was happy that I didn’t go to meetings, because he thought I’d make more trouble at those meetings than I would staying away.
The school was so successful that it became two schools, three schools, four schools, and then New York City built nearly one hundred small schools from the bottom up like ours. We thought 100 would lead to 200, 200 to 400, 400 to 800, but we found it’s not easy to avoid the point at which what you’re doing becomes a threat to the larger system. That’s another story, and I’m not here to give you a lecture on the need for system reform. I haven’t figured out yet myself how it should be done, but I refuse to accept the idea that it’s not worth doing, even though resistance to it is so great.
What I want to talk about today is human relationships. I want to make the claim that there is a crisis in human relationships in our society, one that is reflected in our schools and that is more dangerous than any crisis in the economy. It has to do with what brings you all together here. I contend that our schools—the institution we have designed to help raise our children—are deliberately organized to make this crisis worse, to impede the kind of decent relationships children need and our democracy needs. The problem is not merely that we do not attend enough in schools to children’s social, emotional, and intellectual needs but, what is worse, that we neglect these needs in ways that are disastrous for the future of a democratic culture.
This isn't a trend that started yesterday; it emerged about a hundred years ago, but it is not yet so old that we cannot hope to change it. It is not engraved in human nature; in fact, it goes against human nature. My argument is that a democratic culture rests, not on any specific and unique juridical arrangements but first and foremost on a special form of interrelationships among people, one based on mutual respect and trust, on generosity toward our fellow citizens and understanding for their intentions, and on a willingness to keep arguing over our differences, to keep believing even against some good evidence that if we keep arguing, we will find a way to resolve them.
Throughout human history our humanity has not always been easily sustained, and true democracy has been rare. This knowledge helps me, for it is a new idea that all people should be educated so that they will engage in democratic life. I think John Dewey’s great contribution was the notion that an educational system for a democratic society poses entirely new challenges.
Unlike the previous speaker I don’t say that the twentieth century has been the worst century of all. I’m enough of an historian to be horrified by most of human history, in which disease, natural disaster, grinding poverty, hunger, despair, and various forms of cruelty, slavery, and degradation have often made vast numbers of human beings only half human and deprived them of their role as citizens. But there are other ways, big and small, by which we lose our humanity and thus our citizenship. What I’m arguing is that unfortunately our schools provide one of those ways.
Even the language we use to speak about schooling suggests a different agenda from the one we rhetorically claim. When we speak of teachers being "burned out," we are unconsciously imagining them as appliances, one more or less like the other. There is another description we could have used; we could have said that teachers are exhausted. Both may be true. Teachers who are treated like appliances may be burned out, and those who are treated like human beings may be exhausted. We need to make that distinction. Again, when we talk of "delivering instruction," of "measuring outcomes,” we are using language for inanimate objects, and we betray our lack of respect for the recipients of that schooling.
There are many ways in which we voluntarily avoid the stress of interpersonal relationships. We sit for hours and hours in front of the television set, lately in front of computers as well. Adolescents, we’re told, spend an average of four hours a day watching TV. Or they isolate themselves from one another by using ear phones or boom boxes so they won’t have to confront one another. In school we have our own rituals to accomplish the same thing. We’ve forgotten that we learn by the company we keep. Responsible relationships in which two or more people make a connection that bonds them in some common effort are at the heart of what civic life rests on—and what a strong intellectual life rests on as well.
As social beings we are born into a web of relationships. We would not learn to speak a language if from the moment of birth we didn’t enter into a particular human relationship with others. Learning to talk requires making relationships: the act of identifying with others, of imagining oneself part of what linguist Frank Smith calls "the club of others like oneself." We don’t learn to speak every language we hear. We don’t make noises like all the noises we hear around us, although we could. We imitate the sounds of those we imagine ourselves becoming—human beings and only a particular set of human beings.
Autistic children, however brilliant, fail to make such bonds, and as a result they struggle mechanically to make sense of things that come to others apparently instinctively. I recommend a wonderful book called The Siege by Clara Park of Amherst about her daughter. She also wrote an article in The American Scholar last year. Her daughter, now thirty-six, illustrates the upper limits of sociability of a superbly well-educated and superbly nurtured but highly autistic person. What seems to come so naturally to most of the species is so difficult for her.
In other words, when all goes even remotely well, we are remarkable learners. Our capacity to be so is linked to our equally remarkable capacity to imagine being another. We are designed to learn from others, to be apprentices to adults. All we need are those adults and a setting that seems to accept us and, in turn, seems acceptable to us. This allows us to trust sufficiently to explore and imagine, predict and wonder. The more trust the better; the less trust, the narrower our vision. Such a setting allows us to try out roles, make choices, and then take on an acceptable level of responsibility for our own actions and ideas.
As Alfie Kohn—the author of many books on discipline, raising children, and schooling—reminds us, we learn the most remarkable amount in the absence of rewards and punishments, without tests or competition of any form, because it seems we just want to grow up—if being grown up is made to seem even somewhat attractive. The magic triangle of teacher, student, and the "it" that binds the two together is essential, whether we’re learning how to tie a shoe or how to make sense of a difficult text. Teacher and student sometimes change roles in the act of learning, and the "it" that holds their attention can be simple or complicated, a matter of a few minutes or years and years of shared study.
The teacher can be an absent friend or loved one, an author, a character in a play, or a book whose way of viewing the world and responding to it becomes part of our own persona. It can also be a movie. One evening in Chicago when I was quite young, I rode my bicycle home after having seen "Viva Zapata." No one seeing me would have known it, but that bicycle was a horse, and I was freeing the world. I felt sure I looked like Zapata; for that thirty-minute ride I was Zapata, and some of that remains part of me. Watch people as they leave a theater, the way they move their bodies, the way they use their hands or voices differently for a time.
We can have powerful relationships with imaginary friends as well as real ones, but the former are built upon our experience of the latter. Even disappointed love helps build visions of fulfilled love, but without any experience of love, good or bad, we can no more picture it than a person totally blind from birth can imagine the concept of color. At best it becomes a gradation of some other quality altogether. So too with trust and care; so too with using our minds well. I am saying all this to the converted, of course, but maybe none of us is converted enough. We defensively dare not realize how important it is to have these experiences, and so we resort to believing that schools just need a little improvement or that at worst it’s the failure of a “system” that can be replaced by some other system, not by another set of ideas about what we mean by being educated.
We often act as though schools were the protectors of children whose families have abandoned them. I hear that all the time these days. We blame parents—if not parents, then teachers, but especially parents—for the breakdown of schools and society. But thirty-five years of experience have convinced me that parents have not disappeared from the lives of their children, that families are, probably even more than they once were, the critical factor for children and in many cases provide their only relationships. The evidence suggests that families are indeed first and foremost in the hearts of the young. For many young people, family members are the only adults they claim to know well and can count on. It’s the rest of the surround that has disappeared for children.
Yes, there are some who lack such families, but far fewer than today’s myths suggest. And the myths about the strength and stability of families of yore are also surely distorted. How strong and stable were the families of poor people—the vast majority of the citizens of London and New York a hundred years ago? Not very. There are and always have been, even among the well-to-do and well-educated, some who are cut off by genetic incapacity or environmental deprivation or distorted priorities from experiencing loving and being loved, from counting in someone’s life and knowing that person will come through for them, from being part of a two-way relationship. But those are the rare cases.
American society has not by a long shot changed in the importance it places on family, despite a recent popular book that claims families no longer matter. Parents certainly do, though, have a briefer and a more attenuated relationship with their children, even if its quality is as intense as ever. But while families still exist in abundance as havens for the young, they are havens increasingly cut off from the larger social fabric. In short, they are not as critical to our learning how to be adults as they once were, and neither is the web of relationships surrounding them.
The family is important, but it doesn’t provide the needed bridge between the intimate and personal world and the larger and more public world. To fill this breach we have designed schools and we’ve designed our mass media. It’s not clear which the children are watching more closely. They spend the majority of their waking hours either attending one or in front of the other— six hours in school and four hours in front of the television set. To a degree that no other civilization ever imagined, they are educated by these two institutions. The older they get and the closer they come to becoming grown-ups, the less contact they have with grown-ups.
The mass media offer kids one kind of relationship: a form of imaginary life, a possible substitute for other relationships, a way of telling them about what could be and what might lie ahead and who they are. They do so deliberately, although for purposes that are different from those of the family or school or society itself: quite openly for the purpose of selling something. And whatever way makes things sell is the right way to do it. We have turned over a major portion of the education of our young not to schools, which I want to argue do a very poor job of it, but to an institution with an entirely separate purpose. Now, that’s a topic of its own, and I’m not going to address it here today, although clearly it can’t be ignored.
What young children and adolescents alike see as the ideals of adulthood on TV and in our advertisement-laden culture runs headlong against what we pretend or claim to be the goals of raising children, not to mention of educating them. To make matters worse, in self-defense our schools try to mimic the worst qualities of the media in order to appeal to the appetites of the young.
You have all heard that children don’t have long attention spans, and so we adjust to that in school by never giving them any work that engages their mind for more than ten minutes because television has gotten their minds to work for only ten minutes at a time. Even parents can’t resist filling their children’s shelves and closets with goods whose life-span is often no longer than the ad that made them seem irresistible. So too with the goodies that come in and out of our schools and fill our closets. I can go from school to school, open a closet door, and find a reading program that was used two years ago. Unfortunately its lifetime is about one year. I used to think we ought to have trucks that would move from school to school picking up last year’s packets and moving them on to the next school as we look for programs that will solve the problem of how to deal with our children’s minds.
Equally horrendous and more to the topic of this lecture, our schools—the one institution we count on to inculcate the values we cherish most, together with the knowledge and skill needed to make such values feasible—have become over time more and more relationshipless. I don’t mean the relationships are bad; I mean they simply don’t exist. At least between the generations.
Despite a movement to restore small and more intimate schools, and I am speaking of the ones I referred to in New York along with many other places in the country, public policy continues to goad us into creating ten new hard-to-break-down big schools for every small one. Your neighbor town of Hillsdale across the state line in New York, where I live, went through four bond issues because the four small schools in the Taconic Hills network needed both renovation and enlargement. Each one was defeated. A financing method has been found that won’t require taxing the local folks. All that has to be done is replace all four with one big new school and the state of New York will reimburse the town for 90 percent of the cost. I can’t find anyone in the state who can explain to me exactly how that came about or why it came about, but it is state policy. Rhetoric and reality do not meet.
It’s important to have a little historical perspective. In 1930 there were 200,000 school boards, with over a million and a half citizens serving on them. The schools they superintended were mostly small, between 50 and 200 pupils. Today, with a population almost twice as large, there are fewer than 20,000 school boards—200,000 versus 20,000—and only a few hundred thousand citizens are school board members. Today’s schools are huge in comparison, averaging nearly a thousand students. The power of these boards to make decisions about their schools grows daily weaker as does the relationship with their public. The boards know increasingly less about what’s really going on in the schools.
Schools have indeed become, to echo something Bill Ellis mentioned this morning, more and more the property of the government, as right-wingers are fond of saying, instead of the property of the public, the citizenry of each community. Our schools are more and more cut off from real-life communities as we depend more and more on the media to tell us about them. We have less and less direct experience of them.
As families grow smaller, we also have fewer citizens with children actually in schools at any one time to give a direct story. No wonder there’s such a discrepancy, as you know from every annual Gallup poll, between parental attitudes toward schools and the public’s attitude, between what parents think of their own child’s school and what they think of schools in general. Other schools are lousy, but my child’s school is fine; there’s violence in other schools, but there’s not much violence in my child’s school.
Sheer size makes it an impossible task to know what is really happening in our schools, even for citizens determined to be civic-minded. I had been elected to serve on the school board in my Manhattan community. I served for many years, and when I left I fully intended to be an active supporter of my local schools. Yet two years after I left the local board I felt completely lost when it came to deciding whom to vote for. In the end the best I could do was call up somebody I trusted and ask whom they’d recommend I should vote for. It was impossible for me to figure out how board members’ positions differed. It was, I knew, hard for them or me to know the thirty-five schools, the several very different subcommunities they represented, much less the over 20,000 students and their families in the district.
Not only are parents losing contact with their children’s schools but young people are losing contact with adults as well. At the same time, the larger and more impenetrable the schools are, the less likely students are to make contact with adults inside the schools. Schools are organized as nearly as possible to prevent bonding across generations. Where could it happen and when could it happen? During the three minutes between periods? When is it exactly that grown-ups are supposed to be having conversations with young people? Older students are equally unlikely to come together with younger ones.
Under present conditions, schools discourage any relationships at all. In a perfect school, as they are currently designed, the students never would encounter one another in informal ways, nor would they run into us, the adults, in the course of a regular school day. They would just be learning in packs of thirty or more and passing silently in the halls between classes. But kids of course will be kids, and so they defy us. They create relationships with their peers even as we try our best to make it difficult to do so. The more we complicate this for them, the more energy they spend in defeating our intentions, energy taken away from other tasks of schooling. The time they spend in our classes keeps them away from the real action, which takes place in the halls between classes, in the bathrooms, in the locker rooms, in the lunchrooms, and at recess.
Look at the popular movies about schools. I know they’re exaggerations, but have you noticed that there is never a classroom in them? If there is a teacher, the teacher is mostly shown in out-of-school situations. The principal is generally a bungling fool who enjoys adolescents for their obstreperousness or else is defeated by them precisely because of their obstreperousness. Those that show something else are generally about elite schools in elite situations.But in almost none of these films is there any reference to the life of the school as a place of learning.
Kids in real life find their own little personal spaces, of course. They actually do create small schools, made up of whomever they can find to protect them from the anonymity and loss of humanity that their large school creates. But only the nerds and the jocks are likely to create small schools that have any adults or older students in them, that include any experts. The debating society, the school newspaper, the drama club, or the varsity team—those are the only “small schools” where there is a mix of older and younger students, where there are also grown-ups, not just peers. For the rest, their small schools include only age peers because 80 percent of our students are not in the category of nerd or jock.
Schools do their best to turn teachers and children into interchangeable parts. We invented this odd kind of institution over a hundred years ago and modeled it after efficient factories, which turned out not to be as efficient as we thought, or after prisons, which don’t do what they are supposed to either. Even the physical design is prison-like. There’s a wonderful school in New York called the Martin Luther King Junior High School. I once went there to visit, and as I walked through it, I thought, "This must have been designed to commemorate King’s years in prison." Not one classroom in the school has a window. Dingy corridors surround the windowless cells. And of course, since it’s New York City, the corridor windows have long since become impenetrable to the human eye. The school was built with some kind of stone that is supposed to be graffiti-proof, which means also proof against putting up any artwork, with the result that it remains a bare and empty place. This kind of setting is an inappropriate place for teachers and students to spend so much of their time.
The personnel director of Manhattan’s District 2, where I worked twenty years ago, was well suited to an institution such as we have brought about. Some years ago I pleaded, rather reasonably I thought, to have two teachers' new assignments switched. They’d both been "excessed," which means dropped, from the payroll of the school in which I worked as an advisor. They had enough seniority to stay in the system, so I thought it must be by some clerical mistake that the open-classroom progressive teacher was being assigned to a very traditional school and the traditional teacher was being assigned to a new, innovative, parent-run, progressive school. I went to the personnel director and said, "Listen, how about switching the two? They’d be happier, their schools would be happier, the kids would be happier." And he said, "No. Debby. What would happen if we took into consideration every teacher’s preferences? There are thousands of teachers in the District. There would be chaos!"
In what is considered the ideal urban school district and increasingly in all school districts as they get larger, the system pretends that there is and can be a single school, which for reasons of geographical necessity or physical constraints unfortunately has to operate on different sites. Each has its own middle manager; each carries out its single and same mission, dressed up occasionally in slightly different language by its on-site councils, whose members craft a meaningless consensus that is more or less interchangeable with any other on-site council’s mission statement in this country.
Policy makers in turn, seeking to change such a system, try—not surprisingly—to do it by locating a button to push that will simultaneously change all the schools. "Ah-ha! Relationships are the problem? Well, what can you suggest that will change all relationships tomorrow, Debby? If you haven’t got a suggestion that tackles them all at once, then you don’t have a reform that can be brought up to scale. We’ve got a crisis now , and if it can’t be put into effect tomorrow, it’s not a relevant solution." They see any plan that builds upon each school’s unique culture as a luxury. "How could we control that kind of higgledy-piggledy? That way lies chaos."
Of course, the efforts to make schools identical and replicable do break down. They lead us to dead ends. Principals, often being devoted and dedicated people, start acting as though they were school heads with real power, not middle managers carrying out someone else’s orders. They make little decisions on their own; they stamp their school with a particular character and communicate its specialness to teachers and children and parents alike, if only in small and secret ways—until they get caught. The system then tries to repair the damage by bringing everyone back in line, however temporarily. Or the damage may even be ignored, because who notices that person anyway? The chaos still prevails, but always against the grain of a system seeking uniformity.
As with schools, so too within schools, as teachers behind closed doors conduct their classes, for good or for bad, as an expression of their own values, their own understanding, their own knowledge, and their own character. Some of the best things happen behind those closed doors but also some of the worst. Teachers have an unwritten agreement: I won’t go into your classroom if you don’t come into mine, and the principal promises to give notice before he pays a visit so that the teachers can figure out what they are supposed to be doing that day. Teachers are infamous in schools of education for sabotaging good programs and expertly designed curricula, and they are condemned for it. I applaud them! Their resistance means they are still human beings and they have something potentially human to pass on to the children they teach.
The latest thinking is that this kind of sabotage could be more easily uncovered if we had well-aligned tests to indicate who is and who isn’t doing the right thing. If it’s a clever enough and uniform enough test, we can weed out the deviants. The state of Massachusetts is in the midst of a massive experiment to stamp out deviant schools and class idiosyncrasies, but the truth is, of course, that it’s hard to make people into machines. It’s hard to implement plans that are not our own, and we are always inventing ways to get around them. We will, I believe, continue to do so. As with students, so with teachers—we’re not good at being obedient cogs.
At Mission Hill School we have tried to secede from all that. We do, however, pay a price for it. We disengage our hearts and minds from the Big System, and the more we do so, the angrier we make our superiors. That’s the ultimate form our sabotage takes, and it sometimes works. But it’s full of unintended risks, for if we’re not careful, we’ll disengage our hearts and minds from our colleagues and from our students and their families too. It's not that we teachers don’t do what we're supposed to do but that over time we stop doing it with full heart and mind. We just go through the motions—meaninglessly. At the student end of it, those are the same tactics they use. The kids who really infuriate us are those who are masters at this. They don’t walk out of the room in anger or throw things on the floor; they don’t say sassy things to their teachers or talk back. They just close us out. Even when they comply superficially, it doesn’t produce the citizens we claim we are seeking. It doesn’t produce wise voters or good jurors.
A question worth asking is: What do we expect a good juror to be like? Are our schools designed to produce good jurors? Wise voters? Experts at not being fooled? Responsive and responsible people in relationship to their own environment? Is that our intention? If it is, that’s controversial! And it can’t be done without engaging our hearts and minds—without taking a risk.
It turns out that the school system certainly is not designed for those purposes. I'm told that it doesn't even produce the kind of employees corporations say they need, although I take that with a grain of salt. It’s certainly not designed to nurture the kind of loved ones and neighbors any of us want to live amidst, people in the habit of caring and being respectful to one another. In other words, it’s not merely that schools aren't designed to teach good habits of mind, heart, and work; they actually are designed to teach quite the opposite. If we had set out to teach the opposite, we would have designed the modern school system.
Instead of creating settings which acknowledge that the most efficient human learning takes place in a social environment where novices learn from experts, we create institutions that deprive learners of all experts and all expertise. We locate schools, first of all, as far off from human activity as possible. Schools are generally not near where anything else is going on. Don’t you think that’s interesting? Why don’t we put them downtown? Why aren’t there schools in the middle of office buildings in Manhattan, where people might have to look at the teenagers and wonder about them? We finally did get some schools in New York City put in downtown buildings. I had pictured kids going up and down in the elevators and being in the lobby so that adults would get to see what teenagers were like. Well, the authorities did give us the space, but they insisted on our having separate elevators and separate lobbies. And they wanted us to arrange our hours so that few would see us going in and out!
We tend to locate the sites of learning, the classrooms themselves, in separate boxes, each one exactly like the other. They are made so that they are hard to look into, because if other teachers watch what’s going on, it distracts us. Then we separate the kids into categories so they sit next to others of exactly the same age and exactly as “dumb” or “ignorant” as they are. That way, they can’t learn even accidentally from their neighbors, and we call learning from one’s neighbors “cheating" at worst or being too sociable at best—“She talks too much. Not attending to the work.”
We bring in experts—our classroom teachers—but just one expert per room, for twenty or thirty or more student novices—and then provide the experts with no means for showing off their expertise. They aren’t acting like mathematicians or historians; they’re experts at telling novices about math and history. It wouldn’t be a bad method if you were trying to train future lecturers. If we wanted all our students to become lecturers, then it might make sense to expose them to twelve years of lecturing; they would certainly learn a lot about different lecturing techniques. But if the assumption is that they’re going to learn about math or music, then you need to put them with mathematicians or musicians.
We insure that a goodly portion of these experts' time will be devoted to “managing” the class, not even to telling about their special expertise. And a goodly portion of their staff development time is based on the same skewed priorities, on honing their management skills. There are more workshops on how to manage a class than there are on history or music. It’s management skills that have become the heart of teaching, not love-of-life skills. It’s as if we imagine children becoming tennis players by the lecture method without ever seeing the game played. How many kids have ever seen mathematics played? Why would they have any notion of what we’re talking about?
Picture trying to teach kids tennis when hands-on (our jargon in education for real experience) means an occasional tennis racket or tennis ball being passed around the room during the lecture. “Ah-ha, that’s what it looks like. Oh, a ball.” A shoemaker has always learned to make shoes from other shoemakers. The same goes for every important intellectual or moral or craft skill. Thus are all important things learned. That’s how adults, parents, society pass on what they value to the young. How can we omit something of such great importance?
To make matters worse, we change the subject in our schools every forty-three minutes or so, without any attempt to connect one segment to the other. Sometimes you go from math to history, sometimes from history to gym; there’s no particular coherence. It isn’t as though one builds upon the other in any way. It's just a matter of covering everything in the allotted time, and of course the “everything” keeps getting bigger and bigger so that the length of the period has to keep getting shorter and shorter.
My granddaughter, who goes to school in Chatham, New York, loves this system. I asked her why she likes it so much. "Because the worst you have to do is survive forty minutes, and then you have a new group of kids, another teacher, and you move on to something else." And we blame kids for not having a good attention span? We have reproduced the worst features of television, but at least television is a good entertainment industry. Teachers are not great entertainers. In case kids get bored or confused, we try to wake them up with threats of tests or of holding them back a grade or of summer school or other deprivations on the one hand or with distracting entertainment on the other. We bring in movies, television programs, hands-on experiences—not because they’re educationally sound but because they hold students' attention.
The school day has been orchestrated down to the most minute detail to deprive the young of the kind of relationships that could make schooling something more substantial and more powerful than it is, could make school a place where kids want to become well-educated adults, where the world of adultness is a magnet, a place worthy of the kind of hours and hours of dull, routine practice some youngsters devote to shooting baskets. They haven’t lost the capacity for practice, just the desire to engage in practicing what we deem worthy.
Substitute teachers are famous for being in the difficult position of having nothing to hold over kids’ heads to make them behave. I spent the first two years of my experience in public education substituting, and I didn’t understand until I started doing it what a ridiculous occupation it is. My students discovered very quickly that substitute teachers do not have the one power regular teachers possess—their power over kids (but not, for instance, power to make important decisions about their schools). I had nothing to hold over their heads; I couldn’t impose any sanctions. Here today, gone tomorrow. Unfortunately, the greatest advantage we really have as teachers is being grown-ups. But this is, as it turns out, of limited usefulness in schools as we’ve organized them. Yes, we are more expert. Wiser. We have something that the young could and should want to get from us, yet we’re not often in a position to give it—to genuinely share our expertise with them. We’re left with a far more limited power: to reward and punish. Useful, but paltry in comparison.
The school system doesn’t provide what our children want or need—we all know that deep in our hearts. But the way it’s organized is not written in the stars nor is it the result of limited resources. It need not be the way it is.
It isn't easy to invent schools with intentions different from those of the current system. We tried it at Central Park East and Central Park East Secondary School in New York City. I’m trying it again now at Mission Hill School in Boston. They’re all public schools. They all operate with the same resources as anyone else and with certain similar constraints. Although we have broken loose somewhat, I have to tell you that we have taken only baby steps compared to what I believe possible if we were bolder still, if we had permission or more courage.
Yet even the tiny steps we have taken have had an impact that is staggering. The results in New York City were amazing, even with the kids who left us before we had a high school for them at the end of sixth grade and went on to regular public schools. These kids were studied very carefully to make sure we didn’t have a skewed population—a different, atypical group of children, which everybody was sure must have been the case. Of course, the results for those who stayed with us when we later started a secondary school were more amazing still.
Kids do want us. They were fascinated by the world we offered them in these schools. The “dinner table” conversations often took place over their heads but nevertheless suggested a world intensely intriguing to them. We created schools that had no more than a few hundred students, even if it meant putting several entirely separate schools inside one building. The Empire State building has a hundred different businesses in it. No one ever says, “Oh, it’s a big building, we need one big business for it.”
We used buildings creatively. We organized each school so that students remained with the same teacher or small cluster of teachers for several years, thus all getting to know one another well. This made it worthwhile for a parent to get to know a teacher because they’d be stuck with each other for quite a while. And we kept the school simple. I’m thinking of the heading in one of the pieces of literature I just saw in the other room: “Small, beautiful, and complex.” Ted Sizer, one of America’s leading educators and the chair of the Coalition of Essential Schools, told me when I started Central Park East Secondary School: “Keep the organization of the schools simple so that you won’t try to simplify the minds of children. It’s their minds and who they are that must remain complicated. Don’t make the structure so complicated that that’s where your energies go.” We have followed his advice.
We organized the faculty so that it too was a community of learners who got to know one another well and who had substantial conversation about substantial matters. And they all sat around one table. That’s my idea of the size a school must be—small enough so that you can sit around one table and within an hour or two everybody can really join in the argument. The same argument will be sustained month after month, year after year, so that what I didn’t get a chance to say today I can mull over and come back to tomorrow.
We kept the ratio between adults and children as low as we could. We insisted that no teacher could reasonably make sense of, much less improve, the work of more than fifty students—and even that number was absurdly high. So we traded expertise in the subject matter of a discipline for the adult-student relationship. We said, The relationship is central; that's our most powerful tool. The history teacher also had to teach literature, and the physics teacher also had to teach mathematics. Is that a trade-off? Yes, it’s a trade-off, one we wouldn't have to make in a perfect world. We made sure there was enough teamwork among the faculty so that their weaknesses would not be as easily passed on to their students. We cut the number of periods in a high-school day, and we kept even high-school students with a small cluster of the same teachers year after year. We built in lots of time for talk and particularly time for families to get to know the adults in the school.
This was true for the families of high-school students as well. We told the parents they were no less needed now because their kids were in high school. You’ll hear it said all over the place, “Now that they’re in high school, they don’t need their parents anymore. And we said, “Quite the opposite. They need you more now than they ever needed you before, but in different ways. We have to struggle together to decide what those different ways are. We are adults and you are adults, and we’re in this together. This is not an alliance of us and your children against you, or of you and them against us. It’s our shared task.”
We organized the school day so that teachers and students could show one another how things might get done. We put older and younger kids together so that there were models of different ages to learn from. We acknowledged the expertise of peers, and we insisted that learning from one another was the natural human way to become well trained. We connected the expertise of families and the outside world to the expertise needed in school. Whenever possible, what was learned in school was extended to the home and the community and vice versa. We made it possible to have the school be a haven but one with walls that were permeable.
We tried to create a setting for the adults in school that was as interesting and stimulating for them as for the children they taught, not only because they loved it that way and they stayed longer and taught more devotedly but also because then the kids could see how tennis was played. The grown-ups were showing them what the game was about. We wanted youngsters to see learning going on among grown-ups, to see us arguing with one another because we thought our views were important, because we were excited by our ideas. Excited by ideas? It was a novel thought for many young people that grown-ups wanted to go back to the same subject over and over again. “We studied that last year” is a common refrain among kids. “We already did American history.” "We did rabbits." "We did Martin Luther King.” We wanted them to see that going back over something again and again meant going deeper and deeper.
Because not all children intend to become teachers and academics, we made sure that other categories of interesting adults came in and out of their lives as well. We wanted them to see ignorance as a provocation to learn more, not a hole to be concealed before anyone noticed. We built our schools around clearly defined habits of mind, not focusing on checklists of what everyone needs to know and know how to do, lists that end up being thirty pages long and causing most teachers to panic. What we focused on was instilling the habits of empathy and of skepticism.
This was our idea of what is required of a well-educated person. These two habits of mind, as we called them, don’t mean empathy only in an emotional sense, although that is clearly a part of it. I mean empathy also in a capacity sense, the habit of stepping into somebody else’s shoes and wondering what the world looks like from there. I mean skepticism as an openness to the possibility that one is wrong, that it is possible, for example, that the argument I’m putting forth here today is flawed.
These two habits of mind require an act of faith, a leap of imagination, but they also require training. A certain kind of empathy is natural. We’re all born with it as a species, but it disappears quite early on. It's easy to imagine being someone who is like ourselves. To imagine being a person who is not at all like us, whom in fact we feel antipathy and distrust toward and whose shoes we would feel very uncomfortable being in—that takes training. To make that process habitual, which is what democracy requires, takes twelve long years. That’s the justification for an expensive public education.
We taught empathy and skepticism laboriously, breaking them down into five more specific categories that we hoped would grow into habits of mind appropriate for both schooling and life. These five had do with awareness of perspective, the importance of credible evidence, making connections, “what if” conjectures, and finally the questions, “So what?” and “Does it matter?” We taught by covering less and uncovering more. We wanted students to be able to distinguish between astrology and astronomy, and we thought they weren’t going to do that just by learning more facts about the moon’s phases but rather by developing a deeper appreciation for science that can help overcome our natural superstitions, our susceptibility to the latest fads, the latest guaranteed scientific solution or your money back. It was less important to us whether they believed in evolution or creationism, although we did have a viewpoint on this, than that they understood the distinction itself. Without these five habits of mind, our youngsters would, we believed, be poorer mathematicians, historians, scientists, and above all poorer citizens of a democratic community.
These habits could be learned only in the company of adults who practiced them—and practiced them in ways that kids could emulate. For every course we designed, we asked, Is what we’re studying here something that will help them develop those habits and become more explicit and self-conscious about them?
Now, I’ll tell you that our SAT scores did not jump by leaps and bounds, but over 90 percent of our sixth graders did graduate from high school, and of those graduates 90 percent went on to college. This in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City. Most of them persisted in college, and we tracked what happened to them over the next four years, year by year. It was an expensive study, but a foundation gave us a grant to cover it. As of 1994, when the last large study was conducted, every graduate of Central Park East Secondary School was still alive. That’s luck and that’s chance, but it’s also more than that. You’re more likely to stay alive when you have something worth living for.
A study came out recently that says per capita we spent slightly more in the small schools, so it’s possible that small schools are slightly more expensive. But if you counted per graduate , we were far cheaper! I’m always suspicious about this kind of data. I don’t know who collected it and for what purpose. In any case, I like the result.
Now we’re starting over again in Boston, at 67 Allegheny Street, in a school we call Mission Hill School. We’re housed in an old Catholic high school. A friend of mine has opened a little high school on the top floor, and I’ve opened a school for kindergarten through eighth grade down below. We’re public schools, although we were promised an opportunity to secede in a way. We obviously didn’t strike a perfect bargain, because each day I find that I have to fight for what I thought was the agreement. We’re called pilot schools, and presumably we don’t have to follow all the regulations. We get the same amount of money. The city does stick to that but not much else. Otherwise we’ve managed to get by, not so differently from the way we did in New York, either by ignoring the rules, carrying them out sometimes, or engaging in an argument until we got them changed.
Pilot schools operate much like other Boston public schools. We’re even smaller than the schools I ran in New York, but then Boston has smaller schools in general. I’ve come to believe that smaller and smaller and smaller is better. The organizational arrangement emphasizes inter-age relationships far more. We purposely wanted a high school and an elementary school in the same building so that we could build in lots of connections between older and younger kids. We even have a joint main office.
The K-8th graders are all studying the same thing in a given year—the stuff of the world. We’ve divided it up in our own little way, and it turns out that five-year-olds and sixty-seven-year-olds can be fascinated by the same things. So much for developmental theory (I don’t want to throw it all out of the window, just some of it). Little children are amazed by some of the same things I am, like those leaves I gathered earlier today. You know, this town has the largest leaves I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why that should be . They weren’t all from the same type of tree. I would like to know why that is, and I think it could be fascinating to five-year-olds as well.
We wanted to increase the pool of expertise surrounding us. We thought, if we’re all studying the same thing, we can bring in more adults. We can have the same conversation across grades. We can have older kids talking about the same things as little kids. The halls of the school can reflect shared work. We can put our limited resources into expanding the materials the children have access to.
At the core of our work this fall is the study of Boston, and even closer in, of Mission Hill. The larger theme is “the peopling of the USA," but we use the more immediate locale as a metaphor for the larger subject. In the course of their nine years at our school everyone will study the same topic twice, once when they are little and again when they are bigger. It’s partly done to communicate the idea that you can come back to the same things over and over again, and of course each time there will be differences.
Everybody started off studying Mission Hill, where we are located. We found a local historian who has brought in hundreds of maps so that we can locate every house that existed in the area a hundred years ago, some of them two hundred years ago. Those old maps have the names of the people who lived in the houses. We have old photographs, and when the kids go outside, they try to figure out where a certain photo was taken from. Most of what we know as Boston didn’t exist 150 years ago. It was water. The children look at a photograph, and it shows water. We walk around Boston and say, “This land wasn’t here then,” or “There used to be a hill there. I wonder what happened to that hill.” People made decisions about those changes. When did they make them? Who made them? We go to old cemeteries and see when people died, how old they got to be.
Meanwhile, our students become historians concerning their own family history. Their families are very excited about this. We don’t want students simply to tell a story. We want them to provide evidence as well, different kinds of evidence depending on their age, but we insist on their providing it. They have to figure out if the evidence is good enough. Do you have two relatives who disagree about where they came from? How would you decide which one is right? What proof is there—just that it’s in a book? What book? What credibility does that have? We want them to think about all that.
We have different kinds of maps all over the school—little local maps, great big maps, maps made in different periods. Is what we’re doing above the heads of many of the kids? Yes, just like those dinner-table conversations, but the little ones stand next to the big ones, who are pointing to things on the maps, looking for their houses, wondering what happened to that neighborhood. We look at books, we look at histories. We bring people in to talk to us, and we go out to investigate. We go downtown and look at official records, to see where the old maps come from, to learn where records are kept, and above all to show that people have come and gone, people who have interesting stories to tell that belong to the community. These stories are not the possession of any one child or one family; they belong to all of us.
We also want to make a timeline. We have enough space in the stairwell for one that goes back to 3,000 B.C. We had long arguments about how far back to go. We decided it should be from 3,000 B.C. to the present because we’re going to be studying ancient Egypt later in the year, and we also decided to do it that way so zero wouldn’t come in the middle. We want the kids to realize that zero is an arbitrary number. Although the year zero happens to appear on the timeline, it isn’t the middle of time.
Yes, sometimes we think we should go further. Sometimes we think we’re not brave enough. We fall back on many time-honored routines because we’re intimidated by expectations of what school is supposed to be. When I was at Central Park East, I went to Minnesota once, and I discovered that they don’t have lines going down the middle of their hallways. Furthermore, the students don’t ever walk in lines, at least they didn’t when I was there twenty years ago, neither in the progressive schools nor the traditional ones. I wondered why. I decided it might have to do with the fact that they had very large corridors. I do still think that’s part of it and that their stairwells were different. But when I came back, I asked the teachers, “Why do we line kids up in our highly progressive school?” And they all said, “Well how else would they go anywhere?”
I watch as a few colleagues around the nation take bolder steps than we do, and there are some out there who imagine schools in quite different ways. More like the best of home schoolers whom I read about in a very good little journal published by the John Holt Society and called Growing Without Schooling , which, in a world of restructuring and reform, is one of the few magazines left that talks about children as learners.
Or I watch as my colleague Dennis Littkey, who has organized a big new high school in Providence into little schools of fifty to one hundred, spends most of his day out in the field with students. The “classroom” is made up of a mentor out there, the student's school advisor, a parent or some other family member, and the student. Together they develop a program. Although there remain a building and peer groups for comparing and sharing, students spend the majority of their time in the field with someone they can expect to learn from, an expert engaging in his area of expertise. Dennis has turned the concept of school on its head by putting first things first—the relationships we need to make learning powerful.
This is a departure that I think scares me. Sometimes I think Dennis is flaky, but I’m going to watch what happens with excitement. It reminds me of what Stuyvesant High School in New York, the most elite of New York’s public schools, does for its top students: it farms them out to work with eminent scientists at Westinghouse projects. What an experience!
I watch the work of good home schoolers with fascination because they too are going against an ingrained disbelief in common sense that I am not immune to. Some of these experiments make me uncomfortable, and it’s important for me to acknowledge this because I know how uncomfortable our families sometimes feel about our far less bold steps. We’ve been trained to think that these "different" schools are not the real thing. Even our students sometimes say to me, “You know, if we went to a real school . . . ,” and I say, “This is a real school.”
Central Park East Secondary School graduates sometimes told us that their freshman year in college, particularly if they went to a large public college, was a rough year for them. Big lecture courses, textbook driven. Some even complained that we hadn’t prepared them well for it, that maybe we should have started with that in our school so they would have dropped out in tenth grade! But when I asked, “Did you survive it? Did you figure out what to do?” they said, “Yes, we did, but it’s not a good way to be educated." Then, a few years later, they would come back and tell us, sometimes in puzzlement, that they now realized the habits of mind and work that schools like Central Park East were devoted to were exactly what was needed in the real world. And some of them made it explicit; they said, “You did a terrific job of preparing us for the real world.” In the meantime they just had to learn the tricks of those odd schools they didn’t feel as well prepared for.
I have said that schools are deliberately designed to impede the development of the kind of relationships children need. I have to think that our fellow citizens haven’t noticed that schools are organized in such a way. I cannot allow myself to believe that society has intentionally rejected the goal of educating students to become caring and competent members of a community. And if this is our goal, then we have to create communities for them to live in, because in the normal course of most young people’s lives they do not have communities they belong to. There’s no reason why the schools should not provide communities that treat children and their families and their teachers as members—not as customers, clients, or patrons.
There’s no trade-off here. We don’t need to replace the effective with the affective. If we invented such communities from nine to three and even extended the hours so that they could stay longer, we would not be sacrificing their learning mathematics. What I’m arguing is that the two go hand in hand. The notion of membership in a community is what we need to restore, and this means resisting all efforts to turn learning into a consumer activity with students as passive recipients. Have you ever noticed that at the end of a school day the kids come rushing out of school full of energy and zest? About half an hour later the faculty starts dragging themselves out. That lets you know who’s been doing all the work. Now, sometimes I think I’d like to see the situation reversed, but what I really want to see is a good healthy state of exhaustion on all of our parts.
The students should be part of the work of the school. It’s not just a question of who gets the good slots at the top. We need to create communities in which what’s good for one is truly good for all, in which there’s good reason to trust one another, in which we don’t have to threaten children to get them to learn. That's the beginning of the process—to build the right kind of relationships. I’m not going to say that once you build a structure like this, everything else just flows naturally. It doesn’t; it’s hard work from then on, but it’s possible work, and we won’t need metal detectors and security guards or policemen.
If we focus on the right kind of relationships, the kind that stretches minds, we can build schools in which the intellectual fare of the school and social competence are joined inseparably. It’s neither natural or unnatural to be intellectual, but children are born with that capacity. They wouldn’t learn to talk and walk without it. They’re always looking for a better idea, but their repertory is so small. Schools can be, then, the place they turn to in order to get excited. The task is not to lead our students to “the promised land.” As Eugene V. Debbs, one of my twentieth-century heroes, reminded his audience a century ago, “if I could lead you there, others could lead you back again.”
Democracy requires the kind of education that helps young people learn to lead themselves. This can be achieved only in the company of adults who are practicing the same thing they're preaching. It’s not accountability that’s missing in our public schools. We have an abundance of schemes for accountability, each layered on top of the previous one. What we don’t have is much sense of responsibility, taking responsibility as a shared activity in which we all have a say.
Thirty years of working with school communities confirms for me that kids are hungry for the kind of schools I've been involved in. Parents are willing to be our allies in creating them. The results are astonishing and, best of all, pursuing the goal is fun.
Excerpts from the Question Period
(questions inaudible on the tape)
When we built our secondary school, the first person I hired was a librarian. First of all, I like to build a school around people, so it was partly because he was a terrific person, but I also thought that the center of a small school ought to be either a library or an art room. Maybe there’s a way for it to be both. In Boston the city supplied our school with a lot of computers but not a single library book. Libraries went out in New York City in 1974 when the financial crunch came. They were replaced with reading labs to learn how to read. The idea that there’s something out there we should want to know about—books to be read that bring the world to us—disappeared. When I complain about the absence of libraries, someone will tell me there’s no study that indicates reading scores go up because you have libraries, and it probably would be hard to prove.
My question is, why have we poured so many millions of dollars into our schools for computers? There hasn’t been a single study to even try to find a correlation between computers and test scores, much less something more important than test scores. Some people tell me, “Well, it’s because we live in a computer age, and the kids need them for job skills later on.” Yes, but do we have to start them at the age of five? We’re given more money for computers for our five-year-olds than for the entire book supply, not to mention art supply. How did that happen? The money didn’t fall down from the stars earmarked for computers. Someone made choices.
Fight to preserve the small schools. We don’t have enough of them left in this country, and it’s terribly hard to take big schools and humanize them into smaller units. It can be done and it should be done, but it’s a lot harder to rebuild than to relinquish. So if any of you belong to communities that still have small schools, lie down in front of the tractors or do whatever else you can to keep them.
There are experiences in my childhood that I remember as part of being in a strong community. It may not always have been the case outside of my own family, but my family belonged to some powerful communities. I remember my daughter coming home one summer from a Friends camp she went to in Maryland and asking me, “Why can’t school be like that?” We need to have lived such experiences, to have lived in such communities to know what it is that we’re missing and therefore what we need to build. You can’t be a good member of a community if you have never even imagined what it is we’re talking about.
The notion of responsibility is what I mean about intellectual life too. Good intellectual life is not just knowing a lot, it’s taking responsibility for your ideas. It’s not just saying, “Well, that’s my opinion.” A lot of our adolescent students assumed the first habit of mind was having the right to your own opinion or viewpoint. I said, “That’s true. I can’t take that away from you, and you've got a lot of opinions, but it is not the purpose of this school to give you permission to have your own opinion, because I couldn’t take that away if I wanted to. What I’d like you to do is to take responsibility for your opinions, to look upon them not as just something you have a right to but as something you have some responsibility for.”
People are always coming up to me with a wonderful idea for our school, and I feel like asking them, “Would you take a little responsibility for helping us carry that out?” That’s the other part of taking responsibility, not only for people but for viewpoints, for our ideas.
Boston, as you may know, does not have neighborhood schools, so that's why we are a lottery school. The children come to us by a combination of parental choice and chance. If fifty people apply for five slots, we’re sent five names. In New York City we were located in East Harlem, which had a similar, fairly famous choice plan, so there too both parental choice and luck were involved. The only difference between us and some of the other choice schools in New York and Boston is that before we accept a child, sometime between the fall of one year and the time when the parent has to sign up in April of the next year, we insist that the family come to an informational meeting in order to know what they are signing up for. That’s not true for all schools of choice.
The question always was, with a lottery and with parents having some voice, were we getting a different kind of student? I think to some extent we did. Students came with a different attitude because their family had a voice in making the decision. I think it's a helpful thing for people to feel they have a choice about where they're going to be—whether it’s where they live or where they go to school. They're doing it voluntarily. That factor could have skewed the population.
One of the foundations in New York did a study to see how our enrollment compared to New York City as a whole. The conclusion was that we had a slightly more at-risk population than the city as a whole—poorer, more likely to come from single-parent homes, overwhelmingly black and Latino, etc.—but a slightly less at-risk population than other East Harlem schools. One exception, even in East Harlem, was the number of students with special academic needs who came to us. Thirty percent had so-called learning disabilities of one sort or another. I’m sure, however, that while there’s no absolute way to compare them with a control group, they were pretty typical.
There's abundant evidence that the smaller the school, the less likely it is for violence be an issue. New York City’s alternative schools were created for violent and difficult kids, and they were all small. The incident rate per year in those schools was statistically not even close to the average for New York City. Big anonymous schools are an invitation to violence and guns. In our school if anyone suspected trouble, the word would get around, and we would hear about it from one of the kids within twenty seconds. Parents were on our side. If I called a parent and said, “I suspect . . . ," instead of saying, “What proof do you have,” and getting defensive, they’d say, “I’ll be right there. What should I do?” It’s a totally different atmosphere.
I don’t know whether the comparative cost study included the cost of the metal detectors, the policemen who were brought in, and all the other security measures that were taken in the regular big high schools, but I think the data would prove that our methods are less costly.
We took over two big high schools in New York City—"we" meaning my colleagues who share my viewpoint. We took over one in the Bronx and one in Manhattan. The one in the Bronx has since been sabotaged; I don’t know what’s happening there right now. The one in Manhattan was considered Manhattan's worst high school. Over a two-year period we changed it into a bunch of small, independent schools. We diversified the age group by including a little preschool, an elementary school, and a small college program. We got rid of the metal detectors and the police searches and the guards. The hardest part was to get parents to believe in what we were doing. It was an act of faith, and of course, if some terrible thing had happened in the first month, I would have had a hard time proving it would have happened anyway.
I know safety can't be guaranteed no matter how much security is provided. There’s still the back door regardless of how many guards you put in to make a big high school safe against clever kids. They may not do well in their subjects, but they’re clever enough to know how to open back doors and put gum in them to let a friend in. We have kids in New York City high schools who have to wait outside the school before they can go in. I watched them once waiting outside in the rain because it takes time to do each search, and they’re even missing their first class while they wait. What kind of a feeling of ownership, of membership in a community must that convey? Now, I know we’ve all become used to being searched in this country. I remember how indignant I felt the first time it happened to me before boarding a plane. Now I’m indignant if I'm not searched.
Excerpts from the speakers’ panel following the lectures
[In answer to Frank Bryan’s preceding statement, in referring to home schooling, that he is worried about the dissociation of democracy from education in the institutional sense:] I worry about that too. I was reading an article recently about a group of people in this country who are urging their fellow religionists to take their children out of public school in order to create a separate society, so I agree that there are a lot of risks in home schooling. But there are risks in almost everything, so I’m glad it’s permissible. I think we can learn something from it, and I’d like to learn about those aspects that can strengthen our public schooling. Public schooling has one special quality: it has to be secular. We bring to it religious and moral values, but it’s our requirement in a public institution to express those values and talk about them and argue about them in ways that emphasize tolerance for one other. This results in a continuous tension, but I want to retain that tension and that balance while accepting the fact that we disagree on very fundamental matters. I think it’s the great challenge of democracy to figure out how to keep arguing and disagreeing and to have escape valves at the edges when we can’t stand it any more.
Coming to Boston was startling for me because I realized that the disappearance of neighborhood schools has had an effect on Boston, and I think a bad one. There has been a loss of community, and this has happened in many other parts of the country for other reasons, so it’s not just a result of the loss of neighborhood schools. But it’s harder to create communities if neighborhood means nothing, if you don’t run into one another from time to time. I’ve always tried to live very close to my school so that I’ll bump into kids and their families in the grocery store. The kids love the fact that you can look out of the school window and see where I live.
Heterogeneity provides the opportunity to put to the test my first principle of being open to other people, the kind of empathy that goes beyond identification with folks like oneself. I work on it through fiction. I can get kids to read books about people different from them, and if I do it right, it works, but it’s much harder than if the diversity exists in the community. On the other hand, I can put people together in forced communities, and they can learn to hate one another. It’s not a matter of always following principle X or Y. I think being open to possibilities is important. There’s a tension that I hope we can preserve. I do think democracy depends upon our striving for a balance. Sometimes when there’s too much choice, that drives us crazy too.
Yes, I have become much more sympathetic to home schooling, but I worry that a lot of home schooling is being given by people who have a very authoritarian approach, not a liberating one. There is some overlap, and I’m for exploiting the overlap where I can. For instance, I was reading an article just recently in a school board’s journal about school-to-work programs around the country. A lot of what my schools have done has been associated with school-to-work. Yet it’s always a problem when good ideas turn into “programs.”
It’s a good idea that schools and the workplace shouldn’t be totally alien to each other; kids need to see what goes on there and know how to prepare for it and rethink what the world of work is about. But the article I read was about an organization of traditional, right-wing, Christian fundamentalists who are attacking school-to-work programs as belonging to corporations that think the purpose of schooling is to prepare children to fill the corporations’ needs. And I thought, I’m with you 100 percent even though you hold a very different set of values, and I think often very authoritarian and anti-democratic values. Still, I couldn’t have said it any better than they did.
I thank God that this attitude exists right now because, as Bill Ellis mentioned, the power of corporations is very great, and I welcome almost anything to slow them down and slow down the standardization of schooling and slow down what I consider the harmful misuse of standards-driven education. At this particular time in our history there are much bigger threats to us than too much decentralization of power.
Deborah Meier has spent more than three decades working in public education as a teacher, principal, writer, and advocate. She was the founder and teacher-director of a network of public elementary schools in East Harlem and the principal of Central Park East Secondary School in New York City. She writes extensively on education, including her 1995 book The Power of Their Ideas. The MacArthur Foundation awarded her a fellowship in 1987. She is the founding director of the Mission Hill School, a new pilot elementary school in Boston.