“If change is to come, then, it will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins.” ~ Wendell Berry
A few months ago, I wrote a couple posts on how I got into and out of conventional teaching. Today I want to extend those thoughts and focus on a question I think all who make education our career have to consider at some point. In the words of the classic song, Should I stay or should I go?
Deciding to leave my first full-time assignment was particularly anguishing in the following respect: the guilt I felt over all the young people I’d be leaving behind. Was it really so bad, was I really so selfish, that I could justify abandoning them in order to save myself? Couldn’t I make the best of it and do however much I was able for those who, unlike me, couldn’t opt out? Why couldn’t I stay in the system and work to reform it from the inside?
I’ve mentioned plenty of times how difficult it is to talk about education—how easily triggered we all can be, perhaps even more so than with those textbook topics-to-avoid, religion and politics. As conflict-averse as I am by nature, it’s especially tough for me to say what I really think when it comes to how young people are permitted to go about the business of learning. This post is no different, in that I have a number of friends and former students working in conventional schools. How can I speak my truth without insulting theirs?
For my truth is that conventional schooling, public and private alike, is inexcusably restrictive and inherently limiting (when not obviously harmful). Rooted in a deep distrust both of students and teachers, it assumes people won’t work hard enough or achieve the best results without accountability, by which is meant a system of rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. This is authoritarian, factory schooling, where students aren’t allowed to learn—nor teachers allowed to teach—as they know best, but instead are pitted against each other, weighed down by curricula and other standardized nonsense.
In sum, the system works against people wanting and working to do good. It’s the system that’s to blame, not the people. And yet no amount of fair-mindedness can rid us of the following question: What is this system if not the people who comprise it, who allow, support, and perpetuate it?
I am not blind to the good being done in conventional schools despite the many restrictions, nor am I ignoring the question of what’s to be done for children who don’t yet have a better option. And so the peace I’ve made with myself in this area is that, just as Sudbury schooling permits individuals to make their own choices, I strive to respect that everyone is choosing their battles as they see fit; I acknowledge there’s more than one front in helping people learn.
This, however, does not restrict me from criticizing an obsolete system and the distrustful paradigm on which it rests, or demanding that we stop settling for what we have and start creating something different, something better, now. It also doesn’t change my judgment of nearly twenty years ago, that as an entrenched system, the prevailing approach to education will never permit fundamental reform. As with Wendell Berry, I believe that “if change is to come…it will have to come from the outside.”
I also believe there’s a critical need for prototypes like Sudbury schooling, working demonstrations of what’s possible and desirable in education, what can and should be done. And yet I am not advocating that we simply replace the conventional system with a system of Sudbury schools. Why, in fact, do we need any monolithic, centralized system? What about decentralized, autonomous, local options, informally networked? What about publicly guaranteed access to any kind of school?
Obviously, these are questions no mere blog post is going to resolve. However, as I said above, we all have to make our own choices. And I think we all have to ask, to what extent are my choices limiting rather than opening up possibilities? To what extent are we compromising the well-being of children out of fear or assumptions that something better is beyond our capabilities? That is the one choice I can’t find my way to condone.