One thing about the word "Democracy" is that it can never by its nature be fully described. It's always an unfinished project. The tensions that blog-reader and commenter Daniel Fallon precisely points to in all organized bodies (be they states, political parties, corporations, or unions) can be matched by the dangers that exist in (what many call) a free-market economy in which there is no state to mediate on behalf of the less organized and less powerful. At Mission Hill we kept playing with this problem as we constructed our operating rules. We recognized that we all needed some stability, so that we'd perhaps be best living with some questionable ones rather than continuously shifting gears—even though we could. But I think my default position is always: could we do without another rule, law, organization, etc.? Let's try. That places me perhaps more in the tradition of individualism even as I seek to build communities, and nervous about those rules imposed upon us, but still aware that we need them! (Thanks, "Anonymous.")
Let's talk, too, about coercion—of which torture is the ultimate form (even in some ways more coercive than "off with her head"). The power to keep one alive while also causing intolerable, terrible pain, humiliation, and helplessness is a nightmare equivalent to the one that some religious people call Hell.We should talk more and more deeply about coercion in this society. We should talk about what constitutes authority and the side effects of the literacy factory model.
So if I sometimes call schools "prisons," I'm actually trying to be, but am not entirely being, literal. Young people are deprived of their liberty although they've committed no crime except being between the ages of 6 and 18? For 180 days, they are forced into buildings in which they only have the power to sabotage and annoy. But the purpose is so important, I'm told. And, I agree. But I'm not sure that my old friend John Gatto isn't right about what happens even in fairly benign prisons, and even in those that last only 180 days a year. Yet, given the realities of life—and its gross inequities—I think Gatto is wrong in suggesting we make schools voluntary. It is the very fact of its universality that gives us a right to demand that all citizens contribute to its costs! And, maybe the same hard-fought-for universality that prevents the powerful from exploiting the young during those same 180 days. And so on.
Ms. Meier makes the jump from voluntary attendance to voluntary funding, a jump that is not necessarily required. We could still fund community learning centers if we chose. But this confusion is at the heart of the current problem whereby funding is tied to attendance and that is a huge structural problem in itself.
Some voices out there do not want schools funded for communities at all. But that seems an absurd way to throw away the investments made for the past century. And it isn't what I advocate nor what the educational activists of the 1960s - 70s were advocating either. So I think we first need to separate voluntary attendance from funding and assume that schools would continue to be funded, by property taxes and other means. (Indeed, the ability to adjust to differing funding levels while improving quality and maximizing the service to each child, would be substantially stronger, something states in crisis should know.)
The universality of attendance doesn't mean that citizens would refuse to fund services for children and families who had the ability to choose. Providing community learning centers where every family could participate at the level they desire would most likely expand services. But families would be a structural check on the growth of abstract educational goals of the system if they could access these services as they do public libraries.
And the idea that if we did not require attendance, we would allow children to be exploited in forced child labor situations also does not follow from voluntary attendance. As every homeschooler knows, there are already child welfare agencies that can be called if a child is being exploited, abused, or neglected by its family or others. Many homeschoolers have had to face the fact that neighbors who had never heard of homeschooling could call child welfare authorities at any time. We do at this time have a structure in place that would allow society to intervene on behalf of children. Schools do not need a police arm to provide learning services to families. In fact, there is a growing issue of whether the school system itself is replicating the child labor it was supposed to replace.
Requiring citizens to take a small test and study to get driver's licenses is not akin to requiring children to attend the public school system, now considered a job training factory for 12+ years with no input or control, where they are sorted, graded and labelled. Voluntary attendance would change the police and authoritarian orientation of the public school systems and begin the process of ensuring that schools have a service orientation instead of a factory one. The vast majority of families would still want current levels of services, many would want more, but over time, true part-time and staggered use would probably happen as families were allowed to really customize what they want and need. Schools could start responding to needs instead of providing one option. Voluntary attendance would only mean that families had more choices and children themselves had more choices and that job training would be chosen by children and their families rather than imposed by the state based on a sorting system that is inhumane and flawed.
It's a huge mental leap for the mainstream. It isn't likely to happen but we can build some consciousness of this fact of mass coerced schooling in nation-states.
That, too, is coercion. You can't drive unless and until. But again, I'll put up with such coercion. I'll even put up with my contradictory changes of mind, and my own occasional hypocrisy. Yes, the word "enemy" may be unwise, but as the Mission Hill mission statement says, we need to defend the rights of even those we despise—which may even be a stronger word than enemy? But surely ... surely ... no matter what we think of such "enemies," we should not have the power (directly or indirectly) to consider their rape in prison as an inevitable byproduct of their having broken the law in some minor or major way. We need to restore torture to its place as being beyond the pale. Kids being bored in school often call it torture, too, but that's because we have debased the term and the practices it represents.Yes, the experience of a bored child is not equivalent to the experience of a prisoner in solitary at Guantanamo for many years. But simple boredom is not the worst outcome in the schools: there are children and families deeply wounded by the schools and I would not minimize that pain. (see background posts below for more on damage done). To require children to attend and be graded against other children is a social violence that is repellent and unnecessary. Every child has the right to joy and dignity and learning without being quantified or compared to others. It is after all, for the sake of those who get the high marks that the entire grading process is used. We do not need to do this to provide learning services for families.
Can schools that rest on coercion be places where kids learn joyously? Yes—most of the time. We can spend a lot of energy (and we should) on seeing that schools are as uncoercive as we can precisely in the interest of a good education for... democracy! When I idly told a young man of 17 that if he wasn't here to learn (can you hear yourself saying this?), he might as well go home, I was surprised 20 minutes later by a call from his mother telling me "he said I said" he could go home! I told her he hadn't lied, but of course I had no right to say that. It was against the law.
Sure. Many kids enjoy and adapt to the schools. I have written that this defect, compulsory attendance, in the school system design wasn't really felt much at first when the resources provided to citizens by the public school system were new and appreciated. (There is even scholarly disagreement about whether compulsory attendance laws actually worked effectively outside child labor situations. ) But there are costs to this adaptation even for students who do well in good schools: the easy acceptance of this coercion and its cost to others as a necessary system may well acculturate those who will be powerful in the future to authoritarian procedures they would not otherwise consider. It remains an open question whether our inability to stay out of endless wars is not due in some part to a confluence of factors that include acculturation and acceptance of mass systems of coercion and control.
The psychological adjustment to such the simple but radical idea is not easy: homeschoolers discuss this all the time. Meier is open-minded and thoughtful but her reactions are very much like what so many homeschooling families face as they embark on the homeschooling journey.
Voluntary attendance is not a utopian nice idea or a purist's viewpoint: it is a logical and democratic evolution of what millions of families have volunteered to undertake by homeschooling. Voluntary attendance isn't a code for not providing services as many believe: it could mean the expansion of services driven by the people who use the system rather than imposed from above. After the truancy police are removed and the authoritarian attitude they create, families can start asking for services for their children instead of being offered a one-size-fits-all, top-down instruction model. Other systems are already moving in this direction.
To enable families to learn together has meant that homeschoolers understand and change compulsory attendance laws. Like organic agriculture, we can actually do without a lot of harmful practices and by doing so, we will grow stronger children and families. This knowledge is a gift that the homeschooling movement can share with our fellow citizens as we all endeavor to cope with the many changes our society faces today. The way forward for communities will be to build on this knowledge.
understanding school funding
the compulsory attendance mindset
A thoughtful post discussing schools as prisons is up at Bridging Differences.