Saturday, April 29, 2006

More on unbounded education

Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing has linked to a video about the Fairhaven School, the DC-area Sudbury school that my classmates so roundly ridiculed. His comments:
I went to publicly funded schools like this from grade four to graduation, and they were the most important factor in the way I conduct my own adult life. Attending schools like this teaches many kids to run their own lives, blazing their own trail, inventing their own careers, and trying anything. Useful skills in a world where any job that can be described is likely to be outsourced.
I have long admired Doctorow for being so self-made -- he's a successful author, blogger, and activist, despite undoubtedly not having majored in Authoring, Blogging, or Activating -- so it doesn't surprise me that he would find the Sudbury model appealing. (I keep track of people who seem to invent their own jobs, Jonathan Coulton and John Hodgman being probably my favorites.) But I am somewhat surprised, and much pleased, that nonregimented schooling is being presented as a viable prospect (and not only by the schools themselves).

As I said in my previous post on the subject, I do in the end think that the Sudbury model is too hands-off. Such radical educational libertarianism seems like it would tend to attract teachers more devoted to the model than to their subjects, and this would encourage a system that means well but teaches poorly. With reliably excellent teachers, the situation would be different, but so would public school (at least when people don't have to teach to the tests, which is rare and getting rarer). But I feel like there's a problem, a very deep-seated problem in our understanding of what education means, when a school like Fairhaven is sneered at as the utmost in child-spoiling indulgence (which is an attitude I've seen more than once since the Post article came out). What really ruins children is not encouraging them to be self-motivated, but shielding them from the saving forces of logic and inquiry. I'm not scared of Fairhaven; I'm scared of a school that allows a project "proving" intelligent design (through liberal application of question-begging) to go to the state-level science fair. (Incidentally, the comments on Pharyngula's post about that science fair project should be required reading for everyone.) I'm scared of the parents who raised this child to believe so unquestioningly in their dogma -- to regard it, in fact, as unquestionable -- and I'm scared of the teachers who didn't take pity on the kid and show her how to challenge such doctrinaire assertions of truth.

So yes, I mistrust any school that won't take a stand on miscarriages of science, and I mistrust any school that doesn't insist on students knowing where knowledge comes from, where it is right now, and how it might be changed in the future. If Sudbury schools are truly so relativist that they don't believe in enforcing a difference between science and dogma (which is by no means the impression I got from the video), then by all means, let's discourage them. But if not, well, I'd still prefer a hands-off system -- even a too hands-off system -- to a system that allows kids to be left high and dry without the basic survival skills of curiosity and logic. With luck, we need not actually choose between radical freedom and radical oppression, but I won't accept the argument that both ends of the spectrum are equally condemnable. With radical freedom, if the kids get screwed over, at least they can think their way out.


Anonymous said...

My son spent 6 years at Fairhaven, and is one of the students interviewed in the Post article, and also in The New American Schoolhouse, a video whose trailer you can find at
to view.

It wasn’t easy as a parent, being fearful that I was risking his academic achievement, even his future, and trying to explain to my all-PhD family what I was doing with their grandchild/nephew, etc.

But I also knew that I’d become who I am in spite of traditional school structure, not because of it. I watched my son being squashed by traditional schooling, forced into doing mundane repetitive tasks, being harassed by other students for being unusual. He was becoming bitter, and was closing himself off. My wife and I concluded some other model was required for him. Thankfully we found Fairhaven.

He ended up, after *no* formal classes that whole six years, except a little math help at the end, getting a 1440 on his SAT — 800 in verbal, 640 in math — and is now finishing his second semester of college, where he got a scholarship. He had some initial trouble with “the five part essay,” but the only complaint I’ve heard from his professors is the laughing statement that “he’s too involved” — too eager to learn, too engaged in his classes, too excited by learning. He’s getting A’s.

What’s more, he’s not done the standard “freshman meltdown” where for the first time the student suddenly is FREE! and equates that with staying up all night, partying. Instead, my son is thriving — he’s already had that freedom, for the last six years, and doesn’t need to do it now. He thinks many of his peers are idiots for believing that partying = freedom.

Finally, he’s super-sane. I mean, integrated, eloquent, rational, funny, free, and moving toward wise. Not your typical freshman. I’m proud as hell of him.

Fairhaven and the Sudbury model are not for everyone — my daughter left after 1.5 years, because she wanted more structure. But for my son, it was exactly right. I would do it again in a heartbeat, because I know he is a more full human, and will make better change in the world, as a result of his six years at the school.

4/30/2006 5:07 PM  
jess said...

Thank you so much for sharing your son's experience... I've been basing my arguments on hypothesis, so it's nice to get a data point. He sounds like the kind of kid I'd love to teach.

5/02/2006 11:31 AM  

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