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WHY THE FREE SCHOOL?
(from closing words in his book about The Free School*
and its place in the lives of our children)
 
by Chris Mercogliano
 
cakeauction.gif
Auctioneer Chris, with a magical cherry cheesecake!
(at a recent supper and auction night at The Free School)
reproduced courtesy of Jerry Mintz's Ed Rev magazine.

... With the arrival of second-generation students and teachers, it appears certain that the Free School will be around for years to come. We will continue modeling true community-based education for an increasingly polarized and atomized nation; and we will go on providing safe haven to a handful of those children who are in danger of falling victim to the dark shadow of our compulsory education system, as well as fostering the growth of a certain number of children who would probably fare well in almost any setting. Given the steadily increasing number of calls, letters and visits from people interested in discovering real alternatives to the standard version of school - despite the waves of conservatism currently washing over American society - it seems we are answering a genuine need for us to keep making it up as we go along in our 130 year-old building on Elm Street.

Meanwhile, several questions remain in the air as I attempt to conclude this tale. First of all, does honoring the above-stated principles require the pattern of organization called "school?" Hardly. Schools, as Ivan Illich and successors like John Holt and later John Taylor Gatto have pointed out, nearly always have - and always will - set themselves up in opposition to most or all of them. While some schools do a better job than others of avoiding what Illich calls "the corrosive effects of compulsory schooling," the fact remains that generations of state-enforced, centrally-managed education have quite literally schooled our modern minds, both individual and collective, out of the ability to picture things differently. In other words, the current generation of parents is almost entirely dependent on the notion of "schooling" as it now exists, having so thoroughly internalized the myths of school: that education is a scarce commodity of which a prescribed amount must "be gotten" before a person is declared to be a competent adult (Illich, Farenga), that children learn only in the company of professionally trained and licensed teachers (Holt), and that the system of public education in this country is a democratic institution, which with only a little more tinkering, will one day soon begin delivering life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to its adherents (Gatto).

If all of this anti-school sentiment be on the mark - and I believe that it is - then the next question is, "So why the Free School?" The easy way out here, of course, would be to say that we are not really a school at all (we aren't free either, being [sliding] tuition-based); but instead are a community, as I attempted to demonstrate in the chapter by that name. And while I stand by those assertions, we are nonetheless a school after all, imperfect at best and always struggling with the paradoxes and competing urges which underlie the whole business in the first place. Furthermore, some of our kids' parents would prefer that we were more of a school than we actually are, and all very much want and need us to contribute to the raising of their children to the extent that we do. In return we try very hard not to cause separation between them. Finally, instead of "giving kids an education," which implies some sort of passive exchange; or in some way "preparing them for the future," which is sure to instill a sense of ennui and futility, we try equally hard to unite the active principles of living and learning.

All of which leads to yet another unanswered question. If the Free School's approach to education is even half as efficacious as I have described in the preceding pages, then why don't we find parents lining up at our door to enroll their kids? The answer is a complex one, many of the component parts of which have already been addressed. What remains to be said is simply that not everyone wants their children to have fun in school, to construct their own problems to which they create their own solutions - and perhaps herein lies the crux of the matter - to be free to be themselves. I lifted that well-worn phrase straight from the mission statement which the older students in the school just recently wrote for a literary magazine they're starting up in order to raise money for a cross-country train trip.

Of course the reason for this widespread reluctance to entrust children with the responsibility for their own growth leads us right back around the circle to Illich, Holt and Gatto. So many of us have been so deeply conditioned to be cautious and fearful followers that the idea of setting our own kids free is then per- ceived as some sort of ultimate threat. And according to what I hear from friends and associates whose kids are now doing their learning at home, the push and pull between the urge to control and shape their children and the willingness to let them go their own way is very much the same. In any event, it behooves us all to remember that a schooled approach to learning, one which involves textbooks, lesson plans and rote exercises is at best an approximation of any true and lasting experience of the real-for- sure world.

In order to turn back the rising tide of artificiality, we have no choice but to become aware of the gap between ourselves and the true sources of learning, sustenance and meaning in ours and our children's lives - all of which our postmodern consumption-driven economy is so hell-bent on luring us away from. Returning to Illich one final time, if the opportunities for learning amidst the every- day world were once again abundant, then there would be no need for education as such. But returning to a romantic notion of the past is unlikely at best. On the national scene, all of the momentum remains in the direction of ever greater standardization and centralization, all in the name of corporate efficiency, and in any event, there is mounting evidence that efforts to radically alter the educational system will always prove futile.

Meanwhile, real change is occurring wherever individuals and small groups are reclaiming responsibility for the raising of their children. Little independent schools like ours are sprouting up all over the place once again, and the number of homeschoolers is growing exponentially. Furthermore, there is increasing collaboration between freeschoolers and homeschoolers as the two somewhat amorphous groups begin to recognize their abundant common ground. Thanks in large part to the homeschool movement, net-works of apprenticeship opportunities are forming with the goal of once again enabling adolescents to enter the adult world successfully without being forced to submit to state authority and control. Prestigious colleges and universities are discovering that free- and home-school "graduates" make fine catches because they are often more worldly and mature - and better educated - than their conventionally schooled counterparts.

And there are signs of people taking back control over the basic means of their lives in other areas as well. For example, increasing numbers of women are fighting for and winning the right to have their babies in the sanctity of their own homes. The term "community-supported agriculture," whereby produce is grown locally (and usually organically) on a subscription basis is coming into common parlance. A number of towns and villages currently are experimenting with various alternatives to money as the basis for the exchange of goods and services, thus taking the idea of bartering a step further than it was in the days of the sixty's and seventy's counterculture.

At the same time, let us not forget that these are largely white, middle class phenomena. As Jonathan Kozol has so starkly portrayed in his most recent two exposes, Savage Inequities and Amaz ing Grace,* in many ways we remain two separate nations, one white and one non-white, and the signs of hope in the increasingly segregated ghettos of our major cities are few and far between.

In closing, it is becoming clear to me that there really are no grand conclusions to be had regarding the subject at hand. While what we choose to call "education" needs constant reexamination on a great many levels -socio-political, intellectual, emotional and spiritual - it is not in and of itself the solution to any of the issues that I have raised in this book. If we look at our nation as being in the throes of a disease state, as Kozol and others would have us do, then suffice it to say that the domain of education and all of the problems associated with it are at the same time symptoms and causes of some greater illness. Or said another way, if the fundamental concern before us is the developmental well-being of our children, then to focus narrowly on the subject of schools, or even more broadly on "edu-cation" is to miss the mark entirely, and only serves to reinforce the myth that there exists a prescription for that well-being.

Thus I have told the Free School's story* for one primary reason: to hold it up as just one example of how we can support the growth of healthy, sane children and truly endow them with the guarantees written into the Constitution by our forefathers. I will repeat one last time that there is no one right way to do it. To school or not to school is not the question. The question, which needs to be asked over and over again, is what is best for this child or that child, or my child? In answering, let us remember two things; first, that the real answer lies largely within each and every child; and second, that the decisions which affect even one child, whether he or she be in Albany, New York or Albany, Oregon or Albany, Georgia also affect children in the darkest and most sequestered slums of our major cities.In other words, just as there are no single answers, there are no simple ones either. The world always has been filled with injustice and paradox and conrfusion and danger just as it has been with compassion and beauty and courage and hope. What saves humanity again and again is the miracle that within the spirit of human children there exists a hardy seed of wonder and exuberance, one which freeschoolers and homeschoolers alike are determined to preserve for future generations. And that is why, together, we must continue making it up as we go along.


*In his book Making It Up As We Go Along, Heinmann, 1998, available in the Down-to-Earth Bookstore (here), Barnes & Noble on-line or on Amazon.com.
* Click here to view a review of Amazing Grace.

Click here to view additional articles on The Free School or other related subjects.
Click here to order Chris' book or here for other books and periodicals offering information on alternative schools.
 
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