Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Letter to the Alternative Education Community

Letter from a listserv run by AERO,,

When forced to use a label, I would describe myself as a "left-communitarian-libertarian." My ideal goals for the world - peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainability for all - are very much the goals of the left. I believe that many of the pathologies that we see in modern society (and I do think that contemporary society is mostly pathological) can only be cured by means of deeper communal attachments. And I think that membership in communities can only be voluntary, not forced (thus the libertarian streak). Forced, geographical "communities," from zoned public schools to nation-states, are not communities at all. Coercion poisons everything that is beautiful about community.

The great tragedy of modernity is that innovators and entrepreneurs were allowed to imagine and create amazing new technogical devices and gadgets, but that those who cared about learning, health, wellness, and community were severely constrained in their desire to create more humane enterprises. In an alternative universe in which Horace Mann and his Prussianization movement had never existed, gradually thousands of idealistic education entrepreneurs would have created different kinds of education, different kinds of communities based around different visions of how to educate young people, and different groups of adults based on different ways of life.

In addition to industrialists such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, people like Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner could have produced very large scale visions of a deeper and more satisfying way to live. And just as there were many dozens of competitors to Ford in the early days, there would have been many dozens of competitors to Montessori and Steiner, some better and some worse. I do believe that parents love their children and, in a world in which everyone was seeking the best education, and in which there were dozens of magazines offering reviews and articles on which education developed young people best, if Montessori and Waldorf were to survive they would have had to become a lot better than they are today - instead of being wonderful museum pieces, they would each have been extremely dynamic and innovative for the past 100 years.

For those who think that poor people would not make good educational choices: Perhaps not initially (and many upper class people would not make good choices initially either). But almost anyone in the inner city knows more about buying cars than I do; they have very sophisticated knowledge regarding how to get a good car at a low price. In an education market, just as upper-middle class soccer moms discuss private schools at soccer games, inner city moms would be constantly comparing private schools to figure out which ones were best. And, just as with cars, they would develop extremely sophisticated understandings of what was valuable.

For those who are concerned with the price of private schools for the poor: In 1800, Joseph Lancaster, an 18 year-old kid, created Lancaster schools with student: teacher ratios of 100:1 or higher. When one looks at a school budget, staff salaries take up 80-90% of the budget. With 100:1 student:teacher ratio, costs plummet and even the working class poor in early Industrial Revolution Britain could afford to send their kids there. Lancaster schools were a tremendous success around the world, with schools in south America, in Russia, among the Cherokees, etc. They were destroyed in Britain by the Anglican church and around the rest of the world by public schools. Their critics claimed that the education that they provided a shallow education; insofar as that may well have been the case, I would suggest that, over time, they could have become far more sophisticated. The earliest versions of personal computers in the 1970s were Radio Shack kits that were not very effective for anything. But in a large, diverse market, innovators and entrepreneurs create better and better versions of everything. Had they had the opportunity to evolve through 200 years of innovation, 100:1 Lancaster schools today would have become dazzling and wonderful.

Most of the pathologies of modern society stem from the fact that young people are being raised without meaningful relationships during the school day, they are "taught" academics in a context devoid of meaning, and thus their habits, tastes, preferences, attitudes, characters, souls, and spirits are being formed in a horrifying meaning vacuum. The media marketeers who then appeal to their unformed appetities thereby win by default, creating the teen culture that we see today, which then goes on to create the adult society we see today.

While one can "blame" capitalism or the market for this, I don't see what is accomplished by such blaming. Such blaming will not stop one media mogul from producing and marketing the next vicious and mysogonistic computer game or the next super-sexualized MTV video designed to appeal to pre-adolescent girls. Even if Hillary Clinton were elected president and filled government with as many "It Takes a Village" feminists (male and female) as she could find I don't think that teen culture would change much. Given meaningless schooling, teen and pre-teen appetites will continue to be manipulated by the marketeers regardless of which politicians are in office.

Meanwhile, if the people on this listserv and thousands like them were educating a significant percentage of our young (say, 30%), and providing them with meaningful relationships, meaningful learning experiences, and meaningful content, gradually cohorts of young people would be raised with fundamentally different tastes and appetites. As someone who loves to learn - intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, aesthetically, physically, etc. - I find that I don't have any time or interest to buy anything at a mall at all. "Goods" are boring once one discovers lifelong self-discovery. Why not allow schools that allow young people to discover this for themselves?

Most of the pathologies of our society are due to the fact that such a large percentage of our population get their ego-needs met by conspicuous consumption, acts of aggression and dominance, addictive substances and experiences (including violent gaming, ripping through the wilderness on high-powered machines, expoitive and manipulative sex, gambling, etc.) If we create a world in which a significant percentage of the population is mindful, conscious, and aware, most of our other problems will become small and solvable. This is why it is important that our movement obtain significant "market share." Teen culture, and later adult culture, needs to reflect the tastes and appetites of healthy, well-formed beings rather than starved and destroyed beings, the way that it does today.

If 90% of the population experienced a K-12 experience that left them whole and well, then "free markets" would in no way whatsover resemble what they resemble today.

One of the reasons why it is unlikely that young people would voluntarily go to an alternative school is that most young people have been experientially indoctrinated in the notion that "school" and "learning" represent boring, humiliating, meaningless, and lifeless experiences. If young people have experiential connotations for "school" that are similar to our experiential connotations for "dog shit," it is not surprising that it would be hard to get them to go to a new and different kind of "school." Perhaps the "school" that you are offering is much sweeter smelling and more inspiring, but insofar as everytime you use the words "school" and "learning," the young people hear the emotional equivalent of "dog shit," it will be hard to get them in the door on a voluntary basis.

The very worst crime that government schools have committed is that they have taken learning, one of the most magical and beautiful of all life's experiences, and they have given it the emotional connotations equivalent to "dog shit" to many under-privileged young people.

At present, isolated, tiny, struggling experiments in new and better ways of learning and living exist. To create a provocative, but apt, analogy: there are places where drugs or prostitution are "decriminalized" but not yet legal. In Holland, for instance, small amounts of cannabis products may be bought and sold. But it is not legal for a large organization to devote substantial investment dollars to researching and marketing of new and better cannabis products: this is the distinction between decriminalization, which allows a small and marginalized market in a product, vs. legalization, which allows open, long-term investment in research and marketing for a product. If we want our society to "value" learning, education, health, and well-being, we have to make it legal and safe for capital to flow into these fields. This is not the case at present.

It is legal for a homeschooling family to provide a better life for their children. It is legal in many states for alternative schoolers to create a better school. But in many states there are severe restrictions even on private schools, and even in those states in which there are not, admissions standards to public colleges (gradually being changed by the homeschool movement) and the fact that occupational licensing unnecessarily forces people to obtain college degrees to many careers severely limits radical educational innovation. Worse yet, the government forces people to pay for a monopolistic "education" system that is mostly harmful, thus making it difficult to market and sell a better type of education that is inconsistent with the mainstream - this is powerful and insidious way to eliminate the possiblity of a legal market in healthy education.

Moreover, there are constant changes and challenges to what kinds of institutions are allowed. It is tempting, at present, to launch a chain of better charter schools in Arizona at present (because they are relatively unregulated except for the despicable NCLB), but the ongoing media hostility to charter schools makes such an investment very risky. Why invest one's savings or one's life in a situation in which the dollars or years might be lost due to a fickle public policy change? Better to wait and see if the environment stabilizies - and this is the catch-22 of school choice - as long as it remains controversial, talented human capital and serious investment funding will remain reluctant to flow in the direction of health and well-being.

It is time to legalize markets in happiness and well-being.