Abandoning the K-12 School System: Listening to Our Children and Thinking for Ourselves

2014 812 nall 2Charlotte and Mimi Nall put together fair trade trick-or-treat handouts in the lead-up to Halloween, 2013. (Photo: Jeffrey Nall)

Also see: Homeschooling for Critical Consciousness

April [1] and I do not fit the stereotype of homeschooling parents. We are secular, feminist, egalitarians who believe in an open, just democratic society. We began homeschooling our two eldest children, ages 11 and 10, in 2010. We did so because we found the dominant K-12 school system to be undemocratic, dehumanizing, and too often antithetical to our chosen educational goals for our children: to cultivate creative, compassionate critical thinkers.

Neither of us had seriously considered homeschooling our children until after we first enrolled our eldest daughter into kindergarten. The eventual decision to homeschool Charlotte and Julian was an organic decision, one that was inspired by listening to our children and taking their concerns seriously. This kind of “radical” act subjects one to the scorn of many adults. Like all marginalized and generally oppressed groups, children’s desires, concerns and complaints are often ignored or, when heard, trivialized.

2014 812 nall 3Charlotte Nall, Julian Grover, Jeffrey Nall, and Mimi Nall pose for a photo during the family’s visit to Washington DC for the “Stop the Machine” Occupy-solidarity protest, October 2011. (Photo: Jeffrey Nall)

Through countless hours of dialogue on parental philosophy and our core values, April and I concluded that we would do our best to remember that our children deserve more than food, shelter and love. They also deserved an appropriate level of respect and to be heard. So we refused to ignore it when our eldest daughter, then a kindergartner, complained of having no recess time, not being able to talk during lunch, rushed, joyless assignments that left her bewildered and regular headaches from being caught between screaming classmates and a teacher who responded by raising her voice and issuing collective discipline in attempts to regain control of her class. After all, Charlotte went to kindergarten loving learning, but was beginning to hate anything associated with “education.”

The eventual decision to homeschool Charlotte and Julian was an organic decision, one that was inspired by listening to our children and taking their concerns seriously.

This would be the first of three schools our family tried over the course of some six years: first a public school, then an employee- and parent-owned-and-operated private school, then a different public school. Each had unique features, but all shared qualities that contradicted our family’s fundamental educational values and, thus, compelled us to seek an alternative along the way.

What We Learned and Why We Left

Both public schools utilized collective punishment. When Charlotte experienced such treatment in kindergarten, she was left feeling ashamed for being publically disciplined. She was also bitter for being held accountable for behavior she was not responsible for, an assertion her teacher validated when confronted with the issue. In fourth grade, Julian’s art teacher forced the entire class to put their heads down for the entire period because a few of the students were disruptive. What made the punishment even worse was that it was his most anticipated class: art, which was held once-a-week only. “If you’re going to waste my time, then I’m going to waste your time,” the teacher told him. The following day, I insisted on speaking to the vice principal. He said such conduct was unacceptable. Yet similar tactics continued to be used by other instructors at the school. I quickly developed the sense that I was faced with an institutional tactic of managing children, not a rogue and disorderly teacher.

All three schools required students to tolerate an unhealthy amount of passivity. Students were again and again expected to sit in stoic battalions of still, silent, attentive obedience while the teacher delivered a lesson they literally had no say in. Little to no time was allotted for student questions or open dialogue. In one instance, doodling on the corner of a completed worksheet while other children completed their own was disallowed and produced a public scolding. This is the “banking” model of education Brazilian educator, theorist and activist Paulo Freire criticized in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). In this dehumanizing education model, “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” [2] Freire argued that the banking education model fostered passivity and compliance:

The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them. [3]

This polarity of know-everything adults and know-nothing students was further entrenched by routine displays of disrespect toward children. Members of the school staff of my son’s last school routinely spoke to children in a condescending manner. In one instance, a child was late to class and was waiting behind adults to sign herself in on the tardy list. One of the office workers barked, “Well, what are you doing? Get to class,” followed by a snide scoff. When the child explained that she was waiting to sign in, the office worker did not apologize or even extend an approving smile. Instead, the reaction was to ignore the entire exchange and go back to work. Children, no less than adults, experience such treatment as degrading.

At the same school, students in my son’s class who were underperforming or had forgotten an assignment would be publically chastised by the teacher before the entire class. His teacher even thought it was unproblematic to eat cotton candy and donuts before a group of 9-year-olds tediously preparing for the FCAT, while enforcing an absolute ban on snacks during class time. An exception was made if you brought a piece of gum for her: Then you could chew a piece in class. Also some students would be rewarded with some of the teacher’s treats for outstanding work.

This polarity of know-everything adults and know-nothing students was further entrenched by routine displays of disrespect toward children.

All of this may seem trivial to adults. Yet this merely indicates the adult-centered thinking that prevents adults from understanding the routine injustices experienced by children. All one needs to do is to imagine how it would feel to be similarly treated; how one feels when those with power – be they workplace managers, patriarchal males, or racists – unfairly and even arbitrarily deprive those without it – workers, females, marginalized ethnic and/or religious groups.

Each of the schools not only failed to foster critical thinking around the issue of gender stereotypes, they in fact served to reinforce them. As feminist parents, April and I both work diligently to combat degrading, disempowering and ultimately destructive stereotypes of both our sons and daughters. Consequently, it was perpetually frustrating to witness as they were pressured to conform to dominant gender stereotypes: what interests, toys, behavior counted as appropriate for “girls” or “boys.” Though gendered boundaries were primarily policed by students, faculty members contributed to the problem by engaging in practices such as dividing children according to gender. This was done, for example, during recess. And it was experienced as an uncomfortable oddity by my daughter, who was accustomed to playing with all children, regardless of gender. Just her interest in playing with some of her boy classmates was met with scorn by some of her female peers.

Subjected to an early, ubiquitous and uncritical gender socialization of their own, children and, later, adults, are largely unaware of their active role in maintaining dominant gender norms. In addition to a lack of awareness of the social construction of gender, many teachers, idealists and visionaries aside, are encouraged to embrace the role of dominant culture’s deputy, tasked with fitting children to the world that is rather than promoting critical analysis and reimagining society. What is important to realize here is that learning, acquiring new understanding, be it reasonable or not, occurs throughout everyday life. Classroom and schoolyard “educational” experiences such as those described above are formative, and warp children’s sense of self-knowledge. Thus, however blameless teachers and children may be, a great many play a regressive role in holding gender nonconformists accountable and maintaining the inequity that is tied to patriarchal gender.

Add to these concerns the dehumanizing and counterproductive emphasis on competition and teaching to the test. Rather than encouraging each student to develop their intellectual potential in diverse fields of study, students are in constant competition with one another. During Julian’s fourth grade experience, he was under perpetual pressure from his teacher to meet standardized expectations so that she “would not get in trouble” or so that she would be able to “maintain her reputation.” An absurd yet indicative example of the emphasis on competition occurred when his teacher told him not to tell other students of the special writing formula she had developed for her students to ace a particular standardized test. If this sounds too absurd to be true, know that the teacher evaded the question all together when I directly brought it to her attention. For it seems that many teachers are simply not challenged on the practices they engage in behind closed doors; perhaps parents are too busy, too overworked, and in some cases, it might also be the case that they are too skeptical or inattentive to children’s perspectives all together.

Each of the schools not only failed to foster critical thinking around the issue of gender stereotypes, they in fact served to reinforce them.

To this laundry list we could add the systemic dismissiveness of individual children’s intellectual and creative interests and talents. Sorely lacking in the curriculum were study areas of critical concern to our family: artistic creativity, opportunities for dialogue, teamwork and projects; appropriate attention to civic virtues, including intellectual independence and valuing the dignity of all persons; and an emphasis on critical thinking – including questioning authority.

Progressive Criticism of Dominant Education System

These observations about competition and forced learning techniques are not new. Albert Einstein criticized capitalism for injecting an individuality-“crippling” competitiveness into the dominant education system. “Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” Einstein further criticized the coercive aspects of education. “One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not,” he wrote. Einstein concluded that “the modern methods of instruction” were responsible for strangling “the holy curiosity of inquiry” from those who were “mainly in need of freedom.”

What our children experienced was really all too familiar. I loathed most of my K-12 experience, experiencing virtually everything my children experienced and more. I was bullied, made to feel intellectually inadequate, belittled by too many other students and teachers. I also felt robbed of the right to sufficiently pursue my interests, which often failed to coincide with standardized curriculum. I eventually dropped out of high school. The feeling of liberation was so great that it drowned out my concerns with the stigma and criticism that comes with dropping out. When I reluctantly began community college with a GED, I was surprised at how much easier college was compared to compulsory schooling. Despite being a C student, I quickly began making “A”s and “B”s. Reflecting on this feeling now as a college professor with a PhD, I believe college seemed easier because it was an instantly more humane, free space for thought and discussion. [4]

The conditions do not appear to have changed much since journalist and professor, Dr. Charles Silberman, wrote his historic 1970 work, Crisis In The Classroom: The Remaking of American Education:

It is not possible to spend any prolonged period visiting public school classrooms without being appalled by the mutilation visible everywhere – mutilation of spontaneity, of joy in learning, or pleasure in creating, or sense of self. . . . Because adults take the schools so much for granted, they fail to appreciate what grim, joyless places most American schools are, how oppressive and petty are the rules by which they are governed, how intellectually sterile and esthetically barren the atmosphere, what an appalling lack of civility obtains on the part of teachers and principals, what contempt they unconsciously display for students as students.

Succinctly contextualizing these observations, Noam Chomsky contends that the aim of the dominant model of education has been to limit students’ “perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.” One specific purpose of mass public education, according to Chomsky, “was to prepare independent farmers for life as wage laborers who would tolerate what they regarded as virtual slavery.”

Responding to the oppressive design of the dominant education system, progressive educators have long sought to overthrow the banking model of education in favor of a humane, progressive, liberatory model. Inspired by Freire, one such educator, bell hooks, writes that progressive educators view education “as the practice of freedom because we understand that democracy thrives in an environment where learning is valued, where the ability to think is the mark of responsible citizenship, where free speech and the will to dissent is accepted and encouraged.”

School environments where teachers can realistically overcome deeply lodged institutional obstructions to such a model of teaching are few and far between. Yet organizations such as The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) are striving to bring humanity, imagination and democracy to schools. IDEA advocates for democratic education, defined “as learning that equips every human being to participate fully in a healthy democracy,” a vision that embraces the young “as active co-creators of their own learning” rather than “products of an education system.”

Democratically operated schools such as the Florida-based Sunset Sudbury School in Davie and Grassroots School in Tallahassee provide teaching mentors but emphasize student-guided and motivated learning as well as creativity, and social interconnectivity. The radically unstructured character of these schools arguably lacks some necessary adult-led direction. Yet their embrace of democratic practices provides a creative alternative to what Henry Giroux calls the “pedagogy of repression“: the dominant practice of education entailing the indoctrination of students to accept that rights belong only to the powerful and “unlearn any respect for democracy, justice, and what it might mean to connect learning to social change.” This is powerfully reflected in the conflict resolution approach of the Sudbury Valley School of Framingham, Massachusetts.

Such options are not available to everyone. In the first place very few such institutions exist. Secondly, these community-based schools are not free. Tuition ranges from as much as $6,000 for the first child at Sunset, to a sliding scale based on taxable income minus taxes divided by .09 at Grassroots. Though it is reasonable compared to operational costs, tuition of any amount is a barrier for most low-income families. Ideally such examples would be embraced by the public school system.

The present anti-democratic reality of most US schools is clear. In its 2003 report, “US Teens in Our World,” US Department of Health and Human Services found that nearly 80 percent of 15-year-old US students “like school only a little, not very much, or not at all.” What makes school so intolerable? “US students are among the least likely to feel that they participate in making rules at school or that rules are fair. This sense of lack of participation in rule making and unfairness gets worse as students grow older. US students of all ages also are among the least likely to feel that their classmates are kind and helpful.” The consequences for such lack of participation, the report explains, is clear: “Not only are students who feel unconnected more likely to abuse substances, engage in violence, and become pregnant, but they may be less likely to acquire developmental assets and to experience opportunities to demonstrate competence through increasing autonomy appropriate to their developmental stage.” [5]

Who is John Holt? The Radically Progressive Roots of US Homeschooling

As April and I sought an alternative quite apart from those of fundamentalist religious inspiration, we encountered radical homeschool pioneer, John Holt. Holt’s ideals and objectives were in many ways opposite of religious fundamentalists. Inspired by his empathetic experience teaching fifth grade students, Holt authored How Children Fail (1964), in which he asserted, as Patrick Farenga explains it, that forced learning centered on pleasing educational authority figures and pursuing institutional benchmarks and rewards makes children “unnaturally self-conscious about learning and stifles children’s initiative and creativity . . .” [6] He was initially well-received by some institutions, and was invited to lecture at Harvard and Berkeley and appear on mainstream TV programs. But he quickly proved himself to be a remarkably plainspoken subversive who made almost everyone uncomfortable, but probably none more than religious “family value” conservatives.

Holt became a pedagogical anarchist: He abandoned the possibility of reforming the existing K-12 education system and began working for change at a grassroots level outside of the system. Holt’s aim in promoting homeschooling was to liberate children from what he saw as among the most authoritarian, humanity-depriving institutions of all human creations: compulsory education. Quite apart from the many conservatives who identify with homeschooling today, Holt viewed compulsory education as an institution that robbed children of what he saw as the most fundamental of all freedoms: the freedom of thought. In his controversial work, Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974), Holt wrote

“No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought.” [7]

Conclusion

Summed up, we abandoned formal schooling because we believe it inhumanely and destructively deprives children of the opportunity to develop their unique intelligence; emphasizes extreme competitiveness and independence at the expense of respectful, compassionate social connection and appropriate recognition of interdependence; and the system prefers to emphasize dogmatic conformity at the expense of critical, compassionate, creative consciousness.

2014 812 nall 5Jeffrey and April Nall pose for selfies, April 2011 (Photo: Nall Family)

Today, April and I are deeply committed to the common good and educating ourselves and our children about the importance of fairness, moral equality, environmental stewardship, personal responsibility, and the duties of citizenship. Our decision to homeschool, to a significant degree, is driven by the failure of the dominant school system to enact these very values.

Footnotes

[1] Thanks to April Nall for reading, commenting and contributing to the development of the ideas in this essay.

[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (New York: Continuum, 2000), 72.

[3] Freire, Pedagogy, 73.

[4] To be clear, none of this means that I did not have a couple of very good teachers. One in particular stands out for giving me a backpack of books to read as I abandoned school. Once out of school, I read these books, which included Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, with great enthusiasm. The point is simply that good teachers are necessary but not sufficient for a good school experience.

[5] Thanks to April Nall for bringing this study to my attention.

[6] John Holt, Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1976), 218.

[7] John Holt, Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1974) 240-241. Radically, Holt lays claim to children’s right to that most cherished of enlightenment ideals, freedom of thought. Similarly, in 1670, the philosophical pioneer of European freethought, Spinoza, wrote “a government that attempts to control men’s minds is regarded as tyrannical, and a sovereign is thought to wrong his subjects and infringe their right when he seeks to prescribe for every man what he should accept as true and reject as false.” Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or A Theologico-Political Treatise, p.222