Decisions, Decisions

The past few weeks have been full of great experiences. I got to spend a week with Emma, my girlfriend, in Portland. I’ve seen a number of schools and gotten deeper into some great books—namely Excellent Sheep by Bill Deresiewicz and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. And I’ve had some time to reflect.

In Portland, I visited the Village Free School, a free/democratic school located across the street from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Like in most free schools, the students (ages 5-18) choose how to use their time. There are plenty of resources around, like books and computers, that the students take advantage of. There are also classes that the students can sign up for (and propose), including everything from “circus games” to chemistry. Students ages 9-12 have “project time,” which involves designing and completing projects. The activities you might find kids doing in a free school, even in a single day, are as numerous as the ideas those kids can cook up. The younger kids spend much of the day playing—though playing is an encompassing word that fails to describe the richness and variety of experiences involved in it. When you go (and I hope you do) to visit one of these free schools, I hope you’ll see that the separation between ‘playing’ and ‘learning’ is really an artificial one (you may have already seen this if you’ve closely observed a child absorbed in play).

I joined one class, called “Fairy Time,” which consisted of mostly younger kids and a staff member who take a short walk down to the shore of the Willamette River, where they read fairytales, act them out, and play. I spoke with the mother of one of the kids, who told me her son is actually homeschooled but comes to Village Free School once a week to spend time with other kids. As we talked and watched the kids play by the river—examining rocks and pushing logs out into the current—it struck me what this school was about: the kids are simply given room to grow into who and what they want to be. It was an important moment for me because I realized that that goal is enough.

Many schools claim to do it all—to put kids through a ‘rigorous’ academic curriculum while building responsibility, citizenship, and independence, all the while giving kids the space and freedom needed to find their passions and pursue their dreams. In practice, however, those ‘rigorous’ academics (the rigor of which is the subject of its own discussion), implemented through a system of coercion, are given primacy to the exclusion of the other values. In practice, most schools give kids little to no freedom to choose their own activities or to develop along their own path.

How can you develop independence, responsibility, or love of learning by making a child’s choices for them about where to be and what to learn? And is it so revolutionary to say that we don’t primarily care whether our kids go to the Ivy League or follow any of the prescribed paths to success? That instead our primary goal—way, way high above the others—is to help them develop into independent, responsible, engaged, and happy people?

One question that the phenomenon of free schools raises and that I’m still mulling over is this: which decisions are children capable of making for themselves, and which should be decided by adults? It seems obvious that young children shouldn’t be allowed to use or play with dangerous tools, or walk dangerously close to the raging waves of the ocean or the edge of a cliff. But should they be allowed to make decisions about what they want to learn? Does the same logic that pulls a child back from walking toward the crashing waves wean her from playing and place her in a desk? Essentially, do we protect our children’s futures by placing them in a compulsory system of learning in which they spend most of their time doing and learning things that have been determined externally? Or can children, when given the freedom to explore their own interests and choose their own activities, develop independence and responsibility from a much earlier age than a system of compulsion allows for, and also be able to perform in whichever field they eventually choose to go into?

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When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced…Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?—for the nobler plants are valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light…

–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Instead of success, make the work itself the goal. That’s what I always come back to. When I start to care too much about rewards, I remember to return to the work—to the never-ending effort to perfect it.

–Bill Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep

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As I’ve had some time to reflect, what I’m learning now is as much about myself as it is about education. And now that I’ve taken a little time to step back, I’m seeing that I need to step back even further, that this is just the beginning of my soul-searching. I realize that I often seek personal affirmation in the opinions of others, that I tend to base my sense of self-worth on how others perceive me, and that somehow I believe that to lead a good life involves little more than to have others believe I lead a good life. None of these are ways in which I want to live my life.

I want to bring some genuine value to the world. I want to take some time to focus on bringing real value to, and finding real value in, my present moment—for it’s all I have, and it may be taken away any day. And I want to further develop my own passions, that I may find what it is I can and should do during my relatively short stay on this earth. In order to do these things I need time and as much freedom from external pressures as possible.

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