The Education of a Free People:
Prospectus for a New System of Schooling
Jonathan Black - July 4, 1991, 1992
This was written during a period of intense reflection on the nature of and justification for public (State) primary and secondary education. I was at that time considering the possibility and feasibility of beginning a school on the lines of the Sudbury Valley School (see below); perhaps a Brandywine Valley School. This has not happened yet but who knows what the future may bring? The essay was begun in South Carolina and completed in Pennsylvania a year later. See also Letters to Fritz and Learning From the Mountain)
"What is the question?"
There is a general perception that, in some way, the American State (public) primary and secondary educational system is either failing or has failed. Despite continually increasing investment in public education, in the name of "quality education" and other catch phrases, there is general despair over education. Furthermore, it has become popular to ascribe many of the current ills of society to the failure of education.
I suggest that these views are largely correct. The present public education system represents, in large part, an unwieldy, bureaucratic monopolistic answer to a question which has not been clearly framed. We "know" that children must be in school and that "public," that is, State-run, schools are both necessary and patriotic. However, there has been little recent reflection on why these schools exist, what their appropriate roles in society are and how to achieve effective schooling appropriate for a free people.
Freedom is the central issue: for I cannot expect to be free if you and you and you are not free. And without freedom for all people, our society and republic, based on universal freedom and equality of opportunity, must surely fail.
In this prospectus, I will examine these issues as well as propose a new approach to schooling.
"The only things in life that are certain are death and taxes."
We know only that we, you and I, individually, exist. Personal birth is an anecdote, death is an experience to come from which we can expect no personal gain and an expectation of self-awareness after death is as uncertain as the credibility of memories of events before birth.
What is certain is that we are autonomous and separate one from another. I must draw breath for myself, I feel my own pain or pleasure which none can share and only I can move my limbs or exercise my conscious mind. No action or thought on my part can be compelled without my consent or participation.
This condition is autonomy.1 For me to accept autonomy as reality rather than illusion, I must also accept that I am sovereign over both my physical and mental self. By sovereign, I mean that I possess absolute privilege of action for my physical self, my body, and absolute responsibility for my body and my persona, including its thoughts and emotions, and for the consequences of any acts, physical or mental, which I commit. Sovereignty and autonomy are irrevocably linked: there can be no sovereignty without autonomy and sovereignty is a necessary result of human autonomy.
I own myself; I am no one's possession, vassal or slave.
Since I own myself, no one else has responsibility for my body.
Since I alone can act, no one else can cause my actions or bear responsibility for their consequences.
My sovereignty, as yours, is innate. It existed from the time when I began to function physically separate from my mother's body and will cease only when I cease. The exercise of sovereignty is liberty and the estate of its full exercise is freedom. Exercise of sovereignty in early life is limited by physical inability and lack of worldly experience. In later life, its' exercise is limited by physical and mental disability. Nonetheless, my sovereignty was, is and will remain unimpaired, whatever my ability to exercise it.
Further, for my sovereignty to be accepted by others, I must be scrupulous in accepting theirs. If, by my acts, the exercise of sovereignty by others is impaired or limited, then I must bear the fair cost after the fact, by accepting counterbalancing limitations on future liberty and, in so far as possible, by redressing the consequences of my previous acts.
I was not born free but only with the opportunity to become free through the full and responsible exercise of my sovereignty.
When the framers of the Declaration of Independence wrote, "...All men are created equal, (that) they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, ...among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," we should understand them as having said: "All persons are born sovereign but no one's sovereignty is set above anothers, for the unfettered exercise of sovereignty is liberty leading to freedom and freedom is a necessary precondition for happiness."
Since each one expects the State to accept and honor individual sovereignty, then the sovereign individual must ask no more of the State than that it act to preserve individual liberty, the free exercise of sovereignty, from any threat, domestic or foreign. And, upon a proper accounting of the cost and the resulting benefits, I and any other sovereign individuals should be prepared to pay a fair price for those benefits. If the State is unwilling or unable to secure for me such benefits or if it demands that I impair my sovereignty as part of the price, then I shall refuse to pay but must act, on my own and with other sovereign individuals of like mind, to secure and protect individual liberty and, thus, freedom for all.
Libertarians are fond of saying: "Taxation is theft." I ask, "Theft of what?" and answer: "Theft of liberty and thus theft of life." For death is certain and the days of life are numbered: therefore, when a person, acting alone or wearing the mantle of the State, takes my property without my permission or fair exchange, that person impairs my liberty, threatens my sovereignty and, in doing so, steals a part of my life.
A mantra of personal sovereignty:
I am autonomous,
I wish to be free.
I am sovereign over
my thoughts and feelings,
and their consequences.
as a result of autonomy,
as a condition of sovereignty,
in pursuit of freedom:
I accept full responsibility for
my thoughts and feelings,
and their consequences.
"No people can expect to be both ignorant and free." T. Jefferson
In a free society, a school, as a place where learning occurs, may exist for only two related purposes: As a place where persons may go voluntarily to discover their sovereignty and may stay to acquire those skills and knowledge needed for free and responsible exercise of sovereignty. Thus schools properly exist to awaken the awareness of autonomy, to encourage liberty and to promote freedom.
All other uses of schools and schooling, as institutions and as processes, are morally invalid and are to be shunned. Learning is a part of life and to enclose it unnecessarily within four walls, set aside from other activities, is to denigrate the value of life itself.
Schools have been given many roles over the centuries: manufacturers of obedient citizens, emulsifiers of multicultural populations, reformers of behavior, warehouses, discipliners and punishers of social outcasts, compellers of labor and purveyors of myth, both religious and secular. Contemporary public schools, designed in both structure and organization to function as factories and supported by mandatory attendance laws, State regulation of curricula and professional monopoly of instruction, embody all of these aspects to some degree, despite their ingenuous current disguise in bright liberal apparel as purveyors of personal growth and quality education.
Schools for the young, whether private and public, are a reflection of the society from which they arise and are designed to manufacture future participants modeled after the desires of present adults. Thus, to change Society and, in particular, to reverse the continued erosion of liberty and freedom, we must change not just some of the schools, but all of them. It has been said that "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the World" but with equal truth it can be said that "The mind that teaches determines the World's destiny."
For a free society to survive and for its benefits to increase and pass to members of new generations in turn, we must replace the present system of public schooling with one which encourages the development of sovereign individuals appropriately educated to the full and responsible of exercise of that sovereignty. To do otherwise is to hazard our liberty and with it, our freedom.
"Teacher and student are roles, not persons." J. Black
There are many theories of education and the learning process. I shall not here dwell on them or on their historical or scientific aspects. Generally, such theories are based neither upon observation nor experimentation and have not, due to the complexity of human nature and individual life experience, been tested for validity. Thus, they are essentially irrelevant to this discussion.
Instead, I will rely on my own resources: half a century of personal experience and perception, in both educational roles: student and teacher. I present my conclusions here in the form of precepts or principles, with commentary. Education, like any other human endeavor, should be a principled process - therefore these observations will guide the plans offered in a later section for a new approach to schooling for the young.
#1. Teacher and student are roles, not persons.
Commentary: Whether one is a student or a teacher in any situation, depends upon which party possesses knowledge which the other wishes to share and by sharing begin to acquire. The roles are transitory and persons may switch roles during the course of a single conversation.
#2. The verb "to teach" is reflexive.
Commentary: The best way to learn something is to attempt to teach it to another. The best way to understand something is to attempt to explain it. Thus, in a student-teacher relationship, both learn: the teacher reinforces possessed knowledge by teaching, the student acquires new knowledge by observation, inquiry and explanation. The wise student then becomes, in turn, a teacher of this knowledge so as to reinforce knowledge and thus gain understanding. Therefore, while lecturing plays a role in inspiring learning (although it serves the lecturer better than the students), study should be active or interactive rather than passive or solitary. A discussion group is a better place to teach (and learn) than a library carrel. Solitary pursuit of understanding is more useful to order, sort and reinforce than to acquire knowledge primarily.
#3. The only authority in education is understanding.
Commentary: Teaching "credentials" describe only opportunities for learning and do not measure even the acquisition of knowledge. Therefore, wisdom (understanding gained through acquisition and ordering of knowledge) and life experience are more important attributes of a person who wishes to teach than are certificates and diplomas. And, the test of quality in teaching is in the doing: are the students inspired to teach, and by teaching, to reveal and strengthen their possession of knowledge?
#4. One can only learn when one wishes to learn.
Commentary: This is self evident, since learning can only result from an act of free will on the learner's part: it cannot be coerced by force or threat of force. Thus, only the free can learn optimally. Initiation of schooling at a fixed age, mandatory attendance, fixed scheduling of courses, classes and examinations and enforcement of fixed curricular content all run counter to this principle and result in failure of the majority to learn. However, what has failed is not the students but the educational process.
#5. Learning depends more on desire than on intelligence.
Commentary: In the absence of permanent structural or functional mental disability, intelligence, as measured by traditional testing techniques, is a better predictor of speed of learning than of eventual degree of understanding. The well (self!) motivated turtle will always surpass the dilettante rabbit.
#6. Knowledge is a process not a product.
Commentary: Knowledge is created within a person by the process of learning. In some cases it is acquired from (shared with) teachers, in other cases it is created de novo. In all cases, like a physical skill, it can be retained only by use, refreshment and reinforcement. Since knowledge is a process, it is best preserved in the educated instinct, that is, intuition, in which both the conscious and unconscious mind participate. Knowledge lies, therefore, in relation and structure, rather than in unrelated piece parts (facts, etc.).
#7. Although all knowledge is process, knowledge of process has more virtue than knowledge of fact.
Commentary: It is more useful to know how than what. Thus, being able to recognize moral issues and reason about the morality of acts and their consequences has greater virtue than possessing even a perfected moral code.
#8. Knowledge is not constant but always changes.
Commentary: Time questions all answers. So should we. Since answers depend upon questions; that is, the range of possible answers is dictated by the process of forming a question and investigating it; as questions change, the spectrum of possible answers changes. Therefore, knowledge is never finally gained but must be continually regained. In doing so, understanding increases.
#9. Knowledge has no intrinsic moral or economic value.
Commentary: Knowledge has virtue only in accord with its' possessor's values and the uses to which it is put. Therefore, there can be no good or bad knowledge, only good and bad uses of knowledge. All knowledge then is seen to have virtue and there can be no moral basis for limiting access to knowledge; therefore, I have always chosen knowledge over ignorance. Furthermore, the formation of a teacher-student relationship is a free market event. While learning can occur in the absence of an intellectual free market, it progresses best in such a setting, enabling relative current values to be attached to knowledge and its acquisition.
#10. The virtue of knowledge is relative to its time and place.
Commentary: Although knowledge has no intrinsic value, it has virtue related to the outside world and its state of development. Thus, knowledge of how to make goose quill pens has lost virtue and now is notional to anyone but an antiquarian, while knowledge of how to use word processing software gains virtue in relation to the increasing accessibility of personal computers.
"What we need...is not so much schools as...protected, safe, interesting places where children can gather, meet and make friends, and do things together." J. Holt2
As there are many theories of education and learning, there are also many embodiments of these theories in methods of schooling and institutional school settings. I shall comment on only three aspects of these, in passing, for I intend to describe a new manner of schooling the young which proceeds directly from the principles outlined in the previous sections, rather than from contemporary or historical examples.
Why do I focus on the young specifically? It is because I feel that schools have failed the young particularly and, due to traditional societal impairment of their sovereignty, the young have been unable to escape the consequences of this failure. Therefore, we are visiting the educational errors and misconceptions of each generation upon the next, generation after generation.
In the past fifty years the world in general and the United States in particular have undergone such a major revolution that to continue to school the next generations as we are now doing is a recipe for disaster.
Some of the more important changes:
* The industrial revolution has passed into a phase called by some the "information age" in which mass production is becoming largely irrelevant. Economic goods are less and less often material and more and more intellectual and ephemeral in nature. The goods economy is giving way to the service economy.
* The great monopolies of power of the 18th and 19th century are all dead or dying: Externally, with the fall of the Russian system of State socialism, the only major center of monopoly power remaining is the Roman Catholic church and it is assailed from all sides. Internally, political parties have lost power to govern, labor unions have lost power to dictate business practices and radio and TV networks have lost power to indoctrinate. Both at home and abroad, another fruit of the industrial revolution, the personal computer and its close technological relatives, the copying and facsimile (FAX) machines, have given unrivaled liberty to individuals, further eroding monopolies of power and scale.
* The free market and its political embodiment, popular democracy with universal suffrage, is in ascendancy and no other economic system can claim demonstrable success.
* In the Western economies even the poor no longer actually starve except by choice or consequence of mental incapacity - thus it is leisure and its use rather than work which is becoming the central problem for the individual. Increasingly persons must derive their feelings of self-worth not from their employment but from those things on which they voluntarily choose to spend their life.
* In the United States, the physical frontier has been closed for more than a century and the growing recognition that there are few, if any new worlds to conquer, few places or issues for the young to spend their procreative energies upon, is producing a widespread attitude of acide, of lassitude and hopelessness.
These changes require that school leavers today possess a highly developed self-awareness and an ability to exercise their sovereignty fully. Unfortunately, public schooling is still focusing on producing the ideal citizen, derived from immigrant stock, emulsified into American society and suited for life settings prevalent in the industrial manufacturing age of the late 19th century.
It has been said that for a person to be happy, s/he must have something to do, something to believe in and something to hope for. Modern Western societies, for the reasons outlined here, are increasingly failing to provide any of these three elements to the young. In the United States, as in other Western nations, we are witnessing the maturation of the third generation (and in some cases the fourth) of an apparently permanent and growing underclass which does nothing, believes in nothing and is without hope.
These observations are not novel nor is an assertion that changes and improvements in schooling are the key to solving the problem original. However, all previous proposed solutions, almost without exception, call for "more of the same" and, in many cases, invoke change apparently for the sake of change.
There is a current enthusiasm for new schools and new schooling which repeat and perpetuate previous errors.
In 1982, Mortimer Adler, working with a committee of educators, proposed3 a philosophical redirection of State schools in the US. Expressing a concern that universal suffrage and universal (mandatory) schooling were inextricably linked, Adler proposed that a one-track system of public schooling be instituted with two uniform goals: enabling continuing personal development and preparing for life as a franchised adult. He analyzed education as requiring attention to three aspects: acquisition of organized knowledge, development of intellectual skills (skills of learning) and enlarged understanding of ideas and values.
Although not novel, these concepts bear a heavy, hidden burden. Perhaps the most damaging admission occurs on p. 49 (op. cit.):
"The course of study is nothing but a series of channels or conduits. The child goes in at one end and comes out at the other. The difference between what goes in and what comes out depends upon the quality of learning and of teaching... The quality of learning, in turn, depends very largely on the quality of the teaching..."
There is no novelty here: education as a transitive (rather than reflexive) process, the child as an object of an industrial process ("...what goes in...") and a necessary focus on the authority and discipline of the teacher. Earlier, Adler replied to an obvious criticism of his "one size fits all" vision of educational curriculum by stating (op. cit. p. 44): "The answer lies in adjusting the program to individual differences by administering it sensitively and flexibly in ways that accord with whatever differences must be taken into account." No question here of the desires or autonomy of the child, no, only adjustment, administration, as necessary to produce a uniform product. The child, the free person, is to be subjugated to the perceived needs of the State for new citizens.
No wonder that Ruth Love, then Superintendent of Schools for Chicago, wrote with unintended irony in an epilogue to this proposal (op. cit. p. 83): "This proposal could well be entitled "The Reform of Our Public Schools," for it addresses all of the critical areas of concern about our school system." True, if the goal is to strengthen the establishment and protect it against external criticism but otherwise totally false. The State system is probably not reformable in the true sense and efforts to do so arouse objections similar to James Baldwin's plaint4 : "I don't want to be integrated into a burning building."
Efforts at reform continue. The recent Education 2000 study, undertaken by then President Bush and the Governors of the fifty states, proposed that the Federal and State governments should hold themselves strictly accountable for improving education. In an attempt to exercise this strict responsibility (and measure results), six goals were defined:
"By the year 2000,
* All children in America will start school ready to learn;
* The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90%;
* American students will leave grades four, eight and twelve having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning and productive employment in our modern economy;
* US students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement;
* Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; and
* Every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning."
The same transitive approach to education proposed by Adler is alive and well in these goals. No suggestion of variation in input or output, no concern for autonomy and sovereignty of the students, but only the very American promise to produce the best product in the world! Education 2000 is more a prospectus for a better sausage factory than for a reformed system of education.
Against the background of these proposals, there is a renewed interest in specialized private school programs, such as the Montessori, Waldorf and Lancaster schools. These are much admired and widely supported by adults who should know better. All were designed to provide mass education to children from low socioeconomic and culturally deprived backgrounds but today's upwardly mobile intelligentsia take to them as avidly as they wear their pre-worn, stone washed denim versions of peasant's and laborer's clothes.
Each program has its own defects:
The Montessori "method," with its emphasis on observation of individual children, sounds humane but achieves its ends through adjustment of the environment and psychological manipulation of the students according to a pre-determined development schedule. As if the children of America in the '90s are the same as those of Italian factory workers in the '40s and live in the same society! While recognizing that children, as they grow, are by and large, "normal," there is great emphasis on "normalization" as a transitive process with the child as the object.
The Waldorf schools recognize "values" as important in education and impose a particularly unpleasant homogenized a-deistic Christian religion on its students. While speaking of children as "unfolding flowers," great efforts are made to aid and direct this unfolding by use of a highly structured curriculum handed down by the charismatic Founder, Rudolf Steiner, and by the identification of teacher as a pseudoparent, who moves through the school years with his or her group of students.
Finally, the Lancaster method, designed for low cost education of children in workhouses, depends upon paramilitary organization and the directed teaching of children by other children, with the teacher as commander-in-chief. That such an approach could even be seriously discussed today, in a democratic republic, is a cause for positive amazement.
I suggest that the common missing element in all of these proposals is proper regard for the sovereignty of the young. Consider the traditional situation of a child born 25 or 50 years ago:
* The child was born into the world and came under the tyranny of a parent or parents: "Mother knows best. Because I say so! Wait until your Father gets home! If you finish your peas, you can have dessert." And on and on. Or even worse if fate or circumstances rendered the child parentless and consigned to a succession of State institutions, starting with the county orphanage.
* The child, after coming to a truce with this situation, generally by a partial surrender of liberty in exchange for mental peace and, in some cases, physical well-being, was then (and still is!) rewarded by involuntary incarceration in the schoolhouse for significant parts of 182 days per year for thirteen years: 6 1/2 years - a longer sentence than most convicted murderers serve! And for being judged guilty of what crime? During this incarceration, the now young person was (and is!) subjected to an unceasing barrage of unjustified restrictions and systematical indoctrination in value free obedience to authority.
* Having survived this ordeal, intact or not, the young person then passed into a society exclusively defined in terms of power structures: Work in a plant: good. Write poetry: look at that hippie dropout! Marry and raise a family: good. Have a child without marriage: irresponsible!
However, for 16 to 18 year old today, the situation is changing radically. Societal changes, as mentioned above, are rapidly eliminating the organizational settings into which a person used to pass at school leaving and to remain until death or retirement. New companies are smaller than those which they replace, requiring more flexibility of their employees, and "careers" are now routinely twenty years or less in length. Woman's liberation and recognition of the civil rights of gay, lesbian and handicapped individuals are rapidly removing both the social distinctions between life settings and the barriers raised against individuals choosing to change their setting. Thus, divorce is frequent, single parenthood unexceptional, the "differently enabled" are in the mainstream and "coming-out" is rarely newsworthy anymore except in the case of a public person.
The net effect is that a young person today enters a world in which entrepreneurial effort in business and social relationships is rewarded as perhaps no time in the past century but with a familial and educational preparation little changed from that of his parents or grandparents.
We can do little to change the young person's family situation. This is still, fortunately, a matter of adult personal choice and lies within the exercise of sovereignty, however misguided that exercise may be, of his/her parents. Widespread adoption of NSS principles could be expected in the future to produce changes in family strictures on children but cannot reasonably affect the present generation.
Fortunately, most families still recognize that they bear responsibility for the education of their children as members of the next generation. For most, this responsibility is exercised by willingly submitting to the demands of the State educational system. However, some desire alternatives. For those with resources, leisure and self-confidence, home or cooperative schooling is a rapidly growing alternative. Others, however, must send children outside the home.
For these latter families, we can radically change the school situation and the consequences of school attendance. The NSS is designed to do that, primarily through recognition of the innate and inalienable sovereignty of the individual child.
"The government governs best which governs least." T. Jefferson
It is difficult to list the attributes of an NSS in positive terms since in its essence it is defined by absence: absence of discrimination on the basis of age, gender, ability or any other personal attribute, absence of coercion, absence of manipulation, absence of nonself-evaluation and absence of authority of station, among other absences. It is more an "interesting place," as John Holt called it, than a fixed program.
The positive attributes upon which it rests are:
* Recognition of the innate and inalienable sovereignty of all persons, children and adults alike.
* Recognition of school as a place to discover sovereignty and to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for its free and responsible exercise.
* Recognition of learning as a morally neutral process and knowledge as a process possessing only relative value and virtue.
In many ways an NSS would resemble the Sudbury Valley School5(SVS) which may be considered its historical precursor more so than any other school prototype known to me. However, an NSS would move beyond the SVS model in three important ways:
1. The SVS practices open admission without qualification other than absence of clinically significant mental or social disorder (which require treatment). The NSS would retain this policy but would further insist upon the undertaking of a publicly affirmed tripartite agreement between the applicant for admission, his/her parents or guardians and the members of the school. Since this agreement presupposes understanding and free assent on the part of the applicant, children would probably not routinely be able to enter an NSS as early as they can enter SVS (3-4 years of age). (See section 6 for elements of a proposed entrance agreement.) Home or cooperative schooling may be a valid alternative to State schools for these early years.
2. The SVS practices near absolute democracy in its administration and governance, thus assuming the support of the opposed (but loyal) minority in carrying out majority decisions. This system is appropriate to a factory economy but not to a voluntary association of individuals equal in their sovereignty. The NSS would replace the democratic voting choices (for, against, abstain, present) with the consensus generating choices of "for," "assent," "none of the above (NOTA)" and require for approval not only that there be a simple majority of votes "for" but that the sum of "for" + "assent" must equal some near consensus percentage of eligible voters, with that percentage increasing with the importance of the decision being made.
3. The founders and staff of the SVS have tried to avoid what might be termed "educational seduction": that is, they are concerned that children at SVS will choose to study topics or undertake activities merely because those occupations will in some way please or satisfy the adult members of the school. This arises from an apparent error in reasoning because it presupposes that children at SVS are in some way lacking in free exercise of sovereignty and can be coerced, even if only mentally or emotionally, into acting in ways in which they would not freely choose. It also denies the reality that we all, children and adults alike, give value to attributes and activities of persons whom we respect and show that value by emulation or imitation. The result of the policy of avoidance of "educational seduction" at SVS is a well known school joke:
Bystander: "Where do you work?"
SVS teacher: "At SVS."
Bystander: "What do you do?"
SVS teacher: "Nothing."
Thus, the SVS experience teaches children that it is all right to choose to do nothing but depends on other settings (home, workplace, etc.) to counteract the role model of the teacher, as an adult purposely doing nothing, with examples of persons determinedly doing something! In contrast, adults associated with an NSS would be expected to have and display a full range of vocational and avocational interests to which they are committed. They would be selected from the pool of all other adults interested in association with the school by satisfying the following criteria:
1. Credible affirmation of support for the three positive attributes listed at the head of this section.
2. Absence of evidence of coercive behavior in their prior dealings with children and adults.
3. Willingness to integrate young persons into all aspects of the portion of their daily life lived within the NSS.
Support for the principles of education listed above (section 3) is more than sufficient, in the presence of recognition of each person's innate sovereignty, to avoid even the appearance of "educational seduction."
Thus an NSS, as an environment in which sovereignty of all persons is respected, would provide the resources necessary for learning to exercise sovereignty freely and responsibly while protecting the less knowledgeable, primarily children, from most consequences of their ignorance while they gain understanding of themselves and the world.
One may well ask how this differs from the situation within a healthy family: that is, why NSS is a preferable alternative to home schooling?
Despite the virtues of home schooling, there are two intrinsic problems, no matter what educational model is pursued nor how psychologically healthy the family members and unit are:
* Parents, necessarily, have an authority relationship to their children. A vital part of growing up is coming to terms with parental strictures, escaping them to some greater or lesser degree and modifying them through relationships with one's own children. While this is an important process, it interferes centrally with the development of sovereignty. Sovereignty is innate, not gained by rebellion against the authority or parents or any other source of authority. Thus, while home schooling is desirable for the very young, since we are learning from the start, it must rapidly give way to cooperative schooling and to other settings where the discipline of authority is replaced by the authority of understanding.
* Children must be exposed early on to a wide variety of other children and adults, mirroring the variety of modern life. If this happens, they will accept all as normal and valuable. However, the home school setting shelters and isolates the child, probably leading to latter problems in acceptance of difference - this breeds bias, discrimination and bigotry. If an entire society were home schooled, the rise of a new system of tribes and clans might be the logical consequence.
"I accept full responsibility..." J. Black
There are clearly problems in organizing an NSS, especially the first one. However these will be passed over here with the earnest assumption that the obvious (and less than obvious ones) will be solved jointly by parents, students and teachers in joint acceptance of the principles outlined previously.
Once a school community is functioning, the question arises as to how new members may join and be integrated without being disruptive during their period of transition. I suggest that a necessary ingredient is voluntary membership, embodied both in a tripartite agreement and as elements of a public ceremony. Undertaking to join an NSS, whether as student or teacher, should be as important a matter as marriage and far more so than graduation, on which so much effort is now lavished.
The elements of the agreement, for a young person coming forward in the initial role of student, should be as follows:
* The parents or guardians must essentially emancipate the child by publicly affirming his/her sovereignty and declaring that the decision to join the NSS was freely made.
* The student must demonstrate that s/he understands the principles on which the NSS is based and undertake to be sovereign. The mantra of sovereignty (section 1) might well be recited by both the student (in the first person) and by the parents/guardians (in the third person).
* The school community must commit itself to the student and to the student's parents as a place to awaken the awareness of autonomy, to encourage liberty and to promote personal freedom. In accepting this commitment, the student must make a reciprocal commitment to respect and protect the sovereignty of all others in the community.
School leaving, although much less important, should also be a formal process. The SVS model of preparation and defense of the thesis of attainment of personal ability for free and responsible life in the community fits this purpose ideally and would be retained.
"...one small step." Anon.
The present state of American society is unacceptable and arouses real concerns for the future of the Republic and for the quality of life for our children and for theirs. To do nothing is to be irresponsible and none of the present educational solutions seem to be working.
I assert that the key is the recognition of sovereignty of the individual and a true reformation of schooling to raise up new generations of self-aware, sovereign, free citizens.
New beginnings are not easy. A Chinese proverb teaches that "Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step." The NSS proposed here is that small step.
Let us begin.
1 See Personal Sovereignty for an earlier version of some of these ideas.
2 Freedom and Beyond, John Holt (1972)
3 The Paideia Proposal (1982)
4 The Fire Next Time (1963)
5 See Announcing A New School (1973) and Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School (1987), both by Dan Greenberg, for a discussion of the origins, history and philosophy of the SVS. My thanks to Dan for his patient discussion of an early draft of this essay, some of which I suspect he still disagrees with.