Education in America (excerpts)

Associated School: 
  • 12 September 2011

The following is an excerpt from Education in America: A View from Sudbury Valley, by Daniel Greenberg.  The book is published by the Sudbury Valley School Press and is available for purchase at:

Why Force Reading?

Were you ever forced to eat broccoli when you were a child? Or carrots? Did you grow up hating them, having nightmares about dinner plates heaped high with brussels sprouts and kale?

Everyone likes to eat. Nature has seen to it that this is so, for survival. But even such a popular pastime can be made repugnant through force feeding, because more than anything else in the world, people hate coercion.

We Americans know this better than anyone. We are the land of the free, and our freedom has made us the most creative, vital, innovative nation on earth, ever.

If you think about this for a minute, you'll understand why "Johnny can't read."

Man is by nature a communicator. Many scientists feel that our ability to create and to use language effectively is what distinguishes homo sapiens most clearly from lower animals. People love to talk, and children will even invent whole languages if they are raised in isolation. Nothing absorbs more energy and concentration in infants than the effort to learn how to speak - a struggle children initiate on their own and pursue relentlessly when they are ready. And we all know that once they get going, it's all but impossible to shut them up!

The invention of writing many thousands of years ago gave mankind a whole new dimension in communication. Left to their own devices, people have been enjoying the written word ever since. So here is a human activity, verbal communication, which people love to do, and which reaches its highest form in the written word.

You'd think that educators would leave well enough alone. As with any other human passion, all you have to do is make the stuff available, and wait. When the children are ready to go after it, they will, and nothing will stop them.

Instead, we are impatient. We sit our children down when they reach the age at which we think they should read, and force it down their throats. The result is that a lot of them come to hate reading, many never learn, and some 10-15% of them develop "reading disorders" such as dyslexia, for which they pay dearly - and we too pay ever so dearly with expensive reading therapists and remedial programs.

Not long ago, in 1968, Sudbury Valley School decided to take a fresh look at reading. Children were left alone and never forced to learn how to read. The result was stunning. During the years that have elapsed since the school was founded, all the children learned how to read, but at widely different ages. Some learned at 4, others at 6, others at 8 or 9 or even later. By the time they were teenagers, you couldn't tell the difference between early readers and late readers. No one hated reading, all did it quite well, and there have been no observed functional disorders at all.

Isn't it time for other schools to take a new look at reading? Force feeding doesn't work. Neither does force reading. Is that so hard to believe?

So please pass the vegetables. And could you also lend me that book when you've finished with it?

Democracy Must be Experienced to be Learned

There is much talk these days about the importance of teaching democratic values in our public schools. It appears that newspaper columnists, teachers' unions, public organizations, and other civic-minded persons have suddenly come to realize that our youth is growing up ignorant of, and uncommitted to, the great principles upon which our nation is based. Although I fully agree that a problem exists, I am afraid that the proposed cure - more classes on democracy - is no better than the disease. Why is it that people persist in thinking that the solution to real-life problems is talking about them? Does anyone really believe that subjecting children to yet another course will achieve really meaningful goals? We can't even get our kids to read or write or do arithmetic properly, despite endless hours of classroom effort. Are we going to make them into defenders of freedom by adjusting the curriculum once more?

The simple fact is that children are not committed to democratic principles, or political freedom, or the bill of rights, because they themselves do not experience any of these lofty matters in their everyday lives, and in particular, in their schools. Children do not have rights in school, they do not participate in meaningful decision-making at school (even where the decisions directly affect their own lives), nor do they have the freedom of self-determination in school. In fact, the schools are models of autocracy - sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel, but always in direct conflict with the principles on which our country is based.

The way to ensure that people of any age will be deeply committed to the American Way is to make them full participants in it. Make our schools democratic, give our children freedom of choice and the basic rights of citizenship in the schools, and they will have no problem understanding what this country is about.

Private Schools Should be Wary of Tuition Tax Credits

A lot of private schools are pushing hard for legislation that would give some form of tuition tax break to parents who enroll their children in private schools. Their enthusiasm is a classic case of shortsightedness, where long-term interest is sacrificed for short-term gain.

All that private schools see in a tax-break bill is the prospect of an immediate gain in enrollment and, consequently, some quick financial relief in the form of increased tuition income. A tuition rebate offered by the government, in whatever form, appears little different than a publicly funded financial aid program for private schools, which makes private school education easily accessible to a much greater population.

How often have educators been lured into the same seductive trap! The first thing to suffer is the independence of independent private schools. As soon as government gets involved in an enterprise, it seeks ways to insinuate its power and influence into the operation of that enterprise. How well I remember the debates that raged throughout the country's academic institutions when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations proposed large-scale Federal assistance to education at all levels. When the programs were in the planning stage, everyone supporting them piously insisted that this aid would come without any strings attached, a pure gift for local educators to do with as they wish. It took very little time before Federal aid to schools became the back-door through which literally thousands of different Federal regulations were made to apply to every nook and cranny of the educational enterprise. The fact is, if the government is providing public support, either directly or indirectly, then it has the legal (and probably moral) right to demand adherence to the full range of public policies currently in vogue.

But independent schools will find more than their freedom of action impaired as time goes on. More significant is the potential threat to their very existence. You see, public school authorities are enormously resourceful people, and they do not sit around idly while outside forces threaten their existence. It has happened before, and it will happen again: when the public schools sense competition that can do them real harm, they plunge right into the marketplace and do whatever is necessary to regain their clientele.

The most recent example of this is the so-called "alternative school movement" that swept the country in the late 1960's and early 1970's. In thousands of communities, private schools were set up to provide styles of education that differed substantially from the prevailing public school styles. In many towns and cities, these new schools made serious inroads into the public school enrollment, and threatened to undermine the stability of the public educational system. It took only a few years for public school authorities to set up their own alternative schools within the public school systems! These public alternative schools were, of course, free of charge, and often offered, or appeared to offer, highly imaginative programs. Before long, the overwhelming majority of private alternative schools closed their doors due to lack of enrollment, having lost their clientele to the enterprising public sector.

The wisest course for private schools to take is to steer clear of public funding, in whatever form it is packaged. Otherwise, as Little Red Riding Hood found out a bit too late, the wolf could gobble them up, and there just might not be a friendly woodsman handy to bail them out.

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