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I've been seeing some people do that thing where one reposts the first sentences from the first entry of each month. It occurs to me that if I did that, every single one would be a variation on 'here are some books I've read'; there is something kind of heartening in that. I didn't know if I was going to stick to this book-tracking thing, when I started. (Of course, there has been that paucity of other content to moderate my sense of achievement.)

Which reminds me, somewhat belatedly: Brendan asked me about Bull's Territory and Vernor Vinge in general. I spoke in carefully vague terms about the former, but the first paragraph of my response does contain a spoiler about the general direction of the plot in A Deepness in the Sky.

As many Bobs already know, IDEC is going to be in Vancouver this summer. David, who is (surprising no one) one of the major people taking charge of the organization, has asked me to write a short page for the rather inchoate website, explaining the notion of a democratic school; I'm having some trouble working out the phrasing. The effort has me thinking about my tendency to habitually underestimate just how radical a notion this actually is.

The last time I went to an IDEC was in 2003, when it was in New York state. On the last of my flights on the way back to Vancouver, I sat next to an older American couple, and we made polite conversation about where I'd been. I told them that I was coming home from the International Democratic Education Conference, in Albany (It was actually in Troy, which is a town near Albany, but I probably said 'Albany' anyway); the man* looked delighted. "Did you sit next to the right people!" He said. "Our son is quite heavily involved in the Democratic Party!"

(* They were heterosexual.)

This was such an astonishing and egregious misinterpretation that I couldn't for the life of me think of a way to politely correct him; a couple minutes later, when they broached the subject of the travelling companion who had been placed in a far-off seat, I agreed to move with suppressed relief. This man knew that I was Canadian; for that matter, he had presumably heard me say the word 'International', which I enunciated at least as clearly as 'Democratic'. I can only assume that he honestly couldn't conceive of any way to parse the phrase 'democratic education' except for 'the mainstream public education system as approached by the American Democratic Party'.

Let me switch anecdotes. When I first started going to Windsor House, I still had some friends who attended my former elementary school, so I would sometimes go and spend time on the playground there, after school, or on Tuesdays when WH didn't run in the afternoon. When I talked to other students there who didn't know me as well, they tended to have one of two narratives in place about where I'd gone: either I was at a school for gifted children, or at a reform school for the hopelessly badly behaved. When I told them that no, it wasn't any of those things, I could see them become uncertain and uncomfortable. They didn't understand just what was going on, that I could go to a school like this, but they knew that it had to be fenced off somehow.

I had actually heard of Windsor House myself for the first time some months before my school gave up and suggested it to my parents; one of the other kids in our complex was a student there, and one day she told us about her school where they didn't make you do any work. I turned to my father and asked, "Can I go there?", but it was a joke; I couldn't imagine that he would say yes, because I couldn't imagine it as a real place. In my head it was a caricature of some children's-book, selfish-daydream paradise, like a place where they gave you candy for lunch every day. And my dad responded in the same mode: "Maybe if your grades improve."

Yes, seriously.

There is a phenomenon known in the literature as 'deschooling', which is basically where, upon emerging from a very externally structured environment like, e.g., the mainstream school system into a space where they can make decisions for themselves, somebody will just do nothing for a while. For me, it was the couch in the library at Windsor House; after my first giddy exploration of the school died down, I lay down on that couch and, for a month or two, essentially spent all my time lying there, alternately reading and sleeping. Deschooling is a reaction to unprecedented freedom; it serves both as a way to prove to oneself that the freedom is real, that it really is possible to choose this if you want to, and as a reflection of the fact that, without the structure in place, one really has no idea what to do with oneself. And sooner or later, when this is proved and digested, one begins to make more active decisions again (especially if one is in a place like Windsor House where there are busy, interesting and multifarious activities taking place all around).

Adults generally, I think, have deschooled, though often in some less pronounced way than I and many other Windsor House students did; at any rate, they have acquired that visceral sense of their decisions being their own to make. What I often forget to take into account, though, is the way things seemed to me before I went through that -- the conception I had, which I think is very common, of what children were like. People remember being pre-deschooled, and they look at the pre-deschooled children around them, and they think that children are feckless, and will only make choices that are healthy and useful in the long term (e.g. the choice to learn to read) resentfully, because they're required to. If allowed, they would just choose to play video games all day, or run around shouting about nothing in particular, or (in the case of weird kids like me) read fantasy books nonstop. That most kids in the regular school system really do see classwork as a drudgery that they wouldn't choose except that they think they have no choice, and, if they do get some freedom, really will use it at least at first in just these ways, only seems to prove the point.

To someone with this view of childhood, the assertion that freedom (at least in a healthy environment) will naturally engender responsibility sounds like nonsense. To actually start an educational institution based on this principle sounds like pernicious nonsense -- in the children's apparent short-term interest, maybe, but disastrous for them in the long term. When my mother sent me to Windsor House, she met enormous and widespread disapproval from the people she talked to at her work; people thought that she was doing me an enormous disservice. I would not be prepared, they said, for the real world. I suspect that, like the awed kids at my old school, like my own confounded former self, they imagined that I would goof off all day for the rest of my childhood, right up until I was expected to be self-sufficient, at which point I'd die from the shock like a person suddenly jumping into arctic water.

Recently I've been periodically encountering assertions taking for granted that something compulsory like the mainstream school system is necessary, and every time I do I feel tremendously disoriented at the reminder that people still think this way. (For example, my Social and Political Philosophy professor used requiring people to go to school as an example when talking about practical limitations on anarchistic principles, clearly expecting the practise to be uncontroversially approved by the people in the class.) Generally, when this happens, I haven't been speaking up -- for lots of reasons specific to the occasions (that philosophy class really had enough people pushing their political agenda at every tangentially related opportunity already), but mainly because the prospect is too exhausting -- not just the prospect of being universally disagreed with, but that of meeting that baffled and affronted incomprehension, the way of thinking to which the way I grew up is so foreign that it will offer up all sorts of unlikely possibilities for what I might be talking about instead, and that, once I make myself clear, will take me for somebody indefensibly irrational in his thinking. I didn't realize how much harder this would get once I couldn't count on having people around me who already understood, even if they disagreed.

Another reason I'm shyer than I used to be to talk about democratic education is that I don't really think of myself as much of a Windsor House success story. It's true that I'm getting good grades in honours philosophy at a fairly respected university without ever having completed (or really attempted) high school or the equivalent, but I'm also 24 and still living with my mother, have worked very few jobs, and really have no idea what I'm going to do once I graduate. Even so, though, I know that I'm in a much better position than I could have been if I hadn't gone to my school. Windsor House was a basic discontinuity in my emotional life; it has never since been possible, in even my worse depressions, to be as despairing as I was in grade school. Inasmuch as I am able to respond to the people around me in a civilised and generous way instead of like a trapped animal, it is that environment that allowed me to learn to do that. Even though I almost never did traditional schoolwork there, it is the ideas that being there taught me about my own participation in the activities I choose that lets me convince myself to write my school assignments when they're asked of me (which I could never bring myself to do as a child). I've never been sure if it's literally true to say that the school saved my life, but it certainly saved my future.

Date: 2007-12-28 12:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
As someone who switched schools fairly regularly up through tertiary education (pre-university) I do like to hear about different educational systems, and how people have experienced them. Such reflection usually... isn't done, from what I've found - there's just this attitude of 'I'm through it, it's done, let's not have discussions and bring up the past memories' that is prevalent for some reason.

To be fair to this viewpoint, I do that too, with much of my high school time. I know it's there, I know what happened, I know I must have completed it; but it just sits there in an amorphous mass until I consciously think about it again.

I've read some of your posts where you mention Windsor House; I do not wish to dredge up the past, but again, I do find the anecdotes intriguing.

Date: 2007-12-28 03:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wait. Schools like that actually exist? The closest things I'm aware of in the US are Montessori schools, which are almost all limited to pre-k and kindergarten and never go above grade 6.

I'm reading the Wikipedia article about democratic schools now and I would love some links from you to older posts about Windsor House. I am more than willing to emigrate someday if it means keeping my children out of the lecture-test system.

Date: 2007-12-28 06:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Windsor House is amazing. I never went, of course, living in the US, although I did briefly go to a Montessori school and briefly got home-schooled. But Andy's stories are awesome and fascinating.

There's also a very good book called Field Day, written by one of his teachers, that talks all about this. It contains, among other things, an interview with the woman who founded Windsor House. (I met her!)

Date: 2007-12-28 07:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I will look it up, thanks! I was homeschooled for a year myself, and my mom taught for a while at a Montessori kindergarten. (Wikipedia tells me I was wrong and there are higher-grade Montessori schools in the US, if only like five of them.)

Date: 2008-01-05 01:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
There is, as you can observe, a 'windsor house' tag on this livejournal, but looking at it it's all posts that assume the context of the school already. If I ever wrote anything more expository then apparently it was on my old wifl weblog, which is currently offline. If you go to the website, though, you can among other things watch a promotional video that features me looking very awkward.

There are democratic schools all over the world, including many in the states; in particular, Sudbury Valley in Massachussets and the Albany Free School in New York have very respectable reputations. The Alternative Education Resource Organization keeps a list, on which I see two schools in North Carolina (but nothing in Kentucky). I don't know anything about those schools in particular, though, and institutions of this sort are of course somewhat definitionally not interchangable.

Whoops, I left this comment open and forgot about it for a few days there. Anyway, here are some late night free-association facts about Windsor House. It was founded by Helen Hughes in 1971, because she (a schoolteacher herself) was worried about how the school system was serving her daughter. (Helen retired as administrator a couple of years ago, but remains very involved in the community.) It was at that time actually in a house on a road called Windsor; I understand that the name was originally intended to be kind of provisional. By the time I showed up, in the spring of '95, there were 120-odd students in a very pleasant blue school building surrounded by grass and small patches of woods and (slightly further afield) neighbours who deeply distrusted us for troublemakers; when I left in 2002, we numbered 230. Apparently at one point in the early nineties the school was down to 8, but clearly we were able to bounce back.

Windsor House is parent-participation, democratically governed by the community*, and academically non-coercive; these things are constant. (* Well, it's the most democratic environment I've ever spent time in. As Helen has occasionally pointed out, it's actually predominantly a government by those community members who enjoy going to meetings.) The details of the school's daily operation tended to fluctuate a lot more between years, with rules and institutions made up as we went along and disassembled whenever enough people were bored or dissatisfied with them. In the time I was there, the weekly mandatory meetings were abolished, then reinstated in a somewhat different form five years later; the judicial committee (which hears complaints against community members, and is made up of anybody who volunteers for it, though nobody may vote on a complaint they're involved in) was merged with the resolutions meeting (where changes to the rules are debated and adopted in a way that makes me feel pleasantly at home playing nomic) to form the 'School Council Meeting', though there wasn't actually a consistent population who could be considered the 'School Council'; a system of smaller and more strictly constituted councils overseeing the government of individual rooms in the school sprung up after the first one, the Games Room Council spearheaded by a friend of mine, was a noteworthy success.


Date: 2008-01-05 01:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Once for a year we required everyone who identified as a teenager to engage in at least twenty hours of classes a week, though what Windsor House was willing to consider a class was really very broad -- I took fencing and go-cart building, Japanese and peer counselling, "social critique" (we drew on the expertise of our parent community). Another time a group of teenagers passed a resolution to make themselves the autocratic rulers of the school; they didn't abuse it much, or indeed do much of anything, but I formed a one-man resistence and taped up revolutionary tracts on the walls when nobody was watching. I probably actually have mentioned in my weblog the time that, threatened with shutdown because of our increasing reputation as a school where people went to get high, we shut down the high school and everyone older than twelve who wanted to come in sat in one continuous meeting for several weeks until we worked out a consensus on a new, much firmer drug policy. This was the first time anything like that had been tried, but it worked really well at accomplishing a necessary cultural shift without rancor, and I understand that similar whole-school meetings have been undertaken since in times of crisis.

Since some early point in the school's history, it's been publically funded; I really have no idea how we pulled that off. It's been both a great benefit to the school, since it means that we don't need to charge people private school prices to attend, and many other things are similarly provided for us, and a difficulty, since it means that we're bound by school board regulations not negotiable through the ordinary Windsor House governmental system, and periodically need to justify our continued existence to philosophically hostile people in positions of power. Unfortunately, in the past few years, the latter aspect has been winning out. I understand that the district in general is having to deal with unprecedented budget cuts; at any rate, the school has been moved into a much smaller and more awkward building, and a new principal put in charge who is bewildered by our ways and interacts with the students approximately like the adult antagonist in a Gordon Korman novel, and the staff required to give every child a graded report card (I understand that the ways found to compromise with that particular development have been very creative). Students I knew when I was there have been leaving in large numbers, frustrated by the new limits on their freedom. Windsor House has survived awful troubles before, and we may well make it out the other end of this one restored to something like our former strength; if the school does fail, then I don't doubt that the community coming out of it will make something new in its place. But I don't know, in either case, what shape that's going to have, what the new joys and disadvantages will be.

If you do end up moving to Vancouver at some point, though, I will take you out for excellent Chinese food.

-Andy H.

You raise an interesting point.

Date: 2007-12-28 04:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"To actually start an educational institution based on this principle sounds like pernicious nonsense -- in the children's apparent short-term interest, maybe, but disastrous for them in the long term. "

Robert A. Heinlein makes a similar point on how externally applied discipline does not automatically foster self-discipline in (of all places) Starship Troopers. Basically, by imposing discipline upon a person, they will only remained disciplined as long as that external coercive force is applied. In the absence of authority, they will revert or even rebel. Only when a person is self-disciplined will they continue to behave responsibly in the absence of authority. So an educational system that imposes discipline without inculcating it within their students, is (as you point out), disastrous in the long term.

Mind, I'm writing this in the morning, and on a day off. Catch me after a bad day at work, and I will favor coercive authority. One sees a lot of stupid, self-destructive behavior in what are supposed to be "responsible adults."

Re: You raise an interesting point.

Date: 2007-12-28 07:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Mmm, self-destructive adults who were probably taught their "responsibility" in the environment of coercive authority you described...

Re: You raise an interesting point.

Date: 2007-12-29 01:13 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Mmm, self-destructive adults who were probably taught their "responsibility" in the environment of coercive authority you described...

Quite possibly. Then there are those who are either stupid or too stubborn for their own good. Or just plain inconsiderate.

Again, intellectually I'm for more liberal forms of education, but being in customer service ... well, there are days you really want to use cattle prods on the public.

Date: 2007-12-28 11:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
If allowed, they would just choose to play video games all day

You can't spell "video games" without being literate!

Hmm~ How did people in alternative education turn out?

...Okay, I made a list of people I remember (some of them from VH). A couple people are doing neat lucrative stuff (designing games, David's awesome Lego birthday party business), one person is an anarchist (anarchy!), some people are working regular jobs, and a lot of people are going to university (some years later than usual).


garran: (Default)
Andy H.

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