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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.
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Andy H.

February 2013

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