The only middle school in Gainsville, Georgia, is getting ready to make some major changes njo the way it educates its students. The school plans to adopt the “Programs of Choice” educational format; a format wherein students will still receive instruction in the basic academic courses as required by the state, but with a particular emphasis on linking the subjects together, and giving the students more intellectual freedom.
School officials hope that this new style of education – allowing students a greater freedom of choice concerning their academic studies – will improve academic performance, attendance, and behavior.
This method of reasoning is not new. Indeed, allowing students a greater amount of educational freedom is a central theme in John Holt’s book entitled Freedom and Beyond (1972), which attacked traditional ideas concerning education, called for a restructuring of schools, and addressed several problems that are often attributed to open schools and the free schools movement. Such movements reached their peak popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s, and were largely inspired by the Summerhill School, which was created in England in 1921. At the Summerhill School, students were permitted to study the subjects of their choice, with teachers supporting their decisions.
The first part of Holt’s book deals with the meaning of the word freedom, and its relation to education. Freedom, he notes, is something of which we know very little. We have been raised to believe that the only way in which our society can function is through the creation of rules and rigid structures, often imposed and created by authority figures. Holt explains the limits of freedom in education, and describes the tensions and problems faced by free schools. He warns us not to confuse freedom for unstructured education, devoid completely of any rules. Such a system, he agrees, cannot exist because, “Every human situation, however casual and unforced, has a structure.” In the free schools, there is not an absence of structure, but rather, a more flexible one.
Meanwhile, in regular schools, the structure revolves around the
teacher giving information and orders to the students. It is not as though free schools lack rules. In such institutions, children are aware of boundaries but still allowed space for self expression and creativity. Holt provides an example of this flexible structure by describing a British school, run by psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld, which had a special room designed for those people who wanted to make a mess, and a soundproofed room for those who wanted to make noise. However, in regular schools and in society at large, we often find rules that are vague and therefore, highly restrictive.
As the title of the book suggests, Holt goes beyond the free schools movement. His book conveys the sentiment that learning is a life-long process, and should not be confined to a building, separated from outside interactions, or cut off from the real world. He also voices the argument that we must look beyond ‘education reform’, as we currently understand it, and examine our basic beliefs concerning schools and schooling itself.
Holt stresses that reforming our educational system means changing our conception of education, rather than simply modernizing schools and buying more equipment. In going beyond educational reform, the book also addresses the issue of schooling and its relation to poverty.
Holt argues that schooling does not necessarily end poverty, nor is poverty entirely caused by a lack of education. He argues that getting a degree will not necessarily improve a person’s chance of getting a job, if his field of specialty is already overcrowded. Schooling and teachers are also damaging to the poor because they reinforce their feelings of exclusion, humiliation, and inferiority.
To support this claim, Holt draws from a passage in James Herndon’s book entitled The Way It Spozed to Be (1971). The passage describes a white teacher who claimed that, while a young girl, she had been taught only to speak to ladies and gentlemen, and that her black students were not, and never could be, ladies and gentlemen. Therefore, she refused to speak to her black students for the entire school year, and sent them away from the room if they attempted to speak to her.
Herndon’s book contends that a deschooled society would be more appropriate for the poor. Such a society would provide them with different paths of learning and advancement, rather than the singular path provided by our rigid educational system, which is too narrow and often fraught with obstacles that specifically hinder the poor. Herndon also argues that open or free school may be a waste of time and money for the poor, and further notes that, only recently have we come to accept the notion that learning best takes place in an institution. Such a notion makes education a costly endeavor for our society.
Holt goes on to argue against big budgets for education, proposing instead a more hands-on approach to learning where students are productive as they learn. Holt notes the idea proposed by social scientist Paul Goodman, who suggested paying a small salary to many kinds of workers and craftsmen – i.e. garage mechanics, carpenters, etc. – in return for which they would agree to let some children observe them working, and answer any questions about their work.
The book concludes by pointing out that schools have diverted from their principal mission: to promote the growth of the children in them. Instead, they have been relegated to a custodial function where they resemble jails instead of centers of learning. In such a system, students don’t feel compelled to learn, and will often act in a way that makes it difficult for others to learn.
The book also criticizes school sports for creating an environment of “winners and losers,” the indoctrination in which schools engage, and state school attendance laws, which, if they must exist at all, should allow students to choose the days on which they will attend. Finally, Holt implores us to end the “tyranny” that schools exercise over our children, stating that this is the only way we can save their souls.