Philosophizing Under A Tree And Other Visions Of The Ideal School

My Unrealized Educational Fantasy

I sometimes fall into an amazing fantasy of learning, sharing, and growing. There’s a small group of students and an enthusiastic teacher. Maybe they’re teens, maybe they range in age from 20 to 95: it doesn’t much matter. They’ve read a short piece filled with intriguing, debatable ideas on big questions that inspire them. Or they’ve watched a fascinating film together. Whatever they’re discussing, they’ve had plenty of time to absorb the material; the process was slow and enjoyable, allowing them to savor with little time pressure. And now they’ve come together to talk and debate: passion combined with good nature.

They want to learn from the material and from each other. Nothing else is at stake; what could possibly be more important than this? There’s no grade, no school admissions or job interviews clouding anyone’s thoughts.

And there’s no focus on scholarly identity, other than shared curiosity and desire to deepen ideas based on each other’s contributions. This is not chemist meets mathematician meets literary critic meets historian. Those definitions just aren’t important here. This is mind meets mind. One mind might tend to focus on questions in physics, another one on politics, but they can both attack big questions from many different angles — as human thinkers, not as narrow professionals.

The real-life model that pops into my head is usually Socrates and his students discussing and debating the good life, perhaps lounging on lush grass under a shady tree, perhaps sitting around a solid wooden table, nibbling their favorite snacks. None of the schools I attended ever come to mind, but that is symptomatic of the large problem I perceive. I kept wanting my schools to follow this model, but they never did. There was always that undercurrent of competition, of amassing a record to please the next set of gatekeepers.

And there were specific goals: we had to tackle particular topics over the course of the semester or the year. The aim wasn’t to sink into deep thought, but to make sure we “covered” a well-defined chunk of material. And “cover” didn’t mean “philosophize over” or “see the underlying beauty.” It meant “make sure you have enough familiarity to recognize key names, themes, and facts, so you can perform well on a comprehensive test of knowledge on the subject.”

What was the lasting goal of all this? I sure hope it wasn’t enduring memory of the issues at hand, because I recall very little of the facts I covered in school. It all swept over me in waves of tension or boredom, and I just didn’t care enough about most of it to offer it a lasting place in my limited mind space.

Later on, in graduate school, yet another barrier to my long-term interest surfaced. My peers were all identifying their fields, academic schools and philosophies, and areas of specialization. I wanted no part of that. I went to graduate school because I wanted to sit under that tree or around that table, like Socrates (or at least my fantasy of him), and discuss big questions with all interested parties. I didn’t want to look at said questions as an Americanist, or a sociologist, or a literary critic, or… as any kind of professional. I wanted to view them through the lens of my full, expansive mind and heart, drawing from all the bits and pieces of ideas and facts that had inspired me through the years.

But graduate school was nothing like that. Classes often felt like jargon-fests, where people practiced uttering terms that made them sound like valid academics. Irritated by the conversation, I often analyzed the class dynamics to pass the time. If one person used the term “triangulation,” would other people follow suit, perhaps to show that they, too, were sophisticated souls? If I was feeling lazy and tired, I could try something less complex, like simply counting uses of the “word” “Derridean.”

Throughout my time in graduate school, I never once sat under a tree and debated the good life. Instead, I watched people try to hobnob with professors who could help them with the academic job search, and choose dissertation topics more out of professional practicality than deep-seated fascination. And I am not criticizing them even remotely. The world is a tough place, and they were trying to boost their odds of succeeding within it: of achieving their dreams of teaching something that interests them at a school they enjoy, in a position that pays enough to feel secure.

I get it, one hundred percent. I just think the whole system is tragic. Wide-ranging, multidisciplinary thinking is often the most fun and mind-expanding kind of mental exercise, both in the classroom and in writing. How did we develop this notion that it’s good for academics to think and read within narrow cocoons, speaking primarily to small peer bases who know and enjoy their lingo? Perhaps graduate school, in some cases, should be a high-level extension of college, with classes in many fields, in preparation to become a professional thinker and writer with a broad, rich mind: not a scholar in a defined area.

It’s similarly tragic that high school students, coming into their own cognitively, with growing ability to analyze and wrestle with deep questions, often need to focus on maintaining grades within systems that reward memorization and canned essays following strict patterns that impede creativity. (My college students tell me that the “five-paragraph essay” that mandates a very particular, workmanlike style is still de rigueur in many of their high schools.)

Possible Solutions

So what can be done? The world is the world… and it’s not a warm, welcoming place for most. Jobs are scarce, as are slots in the most competitive schools. Understandably, parents want their kids’ schools to prepare them for future success, and to condition them well to compete.

When I think back to my Montessori kindergarten — the one school I’ve attended that meets my ideal of learning at one’s own unique pace, in one’s own unique style, in an atmosphere of freedom and productivity — I don’t see any conflict between this educational style and ultimate success, even for someone who maintains a very narrow definition of achievement.

I remember bits and pieces of what I learned there: a much higher percentage than what I recall from, say, high school. I have a happy memory of sitting in the back, in a comfy little chair, reading about color in a clear, well-illustrated book. It was there I learned about primary and secondary colors, and how the various colors were related. It made perfect sense to me, as I thought about it, that red mixed with blue created purple; red and yellow, orange; and blue and yellow, green.

Most of my classmates needed a bit more help with reading — they wouldn’t have gotten much from tackling a book on their own — but everyone was accommodated here. There was a big room filled with visual puzzles, books, games, and art supplies… and two dedicated teachers for maybe 20 students. Everyone was encouraged to try everything — and even I did just that, playing with the puzzles and the visual games even though I was comparatively awful at them. The teachers helped me where I was in all areas, and since I worked on my own, I didn’t much care what the other kids were able to do. We all learned in our own ways and had fun. It wasn’t a competition.

Sure, if that school had continued operating through elementary and high school, we would have developed a sense for different people’s aptitudes and deficits, but so what? A bit of self-knowledge is necessary to help a person choose what areas to pursue professionally. The current tendency to resent those who are better than we are in areas we value would dramatically decline if we eliminated group learning with those on very different levels from us. Kids might grow to hate their peer who always gets a perfect score on the tests the rest of them struggle to pass. If that peer is allowed to soar on her own, at her own pace, the hatred would dissipate. She’d just be a fellow human out to learn and enjoy some challenge, in her own time, in her own way.

I discovered the beauty of self-discipline in that Montessori school: of learning on my own and keeping my mind focused on a book or an idea. Pretty much any job I can imagine values self-discipline. From plumbing to astrophysics to legal work to writing, none of us will get anywhere without an ability to sit down (or stand up, in some cases) and attend to business, in ways that suit our own temperaments and learning styles. I think some have a hard time moving from school to the professional world partly because they’re shocked by the shift from guided classroom learning to individual projects and self-motivation beyond a classroom.

And what about my fantasy of group discussion around the biggest issues? That could be an optional (but highly encouraged) activity for all students interested in this kind of intellectual sharing. It could be a bridge that brings everyone together, despite their different learning styles and goals. They could frequently come together and talk, get a sense for their classmates’ learning and conversational styles in a setting that doesn’t force students to learn specific skills at the same rate or in the same way. They would explore the deepest questions not as competitors for a prize or a grade, but as fellow journeyers on the path of life. The lack of competition would make it calmly invigorating — not like, say, a debate contest that some students might enjoy but others would run from, despising the high-pressure atmosphere. This experience could only boost their ability to succeed in the future: they’d get to know a wide range of students and learn to communicate with and respect different kinds of minds.

Alternative schools built on the principle of independent learning do thrive, but they’re unusual choices, often seen as best for the quirkiest learners only, not a valid choice for the typical or the high-achieving student. After spending a soul-grinding year at my local public high school, my parents and I decided I would do best in a private school for my remaining three high school years. A few local schools billed themselves as free-spirited and relatively uncompetitive, but their reputations turned us away. Their college placement records were unimpressive (at least to my sadly snobbish mind) and many claimed that the students tended to have “problems”: behavior issues, drug addictions, limited academic aptitude. So I wound up in a very traditional college preparatory school. I found it much better than the public high school; at least it valued playing with ideas and didn’t mandate formulaic essays. But it was highly structured and emphasized performance on Advanced Placement (AP) exams and other measures that favored learning games and tricks, not soul-searching and deep questioning.

My problems with visual processing and coordination made math and lab science classes fairly useless for me: I had to struggle to survive and not fail, with no thought to actually learning anything. If I’d gotten a chance to study at my own pace, with my own needs in mind, I might have picked up some lasting and even inspiring ideas and skills in those areas. In other areas, I gleaned some intriguing thoughts along the way, but only during exceptional classes when we let loose, forgot about grades, and really got talking. Sadly, class quality deteriorated as the semesters passed and more and more of my time was taken up with AP classes that focused on preparation for a final, nationally standardized exam. Those classes were all about memorization and test-taking skills.

I often wonder how I might have liked a more “alternative” high school that would have offered me the individualization I craved. I recently chatted with a friend who sends his teenage son to the Sudbury Valley School, a Massachusetts day school offering students from 4-19 complete freedom to pursue their own interests. The school’s core philosophy is that students have the judgment and maturity to decide how to use their time productively; it gives them freedom throughout an attractive campus that offers musical equipment, art supplies, computers, books, athletic/exercise areas, and dedicated teachers ready to help them pursue their own interests.

There are over 50 schools around the world that follow a similar model. Students can explore on their own or in groups, and different ages come together in learning and in play, allowing more precocious kids to study at their own pace, and slower learners to hang back with no judgment: no age-based expectations dog them. There are no strictly defined fields, just projects and questions students pursue using whatever means they can find. To graduate, students must create a thesis summarizing all the work that happened throughout their time at Sudbury Valley — and ambition is expected.

I watched an engaging video about the school, featuring a recent graduate who spent his high school years there. He began his career there with many parents’ worst nightmare for this kind of school, spending most of his time playing video games with his friends. But he says he analyzed these games thoroughly, like professionals analyze the stock market, and joyfully built his intellectual acumen. Later, he discovered a passion for music, and the school’s flexibility allowed him the time to study at Boston’s acclaimed Berklee College of Music, where he soared ahead and felt like he learned to listen for the first time in his life.

Later still, he arrived at an intellectual passion he hoped to pursue at the college level: cognitive science, particularly as it relates to the brain’s processing of music. He devoted his senior year to college preparations, and the video ends with the assumption that he will pursue his goal. Though he didn’t follow a standard college preparatory curriculum, he was able to piece it together once he realized he needed to fulfill certain requirements in order to realize his dream. At that point, it felt exciting, because he had chosen it himself, in order to satisfy a personal aspiration.

Perhaps my favorite part of the video: this young graduate spoke with deep enthusiasm about a special room at his school, where students and teachers delved into concepts and thoughts that intrigued them all. It overwhelmed him in the happiest possible ways: his mind was stuffed and satisfied. He found himself writing essay after essay about the ideas that came up. He didn’t want to forget what was said, and he wanted to explore it all on his own, after enjoying the group dynamic.

His most profound growth happened in this room. It reminded me of my fantasy of school: the one I’ve never experienced, but have pictured: of sharing, growth, challenge, and mutual respect. This little snippet made me think it could actually happen, with real students, in a real institution.

But of course parents don’t want a pleasant school life to be followed by despair and failure to step up to “real world” challenges. Graduates pursue a wide range of careers and typically succeed and find satisfaction within them. Entrepreneurship and the arts are strikingly prevalent; other common choices include computer science, math, and education. The school has an open admissions policy, though I’m sure there’s a lot of self-selection, so ultimate success is not an artifact of stringent admission procedures that would favor outcomes regardless of school program.

I don’t think this model suits everyone. My friend who sends his son to Sudbury Valley has two other children who don’t attend: he feels they do better with a bit more structure. But the default model of everyone the same age following the same basic curriculum doesn’t suit everyone either. My sense: it fits relatively (but not extraordinarily) bright kids with no striking quirks in learning style or in personal needs. Everyone else — perhaps a majority — is forced to endure a system built for other kinds of minds. When I get people onto the topic of school, I often hear tales of boredom, or struggle, or both… and of taking odd steps to get through the system with as little pain as possible (like my technique of feigning need for the bathroom whenever a lab was in progress, figuring I’d get out of it if I could escape the classroom long enough).

Some might worry that Sudbury Valley’s system would be too costly for broad implementation, but I was amazed at the low yearly tuition, relative to the norm among private schools in the Boston area. Currently, Sudbury Valley charges $8900 for a family’s first child, $7700 for the second, and $6500 for each additional sibling. This is expensive, but nearby day schools often exceed $35,000, with no sibling discount. Traditional schools have lots of costly trimmings that alternative schools can do without. Sudbury Valley offers substantial physical activity and sports for those who enjoy them, but doesn’t seem to compete with other schools, and thus doesn’t have to hire coaches or own regulation fields. Just one example of a likely factor here.

The relatively low expense makes me think that this sort of system could work as a public option too: on balance, these schools would likely be no more expensive to run than mainstream public schools. In some cases, they could even be a “school within a school,” operating in wings of existing public schools that also offer more standard programs for those who want them. Of course, the current U.S. system of mandating frequent standardized tests in our public schools would make this impossible, but most educators I respect would agree that this is unnecessary, foolish, and even borderline abusive, both to students and to teachers, who often long for classrooms that allow for flexibility and creativity and aren’t rated based on high stakes activities devised by people who have never even met the students in question.

If we could somehow get past this standardized test circus, alternative schools offering freedom, inter-age mingling, and learning appropriate to each student could thrive in the public sector. While Sudbury Valley is inexpensive relative to many private day schools, it’s still beyond many families’ means… and most areas do not have anything similar.

For that matter, this sort of radically free school is only one possible deviation from the system of age-peers learning together, at the same level and in the same way, with a goal of surface mastery (the kind that can be measured through fact-based tests). Some might prefer a system with a bit more structure: perhaps one that requires students to cover certain key skills in their own time and in their own way, and to come together and explore ideas, with help from teachers when they need it. The minds that devised our current educational system — in the U.S. and in most places I’m familiar with around the globe — did not consider the obvious fact that students differ radically in needs and abilities. I write this essay not as a final word, but as a beginning hope. Students around the globe are stuck in systems that few question, languishing in places they’re required by law to attend. And they should be required to learn, but too little meaningful learning happens in typical schools. We can do better, and we should. Minds are folding from stress and self-preservation. If given a chance — a practical, doable chance — they could soar.

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