Uyboco: Summerhill Too

AFTER writing last week’s short piece on Summerhill, I reflected on the state of education and employment in our country and could only begin to wonder what it would be like if we had more Summerhill-type schools.

Career and college education mismatch is a problem, not just here but also in the United States (not that it should surprise us as our educational system is patterned after theirs -- and so its problems will predictably be ours as well) and the numerous studies concerning this proves that there is indeed an issue.

Several educators have noted that schools have a factory-like, cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach. The school bell, for example, is similar to the factory bell, used as a way of signaling breaks and changes in shifts. Students are grouped into “batches.” Schools talk about “producing” graduates of different majors -- business, accounting, chemistry, and engineering -- as if they were specialized parts designed to fit the societal machine.

Of course, there are those who object to this comparison saying it is a misleading comparison of the history of the educational system -- as there are no hard references to schools being modeled after factories or of producing graduates primarily for the purpose of being employed in these factories.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post contends that even if there are indeed factory-like conditions in schools, removing these will not solve the main problems of education, which she asserts are disengagement and shallow learning.

In her view, “Young people would rather be socializing than learning, and though some learning can happen through play, much of it can’t. Young people, like adults, would also like to avoid exhausting and effortful work; but thinking is hard, and much of learning involves thinking.

Finally, young people aren’t naturally interested in many of the things we want them to learn in school; yet as long as school is designed to serve the needs of society and not just the desires of the individual, much of education will involve steering students away from what they are naturally interested in and towards something else.”

So the solution, she says, is “great teaching” which involves “cultivation of environments of trust and care. It means finding adequate space for play and for hard work. It means nudging and cajoling students, pestering and praising them. It means uncovering puzzles and conjuring mysteries. It means drawing connections to student interests, engaging with the real world, and cracking the occasional joke. Masterful teachers know this. And their classrooms are places of wonder. No observer would ever liken them to factories.”

While I would agree with her assessment that we need masterful teachers who can transcend the limits of the classroom’s four walls, those teachers are few precisely because they have been molded in an educational system that doesn’t look too kindly at those seeking to test its borders. It is unrealistic to expect a lot of out-of-the-box thinkers from a system that trains people to be in the box.

What attracted me to democratic schools like Summerhill is that students are really free to pursue their interests, and the teacher’s role is not to say, “Oh, that’s not very useful for society. What you need to do is study so you can become a lawyer, banker, doctor or engineer,” but rather to help the child process and maybe think through their desires and even helping them along with what they want.

I remember reading the account of one of the teachers of such a school.

He had a 14-year-old student who said that he wanted to be a mortician someday. Instead of steering the kid away from that path, what the teacher did was to contact the local funeral parlor in town and then asking the manager if he would be willing to take on a young apprentice.

The teacher had to drive the student to the funeral parlor and then pick him up every week. That student eventually opened his own funeral parlor when he became an adult.

Now, try doing that in a traditional school.

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