Yesterday, I was told, for the eight millionth time, that I should be ashamed of myself for advocating for homeschooling / unschooling because it undermines the strong public school systems that preserve our democratic rights, create a tolerant society, and “level the economic playing field.” And yet again, I explained that there is not much that is democratic or even socially just about our current public school system.
Sure, there are some kids for whom school is a safe place, and we certainly need such places. But that doesn’t mean we need to continue with schools as they are currently configured; nor do we need to force children to go there. Statistics show that for most poor kids school doesn’t change much about their lives, either present or future; whatever chaos reigns at home affects their lives profoundly in spite of their attendance at school. Poor kids living in poor neighborhoods go to poor schools and do poorly. As much as we love the occasional rags-to-riches story, even if a few poor kids manage to do well in school, they won’t necessarily go to college, thrive and graduate, and get good jobs.
I think the early defenders of public schools as the foundation of democracy – guys like Horace Mann, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dewey – would be horrified to spend time in our schools today. Scratch the surface of a public school system – no matter how well-meaning its staff – and you will find something quite different from justice and democracy. You will find an archaic institution, which, besides defying everything we know about effective organizations and cognitive development, perpetuates social hierarchies, disempowers people, forces them to do things against their will, and encourages a destructive level of consumerism and consumption. Oh, and it’s not closing the poverty gap.
If a democratic society is one in which people are collectively in control of their lives and the lives of their communities, then our present-day school systems are actually anti-democratic. So please spare me the democracy and social justice arguments in favor of warehousing children.
Reversing our democratic deficit and lifting people out of poverty (let alone dealing with our environmental problems) are complicated tasks, with even more complicated roots. But they won’t be accomplished by using more of the same tactics that created them. The unschooling and homeschooling communities can provide some examples of new ways to live together and to educate ourselves