Freeschooling: Democracy and Love
Both free. Both schools. Both radical in their alternative approaches to learning.
CIDOC, a gathering of minds created by Ivan Illich in 1960, was a retreat/school of friendship and learning for adults in Cuernavaca, Mexico. (It is now a language school.) Centro Intercultural de Documentación offered a variety of classes which adults could attend as they wished. Instructors listed their courses and whoever had an interest in that topic showed up.
Ivan Illich’s friend, John McKnight (2002) describes CIDOC:
He was surrounded by people of every persuasion and nationality, and the rich creativity of the dialogue was a tribute to his convivial household. While the talk could have been understood as intellectual, it was distinguished by its passionate excitement. These were people who had brought their lives, as well as their minds. (p. 49)
Eugene J. Burkart (2002) adds:
What he had done at CIDOC was very different from any educational institution I was familiar with. It had little administration, no salaried staff, and no credits or degrees issued. Yet about the place there was a palpable air of devotion to learning. (p. 153)
Summerhill, a school begun by A.S. Neill, still runs to this day. Founded in 1921, long before Ivan Illich’s CIDOC, the school offered an alternative to public schooling based a few basic principles:
Children deserve happiness.
Schools cause unhappiness.
Children deserve to be free to make many choices in their life (including what and when to learn).
Self-governing, even for children, must be part of any democracy.
As A.S. Neill (1992/1960) described the school as: “Self-government for the pupils and staff, freedom to go to lessons or stay away, freedom to play for days or weeks or years if necessary, freedom from any indoctrination whether religious or moral or political” (p. 3).
In both cases, students live and learn as they wish. Children at Summerhill (Kindergarten through high school) are given the same freedom in learning that adults at CIDOC were. A child who had no interest in literacy is allowed to play in the playground; an adult with no interest in basket weaving can simply not take the course.
But how can this work, you are asking. How can a child learn everything necessary?
Consider this. Is sitting in a desk all day necessary? Is passing a state or federal standardized test necessary? Is being bullied necessary? Is learning consumerism through a school vending machine necessary? Is being separated from everything else in the community all day necessary?
What is necessary is pretty basic. We need to know how to care for ourselves and love others. We need to know what is safe. We need food. We need community. We need shelter.
Calculus can be learned from a book, a free one if you have a library card. Literacy can be picked up whenever the child is ready. Science is all around us. (We just purchased a very inexpensive star chart, for example. We do science experiments in our kitchen. We find fractals and Fibonacci numbers in the forest preserves. And this is all with a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old.)
What really challenges us from A.S. Neill’s work is the role of love. “Hate breeds hate, and love breeds love. Love means approving of children and that is essential in any school. You can’t be on the side of children if you punish them and storm at them” (p. 13).
Sure, I can offer “classes” every day that my kids can come to or not come to. We do that already. I ask if they want to do music time, they say yes, and so we learn about rhythm before choosing an instrument and singing Michael Finnegan.
But to remind myself that punishing and storming at my children defeats the whole purpose of deschooling, that is truly radical thinking.
Both Neill and Illich encouraged others to be creative thinkers, to live outside of institutional mandates so that we carve out a meaningful life for ourselves.
“Obedience is a virtue, so much so that few in later life can challenge anything” (Neill, 1992/1960, p. 5). We do not want a generation of robots, but in our schooling, as in our parenting, we want complete obedience.
(Ivan Illich was quick to point out the etymology of obedience, the strong connection to listening rather than submission.)
Parenting beyond the obedience discourse is the challenge: listening more than storming. This is freeschooling. This is deschooling ourselves, deschooling our parenting. It’s a hope that democracy might still have something to teach us.
WORKS CITED AND FURTHER READING:
Burkart, E.J. (2002). From the Economy to Friendship: My Years Studying Ivan Illich. In L.Hoinacki & C. Mitcham (Eds.), The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection (pp. 153-162). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Illich, I. (2004/1970). Deschooling Society. New York: Marion Boyers.
McKnight, J.L. (2002). On Ivan Illich and His Friends. In L. Hoinacki & C. Mitcham (Eds.),The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection (pp. 49-52). Albany, NY: State
Neill, A.S. (1992/1960). Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood. (Ed. Albert Lamb). New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.