Schooling in your Head

For a long time I've been interested in democratic schools.

The idea of democratic schooling is not to treat the kids as some kind of untermenschen, as is the common practice nowadays, but as actual human beings with free will, capable of responsible behaviour and so on.

In practical terms it means that children are allowed to do whatever they want unless it's against the rules. The rules themselves are established by a school legislative body consisting of all the citizens of the school, pupils and teachers alike, on one-person-one-vote basis. If you don't like a rule, you can propose to drop it. If you are able to win the argument in the legislative assembly it will be dropped.

If you break a law you will be investigated and judged by a judiciary committee. The committee, once again, is selected from all the citizens of the school on equal basis.

Even staffing decisions, which teachers, given the limited budget, should stay and which should leave, are done collectively, on one-person-one-vote basis.

The best known school of this type is Sudbury Valley in the US. Less known but older and probably the first school of this type is British Summerhill school.

There's a film about Summerhil school (here). I guess it's supposed to give parents the idea of what the school is about. It follows couple of different troubled kids and shows how the free school helps them to solve their problems. It's basically an advertisement. You are supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy and, eventually, enroll your kids in the school.

But then there's this documentary (here). It doesn't try to explicitly push any message. It just follows the kids for few months. Now, this is where it starts getting interesting. It begins in a period when kids have voted to get rid of bedtime rules. You are shown the school assembly where they are discussing whether it was a good idea or not. You see that some of the kids are so tired they are sleeping on the floor. When, at some later point, bedtime is reestablished, you can watch the kids appointed to enforce the rule trying, with mixed success, to get other kids go to the bed.

You can also follow how they are trying to deal with bullying. And you have no clear idea whether they are succeeding or not.

It's one big dumpster fire and I can imagine that most parents, after watching the documentary, would be hesitant (to put it mildly) to enroll their kids in a democratic school.

And this, unsurprisingly, reminds me of an actual democracy.

In your civic education classes you get this rosy picture of a well-though system with universal ballot, checks and balances and so on.

Then you look at the reality and it's one big tire fire. It's not at all clear what's happening and even, whether it works as expected or whether it's failing at a massive scale.

And when you think about it, a kid that went through a democratic school, who, in her formative years, dealt with tire fires on daily basis, is going to accept this messy reality without much fuss. She'll just roll up her sleeves and say: "Oh my, this smells bad. Let's have a look at how to fix it."

And now I am finally getting to my point.

Until recently the democratic education was the only mechanism I could think of to counterbalance the modern style of parenting, where the kid basically lives in a prison camp, is driven to the school by the parent, then, after the lessons, he is personally handed by teacher back to the parent. To make sure that kids can't make a free decision even in out-of-school hours, there are activities and, of course, lots of homework. Also, suburbanization means that the kid can't even go to a shop by himself until he's old enough to get a driver's license.

Now imagine such kid turning eighteen and suddenly facing the dumpster fire of the real democracy. I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up with PTSD.

However, in past few months some things happened that made me reevaluate my views on the topic.

First it was a march against corruption in politics organized by Slovak high schoolers.

"How peculiar," I though and haven't given it much thought.

But since then I see the pattern reemerging elsewhere. And the current fight of US kids to tighten the gun ownership laws is the most striking example so far.

But it's not only that kids are willing to protest what they see as wrong. What's really surprising is how competent they are doing it. They can organize the protest. They are good at keeping it non-violent and focused. They are eloquent. They apparently understand the mechanics of the political game. They understand that they cannot rely on the grown-ups to fix things for them. It's almost as if they graduated from a democratic school.

Yet, these are the very same kids that can't do as much as fart without adult supervision.

So here's what I think this may be about: You body may be imprisoned until you are sixteen, you may not be allowed to do anything on your own, but as long as you have a phone, you have access to the big tire fire that is Internet. Your spirit roams free the vast expanses of human knowledge, human failures, human politics. You can engage with other on topics of your choosing. You can see how others react and learn how you can cooperate. You are attending a democratic school in your own head.

And then, when the time comes, you are ready.

Martin Sústrik, April 2nd, 2018

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