As a young teacher, I also began to see the need for a new reality in education.
When we first began our careers, my wife Susan taught elementary school students and I taught high school history students.
For my first day of teaching, I put the following quotation from George Santayana on the bulletin board in ominous black letters.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
One day a girl in one of my history classes asked me about the quotation.
“I just want to train horses. Why must I study history?”
I proceeded to explain the importance of learning from the past so that we make better choices when faced with similar situations in the future.
“But Mr Wachtel. What if I don’t really care about all that? I don’t even know if I want to vote. Why must you make us study it? I’ll pass the test and then forget it all anyhow.”
I could not answer her question adequately.
I still can’t.
As the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
Why not just teach history to those who want to learn history?
In James Herndon’s 1971 book, “How to Survive in Your Native Land,” he examined the problem with forcing people to learn.
He said, “As long as you can threaten people, you can’t tell whether or not they really want to do what you’re proposing that they do.
You can’t tell if they’re inspired by it, you can’t tell if they learn anything from it, you can’t tell if they would keep on doing it if you weren’t threatening them.
You cannot tell.”
I was surprised by Ivan Illich’s 1971 book, “Deschooling Society,” which asserted that the problem with school is school.
His book challenged the whole concept of institutionalized education and is as radical today as it was fifty years ago.
But “Deschooling Society” was more than a critique.
He suggested various kinds of learning networks that would provide support for self-directed learning:
– a directory of educational resources for learners
– a skills exchange
– peer matching to find similar learners with similar interests
– a directory of professional educators.
Illich immediately influenced others.
The next year, in 1972, Audiovisual Instruction magazine featured an unusually long article by Kenneth Silber.
It was so valuable to me that 50 years later I still have the magazine.
The Learning System: A New Approach to Facilitating Learning Based on Freedom, The Future, and Educational Technology echoed Illich’s thinking but was even more specific about what learning should look like.
Silber provided a helpful scenario about Mr. and Mrs. Miller and their four children moving to The City.
He described how they consult the Learning System and its mainframe computers to identify resources in The City — to give them what they need to know — from job retraining for parents to learning opportunities for growing children.
One of the highlights of the article was Silber’s stark comparison of the difference between philosophies: the Education System versus the Learning System.
Education System philosophy asserts that people are basically evil and need to be controlled and socialized in order to fit into a society.
They do not want to learn and must be taught and motivated to extend themselves.
On the other hand, Learning System philosophy assumes that people are basically good and can grow on their own into civilized beings, given the chance.
People always want to learn and do so on their own, in their daily interactions with their environment.
The Education System considers some types of learning better or more important than others and that learning is preparation for life and is therefore removed from life.
The Learning System values all types of learning.
Learning is life and life is learning — the two are merged into one.
The Education System assumes that an experience is learning only if it takes place in a school where there are people who are qualified to make decisions for other people and tell them what to learn.
But the Learning System asserts that any experience, no matter where and under what circumstances, is real learning and that people must be involved in the decisions that affect their lives.
The final element of the comparison took me by surprise — when Silber pointed out that compulsory schooling violates the United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence and the Learning System does not.
I had never before thought about compulsory schooling in that way.
What makes me sad is that these critiques of schools were written 50 years ago and not much has changed.
Even my parents would find today’s schooling familiar, except for the new technology.
The most dramatic change is the growing number of children, now approaching four million each year in the U.S., who are being homeschooled.
I pause for a moment because I want to be very clear: I am not against schools.
I am against their monopoly on the resources for learning.
Some people thrive in schools, but many do not, so we need to provide alternatives to school.
In 1969 I left the high school history classroom to become the district director of audiovisual resources and libraries in eleven school buildings.
I started a media center where teachers and students could make audiovisual presentations, including videos.
I got a grant to fund an American history class in which most of the lecture content was offered through individualized audiovisual presentations and magazine style reading materials.
The teachers, instead of lecturing, spent a lot of time interacting with small groups of students — which was made possible by the technology.
I started a cable television station run by students as part of a special English and Social Studies combined class.
And while I enjoyed my experience in the public schools, I still felt constrained by the risk averse atmosphere.
The most frequent question I faced in launching the student-run cable station was “how was I going to censor what students put on the air?”
The answer was simple.
I would discuss the issues with the students in a way that they themselves identified the appropriate boundaries and then I just trusted them.
They proved worthy of my trust.
Susan and I also became volunteers in a county group home for delinquent youth and I started a film-making project with a few of them.
We became interested in the question, “How do you help young people who are on a negative path in life to change to a positive path?”
I became so interested in experimenting with alternative approaches to learning that in 1976 I decided to quit my job in the public schools.
Susan had already quit her job when she gave birth to the first of our three children.
During the next year I wrote my first book, “Beyond the Schoolhouse,” expressing my feelings about schools and why I was leaving them, but I didn’t publish the book for forty years.
In truth, I delayed the book because I was afraid.
Susan and I founded the Community Service Foundation in 1977 and Buxmont Academy in 1984 to work with delinquent and at-risk teenagers in southeastern Pennsylvania.
I was planning to sell services to the public schools as my livelihood.
I feared that airing my criticisms of schools at that time would antagonize local educators and dissuade them from sending students to our alternative school programs.
Thankfully our programs grew in size, but more importantly in their effectiveness.
A scientific evaluation from 1999 to 2006 confirmed significant positive outcomes for the four thousand young people who attended our eight alternative schools during those years.
What was the secret of our success?
We and our colleagues changed the nature of the relationship between adults and young people by doing things with them, rather than to them or for them.
Look, good teachers either do that naturally or are open to learning how.
We engaged with our students and provided a remarkable degree of voice and choice, in exchange for them taking shared responsibility for the well-being of their school community.
However, although we did things differently, we were still part of an educational system based on compulsory schooling.
It was not until my eldest son Joshua Wachtel taught at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens located in Massachusetts that I got to see what would happen if there were no attendance requirements, no tests, no grades.
Josh had attended one of our alternative schools in Pennsylvania for his senior year of high school, taught English in a Romanian high school as a Peace Corps volunteer, came back to teach at our alternative school in Pennsylvania and then taught at a San Diego special education school.
Of all his teaching experiences, North Star was the most satisfying because, to paraphrase author James Herndon, Josh was able to “tell whether kids would keep on doing what he was proposing that they do” — simply because they kept showing up.
With the North Star program in its third decade, co-founder Ken Danford, a former middle school teacher, has demonstrated that when left to their own devices, young people usually learn and succeed.
In his book, “Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional,” he tells the story of North Star and how kids who went through North Star’s self-directed learning program have led positive and productive lives, including many who went on to graduate from colleges, universities and trade schools.
Danford is not against schools, but he is committed to serving young people who don’t want to go to school and don’t do well there.
Thanks to Ken Danford, I now know what learning might look in a new reality where kids can choose how and what they learn and where freedom of learning, just like freedom of religion, is recognized as a basic human right.