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What’s The Purpose of Education?

Last night I was part of a webinar designed to explore the purposes of education, sponsored by Nipissing University and Carlo Ricci.  At the heart of the webinar were the questions:  what do you think the purpose of education is, and are your ideas expressed in the work you are doing, or the learning setting you find yourself in?

The results of the webinar were fascinating.  Carlo and I had designed some polls to figure out who our audience was, and why they were there.  Then I outlined some current “purposes” most often described in contemporary talk, and how I feel this conversation has been hijacked by a discourse that defines educational purpose almost exclusively as economic and social attainment.   Since the early 1980s, I argued, a strong “functionalist” discourse has become preeminent, in which the “real” reason to get educated, and to get kids to do well in school, is to help them become competitors in a fierce, zero sum, sharp-elbowed, global economic environment.  School is about building a portfolio of accomplishments that will help you get a great job, learn how to be a valuable corporate citizens, and stabilize our nation state to fight against encroachment from others on an economic battlefield.  Education is attainment, and by extension, attainment IS equity.  That’s the only REAL reason to do school, implicitly implied in most of the improvement and policy talk.  To me, this marginalization of all other educational purposes–the real dissing of other educational purposes–has stripped the discussion of educational meaning to a very flat, very superficial dialog, where larger ideas about the spiritual, emotional and transformative aspects of education get left out.

We polled our participants to ask them which educational purpose they thought was most important, after working through all that.  (See the chart below.)  While we cautioned them that it was really difficult to choose just one, and that ALL of them are important, we asked them to commit.  If you are enrolling your own child in a school, or are a teacher looking for like-minded colleagues to help you grow, or a learner who gets to choose your own educational environment, which “purpose” is most important to you?

Of 65+ folks at the webinar:

79% chose #3.

6% chose #1;

8% chose #2

7% chose #4.

Where do you fit?  And what do you make of the fact that so much of the policy and improvement talk is about #1, but so few folks supported it as their chosen educational purpose?

You can see the whole webinar slides here, although they’ve uploaded in a funky way.


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


29 thoughts on “What’s The Purpose of Education?

  1. This is such an important question, and really it gets to the heart of the difference between what we see as educational reform, and what the current establishment sees as educational reform. If you were to host the same webinar with the leaders of the educational “reform” movement (think charter schools), I’d be willing to bet that the percentage of people who agreed with #1 would be much, much higher. Ask the same poll in #edchat and you probably would see numbers similar to what you got in your webinar.

    I remember I took a philosophy of education class where we tried to answer this question, and our professor showed us all four of these options and let us choose which one we subscribed to, which is interesting because it was clear proof that he believed in #3 as well.

    Posted by dwees | November 5, 2010, 9:05 am
    • David, This is such a good point, or points, about the nature of the audience, and also who defines purpose, and how. One of the things I said somewhere during the webinar, after seeing the results, is the “purpose” I have the hardest time getting on the table in my work in public schools is generally, #3. Teachers feel they don’t have time for stuff like that. Their jobs are on the line, and they have to produce results.

      I’ve also tried to move towards being able to really hear all points of view about purpose in my teaching: that people have good reasons for believing and valuing their “purposes.” But it’s that sense of marginalization of ALL other purposes besides #1, basically being considered a softie and not with the program, that has flattened the dialog and others feel like the work has lost meaning and resonance. Do you feel like your sense of purpose is expressed in your work David?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 5, 2010, 10:06 pm
  2. I would like to publicly thank Kirsten for a wonderful and inspirational session. Immediately after the talk and even now, I have been and continue to be blitzed with grateful emails–I feel the same. One moment that resonated with so many of us was stimulated by a quote that Kirsten shared from one of her former students: ““I can remember my first experience with tracking. It was in second grade math. All the working class and minority kids had been put together. I thought we were all dumb. Like me.” Then, many of us shared how and why it resonated with us so deeply—a truly powerful and poignant moment. Here’s what one person emailed me, “My thoughts this morning revolve around the way you used a concrete, personal example to illustrate the dysfunction of our school system and engage me in the problem. It’s non-judgmental way of illustrating the very personal effects of the school system on students helped pull me into the discussion and motivate me to seek a remedy… It is comforting and inspiring to know that you and others share a similar concern.” Thank you Kirsten.

    Posted by Carlo Ricci | November 5, 2010, 1:51 pm
  3. Hi I’m from the EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. This post was very interesting, as were the results of you webinar. I think that it is strange that although most would expect the majority to choose #1, that #3 is the mast common choice. I think that this can be attributed to the new way of thinking and learning that involves improving ones self and understanding the world rather than just getting a good job and moving up in the world. Thanks for posting your results!

    Posted by Haley Riviere | November 5, 2010, 2:20 pm
    • Haley, Great that you are reading the blog! We want you here, and we want your comments. So how is EDM 310? Is it preparing you to be the teacher you want to be? Why don’t you and a couple of your classmates write a post about that? Teacher education, as you know, is hugely controversial in terms of whether it actually gets people ready to do this work, and prepares them to be learners all their lives around their profession. How about talking about that?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 5, 2010, 10:10 pm
    • Haley, I second Kirsten’s invitation to you and your classmates. Please consider posting here – I’m fascinated by ed school.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 6, 2010, 9:03 pm
  4. I agree 100% that it is most unfortunate and yet understandable that the current dialogue about “education” (meaning, of course, schooling, which will be my next point of discussion) is overwhelmingly about its “functionalist” (to use Kirsten’s term), or economic, purposes. I think this is because meeting minimal economic requirements is the first rung of Maslow’s ladder/hierarchy of needs: we must, first and foremost, be able to earn a living.

    (There are obviously some exceptions but in general I think this is commonly accepted. I know that, as a parent, I certainly wanted to be sure that my offspring could afford food, clothing and shelter. Call me bourgeois, but I was not interested in fathering a bright, curious, intellectual street person or one who survived on the kindness of strangers, aka taxpayers.)

    Consequently, giving people whatever help they need to become employable seems reasonable to me–especially the millions of youths whose parents are not themselves self-supporting, or who are employed at minimalist levels and not able to do much for their youngsters.

    Hence, the focus on improving the (largely public) schools that “serve” (I use that term advisedly) the poor is understandably the focus of most of the talk about school reform. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would run for President calling for greater assistance for the children of Gross Pointe, Philadelphia’s Main Line, Greenwhich, CT., and other bastions of wealth and privilege–even if everyone in the country went to see the movie “Race to Nowhere”.

    The irony, of course–and I think this is Kirsten’s point, or at least is an important implication of her perspective–is that it is *the process* of our system of education/schooling that is in such great need of improvement by means of expansion of its perspective and goals. Furthermore, I believe that she (and hundreds of other progressives, if I may use that term generically) all make the same point: by pursuing a one-dimensional, standardized/test-oriented process, we are actually undermining the functional goal of employability. Forget the other goals of education (“meaning-making”, “broadening of perspective”, self-actualization, etc.–her #3); the current way of focusing almost exclusively on #1 (the “functionalist” perspective) “wounds” us all–individually and as a society/nation state–and creates ever higher levels of un- or under-employability (i.e., dumbing us all down, even in the elite private schools).

    It is perhaps ironic that by at least balancing the function of schooling to more equitably reflect goals #1 & #3, we would be improving the results of both.

    As for my other point–distinguishing between “education” and “schooling”, I think that this should be the first part of any discussion on “the purpose of education” that has to do with “school reform”.
    There is good reason why progressives are forever reciting the Mark Twain quotation, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. It is because they are two different things *no matter how “good” the school may be. (John Holt used to say that he came to believe that there is no such thing as a “good school.”)

    It irks me that even holistic/progressive/democratic schools imply that they are THE critical element in a youth’s development. If that were so, they would have to take responsibility for all of their graduates who turn out badly–and believe me, there are tons of them–and they would have to give credit to the traditional schools for all of their students who turn out to be bright, creative, humanistic, high functioning, happy adults–and believe me, there are plenty of them as well.

    The truth is, in my opinion, that schools are rarely the primary variable in the matter of success/failure. What is? Nothing. Or rather, no single element. It is the interaction of numerous variables, beginning with brain chemistry, individual temperament, life experience, etc. What we “educators” can do is to increase the *probability* of success. That’s all, and that’s a lot. By adopting a broader view of education–beyond schooling–and by making whatever schooling there is be responsive to individual beings, I think we will best serve all four of the goals that Kirsten has so eloquently identified.

    Posted by Peter Bergson | November 5, 2010, 5:44 pm
    • So Peter, what SHOULD the appropriate role of schooling/education be in children’s lives? Why don’t you write about your vision for this, based on your decades of work creating an alternative educational environment for hundreds of children? I think all of us here at the COOP would welcome this.

      And may I say how wholeheartedly I agree with: “It is perhaps ironic that by at least balancing the function of schooling to more equitably reflect goals #1 & #3, we would be improving the results of both.” This is wise, and we have almost no federal policy that reflects this.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 5, 2010, 10:15 pm
  5. Hi Kirsten,

    Thanks so much for this and for posting the slides! Thanks too to Peter and other commenters. What an important topic. So hard to condense a thoughtful response into a blog posting though.

    I like to think idealistically, I guess, and I too went to Maslow, but not to his lowest level on “the hierarchy,” i.e. basic needs/economic survival (#1) but rather to his notion of “self-actualization.”

    Like many of the webinar participants, I believe that the purpose of education should be first to help nurture individuals’ capacity for meaning-making (#3). To me this includes all the descriptors on your list as well as so much more. It is about knowing one’s self and cultivating a mindfulness regarding one’s position and interdependence within systems. It is learning how to live well within communities and place while also searching for the best one can be, like Forbes’ notion of “ultimacy,” for example.

    However I think ultimately the reason for growing and expanding one’s ability to make meaning is to become a thoughtful, capable and effective agent of change (#2). So learning the skills of democracy: how to listen deeply and communicate well, how to collaborate, negotiate and facilitate change within a social or political group (society) is really the point in the end. I see a very complex and reciprocal interrelationship between educating for #2 and #3. I think education towards either one alone is not a complete picture. Admittedly, this begs a lot more specifics and a thorough unpacking in a venue with more space, perhaps.

    What I have found in my work is that if a learning community is authentically striving towards #2 and #3, that #1 becomes an almost unavoidable incidental outcome. When I engage with the kids in my class around relevant issues of personal meaning and significance, when we go deeply into our work together, the skills and content knowledge that is so much the exclusive focus of the mainstream’s #1-based standardized and standardizing approach become a natural, beautiful and fairly joyful result. I know this sounds idealistic, but it is my truth – again, I know a lot more specifics could be helpful here.

    As to #4, a la E.D. Hirsch, it just doesn’t interest me very much at all.

    Thank you Kirsten for teasing apart the contemporary discourse and articulating such a useful landscape. I am now looking at a lot of conversations and texts through your #1-#4 lens. Very cool!



    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 6, 2010, 2:58 pm
    • Paul, I am answering hurriedly as I prepare to take my daughter off to visit a high attainment college to see whether it “fits” (ah, the conflicts of the educational activist). My own journey around purpose mirrors exactly what you describe, and consequently my own philosophy. #3s and #2 are really interchangeable, if thoughtfully engaged, one building on the other and one “leading” the other in developmental cycles that extend over decades. On the other hand, I also work in and strongly support schools that lead with #1–are unapologetic about this and clear about why they are in the game in the way they are. #4, if thoughtfully engaged, also points directly towards the others, if it is informed by a consciousness about the relations of power inherent in the canon…

      So, thank you as always for your insights. I wanted to bring forward some of what you are teasing out here, but found myself talking so much I just thought I ought to shut up.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 7, 2010, 8:25 am
  6. Both Paul and Peter, I invite you to write a post at the Cooperative, email me at and I will get you set up. Both of your perspectives make a lot of sense. I am sure most people would have a hard time removing school from education, just as some Dewey and others (Krishnamurti, George Dennison, Holt) have had a hard time separating Life from education. I tend to agree more with Paul, that if we have 2 and 3….1 will be there also though not in the narrow limited scope of the current debate. Work and meaning making have a relationship in all our lives, that need not be connected to corporate or nationalistic agenda.

    Theodore Reszok uses the example of Monastic communities as a example of a human scale relationship of work and the personal in his brilliant and still timely book, Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of a Industrial Society. It is not the religious nature of their life that is of interest primarily to Roszak, but the nature of their ways of being, a balance between work, the personal (spiritual, and duty) and the community in which they live. We know it can be done, and need not reject one’s economic ideals for personal, but instead find a sustainable way of knowing and being that serves the people and the community.

    Shall we continue to allow ourselves to be oppressed, or help participant in schools that school us in being obedient, and mindlessly chasing a American Dream of equality and success that is nothing more than a slogan? I say no. I say find a way to turn the functionalist idea of education on its head and like Peter, start to use it to disintegrate its very purpose. How can to help divert the allegiance and energy of people towards new cultural possibilities?

    For me it is creating a Learning community, and organizing for IDEA, and writing for this blog! For spending the time to ask myself and others, is this the way we want to continue to live! Or as George Dennison asked in the 60’s, is this how we want to educate our children? The more people we engage in this type of conversation and not allow it to remain a conversation for only educators or philosophy majors the better off we will be. It is going to take time, and we are short sighted to thing this process is new to us, it has started over a 100 years back and with the ebb and flow of consciousness the paradigm is starting to shift.

    The question, What do you want to spend your energy supporting? I vote for #3!

    honored to be a member of this mindful community!

    Posted by dloitz | November 6, 2010, 7:17 pm
    • David, Thank you for your enthusiasm, and for your lifting up the power of participation in a community like this. It is all about the idea of “conscientization”–that Freire wrote about so beautifully–that education must develop the consciousness for transformation.

      As a counterpoint, I also always talk to my students about the idea that we human beings fear freedom (Fromm). As Illich pointed out, we are deeply attached to the institutions that oppress us. Without an exploration of this, the conversation is incomplete…recognition of our own “self-exile” must be a part of the activist’s journey…

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 7, 2010, 8:37 am
      • I agree. This is a interesting topic of discussion and one worth understanding. Roszak says it is all boils down to the problem of personhood, but it is one worth spending time trying to explore.

        Here is another question, do we fear freedom or are we conditioned to fear freedom?

        This to me is the role of personal growth in education and one area of that can be both done on a personal level and a community. I think this is one of the areas that people leave out of the discussion when they talk of Paul Goodman and George Dennison work. Their work on many levels was using the relationship of the teacher and the student and the relationship of school and life as a tool of personal growth.I have seen schools that talk about practicing Humanistic Education, but instead in reality it is actually some sort of weird hybrid of behaviorism; by praising children we can more efficiently to get a obeisance, encouraging narcissism instead of growth, and promoting a shallow understanding of Self confidence.

        I look to Krishnamurti’s work as a example of how schools can spend the time to really help children not become the adults that need years of unschooling.

        I still go back to a question that came to me last week. Is all this transformation for the parents and adults in the community and society? If school is just for adults, then yes all the purposes other then 3 are valid. But I wonder….. Dennison also said we should be asking not how can we improve school, but instead “how can we educate our children?”….

        If I had one mentor text in my living learning journey it is The Lives of Children… there are so many truths in his words that are lost in today’s debate. I think we need to not “fear” the freedom to discuss our view of education, with those that don’t feel the same. Thank you for letting me discuss my fears here in a supportive community, and thanks for always pushing and challenging towards growth and as Peter would say Flexible Thinking!

        Here a quote from Dennison that I found very interesting in context to this discussion

        “Freedom is an abstract and terribly elusive word. I hope that a context of examples will make its meaning clear. The question is not really one of authority, though it is usually argued in that form. When adults give up authority, the freedom of children is not necessarily increased. Freedom is not motion in a vacuum, but motion in a continuum. If we want to know what freedom is, we must discover what the continuum is. “The principle,” Dewey remarks, “is not what justifies an activity, for the principle is but another name for the continuity of the activity.” We might say something similar of freedom: it is another name for the fullness and final shape of activities. We experience the activities, not the freedom. The mother of a child in a public school told me that he kept complaining, “They never let me finish anything!” We might say of the child that he lacked important freedoms, but his own expression is closer to the experience: activities important to him remained unfulfilled. Our concern for freedom is our concern for fulfillment – of activities we deem important and of persons we know are unique. To give freedom means to stand out of the way of the formative powers possessed by others”


        Posted by dloitz | November 7, 2010, 2:28 pm
  7. Without experiencing option 3, a student isn’t likely to value option 2. Without graduates valuing option 2, our society isn’t likely to offer kids the opportunity to experience option 3.

    I wonder how many educators would have voted for a fifth option worded something like, “To foster innovation and entrepreneurship,” and, “Maintain America’s leading edge in the world,” and, “To provide hands-on training with 21st Century work skills and technologies.” Those notions seem to me to be big parts of the Fed’s rhetoric and our STEM funding frenzy.

    While planning lessons and designing projects, I gut-check myself all the time because I live in fear that I’ll use our work in option 3 to coerce students through trust into a full-fledged pursuit of option 1.

    Obviously, adult confusion is an issue here.

    Thanks for sharing the survey and its context. I think that the way you framed the discussion would make it safe to initiate in other schools and settings – and that people could use the clickers, too, which is win-win.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 6, 2010, 9:19 pm
    • Chad, I too am in this discourse myself, often. I see a lot of co-opting of #3 to get to #1 in lesson design–pretty instrumental and pretty contributive to the numbing effect of school–for everyone. If our own internal experiences are just something to “use” to help us become more saleable commodities, how important can the really be? They’re only as important as the price they fetch at market.

      Okay, off to college.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 7, 2010, 8:40 am
  8. These big questions are hard for me to get my head around. But they’ve lead me to a whole bunch of smaller, more specific questions which helped me pin down some ideas about the purpose of education.

    I’m thinking about thinking, and questioning, and reflecting and how these fit with education’s purpose. Of supporting our kids when they ask questions, and encouraging ourselves to ask questions more. On a separate note—can we define the purpose of what education IS by defining what the purpose of education ISN’T? That helped me frame some ideas in my head.

    I am reminded of your reference to Ted Sizer. I’m also reminded of the perspective of Parker Palmer, who writes in “The Courage to Teach,” “In the midst of a culture that devalues inner life, I hoped to do more than make the case that good teachers must live examined lives…” How he wanted to “find ways to protect and support the inner journey at the heart of authentic teaching, learning, and living.” Where do we see a focus on the examined life? Doesn’t this suggest questioning and #3?

    This idea of living an examined life, reflecting–asking oneself questions to help clarify purpose—not just steaming ahead mindlessly, is significant. In my classroom, I tried to examine my teaching. I asked: How can I endorse what each child has to offer? What is the purpose of reading aloud to my kids each day? Why do I choose the books I choose? What is the purpose of this social studies unit? (often indeterminable) How can I as their teacher bring the curriculum to them in the most meaningful, engaging way possible? How can I approach the curriculum from a learning (or learner’s) perspective as opposed to a teaching one? What is the kids’ purpose in the room? Let me put myself in their shoes.

    Asking questions helps us clarify purpose. But asking questions isn’t something we even have time for in schools these days, and sometimes question askers are not popular! First of all, asking questions means that we’ve done some thinking and reflecting. As Alfie Kohn writes, in The Homework Myth, “One reason we don’t ask challenging questions about homework is that we don’t ask challenging questions about most things.”

    We don’t structure into our lives or school days the reflection/thinking time needed to create questions. One reason I left the classroom is that the whole atmosphere and structure of my teaching life had squeezed out almost all time for me to reflect on my bottom line–how I could be most effective for my kids? And this frustrated me.

    Thank you for this webinar (sorry couldn’t be there) and for the openness with which you all here approach this subject—gathering opinions, reflections, and information to get a richer and more comprehensive view of the purpose of education.

    A final thought– I’m impressed (actually relieved) by the number of people who selected #3, but do not find it surprising with this audience. I am also wondering if many educators out there might choose #3 as most important even if that is not what they practice, even if it doesn’t reflect their reality in the classroom. Is #3 something educators strive for but don’t have the time for, or means to, attain? Is there a difference in what teachers believe and what they practice? I wonder.

    Posted by jengroves | November 7, 2010, 10:59 pm
  9. lovely Kirsten. we should stop the world till we all discuss this.
    why go on – when we don’t know – or we don’t agree with – what we’re doing…

    what matter’s most..
    a hunger to find that out.. and then swim in it… that’s it.

    Jason Fried recently posted that the one class he’d like to teach is writing
    in it he says – the future belongs to the best editors… and that each step of editing is really just a pause and refinement of – what really matters.
    we have to take time for that. daily. as if we were the manuscript.
    who are we. what is our perfectly distilled sentence.

    all i want for my kids is that they find their place in the world.. the place where they are themselves. if everyone could find that place.. transparency becomes the new currency.. and the future becomes sharing…. and economics as we know them… know no place. distrust is currently costing us in so many ways.

    Venessa Miemis is doing an incredible work with emergent by design: the future of money… here’s a peek:
    re-examination of value.

    Umair Haque has great insight on value as well.

    spot on sweet. grazie.
    thank you all for focus. and re-focus…

    Posted by monika hardy | November 8, 2010, 2:06 am
  10. Kirsten, I am so thankful to have been a part of the webinar! I feel I have now met you in two dimensions and look forward to all three at once! 🙂

    I have a tendency to oversimplify things and I really believe the purpose of education is… well far more than I can say, actually. I have some ideas about what it is NOT – like stamping out worker bees, creating conformists, devaluing and marginalizing other, equally valuable kinds of intelligence such as musical, artistic and kinsthetic (off the top of my head).

    I am very much an idealist and I can’t believe how difficult I am finding it to articulate my thoughts on your question. I am reminded, though, of I blog post I wrote some time ago called “Horizon: Mireless” in which I extol all the reasons I am starting a school. Perhaps that is my answer. An essay.

    As you may imagine, I was one of the 73% who picked #3 – for so many reasons. I guess I have come to a place where I feel certain that there is so much more – SO MUCH MORE! – to life than earning a pay cheque (though they are quite handy!! 🙂 and i want to facilitate deeper meaning, rich tapestries of living, access (at least) to more fulfilling ways of life.

    What is the purpose of education? Short answer: Humanity.

    Posted by cian | November 10, 2010, 1:50 am
    • Cian,

      I would love for you to do guest post or join the Coop…. if you guest post, I would love to have you share a little of your process to open a school, I think it would had to the conversation! So glad you stopped by to say hi!

      Also agree with your short answer! I would say personal, community and ecological well-being….though that means different things for different people…..


      Posted by dloitz | November 10, 2010, 1:31 pm
  11. Kirsten, you asked what I think “SHOULD the appropriate role of schooling/education be in children’s lives?” I’ve drafted no fewer than five responses so far to this question for this blog, each one leaving me frustrated in my attempts to be concise and yet inclusive of the multiple aspects of my response that I wish to include. As a result, I’ve decided to list several statements, each of which is the start of its own essay, in the hope that the accumulation will give you a good enough sense of my perspective on your question.

    1. “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” Mark Twain. In other words, these are two different matters which is noted by the existence of homeschooling & unschooling, the use of the term “formal schooling”, “ivory tower education”, and too many others to mention in a blog. My net out: you don’t have to go to school to have an exquisite education or educational life.

    2. In fact, *depending upon your circumstances*, you may be better educated by not going to school–and that includes the prestige schools, colleges and universities. If your alternative is one of near total deprivation, then even a poor school is probably better than none. I know young people who would be better off in a mediocre school than being “homeschooled” because their parents are toxic and/or negligent and/or totally unimaginative and uninformed. So one of the purposes of schooling may be to give these young people a chance–if even it’s just two hot meals a day–although, I hasten to add, that’s a slippery slope.

    3. The idea of a place where young people congregate for relationship-building (with both adults and other youths) and for exposure to new ideas and opportunities, *invited* instruction (vs. compulsory), group activities (it’s hard to put on a play by yourself, or play soccer only on your own), or do/get any of the other advantages that can come from a supportive, collaborative community is a good one, I think. (Full disclosure: I co-founded such a place that is now celebrating its 32nd year.)

    Am I talking about a school? No. Attendance is non-compulsory; it’s part-time for everyone (thereby leaving half the week for other life ventures); it’s responsive to the learners’ interests; it doesn’t grade, sort, track, judge (in the sense of discriminate) nor bribe, manipulate, or otherwise behave in ways to replace natural self-motivation with a dependence on external motivators, whether reward or punishment.

    4. I think that society owes it to itself to help the unfortunate by creating ways to learn/grow that are otherwise available only to the fortunate. (Usually, this is a money issue.) These should be optional and positive, not compulsory and punitive (like most schools, public or private). We don’t require people to use libraries and public swimming pools and yet we provide them. Why not places with workshops, mentors in any area (writers, carpenters, mathematicians, naturalists/farmers, artists, etc. etc. Think of all of the retirees in each of these areas, or folks out of work, who would love to share their craft with young people, and do so with their grandchildren. Why not with the neighbors’ youths as well?)

    What I mean to say in all of this is that it is in our nature to learn, develop, grow. It is in our personal and national interest to help ourselves and others along these paths. And that way we have made this, by virtue of the schooling way of educating, we have done more harm than good. There are thousands of “educators” who know better and we should lead the current generation of wounded souls out of the woods of conventional schooling.

    That’s probably more than enough of my blithering for now.


    Posted by Peter Bergson | November 10, 2010, 5:35 pm
    • Peter, when I’m out walking my dog at night, I often put hard questions to myself. Kirsten, I say (my fat little pug lifting his leg obligingly on every tree so I have a lot of time): would my neighborhood be better IF THERE WERE NO SCHOOLS AT ALL? Would the city of Boston, which I also live in, be better with no schools–since I write and talk so very much about what is wrong with contemporary systems of education?

      And the answer, I think, must be no. I, like you and everyone else who visits the COOP, can imagine so very many different and better kinds of educational centers, and types of schools, and types of learning experiences. (And we have living examples of them right in our midst!) But what the educational experience “should” look like, to me depends so much on the learner: what he or she needs, what their family thinks they need, what their aspirations and ambitions are, what–to them– constitutes a good life.

      So while you and I agree on much, and share a deep and passionate love of John Holt, I don’t agree (I think) with your implied vision that we get rid of schools altogether. The disestablishment of schools, in the absence of collective agreements about what we as a culture owe every child, would result in further privileging those who are already highly privileged, and disadvantage those without social and economic capital. So what I am thinking about is: how do we ensure a good result for millions of children? How do we get better results than we are getting now?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 11, 2010, 12:03 am
  12. David, I’m replying to your response of November 7. I think it is a really great question about whether human beings fear freedom, or are conditioned to fear freedom? That gives me something to think about. I hope we can pursue this shortly with drinks in our hands.

    I spent a lot of time with Holt, Kozol, Goodman, Illich, Kohl, and Dennison, as you know, writing Schools As Colonizers. I ended up feeling a little leery of Dennison, in spite of his beautiful and profoundly poetic take on the conditions of his students. He seemed to romanticize them, their knife-wielding and fighting and difficulties learning to read–there was a distance between him and them–he was the white male with knowledge, stature, a heart that knew no bottom–he was saving them with his compassion. I felt uncomfortable.

    People who work in schools who take kids seriously can also get self-congratulatory, it seems to be a “shadow” of the stance. Ya know what I’m saying?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 10, 2010, 11:35 pm
    • Hmm, that is an interesting take. Not sure I agree totally on first read….but after this darn thesis is done, I want to spend some more time with Dennison …because I guess maybe I read it differently, I felt there was a honesty and frankness that made me uncomfortable with…. some of the stories…. because it was so real.

      I never felt they were romanticize… though I am not sure how one does not do this to a extend…. I think in any relationship we seem to romanticize both the good and the bad of people and honestly not sure there is any other way, unless we are scientific and cold….(though I am sure their in neutral anything in the world)(the artist in me…. says there is always a context to be read into)…

      Why do you think people who work with Kids get self-congratulatory….do you think it might be a product of a society that needs to reward every type of work with gold stars of some sort….or a product of years of undervaluing work with children… from calling it “women’s work” to sayings like “those who can’t, teach!”….

      Not sure about the compassion issue… is compassion not a natural state… the kids he taught had been kicked out, removed, forgotten at other schools….not sure it was compassion of pity, but compassion of humanity…..

      wonder also, do you think it was his story that made you uncomfortable or something within your own story….no need to answer me here….just wondering…because I was uncomfortable for many different reasons…

      I also think he was pretty honest about the power that was inherit in his role, based on his own background etc…. though I not sure how one gets around this, other then being honest and reflective and continuing to question how one is defined or defines themselves….and ultimately acts on these definitions

      How does one move past the stereotype of the white male with knowledge?…. I have not figure it out myself…. what do we do once we acknowledge the white knapsack we carry around…. is there away to be genuine and authentic still? This is a much larger issue….but something we have not discussed at all at the cooperative….is it time….???

      Most Ed Reform is about the achievement gap, yet we never talk about what that means….what we really do to change it….we all know TFA style teaching tourism is not the answer….but what is? How does one help without reproducing the oppression that we are trying to help stop?

      Okay back to my thesis….but interest to know what people think. Anyone else read The Lives of Children?


      Posted by dloitz | November 11, 2010, 12:03 am
  13. First, let me apologize for a huge editing gaff in my previous posting. I was trying to finish up while sitting in a daughter’s living room surrounded by three loving grandchildren ages 4, 2 and five weeks and was, shall we say, somewhat distracted. I ended up failing to delete some of my previous drafts, which is why the posting may have seemed repetitive. It should have stopped at the “signing” of my name, Peter, thereby eliminating everything the followed, beginning with the “word” “Schoo” (sic).

    Kirsten, let me clarify my muddled message. It is not schools per se that I rail against, it is “schooling”, which I operationally define as that process which wounds: basically because it is compulsory and competitive. If the compulsory component were reduced to, “You have to go, but/and what you learn, what you pursue when you are there (and there would be a world of choices), how you pursue it (academically, experientially, with or without adult intervention beyond safety and consideration of others)–well, then, what a world of difference that would make. And if the competitive component (quizzes, exams, grades, standardized testing) were eliminated–well, then, we’d really be on our way.

    I believe then that young people would flock to “schools”, just as they would to libraries, movie houses and theaters if they had little or no admission price, sporting events, Apple stores when the iPhone or iPod or iPad was introduced, etc. etc. Why wouldn’t they? Schools would be where their friends would be, *doing interesting things of value*. We wouldn’t need compulsory laws, external motivators like fear of failure, etc.

    And, lastly, I believe that our tax dollars should be used to provide such places, at a high quality for every economic strata. If youths from poor neighborhoods could take public transportation to the school in a fancy neighborhood, let ’em go for it, although their school would have just as much to offer–but maybe Brookline High is famous for its in-resident author, while Roxbury High has a world-class artist’s studio (with professional painter, sculptor, etc.). They all have full video production facilities, machine shops, restaurant schools, architecture classes facilitated by architects…

    We have the money and the expertise to do this immediately. What our country lacks is trust in the natural process of learning–the belief (because that’s ultimately what it is) that we as a species are hard-wired to figure out how the world works and to create our place in it (in a life-affirming way).
    I believe that this lack of trust, above all others, is the No. 1 School Wound. As our dear friend John Holt said, “School is where children learn to feel stupid.” THAT is what I want to drain from schools; that is what I call “schooling”.

    David, in response to your query, my answer is yes, I did read “The Lives of Children”, back when it first came out and I was fresh out of college. I found it inspirational. He showed me how to get out of my privileged perspective when viewing the poor and to see the value in activities that I had once seen as anything but constructive. (I remember one example, vaguely, about a group of boys creating a game out of some cardboard; it was very messy and physical. The conventional view was that it was disruptive; Dennison saw its plus side. I had the sense that he was saying, “If we valued this type of initiative, and then broadened the opportunities for its expression by providing the right kind of support, think how much more these young people could learn and grow!” I do not recall thinking that he was saying that we should leave them to their own devices entirely, that the privileged had nothing to offer these youths, but rather that, like the missionaries who went to Africa to “save the natives”, we should reposition our sense of what constitutes actual help.

    You have reinforced my desire to go back and re-read “Lives of Children.” Oh, as the tee shirt says, “So many books, so little time.” I’ll get there, though.

    One last thought: yes, I include fear of freedom as part of the No.1 School Wound. Part of feeling stupid is a resultant lack of faith in one’s own capabilities to learn, to figure things out, and to use more experienced people (so-called experts) as resources. Rather, we let them (demand that they) tell us what to do.

    My vision in this regard is perpetual toddlerhood–that sense of, “Let me at it, World!”


    Posted by Peter Bergson | November 11, 2010, 8:52 am
  14. Hi All, David, Peter and Kirsten,

    On Dennison:

    I have heard so much praise for Dennison; I guess I feel like I shouldn’t say this, but, I don’t get it, really. I suppose, like Peter, I should re-read this classic. I mean I get the radical ideas of free schooling etc. But the part of The Lives of Children that bugged me was the very traditional regressive methods he used with the kids once they chose to attend “lessons.” I know it was really cool that the kids got to decide whether or not to learn math. It was on their terms and that changes nearly everything. Still, I recall the actual lessons were textbook based follow-the-teacher pour-in-the-info. kind of learning. I know it was almost four decades ago, but I think we can find better models of progressive education. Why can’t we expect teachers’ methods to include experiential learning, cooperative learning, a constructivist approach, integrated thematic learning, etc etc.

    I think it is terrific when kids can choose whether or not to engage in a given lesson, but let’s also make sure that they are selecting from great options that use progressive and holistic methods. I recall Dennison talks about spanking the kids more than once (did I make that up?) And I, like Kirsten, recall a pretty paternalistic, missionary kind of attitude.

    Yet so many folks whom I deeply respect think he’s the bee’s knees. Ron Miller, (my hero) has said it may be the single best education book ever written. Hmm. I am trying to “go to wonder.” I wonder what I’m missing.


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 12, 2010, 11:08 pm
  15. Wow, Paul! Now I’m *really* going to move Dennison up to the top of my to-read list! I had totally forgotten the specifics that you mentioned, such as those regarding conventional lessons. As I mentioned in my previous posting, the one thing I did remember lo’ these many years was the sense that we rich white folks should look beyond the disruptive aspects of street kids (to use the conventional term) and see the intelligence that they reflect in their own way. That’s it; that’s all that I remember.

    John Holt, by the way, expressed the same opinion that you attribute to Ron Miller. He said, “If you could read only one book on education…”, let it be “The Lives of Children. Who knew what he was thinking? Maybe a re-read will clarify that for me.

    As for your concern about conventional instruction, I could not agree more. I remember having the same thought when I first read “Summerhill”, around the same time that I read Dennison: What a disappointment! Here’s this guy with all of these unconventional and open ideas about respecting youths, and now he tells me that learning is boring but once you’ve had your fill of play, you’ll be ready to pay the price, buckle down and grind it out. I was shocked!

    But then I read that Neill sent his American publisher about ten books’ worth of manuscripts, and the publisher/editor pulled out enough to make one book. They put special emphasis on all of the Freudian/sex-related material because they thought that that would sell best in the US. Who knows what else Neill wrote about “lessons”? Perhaps he was much more specific and limited in his references to conventional instruction. Perhaps he wrote much more about experiential learning or the developmental approach, especially with its basis in play. In the same way, Dennison may have had a more open perspective than what you (Paul) remember. Who knows? We’ll see what a fresh look will produce. Thanks for the inspiration.


    Posted by Peter Bergson | November 12, 2010, 11:56 pm


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