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Learning at its Best

Occupy Your Brain

On Power, Knowledge, and the Re-Occupation of Common Sense

This is cross-posted at the Schooling the World blog, but in honor of the March 1 Day of Action for Education Transformation, I’m posting it here.  Hope that’s okay with everyone. – Carol

One of the most profound changes that occurs when modern schooling is introduced into traditional societies around the world is a radical shift in the locus of power and control over learning from children, families, and communities to ever more centralized systems of authority.  While all cultures are different, in many non-modernized societies children enjoy wide latitude to learn by free play, interaction with other children of multiple ages, immersion in nature, and direct participation in adult work and activities.  They may have meaningful responsibilities in the economic life of the family and may be expected to treat elders with respect, but there is often little direct adult control over their individual moment-to-moment movements and choices, and they learn by experience, experimentation, trial and error, by independent observation of nature and human behavior, and through voluntary community sharing of information, story, song, and ritual.  Local elders and community traditions are autonomous and respected as sources of wisdom and practical knowledge, and children are integrated into local livelihoods, knowledge systems, and ethical and spiritual awareness through elegant indigenous pedagogies that have been honed over generations to minimize conflict while effectively transmitting what each child needs to know to be a successfully functioning member of the community.

photo by Carol Black

Once learning is institutionalized under a central authority, both freedom for the individual and respect for the local are radically curtailed.  The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, think her own thoughts, or even  use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure.  Family and community are sidelined, their knowledge now seen as inferior to the school curriculum.  The teacher has control over the child,  the school district has control over the teacher, the state has control over the district, and increasingly, systems of national standards and funding create national control over states.  In what should be considered a chilling development, there are murmurings of the idea of creating global standards for education – in other words, the creation of a single centralized authority dictating what every child on the planet must learn.

The problem with this scenario should be obvious:  who gets to decide what the world’s children will learn?  Who decides how and when and where they will learn it?  Who controls what’s on the test, or when it will be given, or how its results will be used?  And just as important, who decides what children will not learn?  The hierarchies of educational authority are theoretically justified by the superior “expertise” of those at the top of the institutional pyramid, which qualifies them to dictate these things to the rest of us.  But who gets to choose the experts?  And crucially, who profits from it?

American teacher in the Philippines, c. 1901

In “developed” societies, we are so accustomed to centralized control over learning that it has become functionally invisible to us, and most people accept it as natural, inevitable, and consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy.   We assume that this central authority, because it is associated with something that seems like an unequivocal good – “education” – must itself be fundamentally good, a sort of benevolent dictatorship of the intellect.  We allow remote “experts” to dictate what we must learn, when we must learn it, and how we must learn it.  We grant them the right to test us, to measure the contents of our brains and the value of our skills, and then to brand us in childhood with a set of numeric rankings that have enormous power over our future opportunities to participate in the economic and political life of our society.  We endorse strict legal codes which render this process compulsory, and in a truly Orwellian twist, many of us now view it as a fundamental human right to be legally compelled to learn what a higher authority tells us to learn.

And yet the idea of centrally-controlled education is as problematic as the idea of centrally-controlled media – and for exactly the same reasons.   The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect all forms of communication, information-sharing, knowledge, opinion and belief – what the Supreme Court has termed “the sphere of intellect and spirit” – from government control.  Nothing could be more fundamental to the sphere of intellect and spirit than the education of our children, and yet freedom of education was not included in the First Amendment along with freedom of speech, press, and religion, because at the time of the American Revolution the idea of centralized state-controlled schooling was not yet clearly on the horizon.  But by the mid-19th century, with Indians still to conquer and waves of immigrants to assimilate, the temptation to find a way to manage the minds of an increasingly diverse and independent-minded population became too great to resist, and the idea of the Common School was born.  We would keep our freedom of speech and press, but first we would all be well-schooled by those in power.  A deeply democratic idea — the free and equal education of every child — was wedded to a deeply anti-democratic idea — that this education would be controlled from the top down by state-appointed educrats.

The crucial confusion here is between the idea of publicly supported education and the idea of centrally controlled state-administered education.  To really get your hands around this distinction simply replace the word “school” with the word “radio” in the following sentences and see what you get:

I am in favor of publicly supported radio.

I am in favor of centrally-controlled state-administered radio.

Not the same thing, are they?

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The fundamental point of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that the apparatus of democratic government has been completely bought and paid for by a tiny number of grotesquely wealthy individuals, corporations, and lobbying groups.  Our votes no longer matter.  Our wishes no longer count.  Our power as citizens has been sold to the highest bidder.

Viewed through this lens, it becomes quite interesting not only to look at what your children are required to learn in school, but at what they are not required to learn.  While your kids are very busy toiling over algebra and chemistry, international trade agreements are being forged and currencies are being manipulated by entities that most Americans don’t even know the names of, much less the inner workings of.  Kids are compelled to solve quadratic equations and write essays on Shakespeare, and they graduate without understanding how to calculate the interest on credit card debt or decode a mortgage agreement.  They learn an old fable called “How a Bill Becomes Law,” while corporate lobbyists draft legislation that will pollute their air and water, deny them health care and unemployment benefits, and put barely tested drugs on the market and genetically modified organisms in their food system.  And in the developing world, teenagers are struggling with — and more often than not, being defeated by — English Romantic poets and high school physics while the World Bank and IMF are negotiating incentives for foreign investment that will lead to their ancestral lands being sold out out from under them to foreign timber and mining companies and Wall Street speculators in agricultural land.

Our kids are so drowned in disconnected information that it becomes quite random what they do and don’t remember, and they’re so overburdened with endless homework and tests that they have little time or energy to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around them.  They are taught to focus on competing with each other and gaming the system rather than on gaining a deep understanding of the way power flows through their world.   The most academically “gifted” students excel at obedience, instinctively shaping their thinking to the prescribed curriculum and unconsciously framing out of their awareness ideas that won’t earn the praise of their superiors.  Those who resist sitting still for this process are marginalized, labeled as less intelligent or even as mildly brain-damaged, and, increasingly, drugged into compliance.

Next time you hear a teenager saying she’d like to know more about Occupy Wall Street but she can’t because she has to study for a chemistry test, or a parent saying he’d like to let his child run around outside a bit more instead of putting him on Adderall but he can’t because the school schedule doesn’t allow it, or a teacher saying she’d like to do more hands-on experiential learning or open-ended discussions or creative projects with her class but she can’t because she has to do standardized test prep, please ask yourself:  why can’t they do these things?   Who says they can’t?  Who’s in charge here?  Isn’t this is a free country?

Isn’t it?

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When Thomas Paine wrote the pamphlet that helped ignite a revolution, he didn’t title it, “Expert Assessment by a Certified Professional,” he titled it “Common Sense.”  In other words, the very root, the very essence, of any theory of democratic liberty is a basic trust in the fundamental intelligence of the ordinary person.   Democracy rests on the premise that the ordinary person — the waitress, the carpenter, the shopkeeper — is competent to make her own judgments about matters of domestic policy, international affairs, taxes, justice, peace, and war, and that the government must abide by the decisions of ordinary people, not vice versa.  Of course that’s not the way our system really works, and never has been.   But most of us recall at some deep level of our beings that any vision of a just world relies on this fundamental respect for the common sense of the ordinary human being.

This is what we spend our childhood in school unlearning.  Not only can’t we as children be trusted to learn, our parents – and even our teachers – can’t be trusted to manage our education.  They must have supervision, evaluation, they must submit to the authority of higher “experts.”  But if ordinary parents are not competent to judge whether young children are developing normally or whether teenagers are adequately preparing for adult responsibilities, how are they competent to judge proposals for national health care reform or U.S. policy in the Middle East?  If before we reach the age of majority we must submit our brains for twelve years of evaluation and control by government experts, are we then truly free to exercise our vote according to the dictates of our own common sense and conscience?  Do we even know what our own common sense is anymore?

The usual argument for centralized hierarchical control of schooling is that ordinary people simply aren’t competent to make sound judgments about these matters. It has to be managed from above by trained professionals; we have to have some kind of quality control that will override the intellectual weakness of the hapless American public.  And yet it bears remembering that all these hapless Americans attended American schools.  We live in a country where a serious candidate for the Presidency is unaware that China has nuclear weapons, where half the population does not understand that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, where nobody pays attention as Congress dismantles the securities regulations that limit the power of the banks, where 45% of American high school students graduate without knowing that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press.   At what point do we begin to ask ourselves if we are trying to control quality in the wrong way?

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When Wikipedia was first founded, it was kind of a joke.  The quality of the entries was spotty; there were absences and inaccuracies galore.  The old corporate encyclopedia publishers, which employ qualified experts in hierarchical structures to write and edit and fact-check their entries, probably had a good chuckle over it.  They’re not chuckling now.  The idea that a high-quality information source could be created by an open network of volunteer editors seemed ludicrous at first.  But something interesting happened.  Human beings, collaborating with one another in voluntary relationships, communicating and checking and counter-checking and elaborating and expanding on one another’s knowledge and intelligence, have created a collective public resource more vast and more alive than anything that has ever existed on the planet.  I’m not romanticizing Wikipedia; of course it still has errors and biases and limitations.  But so does everything else.  After only ten years in existence, it’s pretty darn remarkable.  Even Harvard professors, those icons of the intellectual hierarchy, are now assigning Wikipedia entries on their official syllabi.

But this is not a paeon to technology; this is about what human intelligence is capable of when people are free to interact in open, horizontal, non-hierarchical networks of communication and collaboration.  Again and again as the digital revolution has progressed, non-hierarchical models of collaboration have been demonstrated to outperform the old factory-style vertically-controlled models.  Positive social change has occurred not through top-down, hierarchically controlled organizations, but through what the Berkana Institute calls “emergence,” where people begin networking and forming voluntary communities of practice. When the goal is to maximize the functioning of human intelligence, you need to activate the unique skills, talents, and knowledge bases of diverse individuals, not put everybody through a uniform mill to produce uniform results.  You need a non-punitive structure that encourages collaboration rather than competition, risk-taking rather than mistake-avoidance, and innovation rather than repetition of known quantities.

The children of the digital revolution, the young people of Occupy Wall Street, are modeling this type of voluntary, horizontal collaboration for us now in the political realm.  But if we really want to return power to the 99% in a lasting, stable, sustainable way, we need to begin the work of creating open, egalitarian, horizontal networks of learning in our communities.  If in ten years we can create Wikipedia out of thin air, what could we create if we trusted our children, our teachers, our parents, our neighbors, to generate community learning webs that are open, alive, and responsive to individual needs and aspirations?  What could we create if instead of trying to “scale up” every innovation into a monolithic bureaucracy we “scaled down” to allow local and individual control, freedom, experimentation, and diversity?

And what could we create, what ecological problems could we solve, what despair might we alleviate, if instead of imposing our rigid curriculum and the destructive economy it serves on the entire world, we embraced as part of our vast collective intelligence the wisdom and knowledge of the world’s thousands of sustainable indigenous cultures?  If the internet is the collective intelligence of human beings connecting across the dimension of digital space, then indigenous wisdom is the collective intelligence of human beings connecting across the dimension of time.  Every ecosystem in the world at one time had a people who knew it with the knowledge that only comes with thousands of years of living in place.  A tribal person in New Guinea can still identify 70 species of birds by their songs; a shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of species of plants and which preparations will enhance their chemical potency in the human body; a traditional Polynesian navigator can detect an island miles beyond the horizon by a pattern in the waves and the behavior of birds.  This kind of knowledge seems almost supernatural to a modern person stumbling noisily through the forest; but it’s not supernatural.  It is human intelligence honed over millennia, through unimaginably vast numbers of individual observations, experiments, reflections, intuitions, refinements of art and experience and communication.  It is the indigenous equivalent of a spacecraft sent to Mars; it is human intelligence shaped and perfected and then shot like an arrow, like a ray of light, deep into the heart of nature.

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In the hills and forests of eastern India’s tribal regions, the Adivasis (“original dwellers”) have begun to defy the Indian government and to occupy the ancestral lands stolen from them to benefit foreign mining and timber companies.  The plight of the Dongria Kondh, a tribe whose lands are threatened by the toxic Vedanta bauxite mine, has been compared to that of the N’avi in the fantasy film Avatar.  But for the Kondh this is no fantasy.  They realize that they cannot trust their government, they cannot trust the companies, and they cannot necessarily trust the foreign political activists and NGO’s that have come to “help” them. As historian William Greider has said of the populist movement among U.S. farmers in the late 19th century,

They knew this about their situation: nobody was on their side.  Certainly not the moneyed classes and the economic system, and not the government, either.  So if they were going to change anything, it had to come out of themselves.

So as the Adivasis occupy their land, they are also moving to create their own forms of education for action.  Just like the legendary Highlander Folk School and the barbershop literacy initiatives during the Civil Rights movement, Adivasi people are coming together on a voluntary, cooperative basis to share experiences, analyses, strategies, and tactics:

We organize workshops and gatherings and have created a learning environment for all our people – I feel so happy and satisfied, I cannot tell you – we have been creating a political education around land, forest and water issues and debating courses of action. We are expanding in terms of participation and we need to keep generating more awareness on more issues that affect us… it is a political awareness, an adult education about society – a different kind of schooling perhaps. 

~Adivasi-Dalit Ektha Abhijan movement organization representative/leader  (Kapoor, 55)

To be effective, the Adivasis will need to understand their constitutional rights, the economic forces of globalization, the legacies of colonialism, the agendas of foreign investors, and the economic policies of the Indian government which enrich the upper castes at the expense of Dalits and tribal people.  But crucially, they need to speak to each other about all of this in their own languages, to share information and ideas in the context of their own histories and cultural identities, to create new strategies that are shaped by their own values.  As a matter of fact, for the Kondh, they need to sing to each other of all these things:

People’s organization is the only help, the only way… 
It is the fountain of knowledge for the poor.  
If we come together and get organized,  
That will be the end of the exploiters and oppressors… 
We will fight through non-violent means.  
How many deaths will we die from running away in fear?  
Our hearts are weeping, our hearts are bleeding  
But the people’s organization is the only way… 

 ~ Song at Kondh tribal gathering (Kapoor, 62)

The Kondh aren’t going to let the powers that are destroying their world be the ones to teach them about it.  They are choosing for themselves, talking to one another, learning from and teaching one another, building their movement.  As our climate heats up, as mountaintops are removed from Orissa to West Virginia, as the oceans fill with plastic and soils become too contaminated to grow food, as the economy crumbles and children go hungry and the 0.001% grows so concentrated, so powerful, so wealthy that democracy becomes impossible, it’s time to ask ourselves; who’s educating us?  To what end?  The Adivasis are occupying their forests and mountains as our children are occupying our cities and parks.  But they understand that the first thing they must take back is their common sense.  They must occupy their brains.

Isn’t it time for us to do the same?

~ Carol Black


The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary.. Eric Raymond, O’Reilly Media, 2001. Read the updated text online here:”

Education, Decolonization, and Development: Perspectives from Asia, Africa and the Americas, Dip Kapoor, ed.  Sense Publishers 2009.

Education and the Rise of the Corporate State,  Joel Spring.  Beacon Press, 1973.

Indigenising Curriculum: questions posed by Baiga vidya.  Padma Sarangapani.  Comparative Education Volume 39 No. 2 2003, pp. 199–209.

Lifecycle of Emergence: Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale.. Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, 2006.

Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, Gregory Cajete, Ph.D.  Kivaki Press, Durango, CO 1994

Occupy Everywhere: On the New Politics and Possibilities of the Movement Against Corporate Power, video discussion with Naomi Klein, William Greider, Michael Moore, Rinku Sen, and Patrick Bruner.  The Nation, November 10, 2011.

Power and Place; Indian Education in America, Vine Deloria, Jr. and Daniel R. Wildcat.   Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado 2001.

Revolution OS: Hackers, Programmers, and Rebels UNITE!. View trailer here: View entire film online here:

Short Route to Chaos: Conscience, Community, and the Re-Constitution of American Schooling,   Stephen Arons. University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Survival International, Tribes and Campaigns:  The Dongria Kondh.

The Future of the First Amendment.  Knight Foundation, 2004:

The Wayfinders:  Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Wade Davis. House of Anansi Press, Inc,  Toronto.  2009.

Walking With the Comrades: Gandhians with a Gun? Arundhati Roy plunges into the sea of Gondi people to find some answers.Outlook India, March 29, 2010.

Why Are There No Successful Innovation Initiatives?   Steve Denning.  Forbes magazine.  December 2, 2011.

Wikipedia.  Wikipedia:


25 thoughts on “Occupy Your Brain

  1. Great synthesis of what is left for us to do, Carol – thank you.

    It’s amazing how scared our public education system is of the collective intelligence of its students. I love this question:

    And what could we create, what ecological problems could we solve, what despair might we alleviate, if instead of imposing our rigid curriculum and the destructive economy it serves on the entire world, we embraced as part of our vast collective intelligence the wisdom and knowledge of the world’s thousands of sustainable indigenous cultures?

    What would it take to stop colonizing children, I wonder. How do I stop entirely?

    I saw a post on BoingBoing about the prevalence of blind compliance with authority amongst mental health professionals. How do teachers get past their own compliance with authority? How do teachers begin to trust that organic, communal learning works in fostering healthy individuals and sustainable communities?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2012, 7:15 pm
  2. Well, it’s a process. The culture of control and measurement is so dominant right now that you have to be willing to take on a certain amount of conflict and friction in order to step outside of it. The interesting thing is how we have come to take it for granted that brilliant, creative people have to be rebels, willing to defy convention and authority. And yet I believe that many brilliant, creative people are actually gentle souls who have no intrinsic desire for conflict or defiance. So what they want and need is a culture that supports them — or at least leaves them alone to do their thing in the marginal spaces. Otherwise they get completely shut down.

    It would be a lot easier for teachers to trust if they were trusted.

    But I think spaces like this that support teachers who otherwise feel isolated in their schools or communities do a great service. The Berkana Institute has some great ideas about how a network moves into becoming a community of practice. Seems like that’s what’s beginning to happen here.

    Posted by Carol Black | March 1, 2012, 10:14 pm
  3. This is an elegant and brilliant call to action. Thank you Carol. I can’t wait to talk with you at IDEC!


    Posted by Kirsten | March 2, 2012, 1:56 pm
  4. This is one of the few pieces I’ve ever read where I said, “I wish *I’d* written that!

    I hardly know where to begin in listing its pluses. It is passionate yet rational, Big Picture with specific details, historically rich with contemporary implications.

    Among my favorite parts are the “radio” example (where you replace the term “school”); the Wikipedia example of democratic, community-led learning (and the paradigm shift away from encyclopediae written by so-called experts); and the case study of the Adivasis, which reminds me of the 1980 NBC White Paper on the total quality movement, titled, “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?”

    Why, indeed?

    Why couldn’t we replicate this process? What if the Gates Foundation, among others, picked 100 communities around the country and said to each, “Here’s $10 million [and no more] to create your own community education system. The only requirement is that it must be created and run democratically, with everyone participating (including all youth) having a single vote”–or something to that effect? Think of what we/they would learn about real education, as opposed to the money spent propping up the current system.

    Kirsten’s right, too–this is a great call to action–a fire bell in the night, to borrow Jefferson’s phrase. We must find a way for it to go viral, to reach a huge audience who will then read it out loud at school board meetings and departments of compulsory mis-education *everywhere*.

    Thank you for this wonderful contribution to the cause of what I prefer to call Open Education.

    Posted by Peter Bergson, Haverford, PA. | March 2, 2012, 3:59 pm
    • Wow, Peter. I clicked on the link for your name to discover two delightful things;

      1. That you are the father of the famous Emily and Julia Bergson-Shilcock whom I used to read about in GWS back in the day! How lovely they have grown up to be! (Don’t you also have a daughter named Amanda?)

      2. That you and your wife founded “Open Connections,” which looks absolutely incredible! This is exactly the kind of thing that my daughter and I have talked about trying to start one day. I hope that the folks on the Coop will check this out. You can see a video at this link:

      And check out the website at this link:

      It looks just like a dream come true. Amazing.

      Posted by Carol Black | March 3, 2012, 2:32 am
      • What a small world. Thanks for pointing out Peter’s background, Carol. I had no idea that Open Connections existed right outside of Philadelphia. I was just in Newtown Square last weekend! I suppose I should try to figure out a way to visit….

        Carol, thank you for a well-crafted argument that includes so many real stories of how democracy and communities working together really work.

        Posted by marybethhertz | March 3, 2012, 5:56 pm
        • Thanks, MaryBeth. I’m hoping we can persuade Peter to write something about Open Connections for the Coop. I think people would be interested in the details of this model and how it’s working out. I hadn’t heard of it, either, but it looks like they are developing a really interesting blend of structure and freedom.

          I also really like the term, “Open Education.”

          Posted by Carol Black | March 6, 2012, 1:37 pm
        • To Mary Beth Hertz: Oh, so close! Open Connections’s address is Newtown Square, although it is technically located in the adjoining township, Edgmont, just on the other side of Ridley Creek State Park. Let’s arrange a visit if you’re still interested.

          To Carol: I would be happy to write about “OC” and Open Education if you think that would be of general interest. I know that there is a delicate balance between discussing principles and goals on the one hand and then exploring specific applications on the other. I think Peter Gray pulls this off reasonably well in his Psychology Today blog, “Freedom to Learn”, when he describes his beloved Sudbury Valley School. It is all too easy, however, for people to focus on some aspect of another person’s (or groups) implementation which they find unacceptable and thus loosen the bond of agreement that previously existed regarding shared desires and intentions. My experience is that no one, of any age, likes being told what to do, or even having it implied with comments such as, “Have I got just the thing for you!”

          The only possible solution to that problem that I have found–and I’m not sure how effective it truly is–is to offer a disclaimer that what works for one group is not being offered as THE solution for all, and in fact *couldn’t* be replicated precisely even if one wanted to. (The folks at Sudbury Valley will tell you that each Sudbury school is different, some to the point where they wish that they wouldn’t refer to themselves as such because of the degree of their differences. And in the same manner, when people have asked me over the past 40 years what I think of Montessori schools, my standard response–offered only slightly tongue-in-cheek–is that there *are* no Montessori schools per se, because the good doctor is dead. There are only Montessorian schools, just as there are Christian churches–all reflecting individual interpretations of an original (and evolving) book or body of knowledge in their own ways.

          The Open Connections Village, then, is our evolving experiment with what we call Open Education–a term I first heard from Dr. Allan Leitman of the Education Development Center in Newton, MA. back in 1968. (Allan said he put it together while completing a film at the Durham Child Development Center in Philadelphia, where the lead kindergarten teacher, Lovey Glenn, summarized the purpose of her hands-on learning approach by saying, “I just want the children to be open.”) I like the term now, despite the demise of the so-called Open Classroom debacle of the ’70s, because it suggests the true nature of genuine education: it opens you up when you increase the number of connections that you can make in your mind. This is what I see as being a key purpose of education–which, by the way, I define as being a process that occurs between the ears of the learner, and nowhere else, You can’t “educate” someone else unless you can reach inside his/her mind and form new synapses. You can only invite, inspire, discourage, or otherwise try to influence, In the last analysis, it is only the connection-making process within the individual that should truly be identified as education in my way of seeing things.

          The opposite of Open Education, I might add, is indoctrination, which is pretty much what passes for so-called education today.

          Anyway, Open Connections is one community’s approach to nurturing the natural connection-making process that is so evident in the first three years of life and so painfully disrupted during the school years for the vast majority of our population. If you think at the Cooperative Catalyst audience would like to receive further description of any aspect of this venture, I’d be more than happy to oblige. As a self-described private, independent resource center for homeschoolers/unschoolers, is lies in the pedagogical space between democratic schools and home education programs. Each year brings new options designed to meet the needs of the hundred or so registered families, including both the parents and their young people.

          Peter Bergson

          Posted by Peter Bergson, Haverford, PA. | March 6, 2012, 5:00 pm
        • Peter, I think this blog is notable for the productive dialogue between innovative public school teachers, charter school teachers, alternative / democratic school people, and unschoolers/ homeschoolers. There are a number of public school teachers here whose schools give them significant leeway to develop alternative approaches in their classrooms, and I think all models can provide welcome ideas and stimulus for thought and creativity.

          I agree wholeheartedly that the goal is not to find the One Best Way to do things, but to explore and respect a diversity of approaches.

          Posted by Carol Black | March 6, 2012, 5:16 pm
  5. Brilliant! Thank you, Carol. I love the community-supported radio analogy. I do hope this essay goes viral. I’ll do my part at North Star! Carol, if you are ever in western Massachusetts, please stop in!

    Posted by Kenneth Danford | March 2, 2012, 4:39 pm
  6. If ‘we’ are to avoid colonizing, I think we must first entirely decolonize ourselves.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | March 4, 2012, 9:42 am
  7. Well, I think that to “entirely” decolonize “our” selves will take multiple generations, so I don’t know if it makes sense to wait for that.

    I’m assuming you’re referring to the post-colonial discourse on the use of the pronoun “we” in ways that exclude colonized peoples? Your comment is a bit cryptic, so I wanted to understand your meaning better before responding.

    Posted by Carol Black | March 4, 2012, 2:16 pm
    • Carol,

      My comment might seem cryptic, but as a “half-breed” I stand at a point-between because I have both been one of the colonized and a colonizer — 47 years in the continental US, five in Nigeria during the last half of the Biafran war and for several years of its aftermath. I experienced the direct effects and the blow-back of colonization here and in Nigeria, and have caused some direct effects and blow-back myself.

      Whatever “we” you choose would be appropriate. It might be of the West/North/Developed/Industrialized/Post-Industrial areas, a given culture/race/ethnicity, a particular religion, educational attainment, monetary weatlh or sex/gender so long the “we” are in quetions holds a dominant position or has the indicia of such status.

      I think it most accurate to note that it would be the effects of colonization that cannot be immediately changed — multi-generation issues are involved, and a good deal of time would be needed for healing. The first step at decolonization, however, only seems (to me) to involve any individual of the “we” Choosing to decolonize. This is not easy, especially if the individual has a degree of responsibility for children or others, as it requires giving up the role played by the (applicable) dominants and the sheding of the power mantle — it requires faith that the colonized human beings will not retaliate.

      As a side note, I am interested in your film, but given the number of texts and other works on my list it will be a while before I get to view it.


      Posted by Brent Snavely | March 4, 2012, 9:10 pm
      • Brent,

        Thanks so much for clarifying and for sharing your history and experiences.

        I participated in a really interesting session last week at a conference on “Globalization, Diversity, and Education” given by a woman of half Nez Perce and half European ancestry about healing from the multi-generational trauma of colonialism. Both colonizers and colonized (and those who participate in both) have much healing to do, in some cases together and in some cases apart.

        Part of the intent of this piece is to suggest the ways in which many of the underlying attitudes of harshness, control, hierarchy, and domination which lie at the root of colonialism are still embedded in the structure of contemporary schools, and continue to do their damage to children and society despite the best efforts of caring teachers to mitigate their effects. It’s worth remembering that these structures were created in the U.S. during the historical period of genocidal expansion and undisguised imperialism, and contemporary commentators like Mark Twain who opposed imperialism were also trenchant critics of schooling. But the deep cultural attitudes of domination and control toward nature, toward indigenous people, and toward children have not gone away, and continue to lie at the root of many current problems.

        One reason I began studying child-rearing in indigenous societies was in an effort to explore other ways in which adults might relate to young people — not to imitate other cultures but to see what basic understandings might be adaptable to any culture. What we see in modern “developed” societies (the “we” of the piece above, which includes multiple nationalities, ethnicities, and economic classes) compared to many indigenous cultures is children who are both more controlled and more indulged, sheltered, arguably infantilized; more dominated and micro-managed and yet more disrespectful to elders; in many cases kids who are working inhumane hours in AP classes, etc., and yet go to college not knowing how to do their own laundry or cook a meal; kids who do “community service” to put on their resumes and yet don’t take basic responsibility within their own households. People from traditional societies have often reported that when modern schooling is introduced, their children become more selfish, more disrespectful, more competitive, and at the same time less competent and inclined to contribute to household and family well-being.

        Unfortunately, when people from the dominant societies try to release their culturally ingrained attitudes of control, it’s my observation that their behavior and relationships can sometimes become rather ungrounded. It’s a bit hit or miss. The sad reality is that we are supposed to know how to raise our children intuitively and confidently by having seen it done well by our own elders, and all too few of us feel that we have had that privilege. It becomes impossible to fully heal until we find a new way of living and raising children that works, but I think we need to accept that this is slow, experimental, patient, multi-generational work.

        All we can do is start the process.

        best, Carol

        Posted by Carol Black | March 6, 2012, 12:59 pm
  8. Open-ended anything really freaks kids out in the classroom. Parents too. The biggest trouble with trying to get students to think for themselves is that many of them have decided they’d rather not. It’s “too hard.”

    Thanks for the post. A handful of excellent teachers left in the US would totally agree with you.

    Posted by claire | March 5, 2012, 3:06 pm
    • I know what you mean about kids “freaking out” in open-ended situations. When I was in high school in the 70’s they decided to be very progressive and have “culminating activities” instead of final exams. We all just looked at each other and said, “Oh, God. Just give us the damn test.”

      People who have been successful at releasing control in a classroom or with kids recently in school usually find there is a “detox” period of disorientation before kids can rediscover the uses of freedom. John Taylor Gatto, former New York State Teacher of the Year, observes that it is often the “A” students who are the most disoriented when nobody is telling them what to do.

      But as another point — and I don’t mean to pick on your word choice unfairly, you may not have meant this — but a big problem with a lot of school programs is that people are trying to “get” students to think for themselves, be creative, etc. Thinking for yourself is something that you do of your own free will, not something that someone in a position of authority “gets” you to do. Kids are incredibly sensitive to these kinds of contradictions, and even when they couldn’t articulate the source of their resistance, they will often just shut down in this situation. You can’t make it compulsory for another person to think freely. Especially when you retain the power to reward or punish them for what they think.

      Posted by Carol Black | March 6, 2012, 1:25 pm
  9. What a great post, Carol. Full of wisdom, common sense, and good will. I look forward to sharing it and to some day seeing “Schooling the World.”

    Posted by Patrick Farenga | March 5, 2012, 7:43 pm
  10. what human intelligence is capable of when people are free to interact in open, horizontal, non-hierarchical networks of communication and collaboration…

    thank you Carol..
    Schooling the World replays in my head and heart… daily.

    Posted by monika hardy | March 30, 2012, 1:01 am
  11. Very well written essay. It is a huge human rights and freedom of conscience issue. However, I feel like the doctor in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version) whenever I try to spread the word. I look forward to seeing the film. If you are willing, please look at my attempt to show the authoritarian school problem in a more lighthearted fashion (a difficult task) by entering “Angus the Goat” into the YouTube search engine. It is a four minute animation. Please let me know what you think. Thanks.

    Posted by Forced School | April 15, 2012, 1:07 pm


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