[Part 1] From Democratic Free Schools to Democratic Free Communities
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[Part 1] From Democratic Free Schools to Democratic Free Communities


There are few issues which incite so much
passion in so many people than the topic of education. You will hardly talk to anyone who doesn’t
feel that there are major flaws in the education system, especially in the United States. Thousands of mobilizations have tried to reform
certain policies within the system, but the self-directed learning movement strikes at
the heart of that system and seeks its complete overthrow and replacement with something entirely
new. Probably the most radical wing of the self-directed
learning movement is the current advocating for total, direct participatory democracy
of students and staff. This is the current that I will spend most
of this video focusing on. I mainly seek to talk to my fellow advocates
of democratic free schools, Sudbury schools, Agile Learning Centers, and unschooling, and
bring forth, out of deep love for the movement, what I think is a much-needed critique of
its current trajectory. The main thrust of my critique is this: how
can we spend so much effort building free, empowered, radically democratic, and communal
personalities in our schools and then send the kids out into a broader society that is
so profoundly unfree, disempowering, hierarchical, and atomized? In other words, the democratic free school
movement far too often fails to take our ideas to their radical conclusion. We build little utopias for our kids and then
retreat into insularity, failing to take on the root causes that incentivize such an overbearing
school system in the first place. I hope that this self-criticism session can
spark an internal conversation about what kind of world we want our democratic schools
to feed into. If I succeed in my argument, you will walk
away from this with the realization that truly self-directed schools require us to build
and fight for self-directed communities. What are democratic free schools? Before we dive deeper, let me get a few disclaimers
out of the way. Democratic free schools are just one section
of the big tent “self-directed learning” movement, and I am greatly inspired and informed
by contributions from the entire vast spectrum of the movement. But I wanted to hone in on this particular
type of school because it is the one I’m most familiar with. I think there are elements of democratic schools
that people in every part of the self-directed movement can get behind, so I hope that those
who advocate for different models within the movement can still gain a lot from this video. I don’t want to spend too much time explaining
every nook and cranny of the democratic free school model, because there are many great
videos that do just that and because this video is most targeted to those already within
this movement. I do, however, plan to make a video that argues
why proponents of broader societal autonomy, grassroots democracy, and fellow travelers
should embrace self-directed education and incorporate it more into their arguments and
practical action. That video will be aimed towards people who
have never heard of such schools. For now, let me try to give a short introduction
by breaking democratic free schooling down into its most essential components. For those who are familiar with the model,
feel free to skip ahead. The starting premise behind the democratic
free school is essentially that kids are naturally eager learners, creative, and curious people
who, given the freedom and autonomy to make the decisions that affect them and explore
their passions to the fullest, will continue on a path of a life-long embrace of learning. Traditional schools embrace uniformity, authority,
and rigorous standards and do little but crush that natural curiosity and passion in youth. Democratic free schools seek to overturn that
with a few key pillars: direct democracy and shared power in community, leadership through
guidance and not authority, an embrace of play, and full freedom to explore one’s individual
passions and desires. A quick look at each pillar in turn: direct democracy and shared power in community At a democratic school the rule book usually
starts with a blank slate, and becomes filled, added to, subtracted from, and modified over
time through the flexible directly democratic school meeting, in which all students and
staff have a direct say in all decisions that affect them and govern the school. This could mean anything from the physical
design of the building, the admissions policy, and how funds are raised and spent, to the
hiring and firing of staff or how transgressions of the mutually-agreed upon rules should be
handled. Many democratic free schools strive for consensus
decisions instead of a rule-by-majority. The middle person of the decision-making process
is cut out- there are no principals or school boards imposing rules from above. Contrary to what one might think, in my experience,
this actually leads to less chaos and kids more likely to follow the rules, because they
themselves participated in the proposing of rules, debating them, and finally voting on
them. It follows that they are responsible for holding
each other (and the staff) accountable to the rules. So the kids actually feel like they have more
ownership in their education and want to be there more! If you don’t believe me, find me any other
type of school where the kids not only have the power to vote to, but did vote to, go
to school during the summer! That actually happened at a democratic free
school I worked at. True, healthy, community necessitates shared
power and participation by everyone, instead of decisions and the ability to act being
imposed and monopolized from above. The conditions most conducive to friendship
are true equality in power. A community where decision-making power is
decentralized widely to everyone means that people depend on close, friendly relationships
with their peers, as that is the environment most suitable to building consensus. With this constant need to cooperate, we have
an environment where cliquish behavior is not rewarded. In my experiences, democratic free schools
incubate a sense that everyone in the school is a potential playmate, learning partner,
or supporter of the next great idea you might bring to the table. This is a far-cry from the highly competitive
environments incubated by AP classes and standardized tests where your classmates are often seen
as potential threats to one’s individual “achievement”, from whom knowledge is
to be guarded at all costs. The more students are pit against each other,
the more likely for bullying and other anti-social behavior. I don’t want to minimize the possibility
that bullying can and does happen in free schools as in any environment, but I would
argue that a strong democratic and cooperative culture would make them far less susceptible. Those schools at the forefront of this emphasis
on direct democracy uphold the democratic ethos across the board. By this I mean not only are the relations
between staff and students thoroughly democratic, but also the relations among staff. Staff have their own meetings to democratically
decide on all aspects of the school that only affect them, namely their own hours and pay. Some even leave this aspect of school also
subject to the whole school meeting so that students really do have full say on the school
budget. The important message here is that all school
founders should seriously consider what message it sends to students to say the whole school
is democratically run while not modeling democracy among ourselves as staff. Even in environments where youth and adults
share power equally, kids do look up to adults as mentors, and to have hierarchical relations
among staff could send the message that the democracy we advocate is a sham, or that real,
radical democracy is just something that works as kids, but then we have to grow out of it
and face the “real world” of stratification and power imbalances. There is a model for democratically-run businesses
outside of the free school movement. Worker-owned cooperatives, run through worker’s
self-management have existed as long as people have made decisions about economic life or
carried out tasks together. This has always been a current running through
society, even as the hierarchical business models we know so well today became dominant. If we want to be at the forefront of democratic
practice, then I think it is important that we show our commitment to these beliefs by
democratizing power in our schools as workplaces, and not just as learning environments. Many schools are already doing just that,
or started under worker self-management in the first place. There is nothing to stop school founders of
existing schools who see themselves as “employers” to take that small extra step and further
decentralize power and responsibility among the rest of the staff. 2. Leadership through guidance and not authority A strong, egalitarian community is never without
leaders. Equality recognizes that each individual has
unique skills and passions to bring to the whole, but places no individual with unique
skills above the rest. Democratic free schools allow for every student
and staff member to be a leader when they are sharing their gifts with others, but it
is important that leadership is not turned into a permanent position of authority. In democratic schools, teaching is not something
that is limited to adults. 3. Play Play is a natural and beneficial human activity
and should never be limited to the confines of “recess”. Free play is so crucial for developing kids’
sense of cooperation, consent, communal responsibility, as well as their imagination. Unlike in traditional schooling where play
is seen as something separate from “business” and as something that should mostly be done
at home, democratic schools put little to no limits on how often kids can play or what
kind of play they can do. The adults don’t try to steer kids towards
“productive” or “useful” play. That’s not for us to judge. The more adults intervene with play, the more
they limit children’s creativity. Democratic free schools usually encourage
adults to be quiet observers of play unless invited to join in by the kids. Play teaches us how to check in with one another
to make sure everyone is still having fun, to be attuned to each other’s needs and
wishes, to build teamwork skills, and encourages equality- everyone will just quit playing
if one person gets to be king of the treehouse all the time. 4. full freedom to explore ones individual passions
and desires The democratic free school is a place of constant
learning, even without a set curriculum. Students are never held to some minimum “essential”
knowledge they must obtain, they don’t take tests, get graded on their work, or go home
with homework. Classes are often organized based on specific
interests of students or staff (and can be taught by staff or students), but none of
them are required. A student is free to go their whole time in
the school without attending a single organized class. At the heart of the concept is total freedom
for anyone in the school to explore their passions or desires or even passing interests
to the fullest extent they care to. Staff are there to help students find the
resources they need (if asked) to continue on whatever path or paths the child decides
to venture down. This could mean helping them find books, films,
or websites related to an interest (say: adobe housing), connecting them with experts (say
a traditional builder of adobe houses who can pass on that knowledge), or helping them
approach that interest hands-on (attempting to build an abobe house with the kid). In this way, a staff member is more often
to fill a mentor role than that of an instructor. Unlike traditional schooling, kids in democratic
schools aren’t forced to learn anything they don’t want to and there are no pre-judged
standards for what “acceptable” knowledge or activities are. Those decisions are truly in the hands of
the individual student and the broader community through the school meeting. ——
These are in my mind the defining features of this model. This is is a lot to take in, and very hard
for most people to imagine because it is a world away from conventional schooling with
all its assessments, statistics, and measurements. If you want to see it in action, my first
recommendation is to visit your local democratic school, Sudbury, or related school. Other than that, I highly recommend the documentary
“School Circles” which you can rent or buy off of Vimeo, and the feature length-film
“Summerhill” that you can find free on Youtube under the title “BEST FREEDOM MOVIE
EVER!”. A friend of mine said the latter film felt
a little too after-school special-ly for him, and I can see what he means, but I love it. ———
The trap of hyper-individualism, and the need for a social turn Before I get into the critiques, I have to
be up front and say that I can’t think of a more more fulfilling, holistically beneficial
environment that I’ve experienced in my own life than a democratic free school. Even as staff, I feel more of a sense of autonomy
there than any other workplace I’ve ever been, by a long shot. My opinions matter and I care deeply about
the work I do because not only do I see it affecting students’ lives in positive ways
like most teachers, but I know that I am empowered to shape and nurture the very design of the
school on a daily basis. I get to watch kids find their voice, feel
valued and respected as fully functioning human beings, and explore their passions to
the fullest extent. I get to exist within a true community- a
space of shared survival of different ages- that takes care of each other. We can sometimes get so caught up in the day
to day that we forget the harsh realities of the world outside of the school. A common conversation we have in the school
comes from the discrepancies that sometimes happen between school life and home life. Just how helpful is empowering kids at school
when they go home to hovering, or even dictatorial, parents? We talk a lot about how to cooperate with
the parents of each child to make sure the students return home to a household that isn’t
overbearing and stimulates and allows the same kind of urges for freedom as the school
does. As hard as that work is, it isn’t enough
to safeguard the democratic personalities that democratic free schools try our hardest
to encourage. If we want to develop a freedom-loving personality,
then we need to build a world outside of school and the home that encourages that same freedom
and community support. This is where I think we often fall short. In our important focus on “the individual”,
we can sometimes neglect the broader community and the world at large. Despite most of the states of the world embracing
the term “democracy”, if democracy is supposed to be decisions made “by the people,
for the people”, it is clear that most of us get very little say in the actual decisions
that run our lives. The kind of democracy we participate in at
democratic schools, where we propose, debate, and vote for or even come to consensus on,
every single decision without intermediaries is infinitely more empowering than the “choices”
we have outside of it between a few, preselected, elite, political candidates every two or four
years or which type of nefariously produced chocolate bar we spend our money on. Spend any length of time in a democratic school
meeting and then go to work, stroll around your neighborhood, or visit a city council
meeting and you will see the unbelievably obvious differences in autonomy you have within
the first environment compared to the other three. In democratic schools, power becomes a collective
process in which everyone takes part in shaping their own life and shaping the community around
them. Outside of the school, we are always forced
to live according to someone else’s plan- be they bureaucrats, HOA, politicians, bosses,
city planners. Our environment becomes something that happens
to us, something imposed on us, rather than something we actively shape. Then those same people have the audacity to
tell us “that’s just the way the world works” as if our current state of affairs
are natural and unchangeable. The microcosm of democratic free school communities
proves them wrong. But Democratic schools give students tools
and freedom which are suppressed in the outside world. We prepare them to participate directly in
democracy, but they come out into a world where they are governed, bossed, surveilled,
judged, punished, and held subject to a vast range of decisions that they never had a say
on (and often that no one even alive today ever had a say on). We empower them to be the subjects of their
own destiny but they leave our walls into a world that treats them like objects to be
marketed to. We prepare them to take ownership over their
lives and then send them into a world where the most important decisions affecting them
are outsourced to those that seek to manage them. Kids grow up as a part of a strong community
that shares resources and power with one another and then come into an isolated, tumultuous,
world where fewer and fewer of us even know the person that lives next door. It is not a failing of the democratic school
that it does not churn out loyal followers of power. It is rather a challenge to us. How can we navigate in a world that constantly
imposes hierarchies contrary to the values we have cultivated in our schools? We should never accept the argument that what
is will be, which is as Murray Bookchin said, “the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking. We should never give in and line up our schools
with students that will be a good fit, going with the flow in the disempowering world that
has been built. We should not turn inward and let that world
co-opt and defang our schools; we should turn outward and try to shape the world to the
standards of freedom that we have built together in our democratic free schools. We must ask ourselves: what would the rest
of our lives look like if they were more like the lives we live in democratic free schools? What would our neighborhoods, our workplaces,
our governance structures look like if they, too, were premised on direct democracy and
shared power in community, leadership through guidance and not authority, play, and full
freedom to explore one’s individual passions and desires? The democratic free school is not enough. It is our responsibility, those who have experience
in these forms of community self-direction, to build “democratic free communities”
for our kids to feed into.

About James Carlton

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5 thoughts on “[Part 1] From Democratic Free Schools to Democratic Free Communities

  1. This is an excellent account of democratic education and especially because it touches on the issue of a society in transition to a directly democratic model. Looking forward to watching the second part…

  2. Very good except for the voting. There's much more to learn by rational debate and modification of an issue rather until all are happy rather than just voting on it. If anyone has a reasonable objection to a proposal then rationally debate a solution and modify the proposal accordingly.

  3. This is such an obviously better way of doing it. Not just better, so incredibly better I can hardly understand why we have let big society be run any other way. We must be still in the dark ages. This video needs to get 1 billion views.

  4. Great video. I really like the way you've built the argument so far. Looking forward to part 2! 🙂

  5. For those interested, this is the link to watch the School Circles film on Vimeo On Demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/schoolcircles

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