Chances are, if you follow the news from Denver, you’ve heard about a controversy in our local public school district over proposed revisions in Advancement Placement (AP) U.S. History. Protests (including walkouts and sick-outs) ensued over the following proposal:
On Sept. 18 the Jefferson County Board of Education met and proposed setting up a committee to ensure that the [new AP] courses “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respects for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
It’s inspiring to see students, teachers, and parents demonstrate against what they regard as politically motivated censorship, saying things like “there is nothing more patriotic than protest.” What really concerns me, however, aren’t disagreements over what people, events, and concepts are to be covered in classroom discussion, but rather the fact that conventional schooling allows most people very little power.
Ironically, the educational system in the United States features some of its least democratic institutions. Citizenship is a topic in required courses, yet it doesn’t have a home in the structures and daily life of most schools. Those directly affected by decisions regarding curriculum, personnel, finances, and conflict resolution have next to no voice in those decisions.
I recognize that many good people are working very hard to help these students, but consider for a moment the inevitable effects of centralized, factory-like schooling. When distant officials decide what is best for students, when they control teachers’ actions and pay, lopsided power struggles become more likely, not less. Instead of allowing young people’s natural drive to learn blossom, students are left with the options of either complying with or resisting a pre-packaged curriculum delivered by adults exercising arbitrary authority.
Let’s take another look at the school board’s statement. Notice that they mention “patriotism” immediately after “citizenship,” implying that one can’t be a good citizen without a healthy “respect for authority” (as opposed to thoughtful, responsible participation in the political process). Observe the concern that classroom lessons could “encourage or condone” disorder and lawlessness. How very revealing this is: when order is given top priority, when a person’s only form of meaningful involvement is protest, you’ll see exactly the sort of struggle now unfolding in suburban Denver.
Fortunately there are alternatives far more closely aligned with the ways people naturally learn and the skills needed for success in this Information Age. The Sudbury Model of education was explicitly designed to reflect such bedrock principles of American democracy as consent of the governed, due process, and a jury of one’s peers. We prioritize “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all, regardless of age.
In practice, this means autonomy and freedom in learning (freedom of movement, time, assembly, etc.) within a culture of both respect for others’ rights and responsibility for the welfare of the school. Rather than simply getting their citizenship training from textbooks, AVS students learn from immersion in a self-governing community: they assume leadership roles on school committees; they debate, vote on, and enforce school rules. Students can participate as equals in every aspect of school management, including personnel and the budget.
I have great sympathy for those in Jefferson County seeking input into what they’re allowed to study. Actually, my sympathy is independent of the political ideology driving the proposed changes. Rather than simply wishing the protestors success, I am holding out for much more. Instead of imposing any agenda on young people in the hope of molding society in one’s vision, I advocate for allowing all people to learn what they choose, however it best suits them, in order that they can become self-actualized and empowered, respectful and responsible.
One of my favorite quotes comes from civil rights leader Howard Thurman, who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” This is exactly what we offer at Alpine Valley School: people-centered, passion-driven learning. And this, not a solid AP history curriculum, is what the future citizens of this country most need.