There was a news report recently where 24 students at a Virginia high school were suspended for wearing clothing that had the confederate flag on them, violating school policy. This is just one of many, many incidents where school officials crack down on student speech that violate some school policy or norms or just good taste.
This illustrates a fundamental paradox of school. It is my firm belief that whatever we teachers may be teaching as content, we also should be teaching students how to function well in a democratic society. That has to be a permanent subtext to all our efforts at all levels of the educational system. But in reality, schools are one of the most authoritarian institutions we have, where teachers and administrators lay down rules and regulations and students are expected to unquestioningly follow them and are punished if they don’t.
I understand that many of these rules arise from a genuine desire to protect students from controversy, to maintain a calm environment, and avoid having students subjected to offensive speech. But how can we avoid the paradox of having students spend the formative years of their lives in a highly authoritarian system and then think that they can make a smooth transition to being engaged citizens of a democratic society? What schools currently do is reward conformity and blandness. Should we be surprised if as adults they continue that pattern, with most not challenging the status quo and shunning political engagement and activism?
In my ideal world students would be allowed to say anything, either verbally or in the form of clothing, that they are allowed to say in the outside world. When some use that freedom to make provocative or controversial or offensive messages, those occasions would be taken as teaching moments, to be used have discussions about the issues raised. For example, when students wear confederate flag clothing, that could be used to discuss the background to the flag and why some see it as symbol of pride and others as a symbol of hatred. That is the discussion that goes on in the world outside school and surely we should be enabling our students to knowledgeably participate in that broader discussion instead of trying to shield them from it.
There are some obvious problems with my idealized world. Students being adolescents may try to test the limits of the freedoms they are given by (say) saying or wearing statements that are crude or racist or sexist or otherwise extremely offensive. Would such actions completely derail the teaching of the more mundane curriculum? Maybe. But in the outside world things don’t come to a halt because people are exercising their freedom of speech in ways that are extreme. We have learned how to live with it, at least for the most part. It may be that after pushing their freedom to the extreme and getting no major reaction, students will get bored with the whole thing and it will drop to a low level of statement making.
It would be nice to test this theory out in an actual school where students are given such freedom just to see what happens, like what educator A. S. Neill did with his Summerhill School founded in 1921 that I was pleasantly surprised to see is still in existence. I read Neill’s book about the school many years ago and was impressed with what he achieved even though the original school had two distinct groups of students that made it challenging. On the one hand were children of parents who genuinely believed in Neill’s model of a school where students were given so much freedom. On the other were ‘difficult’ children who had been expelled from one school after another and their desperate parents saw Summerhill as their last resort and hoped that this school might succeed where all others had failed.
The important freedom at Summerhill is the right to play. All lessons are optional. There is no pressure to conform to adult ideas of growing up, though the community itself has expectations of reasonable conduct from all individuals. Bullying, vandalism or other anti-social behaviour is dealt with on-the-spot by specially elected ombudsmen, or can be brought to the whole community in its regular meetings.
Summerhill is a happy and caring community that recognises the importance of expressing emotions and learning through feelings. There is a general openness and honesty among the community members. Staff do not use adult authority to impose values and solve problems; these are solved by the individual with the help of friends or ombudsmen or by the community in meetings.
The school’s website says that the number of similar experiments in democratic schooling are growing and exist in other countries as well. I suspect that such experimental schools exist in the US too though I am not aware of any.
I have been in the education world all my life. In my own courses I try to make them as egalitarian as is possible but I am limited by the institutional constrains under which I operate. Although my job has formally been in the tertiary (college) sector, for over a decade I worked closely with teachers in public schools in the secondary sector and saw first hand the kinds of issues they face. It is not easy for them because many of the students arrive at school from home and neighboring environments that are highly challenging, to put it mildly. Most of these students behave excellently but there are some who create problems and the temptation is to crack down on them, issuing harsh punishments such as detention, suspensions, and expulsions in the hope that they will learn to conform. It is a model taken from society where we use the police and the criminal justice system as deterrents to aberrant behavior.
But what if we tried something truly different, especially in some of the so-called difficult schools in the US, something along the lines of the Summerhill model? There were schools that started elsewhere based on that model but Neill himself was concerned that some of these schools got it wrong by confusing freedom with license. As Neill said, “A free school is not a place where you can run roughshod over other people. It’s a place that minimizes the authoritarian elements and maximizes the development of community and really caring about the other people. Doing this is a tricky business.”
It would be interesting to read what the subsequent lives of students who attended Summerhill were like and see how they turned out.