Monday, April 24, 2006

School without Schooling

School without classes, homework, or grades. It's a common wistful refrain from students of all ages, from elementary school to college. The whole "getting an education" thing sure does get in the way of socializing and having a good time with friends. Nonetheless, virtually every student realizes the practical value of having a structured, formal education.

The Washington Post today reports on the minority that don't believe in such a regiment. The cover story "Learning on Their Own Terms" looks at the Fairhaven School, a private school that offers no courses, grades, set daily schedule, or official state accreditation, and which audaciously charges $6,680 a year for enrolled students. The idea behind the school is to remove the constraints of a traditional education and allow students to do whatever interests them--even if that means showing up to school at noon and spending the day playing video games and . Ultimately, the school relies only on the threat of boredom to spur its students to actually do anything.

Nonetheless, I understand why this might seem like a good idea to some. As a lifelong participant in the public education system, I can attest to its many flaws. A lot of what I did in school was unproductive, uninteresting, or meaningless. Yet I always realized that my education was a practical requirement for a future career.

The kids at Fairhaven do not come out of their school equipped with the skills necessary to be an engineer, doctor, or investment banker. Fine, not everyone wants to be one of those, and there many career paths from which a traditional education is not a necessity. The article states that alumni include "a professional skateboarder, a waiter and a librarian". It just seems to me that schools like Fairhaven and others in the "school without walls" genre are doing a disservice to their students by narrowing their potential career choices from such an early age. Fairhaven's youngest students are 5 years old, far too young to have their life options so limited.

If anyone has any dissenting opinions or can explain the practical benefits of such a non-traditional education (keep in mind that even home-schooled kids follow a set curriculum), I would love to hear from you.


ABT said...

If by "practical value" you mean, "if you don't do it this way then you'll have to wade through a load of crap when you apply to college/jobs because they expect you to have been schooled a certain way," then yes, I guess I can see the practical value of a standard high school. But I fail to see the "true value" behind many of the structures and formalities, like all the competitiveness, the emphasis on regurgitation rather than long term learning and understanding, the testing, etc. There are a lot of ways the public schools could be made more philosophically sound and many of those ways would bring them closer to Fairhaven (although, that's like saying stepping out my door in Maryland brings me closer to California.) Point is, even though I find Fairhaven to be pretty damned extreme, the school systems could do with a little thought like that.

I agree that sticking with Fairhaven through high school would probably restrict your options unreasonably, but I think a lot could be gained up through middle school. Honestly, other than an admittedly strong math and programming background, I don't think my early education did much for me. Whether or not I would've truly been inspired to love learning I don't know, but I think if I had been I would've gotten a lot more out of high school. As well as college. I don't know, maybe the transition to such a judgemental system as Real School from such freedom would just crush a person, but to me Fairhaven seems like it would be best as an alternative private school for K-8.

And I believe it's Fairhaven, not Fairview :P. Anyway, thanks for the link, it's interesting. I sort of want to see that documentary. Or just go in one day and observe.

Sheri said...

As someone who is a founder and staff member at a school like Fairhaven I can say that the article has missed the point on many levels, as have the criticisms leveled at Fairhaven. The students at Sudbury Schools gain a tremendous amount from being responsible for their educations. Rather than limiting their options, students at Sudbury Valley School (SVS - the original Sudbury School) have consistently gotten into their 1st choice of colleges, including Ivy League schools.

While the original article manages to point out the seeming "oddities" of schools like Fairhaven it fails to really address the benefits students get from them. Students develop a very high level of persistence, sense of self, responsibility, passion for life, critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills, and on and on. Companies these days are looking for self-starting, free-thinking, responsible people. That is exactly what Sudbury graduates are. Take a closer look before writing these schools off as impractical.

Sheri said...

One more thing. The students from Fairhaven and other Sudbury Schools *do* come out with the skills necessary to become a doctor or an investment banker or anything else they choose. There are Sudbury graduates in just about every profession you can imagine. They come out prepared to make things happen in whatever area of interest they choose. Its unfair to paint a picture of the school from 3 examples given in the article.