In a facebook conversation today, I began to write about the inherent ideological split among the ranks of folks who support my work, and across the spectrum of people who call for youth engagement, youth voice, meaningful student involvement, student voice, student rights and youth rights in general. I believe that split looks like this:
- INDIVIDUALISM: An individualist viewpoint reflecting a traditional American line focused on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If youth had total freedom over themselves they would have full authority and rights to do what they want, and this would lead to a better world for everyone. There is little to be gained in surrendering rights, freedoms or authority.
- INTERDEPENDENCE: An interdependent perspective other focused on a more democratic/communitarian perspective. The belief here is that everyone benefits when everyone works together for everyone’s benefits. There is much to be gained from recognizing how everyone benefits when everyone sacrifices.
In the field of education, I believe there’s no better illustration of these viewpoints than the book We Make The Road By Walking, which is a conversation between Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander Center, and Paulo Freire, who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Horton represents the first aspect, while Freire highlights the second.
I find myself frequently advocating and writing and working into the second realm, and I hold Freire’s work with the highest esteem. That said, I am from the North American West, where the first ideal is highest. I am also a great admirer of the Highlander Center, where the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement were trained to lead their uprisings, and which teach a lot of community organizers in the US today.
The arguments I’ve run into over the last 15 years of being involved with the YR movement, which all started in sparing with Alex Koroknay-Palicz about these very things, have all shaken into one of these two categories. Among the National Youth Rights Association, I would say the vast majority of vocal supporters believe in absolute freedom, vis-à-vis the first argument.
Among the democratic education movement there seems to be a balance of perspectives between the two sides.
However, within the public school realm, I have found a lot of older folks hold the second viewpoint, keeping focused on how compulsory education is a foundation of American democratic involvement. A lot of younger educators have lost this perspective and don’t see the connection between requiring schools for 6 to 16 year olds and civic engagement, e.g. voting, protesting, running for office or lobbying lawmakers.
I believe this disconnection has been taught to students inadvertently and intentionally, and has fostered a new generation of active antipathy towards public schools. Ergo, any argument in favor of compulsory education is inherently an argument against personal freedom and ultimately, against youth rights.
What isn’t said is that public education was made compulsory in order to ensure movements like youth rights would exist. The tension in this discussion reflects the best outcome of that intention, where two sides can make highly literate, logical arguments. That can only be the product of a democratic society that ensures free access to public education for every member of society.
I find it hard to believe that I have to say this, but I will: Without compulsory education laws, many parents would keep their children home from school, but not for the romantic vision of many unschoolers. Instead, they’d be forced to work or do domestic work. Parents who couldn’t afford childcare or to stay at home with their children would be forced to let their children (including youth) be alone at home during the day. In neighborhoods without protective supports like caring neighbors and community facilities young people want to be at and are allowed to be at, many young people would become involved in anti-social behavior.
Until there is a plausible alternative, compulsory education is the only worthwhile option for ensuring educated democrats (lowercase “d”) and providing for structured, safe and supportive learning environments for all students is the minimum that can be done to make sure democracy continues. Unschooling for all young people everywhere is simply not a responsible option, and does nothing to secure a good future for this nation or the world. Homeschooling isn’t either. They should both be alternatives that are given room to exist, but shouldn’t be the only options on the table for people.
And that’s why I am from the second category I mentioned above, and not the first.