Our system of schooling was shaped by a particular worldview, a mechanistic/technocratic mindset that gave rise to the age of industrial and imperial expansion that began in the mid-nineteenth century. It is increasingly apparent that this historical era has spent its creative energies and is now on the verge of decline. Another worldview is emerging, one concerned with sustainability, interconnectedness, and celebration of human diversity. It is a holistic worldview, which brings with it entirely different ideas about education.
The growing interest in educational alternatives-Montessori and Waldorf schools, homeschooling, “democratic” schools, Quaker education, charter schools and various other approaches-represents a leaderless, self-organizing revolution riding the incoming wave of this new worldview. I think it is a genuine social movement, which will eventually replace our current system of schooling with a decidedly different form. Unlike the standardized routines of industrial-age schooling, these alternatives engage young people in an active, meaningful, caring relationship to the world and encourage them to participate in building a just, compassionate, sustainable culture.
Although the movement comprises diverse educational methods, it is unified by five foundational principles:
1) Respect for every person
Maria Montessori said it well: the child is the builder of a unique human personality, driven by a creative force from within to engage the world inquisitively and purposefully. Human beings are naturally endowed with both the capacity and the imperative to fashion an individuality that will experience and live in the world in ways that no other does, and we require autonomy and security in order to fully achieve this potential. We carry the seeds of our highest aspirations and potential evolution within our own hearts. The purpose of education is to nourish these seeds.
The education revolution reflects an openness to the complexity of life. To live in balance means holding our beliefs with humility, remaining open to aspects of reality that are dissonant or surprising, recognizing that all manifestations of reality are contingent rather than final. This principle enjoins us to approach each learner with sensitivity and flexibility, not with ideology and method. A public system of education seeking for balance would no longer be a coercive monoculture; it would provide diverse alternatives representing various philosophical and cultural possibilities.
3) Decentralization of authority
Today, truly important decisions that affect the lives of millions are made by political and corporate elites, not by citizens engaged in public deliberation. The standardization of schooling, the frenzied pursuit of accountability that leads to prescribed curricula and textbooks and relentless testing, was not driven by those most intimately involved in the educational endeavor -teachers, parents or young people-but by corporate CEOs and powerful foundations and the mass media. No Child Left Behind (sic) is the educational policy of a technocratic empire. The educational alternatives movement represents a striving for grassroots, participatory democracy-decision making on a human scale.
4) Noninterference between political, economic, and cultural spheres of society
Philosopher Rudolf Steiner (the founder of Waldorf education) argued that a society is healthiest when its three primary functions or spheres-economic, political, and cultural-are allowed to maintain their own integrity, without interference from the others. He observed that in modern times, economic enterprise has spilled over its proper boundaries, so that every aspect of our lives, including education, has become a commodity-something with a market value rather than intrinsic value. The education revolution seeks to return teaching and learning to the cultural sphere of freedom and creativity. Those who have left public schooling for independent alternative schools or homeschooling are not simply out to privatize the educational system, for this is still to treat learning as a commodity in the marketplace. Rather, they are intuitively responding to the awareness that genuine learning is an organic, spontaneous, and deeply meaningful encounter that requires autonomy from the political and economic forces that have taken over public education.
5) A holistic worldview
From a holistic perspective, the primary goal of education is not to transmit authorized portions of knowledge but to help students experience a sense of wonder and passionate interest in the world, along with habits of open-ended inquiry and critical reflection. Possessing these qualities, holistically educated people can engage the world purposefully, creatively, and transformatively.
Taken together, these five principles constitute a thorough rethinking of the assumptions and beliefs underlying the present system of schooling.
Article by Ron Miller, Educator, Writer
Dr. Ron Miller has been involved in the educational alternatives movement for more than twenty years. He has written or edited nine books; this essay is adapted from his latest one: The Self-Organizing Revolution. He has founded two journals and is currently editor of Education Revolution magazine, published by the Alternative Education Resource Organization ( http://www.edrev.org ). Ron established the Bellwether School in Vermont and is now helping to organize a Quaker school there. Meanwhile, he teaches history at Champlain College. His contact information and writings are featured at http://www.pathsoflearning.net