Paper submitted on 4 August 1994
Thomas B. Gregory
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Bloomington, IN 47401
Dear Mr. Gregory,
I had occasion to read your book Making High School Work: Lessons from the Open School recently. With this letter, I complete the requirements for my Masters degree in Elementary Education.
Making High School Work was one of seven books that the History and Philosophy in Education class read. The Open School was presented in the course as an example of a child-centered approach to education and was closely linked to existentialist education. I suppose I’m the culprit of the latter. To me, the Open School represents a major step towards where schools need to go. However, as much as the Open School is approaching that, I find a glaring error in the approach to one aspect of the school. You too remarked on it and structured a New World Seminar to its discussion: The Culture of Classrooms. It is to this that I focus the remainder of the letter.
Allow me to lay the groundwork for the discussion of the classroom. I am very much of the thought that the only thing I immediately know is my existence. Before anything else Mr. Gregory, my existence is known. Anything else that I claim to know is in reference to my existence. The fan that sits a few feet from where I’m writing this is known in reference to me. The pen that I am holding is known only as it relates to me. This is an important point for everything that happens stems from me. Presumably, that is the case with you and the other five billion people on this planet. Presumably for I cannot know it. As the stem for all that happens I design my life. How I do this is what others will judge me on, but ultimately that is not who I am. I am my existence and how I design the essence of that existence (trust me, this will tie into the Open School . . . I promise).
The essence of my life is relative to my existence. If I grant that others exist as I do, then it follows that the essence of everybody else’s life is relative to their existence. That being the case, the role of education is easily defined. Education should prompt everyone to identify his existence. In harmony with this is that education should prompt everyone to design the essence of his life. The two go hand-in-hand.
There are plenty of folks who would like to discuss politics when defining education. Mortimer Adler for instance likes to propose that we should guarantee a decent living for all who complete his program. Paulo Freire would have us teach revolution/love to an extent that we all become free. Myles Horton offers a similar tact. It seems to me that ultimate democracy lies in an existentialist educational program. What could be more democratic than affirming individual existence and essence? A person who has identified who he is and what he is about will be the ideal democrat. To the social reconstructionists: that is the ultimate empowerment.
So, how do we go about creating an educational program that will fulfill this role? It seems to me that the Open School (see, I told you this would tie in) tackles this head-on. The very first thing a student who enters the school does is the Wilderness Backpacking Trip. As you state,
our real goal was to help new kids who had pretty much been told what to do and when to do it through most of their schooling careers begin the sometimes frustrating process of becoming self-directed learners.
A natural first step towards identifying your essence is taking charge of your actions.
However, you really summed up the Open School and existential education with the following
It [Futures] is one of several means – Governance and Advising are others – through which kids in the school become mindful of the intent of a high school education…Futures is guided by one core value: students should play a central role in setting a direction for the program.
Why should students play such a role? I suspect it’s because the education at hand is theirs. It belongs to each of them individually and who is best to direct their own education? Students of course! This is far beyond learning how to become a self-directed learner. This is demonstrating individuality. It is the performance of an individual’s essence. I cannot begin to explain my regard for the Open School on this account. This is education at its best! So, how do these kids come to a point that they define their essence and act on it in such a manner? You described Futures, Advising and Governance throughout the text to really get a good handle on that. I find the development of the Passages even more marking on the design of an individual’s essence.
The six steps to adulthood could easily be re-named the six steps to defining my essence. As I read about this particular program I was ecstatic! Finally, I thought, a school which embodies what education should be. How the hell can we expect these kids to function in this world if they haven’t a clue as to who they are? Passages seems to be the solution to such unempowerment. The student defines who he is through this self-investigative inquiry. For fear of sounding too enthusiastic, I wholeheartedly agree with your description of the drawbacks to the program. It is unfortunate that worthwhile experiences are shunned because they do not directly fulfill a graduation requirement. This needs to be solved. I wonder if there isn’t an imposition felt by students from the faculty to meet these requirements. I thought throughout my reading that the four-year-program mentality was very much present at the Open School. As much as the school broke other public education habits, it did not attempt to break the Freshman, Sophomore, etc. structure that is very much ingrained in our high school students. Was there pressure to graduate on time? It seems to me that a student should graduate when he arrives at adulthood (essence). To me, that would be unlikely to be May four years after high school begins for everyone. Many may arrive earlier and many later.
Jeff addressed a critical point to how education should be approached in the first New World Seminar. In many ways it’s the core of the debate about child-centered education and ultimately existential education. How do you provide an education that isn’t merely accidental? Isn’t guidance needed? How much guidance can there be without infringing on an individual’s personal discovery? Discovery is what this is about, right? There’s certainly a fine line and one could not put in writing the rule. The practical application of a theory has never been without flaws. It appears to me that the Open School has a strong foundation and it just needs to adjust to these nuances and see what works in particular instances.
I hope I have described the role of education. I trust the definition of an individual’s essence has been linked to education. And I think it’s clear that the Open School very much embodies this. So what’s the problem? You may recall that I began this letter to you by stating that there was a glaring error in the approach of one aspect of the school. That error is how the classroom is structured, what is expected from the students and how students address the classroom.
We decided the role of education was to prompt students to identify their existence and define their essence. Futures, Advising and Governance as I quoted you a few pages back certainly incorporates this goal. Passages is the ultimate fulfillment of an existential education program. But what about the classroom? The Open School struggles with the classroom. What is it that takes such a glorious (if not successful) program and causes such inertia? From what you described, it seems that the classroom is the rest stop in the program. Everything is so intense that when we get to the classroom everyone takes a deep breath and goes through the motions. We have all learned the routine. I know you described some exciting classes. I know the faculty has complained that the students balk at coursework. What we have here is a program that does not fit in with the role of the school. Everyone sees it and that’s why it just sits there like a grass stain on the dress whites of the school.
Do I dare propose the obvious? I think I shall. There’s no need for the classroom at the Open School. That’s right, I, a teacher, have just proposed the abolition of the classroom in education! What is it there for? To teach content. Does this mesh with the role of education? Not necessarily. I submit that Passages, Transcripts, Advising, Governance and Futures are quite capable of providing the opportunities for students to arrive without implementing coursework that is foreign to those experiences.
This seems so obvious that I’m surprised it hasn’t already occurred. We bog students down with content for so many years that we can’t even fathom education without it. Yeah, there will be those who claim that students need to be able to read, write, do arithmetic, etc. No shit Sherlock! Do these skills have to be confined to a classroom? I think not, particularly at the high school level. Let me ask you a question. Can you expand a polynomial? Describe all of the levels of the Earth? Tell me one other character besides Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye? This is what is being taught in high school. It doesn’t matter. Yet, these kids are graduating having no idea of who they are. It’s a crime! It seems much more practical to at least have an enlightened populace.
Now, I realize that my proposal isn’t very likely to be adopted. What a shame. But do not fear, I do have another solution to the classroom problem at the Open School that might be an easier swallow. First, let me state that up to grade six or so, the classroom setting is very much appropriate. Certainly not as it exists today, but some mutation thereof. However, when we get to the Open School how do we address the classroom and still appease the traditionalists? The classroom could be dealt with similarly to trips. Have students involved in the planning, teaching/learning and reflection of the course. That way students have something at stake with the course. They will be as much a part of the course as the faculty. Actually, they will be the course. This will be another opportunity for a student to define his essence in Passages. That seems quite natural. Your concern for whether the kid has a pencil or notebook will magically disappear. The student has set his standard. He knows what he expects of himself having designed the course. I believe this is a much better role for the student to assume than being attentive, prepared and playing out the routine of student.
I hope I haven’t come off as being critical of the Open School. That was not my intent. I am extremely impressed with the school you described . Moreover, I am encouraged that such a school exists. I can only imagine what kind of bureaucratic grief the school met with when it was being proposed. It really is not surprising that the classroom is as it is at the Open School. One could hardly expect that the traditional classroom could be abolished today. Although, it is equally unexpected that the Open School even exists…so who knows?
Contrary to what my peers may believe, the argument I have related here is not merely a mental exercise. I truly believe that an existential education program could succeed. I do not think it’s beyond the scope of our society, although a carefully detailed description is necessary to clearly define the program. But that is another issue…
I enjoyed your book and it definitely opened my eyes to many interesting applications at the Open School. I hope you found this interesting and feel free to respond as you think necessary. I would welcome further discourse on the subject.
All of the best,