“Start looking around you and you’ll see things that help you to get started.”
Shortly following this quote in the Episode 83 Follow-Up with Frithjof Bergmann, Bergmann launches into a passionate plea for an education revolution, reminiscent of the inspirational Ken Robinson TED talks. What I’d like to offer in support of Bergmann’s hope is an image of a school that embodies the spirit of New Work. For any reader concerned with education (which I trust is in fact any reader of this blog), perhaps this brief portrait will serve as one those “things that help you to get started.” Accept it as an invitation to elevate our culture’s discourse on education and to illuminate what’s possible in schools with the right vision, trust, and commitment. Though I do discuss a particular school and praise its virtues, please don’t dismiss this as some cheap marketing ploy; I genuinely want to open eyes to an alternative way of seeing education.
It was hardly surprising to hear Bergmann exclaim, “oh yes, yes, yes, yes!” when asked if we needed a new system of education in order to build a reality grounded in New Work philosophy. Sadly, it was also hardly surprising when he offered this scathing description: “our system of education is a bowdlerization; people are ruined, demented, and experience horrible diseases at the age of 16 and 17…schools give Alzheimer’s to 14 year old children. That’s how wrong they are!” This may be hyperbolic, but Bergmann fairly points us to a situation that needs our attention. He goes on from here to call for a system that understands the paramount value of intimate, powerful relationships, “encounters” with personal mentors. This vision, of course, is antithetical to the standard set-up of education, the “banking method,” deplored by the likes of Paolo Freire, whose brilliant book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, exposed the tragic reality of how students become “the oppressed,” forced to identify themselves as inferior and to depend on a “boss” for any sense of self (and self-worth). Schools then (Friere, Robinson, and Bergmann all intersect here) are parasitic, feasting on students as prey and sucking the life out of them. Sapped of vitality, no wonder students conclude, as Bergmann suggests, “I’m not being given anything that is real food.” Students in our culture are malnourished zombies, effectively dead, relegated to eating away their own existence engaged in meaningless tasks.
I’m fortunate to teach at a school that recognizes this disturbing trend (reality?) and actively works against it. I realize that my school, The Putney School (in Putney, Vermont), is not alone in implementing a progressive education model, but what’s sad is that I only became aware of its existence two years ago when I decided to change teaching jobs. How was it that I could be in the teaching profession and not be conscious of Putney’s environment as a possibility? How is it not in the public psyche? Take a look at the school’s fundamental beliefs and the philosophy of progressive education overall, inspired by John Dewey, and you’ll hear resounding echoes of Bergmann and New Work. You may also find yourself saying, “well of course, why wouldn’t a school have this perspective?” Sadly, at the same time, incredulity and skepticism may creep in, making way for this more “reasonable” thought: “that’s nice and all, but there’s no way it’s possible.”
Stemming from a misguided distrust of adolescents, it’s hard for people to believe that they’re actually capable of the type of self-reliance that Bergmann sees as essential to a meaningful existence. Because we’ve become fixated on seeing adolescents in a grossly negative light, because we’ve categorized them in a narrow way and thus reduced them to needing our ever-watchful eyes, we persist in doubts about their capacities. Bergmann urges us toward an education that teaches students how to manufacture things, how to engage in community production, how to become autonomous but generous and empathetic. Putney’s ethos and the resulting practical reality show that trusting students to realize Bergmann’s hopes is not a lost cause; indeed, we’re lost without it.
Here’s what a Putney student might have the opportunity to do in a typical day (and this is a small sampling of the various activities open to students): wake up for AM barn to learn the value of physical labor and to remain connected to nature while also providing the community with necessary sustenance; attend sculpture/weaving/ animation class, emphasizing the value of the arts (and passion); attend community assembly; attend Existentialism; work a lunch shift, either preparing the food in the kitchen or making it readily available in the dining hall; pursue a tutorial (an independently designed course of study); play basketball OR do woods crew; work a dinner shift; attend an evening activity, perhaps black-smithing, jewelry making, or pottery; do homework; through it all, find mentors in peers, faculty, administration… basically anyone in the community, as there is little hierarchy. The idea is that we all explore our passions together, that we understand learning as a process, that we adopt the proverbial “learning for the sake of learning” mentality, that we challenge our vision by seeing things in new ways every day. In other words, it’s an environment brimming with life, with change and ordered chaos, with meaningful activity.
Is it crazy? Absolutely. But so is everything that can’t conveniently be classified as “normal” and thus forgotten. Again, I’m not marketing Putney. I’m inviting dialogue about what’s possible in education. If I can become the catalyst for others “to get started,” if I can serve as the inspiration for a new way of imagining school for even a single person, then I’m eager to take that chance.
Image note: No, the Putney School is not nudist. The image was chosen by a saucy editor. This actually is students at Putney working in the field: