Wed, 9 Oct 1996 18:24:51 -0400

Michael Levy from Pacific Village here, thinking about that hobgoblin of
democratic schools, "exposure."

People learning about our school movement often bring up the question of
exposure; e.g., "Isn't Janey going to miss out on some important subjects she
should be exposed to?" In the past I have thought, "We're not concerned about
exposure, because people learn quickly when they perceive a topic is
important to them, and we don't know what they need to be exposed to anyway."
I still think this is a great attitude about the kind of learning that
traditional school subjects are supposed to represent.

Working at Pacific Village has given me lots of opportunity to re-examine my
thinking about "exposure." The main thing I've noticed is that democratic
schools do embody beliefs about what people should be exposed to--it's just
nothing so cut and dried as an academic "subject." What we seem to care about
mostly is the nature of students' exposure to *people*, rather than to
particular bodies of information or specific experiences. That's why we feel
that age diversity is important; that's why we bother to have adults present;
and that's why we care that they are responsible, capable adults. Hanna
Greenberg wrote recently about how SVS gives its students both roots and
wings. The wings are the result of an environment of respect and freedom. The
roots are the by-products of being exposed to leaders at the
school--critically, staff-- role modeling thoughtful, responsible behavior.

Generalizing, we can see that clearly, we care about what *kinds* of
experiences the students are having. Experiences of fairness and order,
empowerment and effective participation *are* considered by us to be somehow
superior to experiences of injustice and chaos, invalidation and
dictatorship. The main point of difference we have with most other programs
for young people is that we don't support *forcing* these or any other
experiences on them. But we do consider it valuable to make these particular
experiences availiable, which for practical purposes means they must
characterize the prevailing school culture.

For me, this thinking about exposure is helpful in that I no longer feel I
must think of, or present, our school philosophy and environment as if it
were somehow neutral, something it certainly isn't. That said, I also think
that the term "exposure" is so loaded with false assumptions because of its
use in mainstream education, that we'd be better off forgetting about the
question, "What should students be exposed to?" and trying out these
questions instead:
--What kind of social environment do people thrive in?
--What are the best mentorship experiences we can imagine, and what
environment makes them most accessible?

I think the democratic schools already provide great answers to these
questions, and I think we can keep reaching for more. What do others think?