Re: the right to pursue excellence

Cathy Pauline Lachapelle (aelin@leland.Stanford.EDU)
Tue, 6 May 1997 09:59:39 -0700 (PDT)

Cathy said:
> My second reason that I'm not agreeing with you has to do with public
> schools. You see, I can't remember any case of any classroom (in my own
> childhood, or in my field observations now) where kids have felt obligated
> to be enjoying themselves.

Well, I didn't have to look far to find a counterexample to this one.
My husband says his schools were really big on the "feel guilty if you're
not interested/enjoying yourself". Goes to show: (1) don't rely solely on
personal experience (2) there's quite a bit of variability in school
cultures and (3) I get (not surprisingly) a "nicer" sample of teachers and
schools in my work (the ones who are, in some way, already looking for

So, to step out of my optimism for a while, and talk about the downside of
most public (and private) school cultures.

I'm working with the assumption here that people (in the collective
sense) "make" (and replicate for their children) their own reality.
That is, people have a consistent view of the world, and operate within
that worldview, unless something happens to help them step out of it, and
allow them to change it. So, for example, I think of the young man on the
Sudbury video, who says when he came to Sudbury Valley he was at first
disoriented -- "What do I do? How will I get into college?" (The
response being "Do what you want to do"). That young man was coming from
a whole world (public school) where learning means listening and doing
homework, and where success means getting A's that you can use as currency
to get into college. Sudbury Valley gave him a supportive community that
allowed him to step beyond the limitations of that world view, and trust
his own interests and capacities (does that sound right to you, anyone who
knew him? Mimsy?) I remember the time for myself (sophomore year of
college) when I was able to make this step out of the public school
definition of learning and knowing.

The nasty thing about most school cultures in this country is this
definition of learning as listening and doing homework and getting A's.
The teachers believe it, and the kids learn to believe it, and the parents
believe it because they've already been through the institution
themselves. And the damned thing is, it's so limiting! It stops people
from ever trying to learn something themselves. They don't know how.
They don't feel confident looking at a problem and trying to figure out
all about it (I see it all the time with intelligent adults reduced to
quivering jelly :-) when faced with a new computer system or program, or
just getting out of their routine with the damned thing.) Even worse,
they lose their initiative. They learn to parrot what others have said,
instead of working out for themselves what they think. They learn to go
along with the routine -- work, home --without thinking how they can make
it better. It's a damned awful way to run a democracy! (Which may well
be why ours is having so much trouble, with barely half our electorate
bothering to vote, and the corporate world taking over the media and the
government -- hello Goals 2000).

This worldview is sure bent on replicating itself (helped along by big
corporate interests, crying out for more standards; textbook
manufacturers; special-interest groups with their demands for
self-esteem education, sex-education, etc...). Sudbury Valley and other
such schools stand as islands -- radical in today's world.

What's a person to do, who's dedicated working toward a more real
democracy in this country? That's my question, and I've already talked
too much about what I see for a possible solution. Any other takers?