When we first opened the Macomber Center, we called it a homeschool resource center. One day someone came by to check it out. She wanted to know more about what we did here at the Center. I told her that the kids did pretty much what they would do on their own if they didn't have to go to school; read, eat, play, talk. "Well", She said, "you call yourselves a resource center. What are the resources?" I looked around and I thought for a moment. She had stumped me. What an obvious question. Was this a fatal flaw? And then suddenly it hit me: “The Center is the resource.” I felt a bit like George Costanza pitching his concept for a new sitcom to the NBC execs: “It's a show about nothing! It's like life; you read, you eat, you go shopping.” Maybe it came out sounding a bit too clever and off the cuff, but it was absolutely the truth, I just hadn't been able to formulate it before now.
As we have grown, we have been able to develop many wonderful resources which continue to increase and change with the needs of our members. But our Center is much more than the sum of its resources. What is really exciting about this place to me is that these kids have a place that's truly their own. They are not only learning to take responsibility for their own education, they're learning to take responsibility for their community as a whole.
Recently, a mother came to see the Center with her two young boys. They only spent about an hour here, but the two boys got exactly what we are about. The mother told us that when they got home, one of the boys exclaimed to his father that “you can call a meeting about anything you want, whenever you want to do anything!” and “They got rid of the video game system, which I would have voted for too, because there is sooo much to do there.” He really captured what, for me anyway, is essential about the center; it is a community directed by the kids. They are self-directed learners, who are figuring out how to build an institutional framework around their own needs and interests, a framework which will serve those needs, not frustrate them.
A few weeks ago some kids decided that they wanted to learn about physics and theoretical chemistry. We decided to go to Framingham State University to see if there would be a way to get someone to come to our center and teach these things. We had a lovely meeting with their internship coordinator. We sat around her table eating snacks that she had provided for us while the kids explained the kind of Center we are, how it works. Then they told her what they were looking for in an intern from the University, what they wanted to learn about and how they thought it should be taught. She walked us through the process of writing an internship program and registering it in their database.
Aside from pursuing the particular subject they are interested in, these kids are learning how to take control of the whole process, to bend the existing institutional framework into a shape that meets their own needs as self-directed learners. I see the Macomber Center moving more and more in this direction, through a collaborative process involving kids, staff, and volunteers, where mechanisms are being created so that needs can be easily met within the existing structure. Work-study programs, apprenticeships, visiting artists, scientists in residence, are all among the mechanisms I envision.
These days most kids are taught, through their experience in traditional schools, that institutions are immutable and given. They are taught that their role is to obey the established laws of the system. I believe that one of the most fundamental and important skills that kids can learn in today's world is to function effectively and creatively within a institutional setting. And they aren't going to learn this skill at home or in school. We are witnessing the breakdown and dismantling of all our major institutions. The people who understand that institutions are malleable will be able to participate in the design of their own lives and in creating the world they live in.
In his book The Meaning of Life, Terry Eagleton argues that “happiness and well-being is an institutional affair.” The kind of deep happiness and fulfillment that comes from the free flourishing of one's faculties requires the kind of social and political conditions in which one is free to discover and develop one's own unique strengths and talents and engage the world on the basis of those strengths and talents. Human beings are social creatures, we don't flourish and grow in a vacuum, or within institutions which restrict our freedom. Eagleton gives, as an analogy for this model, an improvising jazz ensemble: “the complex harmony [the individual players] fashion comes not from playing from a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member acting as the basis for the free expression of the others. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights.” This strikes me as a marvelous description of a learning community where kids and adults are committed to supporting and inspiring each other to grow and flourish as human beings.
We no longer call ourselves a homeschool resource center. We are no more a resource center than we are a home or a school; we are a group of kids and adults who have come together to discover new possibilities in a quickly changing world. We have struggled a bit this first year to define ourselves and articulate to the public exactly what we are. But the Center has begun to take its own shape and I can honestly say that the kids have had the biggest role to play in this this. I'm glad that we didn't rush this process. The last thing we want the Center to be is some one-size-fits-all, rigid model that is not able to change, and falls prey to purist ideals and orthodoxy. We have no interest in trying to corner the market on freedom and self-directed learning. Kids have been educating themselves for thousands of years and the modern deschooling movements of unschooling and democratic free schools have been familiar to the mainstream for a long time now. As far as I'm concerned, the more alternatives there are to coercive schooling the better. We believe, like hundreds of other independent learning communities established on this philosophy, that kids know how to educate themselves. As staff, our main job is to support this process in whatever way we can at a given time.