Leo Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana school was the prototypical “free school.” It was started about 50 years before Summerhill and served as the inspiration for many future experiments in alternative education. Kids were free to come and go, attend classes or not. The “teachers” taught what they were interested in, not what they thought kids were “supposed” to learn. Tolstoy's writing on education remains inspiring and surprisingly relevant to current movements in self-directed learning.
Tolstoy makes a startling distinction between education and culture. “Education,” he argues, “is a compulsory, forcible action of one person upon another for the purpose of forming a man such as will appear to us to be good.” He says that culture, on the other hand, “is the free relation of people, having for its basis the need of one man to acquire knowledge, and of the other to impart that which he has acquired.” He points out that instruction is an essential part of both culture and education but that education uses it as a tool of coercion and culture does not.
While it is true that culture provides everything that children need to grow and flourish, our society still relegates children and adults to separate physical and economic spaces. By its very design and structure society is set up in a way that infantilizes children and inhibits meaningful, creative and productive relationships between children and adults. Children also lack opportunities to freely explore and discover the world together with other children.
Many homeschooling and unschooling families are lucky enough to belong to a rich community of other families with the shared time and resources to facilitate and support the self-directed pursuits of children in their community. But many other families need a place for their children to go during the day, a place where children and adults come together on the basis of a shared need to exchange knowledge, skills, and experience in a non-coercive way.
Tolstoy's school provided just that, and we need more places like it. Today children are forced to waste their time in "institutions that have logic and meaning only internally."1 The measure of a good school should be the extent to which it makes possible the free and open exchange between children of all ages, and between the school community and the outside world.
1Hern, Matt. Deschooling Our Lives. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1996