Educational Philosophy

This Is Not A School

This blog entry was written for the Alternatives to School blog, where it was posted on January 22, 2015. 

By Ben Draper


We opened the Macomber Center in 2012 as a resource center for self-directed learners.  Most of us had come from a democratic school background so naturally some people assumed that we were taking the first steps towards creating a democratic school.  What started to interest us, however, was not the potential to move towards something familiar, but the opportunity to explore something new.  We wanted to remain open-minded and flexible about what we were doing and how we might evolve.  There are plenty of alternative schools out there; we wanted to provide a genuine alternative to school.

From the very beginning, we rejected the idea of school. We had no interest in having to enforce an attendance policy, which all schools — even democratic schools– have to do.  We wanted kids to be able to come and go freely.  We wanted the center to be used only as needed and not to hold kids back from pursuing other interests out in the larger community.  We were not interested in handing out diplomas either.  We didn’t feel that kids should need our stamp of approval to move on in the world.  Instead, we felt that they should be the ones to determine when and how they were going to make the transition into adult life.

As a resource center, we provide an environment where the natural curiosity of kids is given free reign.  They are surrounded by acres of natural space and are given the time and freedom to explore.  They have access to the essential tools of learning: computers, books, art supplies, musical instruments, and science equipment.  They also have access to knowledgeable, helpful adults.

One thing we share with the democratic school model is a strong emphasis on community life.  People tend to think of a resource center for homeschoolers as a place where kids get dropped off for regularly scheduled educational activities.  This is not what we do at the Macomber Center.  The kids do not come here merely to take part in individual activities, but to live their lives fully as members of a vital community.  Even the kids who come only two or three days a week become important members of our community.

So if kids do not come to the Macomber Center for specific activities, how do they spend their time here, and what is the role of adults, if it is not to teach classes?  The kids here spend their time engaging in all kinds of different activities.  For the most part, they pursue their interests on their own and with other kids.  There are also many activities that kids and adults do together: they play music together, they play games like bananagrams, and they also play outdoor games like tag, soccer, and frisbee.  They eat lunch together, engage in conversations and so on.

As for the traditional teacher/student relationship that exists in almost any educational setting, at the Macomber Center this relationship has to be understood within the context of self-directed learning.  In the course of pursuing their various interests, kids will sometimes ask an adult for help.  There is often a considerable amount of time and energy spent in conversation just trying to clarify what exactly the interest is, the best way to pursue that interest, and what the role of the adult should be in the process.  This is not just a preliminary step but an important part of the process.  Learning how to articulate exactly what the interest is and figuring out how to pursue it can be the most useful and satisfying part of the whole experience for the learner.  Sometimes the best way to help kids explore a subject is to organize a class, but even when classes are formed, they can vary widely depending on what makes sense for a given subject.  Often the role of the adult is not so much to “teach” but rather to help the kids plot a course and help keep things moving in a productive direction.

The great thing about the resource center model is that it is so flexible.  These centers are continuing to pop up all around the country, and they are all different.  They take on different shapes depending on the needs of their community and the background of the people who create them.  Everything, right down to the land they are on and the building they are in, influences the way the programs at these centers develop.  It has been exciting to see how the culture at the Macomber Center has evolved in ways that we, the people who started it, could never have anticipated.  It has taken on its own life and transcended our ideas and theories about what a resource center should be.

A Flexible, Dynamic Structure

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In his book Freedom and Beyond, John Holt criticized the kind of structure that school imposes on students and teachers alike. "It does not grow out of and has nothing to do with the life and the needs of the class, what the children want, what the teacher has to give. It is dropped on them like a great glass box." The kind of structure that develops naturally in a self-directed learning community, on the other hand, is flexible and dynamic. It evolves with the interests of each child and each adult. It "...helps people to get things done, helps them to live, work, and grow. It does not squelch life. It enhances it." We all know how highly structured school has become, every step of the day scheduled literally down to the minute. At the Macomber Center we do not impose any kind of structure on how kids spend their time. In fact, some would call what goes on here “unstructured learning”.  But I think this is a misnomer, there is always a structure.  It's just a question of what kind of structure, and whether the learner is in control of that structure or whether the the learner is controlled by it.  Last year this structure became quite complex and refined.

To the best of my memory, this is how it all began. When Dan Dick first joined the staff, people immediately recognized how much he had to offer. The kids were eager to take advantage of his experience and skills, his time and energy was soon in high demand. In the morning, when everyone was excited to get outside and start organizing games, Dan was wide open and available. After lunch when things began to settle down, Matt was ready to go get Dan for a harmonica lesson, Ally was ready to work with Dan on math, and Dan was already “dissecting computers” with another small group of kids. This caused a lot of frustration.  Because Dan was wide open and available in the morning, the kids figured they would come find him later when they were ready, at which point he only had about 45 minutes left and everyone wanted his time.

We decided to design our own, extra large calendar/daily planner which has now been through about four iterations, each more finely tuned to our specific purposes. This allowed the whole community to coordinate our various endeavors, large and small. By the end of the year the calendar was chock-full and anyone could see at a glance what was going on where. It started to feel like a really well coordinated operation, everyone working together to help each other pursue interests and ambitions most effectively.

As the kids settle back into the community here, I am trying to just sit back and watch as things begin to take shape. As eager as I am to see that delicate and intricate structure reappear, I am reminding myself that this is a new year and that a new structure will emerge organically in response to new demands.  Who knows what that will look like.

Teaching Classes At Macomber Center

James Style Since I began working at Macomber Center in the fall, my responsibilities (in addition to heading up the Frisbee department, overseeing the Lego collection, and assisting in domino design) have largely been devoted to teaching a series of classes. This has been fun and challenging both personally (learning to teach kids of different ages in a unique, self-directed learning environment), and institutionally (working in concert with other staff to provide a framework for these semi-formal classes to take place in a way that respects the often informal nature of the center). With the year having just ended I have been in a more reflective mood, trying to figure out what worked and what did not, and trying to articulate everything I have learned.

Like any true insight in life this has mostly involved the long, tedious process of realizing the blindingly obvious. A good example of this was realizing that the definition of a class is not as obvious as it may seem, and that each kid often has their own idea about what a class is. How long is class? How often does a class meet? Is there homework for a class? How does a class actually function? For kids who may never have been in a class before, and who are expected to take an active and independent role in their own learning, their ideas of what a class is and how it is supposed to take place may be highly idiosyncratic, not clear to others, and yet the subject of strong feelings. Failure to realize this can lead to confusion.

Of course like the students I have my own assumptions about what a class is. When these clash with student’s ideas novel situations can arise. Early on I realized that my own idea of a class - where a teacher writes on a whiteboard while students calmly and passively listen - was quite absurd. During class I was often either joined by several students happily writing next to me on the whiteboard or, in one case, asked to hand over the marker so the student could write on the whiteboard while I spoke. This was a little disconcerting as the whiteboard helps me focus and organize what I want to say, and yet it also makes perfect sense as it helps the students focus and organize what they are hearing.

Disagreement about the nature of a class can also lead to confusion. Earlier in the year, for instance, I noticed sometimes that what I was offering and had prepared was not what the class was expecting or wanted. When working one-on-one, these differences are easier to overcome because the class can be readily adapted to the specific interests of the individual kid (I can, for instance, relinquish the whiteboard to the student). In group settings, however, these differences can be trickier to overcome because not only is there the confusion between myself and the kid, but also between the kids themselves (maybe, for for example, one kid is distracted by multiple people writing on the whiteboard). This is particularly true when leading classes with kids of different ages. Not only might each kid desire something different from the class or understand the material in different ways but their fundamental assumptions about how a class should work can be different. Of course, no one is more right than any other.

How should we deal with this? Learning (and this includes teaching) at Macomber means being entirely open-minded about what a class is and how a class should function. It is not my role to tell the kids what a class is or how a class should function. More and more, however, I do view it as my role to challenge kids to be clearer about what they want a class to be and how they want a class to work. A class at Macomber is not a fixed thing either in my mind or in the kids' minds; everyone involved has to take an active role in shaping it. Some kids can be very specific about what they want; others less so. In addition to asking important nuts-and-bolts-type questions such as “how long do you want to meet for?” and “how often do you want to meet?”, I want the kids to think about things like “what are the goals of the class?” and “how will we know those goals are being met?”. As the kids gain more experience with classes I want them to reflect more on what they want and how they can get it both individually and as a group. It is not as simple as getting feedback from kids about how I am doing as a teacher or how the class is going for them (though this is important too) but it is important for everyone to think about how we are doing as a class and we can improve.

Video Games and Democracy


As we draw to the close of our second year, we’ve been reflecting on some of the ways in which our community has evolved. It has been really interesting, for example, to watch how the weekly meeting has taken shape. I had always thought that a self-directed learning community had to be, almost by definition, a totally democratically run, self-governing organization. This meant that no decision, big or small, was outside the scope of the weekly democratic meeting. I remember my impassioned attempts to incite the kids to action; “This is your center, it can be whatever you want it to be! You can run it however you want to run it!”. This went on for a few weeks. Nothing, blank expressions all around. I remember saying to a friend, “They must just not be used to having real power, they think it’s a ruse, but if I’m persistent it will eventually get through to them that I’m serious, and finally they will rise to the challenge and take control.” It took me a while, but I eventually came to accept what was clear from the very beginning; kids want to have control over their own lives, they want to be involved in any decisions that have a clear and direct effect on their everyday experience. On the whole, however, they do not seem to have much interest in the larger organizational issues involved in creating and running a place like the Macomber Center. They care a lot about things like scheduling for the week ahead and figuring out sensible rules for the community to follow, and they will engage actively in the democratic process when these kinds of issues are involved. They could not care less, though, about marketing strategies or hammering out the details of our annual budget. It began to feel more and more that the democratic meeting was not the place for these topics to be discussed, and the kids were all too happy to have the staff take them up on our own time.

Our meetings are much simpler now, more oriented around the practical, everyday issues of the community, and much briefer than they were in the beginning. But the items that come up for discussion now are no less consequential. Recently, the topic of video games appeared on the agenda. Some members of the community felt that video games should be restricted to personal devices and should not be played on the main computers owned by the center. One eleven year old boy, who was unable to attend the meeting, prepared a position paper in support of a motion to ban video games and had it read at the meeting. I’ve included a section of it here with the author’s permission.


“I am in favor of completely banning all video games permanently, and without exception, on the Macomber computer(s). It would be a majorly bad idea to pitch the computer completely, since it’s fast, it’s got Flash, and it can handle programs like Scratch. However, video games are simply a recipe for disaster. For starters, we’ve only got one computer that can actually play them, so everyone’s always quarreling with everyone else about whose turn it is. Now, I’m no hater of video games myself. Matter of fact, I rather enjoy them at home on my free time. But at Macomber, the entire point is to get outside, be creative, develop new skills etc. etc. Video games don’t do any of that, unless it’s an educational game that’s no fun anyway. Also, games are a big suck on the Center’s pool of kids for playing outdoors, card games and such. So even if you can summon up the willpower to resist watching or playing them, you’re still gonna be affected. The biggest problem here is the fact that kids seem irresistibly drawn to the games like moths to a light. If only one kid was playing at a time, this wouldn’t be that much of a problem, but that’s not the case. People sign up for a turn order, but until it’s their turn, they don’t seem to be able to do anything else besides watch other people play.”

This whole thing seemed a bit strange to me. For one thing, the kids who were most against video games being played on the main computers were themselves the ones who had been playing video games the previous week on those computers. I asked them, “Why don’t you guys just make a personal decision not to play games on those computers, instead of making a rule about it? After all, it’s important to be able to make conscious decisions about how you want to spend your time and then develop the discipline to stick to it.” But they stuck to their position.  In the end, maybe this was their way of self-regulating. Since it didn’t really affect me that much, I abstained from voting, and it passed almost unanimously.

These kinds of decisions play a huge role in determining the direction of the Macomber Center. Ultimately we realized that to burden the community meeting with issues that kids have little or no interest in would only cause them to become disengaged from the democratic process altogether. But we have also seen over and over again that when issues come before the meeting which directly affect their everyday lives, they engage seriously in the process. In the end we want kids to learn how to function effectively and get their needs met within an institutional setting. Because eventually they will take this with them into adulthood and they will already know what it means to participate in the institutional structures which shape their lives.

Einstein's Advice

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In a letter to his son, Einstein wrote: “Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. . . .”


Einstein is not simply offering his son the secret to mastering a new skill. We all know that to get really good at something you have to first enjoy doing it; you don’t need Einstein to tell you that. Rather, he seems to be advising his son on a much deeper truth about life, that taking the time to find out what you really love and pursuing it wholeheartedly is essential to the art of living well. Einstein does not say, “this is how I got to be so good at what I do”. He says, “I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal”. Happiness is the ability to lose yourself in your work, the way that children are able to lose themselves in play. 

Children at the Macomber Center often “forget about the noon meal”. There is a sense of urgency to their pursuits that is not common in other educational settings. The children here spend their time playing in streams, throwing frisbees, writing computer programs, filming movies, studying biology and a thousand other things. It doesn’t look much like school. But for most of our history kids didn’t go to school. Childhood was about playing with other kids and observing and imitating the adults around them. Above all, childhood is about finding something meaningful to give yourself to, something that will keep your curiosity and interest alive.

Having been fortunate enough myself to have had the free time as a child to cultivate my own interests, it is easy for me to accept this idea. Einstein’s message of following one’s own desires and not letting yourself get distracted by what others assign to you, appeals to me on an immediate, experiential level. But for those who are not as easily convinced, consider the reverse; the perils of a life without anything to pour yourself into. When we fail to discover those things that give us direction and purpose, we can spend our lives in a kind of limbo. It’s like being a bit unhinged, free floating through the world, unable to ground our attention. This is why people become so susceptible to all the empty promises for happiness, always being offered in some new form in our hyper-consumerist culture. If we miss the opportunity for meaningful work, we end up looking for pleasure and satisfaction in all the wrong places.

How Do They Learn?

Parents who come to see the Macomber Center for the first time are almost always impressed by the beautiful location, the friendly kids, and the Center’s overall calm and happy atmosphere.  And then, naturally, the questions arise, “But what do the kids do all day, what do they learn, how do they learn, are there classes, what role do the adults play in the learning process?” Learning happens all the time and in so many different ways that it’s hard to give a single concrete answer.  First, it is important to make clear that the adults are not here to steer kids in any particular direction but to help them access the world in ways that are meaningful to them.  Second, much of the learning that happens here takes place without any adult involvement whatsoever and very often even when adults are involved it is through informal activity and conversation.  We do not place any more value on formal learning activities than any other kind of activities.  Having said this, there are also plenty of opportunities for formal learning for those who may find it useful, enjoyable, or engaging.

Last year there was a small group of older kids who came to the regular Monday morning meeting and said that they wanted a biology class.  This was not something that we had ready to go upon request, and it was also not the first time I had heard someone expressing the desire for some kind of formal science class.  So this year we hired James Style who has previously worked as a researcher at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. So far his two classes, Marine Dissection and Cell Biology/Forensic Science have been the most popular classes this year.  As the kids have come to know James better, they have become aware of his many other interests and competencies.  He has a formal background in philosophy as well as ancient Greek and Latin.  So pretty soon he was teaching a Latin class which has now split into two separate classes and, most recently, he has been asked to do a logic class which has become an unexpected blockbuster.

James’ initial two science classes are a fairly clear cut example of classes coming about from a formal request from the kids.  But this is not always the case.  Sometimes classes begin to take form in a much more organic and gradual way.  One of the wonderful and unique things about working at a place like the Macomber Center is that, just like the kids, the adults are also free to be themselves, to follow their curiosity and to pursue their personal interests.  In fact, this is one of the ways that kids are exposed to different ways of thinking and new ways of doing things.  One day I was reading an article called “Mystical Anarchism” by the contemporary philosopher Simon Critchley, when Amanda, a fourteen year old “Goth”, asked me what I was reading.  I showed her the article.  She took it from me, looked at it for a moment and then handed it back saying, “Can I read it when you’re done?  "Sure", I said, and kept on reading.

A few days later she asked, “Are you done with that article yet?”  “What article”, I said, having forgotten our conversation.  “You know, the one about Anarchy.”  “Oh, yah, I finished it," I said.  “Was it good?”  “Yeah, it was great.”  “So can I have it?”  “Of course," I said, “I’ll bring it in tomorrow.”  I guess I hadn’t taken her request very seriously the first time.  After all, what would a fourteen year old girl want with an article about medieval Christianity and revolutionary political movements?  Anyway, she kept on me about it until I finally brought the article in.  I handed it to her and said, “Don’t feel like you have to finish this, it’s really long and kind of dense.”  “You think I’m an idiot don’t you,” she said in her typical deadpan, half-joking sort of way.  “You think I won’t be able to understand it.”  I assured her that it wasn’t a question of her being smart enough, I just wasn’t sure whether she would be able to relate to the material.

Boy was I wrong!  When Amanda returned the article to me a day later, she told me that she read the whole article and then shared it with her father.  She said they both really enjoyed it and discussed it at length.  I asked her what she liked about it.  It turned out that many of the questions and ideas that the article brought up for her, and which she found so engaging, were precisely the kinds of things that I have been interested in for a long time.  So we decided to do some reading together.  Every week we would read one or two short articles and then discuss them.  After a month or two of this, we decided to pick a particular area of interest and then go deeper into it.  When I asked her what that might be for her, she seemed to have a definite sense that there were some common strands within everything that we had been reading, a sort of theme, that she found compelling, but that she was also having difficulty articulating.  This was really exciting for me to see because it meant that she was onto something totally new and unfamiliar, something not yet in focus, but that she felt compelled to investigate, and that's such a wonderful place to be.  After some time of trying to tease it out, it seemed to me that what we were talking about had something to do with the psychological underpinnings of religious and political movements.  “It sounds to me like we need to start with Freud," I said, and so we did.

Every week I would give Amanda a book to read and she would read it.  She always did the reading and never missed a single meeting.  I have to admit, I was pretty amazed by this.  Sometimes she would tell me that reading Freud made her brain hurt but she never seemed to have trouble doing the work.  One day, as we were getting ready for our meeting, Alex and Aidan, two of Amanda’s good friends, announced that they were joining the “Psycho Readers” class.  I had written “Psycho Readers” , a haphazard abbreviation for “reading psychoanalysis,” on the board outside the room which is used to reserve the space.  But Alex and Aidan thought that this term was hilarious and so insisted on being included in our “class”.  If there were two kids who I could not imagine engaged in a serious conversation about Freud it was Alex and Aidan and they were clearly playing on this irony when they entered the room, sat down and said, “Ok Draper, teach us something.”  Since they hadn’t read anything for that week, I suggested going over Feud’s system in general.

First, Alex and Aidan had not heard of Freud.  They knew what psychology was but had never heard the term psychoanalysis.  So I started from the beginning, making notes on the whiteboard as I went.  Some of it clearly struck them as pretty strange.  In particular, a brief explanation of the five stages of psycosexual development ilicited everything from fits of laughter to outright rejection.  But the Oedipus complex was by far the strangest thing that they had ever heard.  As I began to timidly lay out the scenario of a little boy who adores his mother and fears his father, I realized that I just couldn’t bring myself to complete this strange Freudian scene, fearing that it might make these kids too uncomfortable.  So I moved to the more remote, and therefore easier to handle, Greek myth of king Oedipus.  But evidently I had already revealed enough because Alex, by now having put the pieces together, stopped me and said, “Wait, let me guess, he kills his father and marries his mother”.  All three of them erupted in laughter.  Alex was of course joking, rushing to the most absurd conclusion he could think of.  Little did he know that he had inadvertently hit the nail on the head.

What began to be clear to me was that, for all the jokes, sarcasm and irony, these kids were really engaging with the material.  Joking around, making puns, turning sentences and ideas on their head - this is how these kids process and master the world around them, and they were deploying all of their highest capacity resources on this material.  After a couple of weeks, Amanda took me aside and told me that, although she liked the psychology class, she felt that it was restricting the scope of our reading and conversation.  She said that she wanted to return to our original format but to also keep the psychology class going with Alex and Aidan.  So now there are two separate events and they both grew out of very spur-of-the-moment, casual interactions.

I could never have guessed that this material would ignite Amanda’s interest in the way that it has, or that Alex and Aidan could have ever been turned on to Freud.  And for their part, I’m sure Alex and Aidan never would have signed up for a class on Freud.  And how would Amanda have stumbled onto these interests if she were not free to follow her curiosity in a rich and diverse environment?  But the bigger point here is that this is only one example of the kids of encounters that are happening all the time at the Macomber Center.  They are part of the fluid and dynamic activity of every day.  Yet they are not easily observable unless you are part of it.  They are also not the kinds of things that kids are likely to go to the trouble of explaining when their parents say, "So, what did you do today?”  It’s even hard for me to talk about unless I very consciously sit down and try to put into words what exactly happens.  Here I have tried to do precisely that because it’s hard otherwise to really do justice to questions like “Do you offer classes for the kids?”

Tolstoy's Yasnaya Ployana

Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate in May 1908

Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate in May 1908

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

Carol Hughes at Macomber Center

On Wednesday, April 24, at 7pm, the Macomber Center will host a talk by Carol Hughes, called "One Woman's Mission To Educate Her Children Without Traditional Schools" Carol Hughes is part of a group of forward-thinking individuals who made the courageous decision to keep their children out of school at a time when the movements of homeschooling and unschooling were all but unheard of. Many of these parents were forced to go “underground”, others had to research case-law in order to find the precedents that would affirm their right as parents to teach their children at home. Even this was no guarantee that the state would allow it. Unschooling would not be the established and thriving movement that it is today if it were not for people like Carol.

When Carol's first son was approaching school age she decided to start looking into options for him.  Like most new parents, she assumed that school was a good place for kids, but wanted to find the best fit for him. “My intention was to find a place that would celebrate the magic I had already seen in him. I wanted a place that would take his wonderful spirit to new heights”. She visited the best schools in the area. “I remember very clearly looking at the rows of desks at Applewild School in Fitchburg. My insides sank. I could not bear the thought of my child sitting for hours in rows of desks indoors day after day.”

Realizing that this process was going to be more difficult than she had originally thought, she began to dig deeper, looking for alternatives to traditional schools. One day she went to a bookstore and got a pile of books on alternative education. When she bought them up to the counter, the women behind the register asked, “Are you taking a course?” “No”, she said, “I'm on a course!” Indeed, one of the books she brought home that day changed her course forever.

In Education and Ecstasy, George Leonard argues, “...the typical first-grade experience probably alters the brain of your child even more than many LSD trips, doing untold violence to his potential as a lifelong learner... Perhaps it is no coincidence that the growth rate of intelligence falls off rapidly just at the point when the child enters school.” “When I read this”, said Carol, “I just knew I wasn't going to do that to my child”.

The course that Carol set out on over thirty years ago continues to this day. Though her kids are now beyond school age, she has never lost her passion for finding new and creative ways to help kids and parents navigate through the world of alternative education.

The Macomber Center invites you to come and hear Carol's story and engage in a discussion about the challenges and delights of educating our children.

What Is The Macomber Center?

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.

What Is The Purpose Of Math?

One late afternoon, as I sat reading a book here at the Macomber Center, I looked up and suddenly realized that almost all of the kids were engaged in some form of math exercise. There were kids of all different ages solving problems at different levels, some by themselves and some helping others. Though I wasn't really aware of it until now, this interest in math had been gaining steam all week and on this particular day they had been working on it fairly consistently since the morning. I have to admit I was quite surprised to see this and had trouble explaining it to myself. What could have possessed them? But furthermore, why did it take me all day to register this extraordinary development? It must have been because the quality of attention and engagement and the overall energy of the main room where all of this was taking place had not really changed, only the object of focus had changed. Apparently Bannanagrams, the game that they had been playing intensely for weeks, had finally lost its hold on them, if only temporarily, and been replaced by another game; multiplying, fractions and quadratic equations. They were tackling these exercises with the same spirit of joyful engagement that they bring to everything else they love to do - soccer, skiing, making movies. Its not uncommon for me to get phone calls at home from one or more of the kids rallying for an impromptu ski trip for the following day when the conditions warrant it, but now Denise was getting phone calls too, reminding her to bring in a fresh batch of math problems for the following day. I was raised to believe that most children are only interested in math to the extent that it is relevant to their immediate experience and that their interest in it will be limited to the functional value that it has for their life at a given time. This means learning how much of your allowance you will have left over if you buy that package of baseball cards. But it also means that if you want to get into a particular college for its superior journalism program, and admission into that program requires SATs, then you will learn the math you need for that particular purpose. But these kids were not using math as a means to some other end, they were approaching it as an end in itself, for the sheer pleasure that it produced. This is what the psychologist Karl Beuhler called the “delight of function”. As Erich Fromm puts it, “People enjoy functioning not because they need this or that thing but because the act of making something, the utilization of their own capacities, itself is a pleasurable experience.”

It seems to me that we ruin children's experience of subjects like math when we only emphasize their importance in terms of the process of "preparing for adulthood".  If the purpose of life is growth, to increase knowledge of oneself and the world, and to engage the world on the basis of one's own unique talents and strengths, then childhood should be seen as the pinnacle of human flowering. It should not be seen as merely a preparatory stage of life. Nietzsche defines a mature adult as someone who has rediscovered the seriousness of a child at play. The true spirit of learning, a passion for knowledge, the desire to challenge oneself, is not something that can be taught, but nor does it need to be. Its something that every child is born with. It can either be retained and further cultivated or it can be stamped out.

We live in a society which piously proclaims life-long learning to be the highest virtue with slogans like “never stop learning”, “learning is for life” and so on. Yet our entire way of life betrays exactly the opposite, that education is a means to an end. Perhaps the reason that we sentimentalize this notion of life long learning, learning for the love of it, is that we live in a society which makes it very difficult to actualize. In the words of Robert Thurman, “why don't people realize that education is the most important thing in life? Why do they think that education is just to prepare you for life, as if life was something else?”

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” - Aristotle

When I speak with other people who share the unique experience of having gone to a democratic free school, what we end up talking about is not howit prepared us for success in adulthood - we take that as a given - but how grateful we are to have had such an idyllic, happy childhood; that we were free to spend every day doing just what we wanted.  People in the worlds of unschooling and progressive education spend a great deal of time arguing that these alternatives do an even better job preparing children for success than traditional education.  This has, of course, been necessary in order to legitimize these alternative movements within the mainstream.  But it leaves intact the basic assumption that childhood is merely a means to an end, that the purpose of childhood is to prepare for adulthood.  But childhood, just like all of life, is to be lived fully and enjoyed. Erich Fromm has said that in order for schools such as A. S. Neill's Summerhill School to take root in the United States, parents would have to start caring more about their children's happiness than about their success.  This strikes me, even today, as a radical defense of happiness.  I do not believe that success in adulthood can ever redeem a miserable childhood nor is there any reason to think that the ability to submit to authority and conform to a coercive educational system is likely to contribute to future happiness.  When children are trained to tolerate restrictions on their freedom and taught to restrain their creativity and curiosity for some future payoff, it is more likely that this pattern will simply continue to repeat itself throughout their life.  They have been taught that life is about tolerating low-grade suffering and accepting a restricted range of their full human powers.  When children become accustomed to happiness early on, however, they are likely to have a very high standard for happiness later in life and they will also be more inclined to take responsibility for their own happiness.