democratic free school

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.

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.

“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.