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.