In the late 1990s, when she was 13, Lorna Finlayson decided to quit school. She had come to understand what high school education really was: “The real purpose ... of the school system was to instill the habit of obedience ... to our superiors.” ("Diary: I was a Child Liberationist," London Review of Books, Feb. 18, 2021). Her father, whose dyslexia had made his schooling a nightmare, did not object, and her older brother had left the country to escape school. So, “the cell door was open.” Finlayson had begun school at age 4.
Apparently in Great Britain there is no legal requirement to attend school. Children must be in full-time education, in school "or otherwise." Finlayson chose "otherwise." I thought that Authority had died in the student revolutions of 1968; not in Britain it seems. Finlayson’s school does sound awful, especially in how teachers spoke to students:
“I remember the sugary sing-song cadence, gently devastating in its assumption of our utter stupidity, the humor-free sarcasm, the flat, rhetorical questions to which the ‘correct’ answers must be given.” “Do I make myself clear?” they would ask. Previous generations had it worse, Finlayson admits. Today “traditional disciplinarianism combines with a frenzied culture of testing and targets. The worst thing – especially for a girl – was to act 'uppity.' Teachers’ reactions to this were a variant of “Who the (f---) do you think you are?”
It is not clear what Finlayson did immediately after leaving school, but she develops an interest in philosophy and one can imagine her haunting public libraries, quizzing archivists, bringing home briefcases full of books and educating herself. After a few years she enrolls full-time in a "further education college" to prepare for GCSEs and A Levels. It is heaven: “no register, no detention, no uniform.” At a relaxed student snack bar, she chats with classmates, quaffs bottles of Foster’s and smokes weed.
She tells her tutor she wants to prepare for Cambridge. “Well, I like to think that I look like Johnny Depp,” he replies. But she is accepted by Cambridge and graduates with a First, the highest distinction. Now in her 30 she teaches at Exeter University and is a widely published scholar.
Finlayson conflates schools with police and prisons. She cites Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society), Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and A.S. Neill (Summerhill) — radical educators of an earlier day whose thought she thinks deserves a revival. She asks us to imagine learning being done differently. “There were not always police, prisons and schools,” she writes.
Would Finlayson have been happy in an American school? In our schools any teacher who uses sarcasm or belittling language with students will not be around long. But despite respectful language, a public relations approach to the classroom, and an emphasis on "due process" (“Discipline – that’s so negative!” I heard one parent say), school is still school: a place where you have to be, at least until 2:30 pm. The student’s life is structured: she arrives at a certain time, has history and math at a certain time, has lunch when the schedule says she will, must ask permission to use the lav.
However, learning takes place here. Some students – maybe a majority – need a formal structure that is lacking at home. Has anyone tried to apply A.S. Neill’s Summerhill model, where classes are voluntary and students get to vote on what they will do, to a public school with say, 600 students? In the public school, games are contested, plays are performed, concerts are held. Can we do better? Probably not.
Public school boards are naturally conservative. They depend on tax money, a third or half of which comes from the local community, and the rest from the state. They are wary of anything that suggests revolutionary change. For a more imaginative approach a parent would have to consider fee-paying residential private schools.
I knew a school where a couple with five children taught academic subjects and art to their own kids and a few boarders. Everyone was on a first-name basis and there were no bells. The students also learned agricultural skills: raising goats, vegetables, riding bareback, slaughtering and turning the baby bull into a stew. The School of the Arts in Stillwater, N.J. got a good review from the New York Times but closed after a decade because it was underfunded. Fortunately, the owners sold the property for a lot of money; and fortunately, other educators have taken up the challenge of alternate kinds of learning.
Ed Rossmann lives in Aurora and has been an educator most of his life, including 17 years in high school.