Books about Education: Schools on Trial

Our schools should strip away every element that they are known for: grades, tests, compulsory classes, periods, bells, age segregation, and homework. And then we should craft institutions that are grounded in the attributes we want to see in citizens in our society and designed to foster critical thinking and lifelong learning.

Many homeschoolers, including myself, will not have trouble understanding the points Nikhil Goyal makes in his new book, Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. Following in the footsteps of John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Ivan Illich and others, Goyal believes that our current public school system is seriously flawed and wants to change it. 

In the beginning of the book, Goyal viciously attacks the current public school system, calling it a prison. It’s important to note that Goyal recently graduated from a well-ranked high school himself. This 20-year-old journalist seemed to have fared well despite his schooling: he was named as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30. Though extremely critical, he gives a reasoned and well-researched account for his views.

The best part of the book, however, is the extensive research Goyal did on alternative methods of education. He only briefly touches on homeschooling. Most of the book is about his visits to several private, democratic schools around the country. A democratic school is one in which the students have control over their education and voting rights when it comes to the administration of the school. He makes the case that public school should give kids more control over their education as well. In this book you’ll learn the philosophies of such schools as Tinkering School, Sudbury schools, Summerhill School, Philly Free School and more. 

This was extremely interesting to me. While I would not consider our style of homeschooling “unschooling,” I do rely on my children’s input when deciding what to put most of our efforts into. While I had heard of alternative schools, I didn’t know what democratic schools looked like, and it was inspiring to read how these schools operate. Seeing the good that they’re doing for students made me feel good about what I’m doing at home, and living in a culture that seems to value conformity more than the freedom to pursue intellectual interests, I don’t get that kind of reinforcement very often.

I found Goyal’s vision of setting up more community programs and investing in libraries and maker spaces a great idea. I think many homeschoolers are already utilizing many community resources, and I wholeheartedly agree that involving more of the community in educating our youth would be a win for everybody. But, of course, making this happen seems like an impossible task and Goyal understands what he’s up against. 

While I know there are unhappy parents and teachers out there trying to make a change, I don’t think enough people are unhappy enough to take a stand against the current state of our public schools.  Perhaps this is because they don’t understand the alternatives and that they can work. This is why Goyal’s book is invaluable.  While these schools may not hold all the answers to the problems our public school system faces—I think any school is hard pressed to help a child who doesn’t have a supportive, loving family at home—they do offer a new way of looking at things. So whether or not parents could afford to send their children to one of these schools (we couldn’t), every parent should at least be aware that there are alternatives and how they work. They may inspire parents to get involved with their local schools, or they may even inspire a new way of parenting (or homeschooling technique). 

Education for a Different Version of Success

education for a different version of success

“How will they ever learn to listen to their boss if they don’t have to listen to teachers?”

“They’ll never make it in the workforce, you have to do things you don’t like to do and deal with jerks.”

“In the real world you don’t get to do what you want.”

There are a lot of ways that many people seem convinced unschoolers will fail, and most of those reasons lead back to the belief that unschoolers just have it too good. They get to be too happy, too playful, too independent, too creative. If they’re used to living such full and interesting lives, how will they ever manage to knuckle down, obey their superiors, and resign themselves to a job that’s unfulfilling at best, and nearly intolerable at worst?

I think this attitude is an indictment of the current education system (as well as the typical workplace environment and maybe even the current economic system). Unknowingly, people who express concern that unschoolers won’t be able to function in such unpleasant situations are saying just what they think schools are good at: namely, teaching people to function in unpleasant situations.

I should hope that school free learners aren’t holding up, as their greatest vision of success, that their children become good at resigning themselves to unhappiness. I’d hope, instead, that life learners are raising children who will seek to build lives that make them happy.

Is it important to be able to deal with unpleasant people and situations at times? Of course. Sometimes you’re going to have to take a job you don’t like so that you can put food on the table. Sometimes you’ll have to deal with a bully to get something you need.

I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.

However, I believe that people are best prepared for challenges such as these when they have a core of self confidence and self respect instead of just being accustomed to putting up with discouraging situations on a daily basis. I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.

There are certain qualities in myself that I try to cultivate and encourage.

  • A lifelong fascination and excitement about whatever catches my interest at any given time. In other words, a passion for learning that never ends.

  • A strong ethic of self care and firm boundaries, skills and practices that help me to stay healthy and grounded in a world that can often feel overwhelming.

  • Caring and empathy for other people, and a focus on educating myself about important issues, seeking with my words and actions to make the world at least a little bit better.

  • Trust in my own instincts.

  • Confidence and a feeling of self worth, no matter how much I’m struggling at any given time.

  • Striving always to keep my passions, dreams, and plans at the forefront, working to build my life based on what I truly want and think is right for me.

I share this because, when I think about my own future children and what I’d want for them, I don’t think about college acceptance or an ability to conform to the values and pressures of the dominant culture. Instead, I think about what I want for myself, and I hope that my someday children will have those qualities in even greater abundance than I’ve managed so far for myself.

Figuring out how to live a life in line with your ideals and values is hard no matter what your educational background. But I like to think that unschooling helps. It’s certainly helped me to trust myself because as I child I was never taught that I was untrustworthy. It’s taught me to value the perfection of flow in learning because having experienced it, I know I need to always seek that out in my adult life as well. It’s taught me to question the supposed “common sense” of the dominant culture, and to develop my own thoughts on various issues for myself. And it’s taught me to always follow my passions because doing so will almost always lead me in the direction of the greatest happiness in my life and the greatest contribution to the world.

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
— Howard Thurman

Let’s cultivate in our life learning journey a version of success based on what makes you come alive.