“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” –Mark Twain

I feel sorry for the kids. I see them standing on street corners, backpacks in hand, waiting for yellow buses that crisscross Little Rock. Others are being hauled off to private schools, small and large, faith based and secular. Wherever they’re going, it’s unlikely a place that encourages their flourishing. The revolution in the local and sustainable is now making headway in the realm of food, but it has hardly touched school. There we are still mostly locked in the industrial model, focused on increasing test scores and college admittance for a life lived in useless employment with the same vigor the green revolution worked to increase yields.

Front Porch Education

Can we reimagine education in the context of community? (montage: J Fowler)

Perhaps the problem of schooling is even deeper than that of food. To challenge the current model of industrial schooling is to challenge society itself. It is to challenge the way we live and work and spend our time. Tell someone you try to eat food from a 100 mile radius and they will find it curious. Tell someone you don’t believe children should go to school and you will get a blank stare and an open mouth.[1]

First we have to clear up some confusion and possible misunderstanding of what I know are radical propositions. I very much think children should be educated. I think that children should gain competency in key skills such as reading, writing, and math. I think children should learn foreign languages and read widely in both the classics of tradition and contemporary works of merit. I just think that school is a poor place to learn these things and that, more often than not, school gets in the way of a deeper, more humane education. It is not that school doesn’t have its good sides. It’s just that I don’t believe we should lock ourselves into an institution when there are better ways of achieving what school says it is all about—education.

Set aside for a moment your own experiences with school and think about how, given ample time and resources, you would go about educating children. What contexts would you put them in? Who would you want them to learn with and how? What would be the mix of free learning/play and structured time? Who would be their companions on the learning journey?

Then think about what is preventing you from pursuing this ideal. Are there legal constraints? Work constraints? These limits are the challenges we face. But one way or the other we need to find a different way and stop the idolization of schooling that gets trotted out every election season as the school system continues its whimpering implosion.

We must find ways to free children to learn, and fulfill their natural curiosity, whether they still go to traditional schools or not. And to do this we must seek more and more to abolish the traditional divisions of industrial society (we are hardly post-industrial after all).

Home schooling is only a solution if we abolish the current lines of public and private space. We must ensure that children are allowed the maximum of social interaction and this means that they are both liberated from the constraints of the home as insular space and from school as a form of institutional exclusion from society (is confining a bunch of children the same age together for 6 hours a day really any way to achieve socialization?). In both the private home and the “public” school (really more state or government than public) we have children shut off from the whole of society in all of its variety. What we need is neither home schooling nor institutional schooling, but rather front porch education—a space between public and private space in which the nourishing culture of home can mix with the lessons of the true public.

This will mean that we will have to abolish the idea of the workplace as a space for adults and the school as a place for children. Why not have kids read in the morning with mom as she finishes designing a website and then dad and the kids head down to the local library to join others of all ages to learn Spanish together and maybe hear a lecture on the Renaissance? Then the kids can hit the playground to make up their own games with a crowd of other children, free in the middle of the day, while dad joins a conference call with colleagues. In the afternoon the kids can go hang out at their uncle’s auto repair shop, just watching and running to get a tool or two.

Many changes to the fundamental way we do things would certainly be needed to see such a society materialize, but we have had something close to this in our past and the current way of things did not just happen as some inevitable movement of nature. The way things are was manufactured through a series of policies and reforms. “The way things are” is a human construction, like vinyl siding on a craftsman house, that can be undone if we only have the will and creativity to get to work and do it. Unfortunately, we are fostering generations of people who are lacking in both. The sooner you smash your TV and go for a walk the better.

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[1] Perhaps this calls attention to the fact that agriculture is a thoroughly entrenched system in which the alternatives are less radical. To be truly radical in the area of food we might argue that we should move away from all forms of farming and return to hunting and gathering as people like Paul Shepard have advocated. This is indeed a much more radical challenge to the way things are than sustainable agriculture which is more of a reform than an alternative.

Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield (M.Div. Virginia Theological Seminary) is ordained in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in his native Arkansas. is the author of 'This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit and Deeper Faith', 'Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us',and the small collection of essays 'Farming as a Spiritual Discipline'. Ragan works to live the good life in partnership with his wife Emily and daughters Lillian and Lucia.

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