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03: A free school

Group 03 Readings


The Lives of Children is the deeply inspiring story of the First Street School, where twenty-three children, black, white and Puerto Rican, all from poor families, and many with severe learning problems, came together with five teachers who believed that “the business of a school is not, or should not be, mere instruction, but the life of the child.”

Extract 11
From The Lives of Children - The Story of The First Street School by George Dennison

Before telling more of the school, I must say that I was partisan of libertarian values even before working there. I had read of the schools of A. S. Neill and Leo Tolstoy. I had worked in the past with severely disturbed children, and had come to respect the integrity of the organic processes of growth, which given the proper environment are the one source of change in individual lives. And so I was biased from the start and cannot claim the indifference of a neutral observer. Events at school did, however, time and again, confirm the beliefs I already held--which, I suppose, leaves me still a partisan, though convinced twice over. Yet if I can prove nothing at all in a scientific sense, there is still a power of persuasion in the events themselves, and I can certainly hope that our experience will arouse an experimental interest in other parents and teachers.

But there is something else that I would like to convey, too, and this is simply a sense of the lives of those who were involved--the jumble of persons and real events, which did in fact constitute our school. The closer one comes to the facts of life, the less exemplary they seem, but the more human and the richer.

Now I would like to describe the school, or more correctly, the children and teachers. I shall try to bring out in detail three important things:

    1. That the proper concern of a primary school is not education in a narrow sense, and still less preparation for later life, but the present lives of the children--a point made repeatedly by John Dewey, and very poorly understood by many of his followers.
    2. That when the conventional routines of a school are abolished (the military discipline, the schedules, punishments and rewards, the standardization), what arises is neither a vacuum nor chaos, but rather a new order, based first on relationships between adults and children, and children and their peers, but based ultimately on such truths of the human condition as these: that the mind does not function separately from the emotions but thought partakes of feeling and feeling of thought; that there is no such thing as knowledge per se, knowledge in a vacuum, but rather all knowledge is possessed and must be expressed by individuals; that the human voices preserved in books belong to the real features of the world, and that children are so powerfully attracted to this world that the very motion of their curiosity comes through to us as a form of love; that an active moral life cannot be evolved except where people are free to express their feelings and act upon the insights of conscience.
    3. That running a primary school -- provided it be small -- is an extremely simple thing. It goes without saying that the teachers must be competent (which does not necessarily mean passing courses in a teacher's college). Given the sine qua non, there is nothing mysterious. The present quagmire of public education is entirely the result of unworkable centralization and the lust for control that permeates every bureaucratic institution.


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