MISSION STATEMENT: Our goals are: to restore to school teachers and students the autonomy and independence needed to maintain a healthy and hospitable school environment, and to children and parents the constitutional rights of full and complete citizenship appropriate to their age;
to debunk the pernicious myths surrounding schooling and education that persist and that function to perpetually proscribe progress and enlightenment;
to increase awareness and knowledge through research and informational and educational programs among the general public and within schools of the science and knowledge that has the potential to radically transform schooling, education, and ultimately society, and
to dismantle through legal actions, the superstructure that creates the authoritarian bureaucracy which chronically leads to great harm to children and to our nation.
Who we are/What we are about:
It is a safe assumption made by most people that, if parents weren’t forced by law to send their kids to school as our typical schools currently exist in most places around the US, and if parents were to choose to allow their children to stay home or do something other than attend schools, those children would indeed elect not to attend. It is also a safe assumption, that nearly all parents would still feel a powerful need to compel their children to attend school even in the absence of a legal requirement, since school is seen (however wrongly) as the place to become educated and as a resource where their progeny can be properly supervised and socialized.
Young kids and especially teens generally prefer NOT to follow orders, listen to adults, work at studying, stay quietly in one place, or be forced to leave their cell phones, computers, and others devices and toys behind. Children, much like adults are inclined to avoid discomfort, being controlled and ordered around, rigid or rigorous routines, and repetitive tasks or drudgery. Many would be anywhere else BUT school if they wouldn’t face truancy charges and if their parents and most others didn’t believe that school and education are synonymous.
SCHOOLS HAVE FACED CHRONIC PROBLEMS & FAILURES
Despite a strong faith among the general public in the quality of education provided by our schools, the affection that many have for their own school, and the necessity of attendance by all children of specified ages, most of us are acutely aware that they have been plagued by constant conflicts, controversies, claims of various kinds and degress of malaise and dysfunction, and even accusations of corruption or virulent politics. Regardless of how anyone feels, the reality is that the history is replete with difficult issues and dilemmas and there are no easy solutions. It is easy to blame teachers, parents, a lack of resources, or the students themselves, and those things do indeed happen all too often. However, only those who are completely irrational will deny that there are structural, institutional, legal, and philosophical flaws with the existing paradigm.
THE GOOD NEWS - CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
We on the ACES team (this site is associated with AUTHENTIC CHOICES IN EDUCATION & SCHOOLING, Inc., a nonprofit organized to improve education and schools) have as a primary objective the implementation and facilitation of the ONLY effective changes that will allow for schools to become more inviting, hospitable, beneficial, productive, and educational so that children would have a strong natural desire to attend regularly. We believe schools can be places where young people of all ages thrive and learn and where they would enjoy meaningful relationships which contribute to strong character, self-discipline, and self-respect, while at the same time providing highly effective instructional and educational opportunities. They cannot do that as presently structured with any regularity and consistency.
CHOICE IN EDUCATION MEANS YOU OWN IT
When we speak of authentic choices, we are not referring to the “school choice movement”, as the popular effort has become known which involves flexibility in the placement of students according to their preference and according to school reputation. We claim that in order for education to be owned by the individual child, and for school to be regarded by children as a privilege and an opportunity, each child must be afforded the chance of initiating their daily attendance on the basis of some intrinsic and personal motivation or goal, even if that is merely a consequence of the parents’ decision to require their attendance voluntarily. Furthermore, it is a sad reality that the ostensible choices given to students in schools currently are artificial, superficial, and extremely limited and patronizing.
Ultimately, the issue of compulsory attendance boils down to a question of who has power and who controls how children’s lives will be affected. We are highly accustomed to thinking that children are not capable of exercising power over their own lives. No one who cares about their welfare and understands their vulnerability would suggest that they should not be subject to reasonable and sensible rules and restrictions during childhood.
However, children who are not continuously physically restrained or totally repressed do in fact possess power by virtue of their ability to withdraw, disrupt, damage, and assault or insult. By setting up conditions that are destined to invite challenges and to pit the power of children against their guardians we guarantee a continual power struggle that results in losses all around and makes schooling much more about behavioral control than about learning or education.
COMPULSORY SCHOOLING IS NOT A MOOT QUESTION
A list of questions and answers will follow this introduction. A most significant question is never asked, however, which we will be referring to often. That question is whether or not the issue of compulsory school attendance is a settled matter. The definitive answer is that the issue is still a highly relevant and crucial matter that begs a more thorough and insightful analysis.
It is no secret that the attendance laws were originally pushed through in an aggressive promotional effort by wealthy zealots with inordinate power and influence who had a religious, economic, or nationalist agenda and whose motives did not include anything resembling an education for the masses. The movers and shakers behind the proposed legislation were paternalistic business tycoons and a contingent of true believers who saw social engineering as the solution to the perplexing new problems brought by urbanization and the Industrial Revolution (think Bill Gates, Mark Zukerberg, Michael Bloomberg, etc.). The heavy-handed approach they took in the mid-nineteenth century may have accomplished some positive purposes that helped usher in a new and modern existence for many with respect to training and conditioning, but education was NOT ever one of their goals.
PLATO SAID IT ELOQUENTLY – WHY DO WE DOUBT IT?
The following quote from Plato’s Republic is quite clear and unquestionably accurate:
"The elements of instruction...should be presented to the mind in childhood, but not with any compulsion; for a freeman should be a freeman too in the acquisition of knowledge. ...Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore, do not use compulsion, but let early education be rather a sort of amusement; this will better enable you to find out the natural bent of the child."
THE SCHOOL REFORM TRAIN NEVER LEFT THE STATION
We will show how the laws that compel attendance in school defeat their own stated and unspoken purposes. We will expose the fact that “school reform” has not ever been a possibility under the unworkable paradigm adopted well over a century ago in most states. School reform, or “educational reform” remains an impossible illusion except for very restricted token experiments and exceptional alternatives designed to distract and lower the pressure on officials and authorities to solve insoluble problems under mandatory attendance laws.
The “reform” train never left the station because the emergency brake has been locked securely in place. The power to effect innovation has never been applied to drive the wheels. Progress toward a more effective and child-friendly (or child-centered, to use the popular lingo) school environment has been too much of a threat and too disruptive of the power structure to be permitted, despite innumerable attempts for well over a century and a plethora of scientifically validated concepts and strategies that would otherwise make a world of difference.
LAWS SET IN CEMENT THE RELATIONSHIPS & THE LIMITATIONS
Making the schooling and training of all children a matter of law and the legally assigned province of the state in each location thereby made state authority and the authority of its officials and agents a permanent and immutable feature. Change can only take place if it poses no significant or perceived challenge to that power and authority or to the daily rituals and restrictions associated with an authoritarian bureaucracy. Autonomy for teachers or students is by definition a challenge to authority.
The following four quotes from psychologist Bruno Bettelheim should give us a clue about the dangers inherent in a coercive and compulsory attendance law setting the stage for an authoritarian bureaucracy. He is speaking about autonomy (which is absent in schools) and how crucial it is to a meaningful and useful existence:
“Whether in childhood or adulthood if one finds it impossible, first to influence one's social and physical environment, and later to make decisions on how and when to modify it, this is harmful if not devastating to the human personality..."
"Ones sense of identity, the conviction of being a unique individual, with lasting and deeply meaningful relations to a few others; with a particular life history that one has shaped and been shaped by; a respect for one's work and a pleasure in one's competence at it; with memories peculiar to one's personal experience, preferred tasks, tastes and pleasures---all these are at the heart of man's autonomous existence. Instead of merely allowing him to conform to the reasonable demands of society without losing his identity, they make it a rewarding experience, quite often a creative one."
"...Liberty demands not only equality of opportunity but a variety of them. It also means a tolerance for those who fail to conform to standards that may be culturally desirable but are not essential for society to continue. Present day society often fails to offer this tolerance."
This quote from Albert Einstein reinforces the points made above:
"One had to cram all this stuff into one's mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year... It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry---especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly,"
Albert Einstein (quoted in Examining in Harvard College)
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS & COMMONLY MISPERCEIVED ISSUES OR ERRONEOUS THINKING RELATIVE TO SCHOOLS & EDUCATION:
Question 1: How has the world that children inhabit and experience today changed from the past and what does that mean for how schools conduct their business and interact with students?
ANSWER: The world has indeed changed and it is crucial for schools to adapt. However, children still have much in common with the children of decades and centuries ago. It is the responsibility of the school to deal with children as they find them and as they experience the world without undue duress, neglect, or abuse. Children hunger for meaningful direction and information and they are oriented as always toward understanding their world, learning new things, and gaining valid knowledge about themselves, their friends and families, and their world. The problems with which schools have been plagued perennially do not lie in the novel distractions and obsessions of new technologies or an old reluctance of students to apply themselves. Their problems are the result of a sclerotic and immutable framework. When children are given the stimulation, encouragement, instruction, and autonomy that they need when they need it in a healthy and hospitable environment, they are invariably anxious to please and to incorporate information and knowledge into their already considerable and comprehensive perspectives and knowledge base. It is simply wrong to operate on the assumption that children will resist education or learning.
Question 2: Isn’t the neglect on the part of many otheriwse caring and capable parents or on the part of certain other dreadfully inadequate parents to prepare children for school and for the work that must be done and their failure to teach students proper respect, diligence, discipline, and the basic principles of language, as well as social and behavioral rules beforehand, one of the biggest problems faced in schools?
ANSWER: NO, not really. The favorite pastime of those who claim to be educators is pointing the finger at parents and others, or in blaming external social and cultural factors for the failures built into the school apparatus. The solution is not to blame the parents or the “educators” or teachers instead, either. But, while many parents are indeed completely inadequate in the performance of their parental duties and most are too preoccupied with bare survival, work, and various other duties and obligations, the laws requiring them to send their children to school usurp their parental rights and thereby place the full responsibility for their instruction, training, and welfare upon the state and its officials by default.
In a perfect world parents would send perfect children to perfect schools. But the world is far from perfect. Schools must take children in their human imperfection and with whatever problems they bring. It is part of their charter and mandate to do whatever possible to advance the capabilities, skills, and character of each and every attendee. The truth is also, that the vast majority of parents attended similar schools with nearly identical problems and shortcomings as a consequence of these same laws. They were not given the knowledge, experience, training, or education required to become the best parents that they might be in the circumstances in which they find themselves. At least some of the reasons they lack the skills needed to rear their children better are identical to the reasons why the schools of today are failing to accomplish the most basic training for so many.
Question 3: Since education in the US is ostensibly free and schools are there to offer ample learning and educational opportunities, shouldn’t students be expected to sit down, shut up, and take full advantage of their best chance of becoming the best person they can be?
Answer: Yes, and no; mostly no. This is best answered by breaking it down into several component parts:
(A) People of all ages do not learn as well in a classroom with others or as part of a group being instructed by a teacher or following a set curriculum. Mass education is a misnomer. It is impossible by definition to educate a group of students in confined spaces with one set of instructional materials or one lecture set or a single approach and plan. In addition to the problems of distraction, diffusion, and the lack of individual attention, the inevitable result is a lowest common denominator effect, rote instruction or memory work, and a program of naked indoctrination focused on behavior and attitude.
These three quotes from The Lives of Children, by George Dennison are instructive and apropos here:
"The preferences of children lie close to their actual needs"
"...And so the teacher cannot merely instruct, for in the whole of life there is no occasion within which mere information, divorced from use and the meanings of experience, appears as a motive sufficient in itself. The task of the educator is to provide experience. In order to do this, he must first interact with his students, not as a teacher, but as a person; for there is no other way to provide the second essential of experience, which is continuity. Dewey does not mean here merely the continuity of a curriculum, but the continuity of lives within which the school itself is but one of many functions. Now certain conditions are indispensable to interaction and continuity. If the teacher is to interact, he must know his students individually. But how can he know them unless they are free to reveal themselves, each one in his uniqueness? From considerations such as these, follow the structure of the school, the freedoms, responsibilities, and relationships I have described in earlier chapters."
"I would like to close this book with a word to parents and teachers, for we are not faced today by simple choices among methods of mass instruction---as if any of them were working---but by the Biblical question in all its severity: "If the salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?' This is as much as to say that any hope for a new spirit in education lies quite outside the present establishment. It lies among parents themselves, and in revitalized communities, and among younger teachers. I would like to say why this is so, why our school professionals, taken as a class, an institutionalized center of power, are fundamentally incompetent and must be displaced. My purpose is not to castigate the bureaucrats, but to recall parents and teachers to an awareness of one crucial truth, a truth that should be, but is not, the gut-wisdom of everyone: that in humane affairs---and education is par excellence a humane pursuit---there is no such thing as competence without love. This is the sort of statement that strikes many people, and especially our technocrats, as being sentimental, and so I would like to speak of it in some detail and make clear its truth. And I want to stress that I am not speaking here of excellence of performance, but of mere competence. Let me stress, too---because the question of competence comes down in the end to the characteristics of individuals---that I am not saying that among our fifty thousand bureaucrats there are no persons of real worth. The issue is precisely that of the effect of the institution upon the individual. The institution, the educational system in all its branches, is corrupting to the individual, and though the corruption may in many cases take the form of considerable expertise, the fact remains that competence is destroyed.
In naming love as the necessary base of competence in humane affairs, I am referring not only to the emotion of love, nor just to the moral actions and feelings that belong to caring, but to loving and caring in the very generalized, primitive sense in which they constitute a background condition of life, as we say of young children that they live 'as if in love,' and as adults, when they are simplified by disasters and extreme demands, reveal a constructive energy and compassion which are obviously generalized and basic." p. 275-276.
(B) The concept of “basics” or of a “common core curriculum” is pure bunk founded on a completely erroneous and outdated idea of learning. We hear a lot about “getting back to basics”, or complaints that the “basics have been neglected in favor of social learning or something more sophisticated or entertaining.
Each child at any age has understandings and conceptions that are idiosyncratic and unique. The basics are different for each and every child. No reduced formula or distilled pre-ordained “basics” exist that can be applied to diverse individuals or groups of individuals. The child formulates questions and has curiosity or conclusions that require testing (by the child) based on previous experience and knowledge (yes, even the youngest child possesses knowledge!). Only an adult or other person with affectionate and intimate connections to that child can elicit and answer those specific and particular questions.
(C) Learning instructional, informational, practical, or academic material or skills generally requires intense concentration, disciplined effort, commitment, a degree of repetition, a functioning memory, a reasonably healthy body, mind, and attitude, and a cognitive schema into which it can be fit logically and with comprehension. This is often described as work and is compared to occupational endeavors practiced by adults in their employment or profession. It is a gross mistake however, to make that negative comparison and to portray learning as bitter medicine or an unpleasant and onerous repetitive or rote task that must be endured and suffered in the interest of distant and diffuse future goals. It is also a grave mistake to ignore the usually positive and affirming emotional or psychological component of learning. The belief that children cannot be trusted to pursue knowledge or to subject themselves to learning experiences that demand effort and attention without being prodded and pressed is a vestige of a very misguided and sorry era of human evolution. Utilizing coercion and browbeating in schools (due primarily to unconstitutional laws and a pathological mythology) is not only highly counterproductive; it is the antithesis of education. Education involves leading, not pushing from behind with a bulldozer.
D: Compulsory school attendance is predicated on an anachronistic image of knowledge and of learning or the acquisition of knowledge that is derived from false (however brilliant for his time) ideas espoused by the great philosopher, Descartes. Descartes claimed that knowledge is disembodied. He posited a separation between mind and body (or brain and body) that made sense given the primitive state of physical science at the time, but that is bizarre given the state of knowledge about cognition today. Knowledge does not float around in some ephemeral space external to the brain and body! Knowledge does not reside unchanged and unchangeable as a gift from god or gods. The information or symbols in books, literature, and other “media” has therefore been viewed as knowledge since Descartes, and as such has been supposed to be transferrable or transmissible to students more or less intact. This is profoundly important and a profoundly mistaken conception of knowledge acquisition. Knowledge is embodied. It exists ONLY in a human body/brain. NO knowledge exists that is not embodied. Knowledge can only exist within the synapses of the brain or the physical manifestation of the mind of a living and breathing human being.
To the extent that education is the acquisition of knowledge, ALL of the following are essential and rudimentary; perception, experience, cognition, emotion, sensory input and output, physical motion, and memory. Setting motionless at a desk or merely absorbing information through the visual or auditory channel is an extremely limiting and often boring and barren process. The student/child is constantly processing a phenomenal amount of data and sensory input in a more normal environment.
To avoid confusion and overload the student must be permitted to integrate everything at a pace and via a medium that is appropriate and comfortable. Schooling in a rigid authoritarian framework can NEVER deliver education with these conditions. Conversely, schooling under compulsory attendance can ONLY happen where an authoritarian milieu facilitates legal requirements.
(E) The most egregious thing about asking the question whether children should be held to certain academic, intellectual, behavioral, or testing standards determined by supposed experts, is that blaming the victim for unfulfilled goals is presumed to be acceptable. The child is a convenient and entirely defenseless target in most instances when practices and policies inevitably go awry. The child is labeled as lazy, over-active, unmotivated, uncooperative, too highly distractible, or handicapped by some fabricated “learning disability”, when in fact the school has failed miserably in providing for the child’s needs and nature.
Question 4: What kind of alternative do you suggest for schooling or for dealing with youth if they are no longer bound by law to attend?
Answer: Some variation on this theme is most commonly asked by skeptical people who have assumed we are extreme Libertarians or fanatics of some sort. (We are not). The question is actually somewhat silly. The alternative to forced attendance is voluntary attendance. Period! There is a plethora of alternatives in most states, if not in all states, falling generally under the rubric of “free schools”. Throughout the past centuries a solid record of achievement has been established within those exceptional schools where the handicaps of authoritarianism and bureaucracy have been temporarily suspended, starting with Socrates meeting young people where he found them and giving them his thoughts and stimulating them to think their own thoughts.
Given the ‘cult of school’ that encompasses nearly everyone in the US, any parent that would refuse to send their child to school, if schools were forced to compete for students and if the element of arbitrary authority were eliminated, would be a rare parent indeed. Existing laws that protect children against educational neglect, abuse, or exploitation are and would be available in those few cases. The culture and character of schools would suddenly be subject to change, once legal impediments and formal and informal vested interests were dispensed with.
The number of young people who have dropped out, who are suspended or expelled, or who are otherwise not in attendance, often for the most specious of reasons on any given day is astounding. School is no longer a privilege or the sure ticket to success. However, restoring the rights of children and their parents would serve to restore those institutions to an elevated status. That is, in part why we are here to serve and inform.
Don’t you think that blaming every problem that we have in schools on compulsory school attendance laws is a gross over-simplification, and don’t you recognize that there are a whole range of complex and complicated problems as a consequence of social, technological, political, and demographic changes in the last fifty years or so that make the job of educating much more difficult?
We try to be careful not to make over-generalized statements that isolate this one major mistake as the sole cause of myriad problems. Anytime large missions are undertaken that affect masses of people there are sure to be huge glitches and setbacks that create doubt about the whole concept. Military people have some classic expressions to describe this common phenomenon that we won’t repeat here. No such ambitious and well-intentioned operation could possibly have a record of achievement even approaching perfection or a 100% success rate. However, that is precisely why we are so opposed to the element of coercion! If you know there will be human factors and logistical factors and social factors that cannot be controlled completely (or even moderately) and if you know that the granting of immense and primarily autocratic power over virtually every aspect of an institution (indeed, this is why it’s called an institution!) opens the door wide to excesses, abuses, excuses, and regimentation, why would you set in the stone of law the requirement for all children to participate, for all parents to relinquish their parental responsibilities, and all teachers to take their place just above students in a pernicious pecking order? The invitation to disaster could not be more direct if it were hand-delivered on a silver platter.
Note: These Questions and answers might be moved to the FAQ page. There will definitely be more questions and answers there, although there has only been time for a few so far.
Note: This website will be evolving and expanding for an indeterminate period, depending on time, resources, and the amount of assistance available. Currently, it is the product primarily of just one principal author and one or two technical assistants. Some pages will clearly not be completed or have a conclusion or satisfactory summary until time allows. It has been decided however, that the message as it exists so far is important enough and well-enough organized to date to merit publication in order to inform and involve others who may find it inspiring and motivational.
ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: This website is not about teacher bashing or blaming teacher unions or for that matter the denigration or criticism of any individuals or groups for the obvious problems in schools. We have all had our share of good teachers and even some great teachers whom we have loved. While there are reasons why the public schools have become havens for those few teachers who are not well qualified, the vast majority are highly competent professionals, dedicated, caring, and willing to learn all they can about their field or their special subject matter. The chronic problems are structural and built into the framework that establishes our institutions as top-down bureaucracies. Teachers are typically victims of a systematic assault on autonomy and on organic processes and normal relationships because of external factors caused by the legal framework that dictates arbitrary conditions.