A Brief History of Alternative Education

by Ron Miller

Why are there "alternative" schools? Our system of public schooling was first organized in the 1830's to provide a common, culturally unifying educational experience for all children, yet from the very beginning, certain groups of educators, parents, and students themselves have declined to participate in this system. Their reasons are various, and the forms of schooling--and nonschooling--that they have chosen instead are equally diverse. The history of alternative education is a colorful story of social reformers and individualists, religious believers and romantics; despite their differences, however, they share an especially strong interest in young people's social, moral, emotional and intellectual development, and, more deliberately than most public school programs, they have practiced educational approaches that aim primarily to nourish these qualities.

Historians of public education have described how, during the period between 1837 (when Horace Mann became the first powerful leader of a state education agency) and the early twentieth century (when new scientific theories were applied to psychology, learning, and organizational management), a particularly narrow model of schooling became solidly established as the "one best system" of public education. According to this model, the purpose of schooling was to overcome cultural diversity and personal uniqueness in order to mold a loyal citizenry and an effective workforce for the growing industrial system. Education aimed primarily to discipline the developing energies of young people for the sake of political and social uniformity as well as the success of the emerging corporate economy. In the early twentieth century, these goals were concisely expressed by the term "social efficiency," which was often used by educational leaders.

Many people are attracted to alternative schools and home education because they feel that this agenda of "social efficiency" does not allow for such values as individuality, creativity, democratic community life and spiritual development. Indeed, Horace Mann's efforts to centralize public schooling were opposed from the start by religious leaders and other critics who argued that education is a community, family, and personal endeavor, not a political program to be mandated by the state. For example, many of the Transcendentalist thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century-Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Brownson, Ripley--argued against the rigidity of public schooling and several of them started their own alternative schools. The Temple School in Boston, run by Bronson Alcott between 1834 and 1838 (with his daughter Louisa May as one of the students), is an outstanding historical model of alternative education; Alcott rejected the teaching methods of his time (rote memorization and recitation) and encouraged Socratic dialogue, with a deeply moral and spiritual emphasis.

The roots of many twentieth century alternative school movements go back to three European philosopher/educators: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel. In his 1762 book Emile, Rousseau argued that education should follow the child's natural growth rather than the demands of society, which, he claimed, tend to thwart all that is organic, natural and spiritual. This emphasis on the innate development of human nature became the primary philosophical basis for many alternative movements in education. It has influenced progressive educators as well as generations of libertarian thinkers. In the early 1800's, the Swiss humanitarian Pestalozzi opened schools for orphans, adopting Rousseau's principles. His work inspired educators in Europe and America (including Alcott). One of his disciples, Joseph Neef, emigrated to the U.S. and founded child-centered schools in three states between 1809 and 1827. Froebel was another teacher at Pestalozzi's school, and later became famous as the founder of the kindergarten concept; it is not well known that Froebel envisioned all levels of schooling as being nourishing "gardens" for children's spontaneous development.

This philosophical tradition strongly influenced Francis Parker, who, with John Dewey, originated the progressive education movement late in the nineteenth century. A public school superintendent, head of a teacher education program, and popular speaker and author, Parker believed that education should serve the needs of children and conform to their styles of thinking and learning. Although Parker himself (and many subsequent progressive educators) tried to reform the "one best system" from within, his influence spread to many alternative schools during the first two decades of this century, such as those associated with progressive educators like Margaret Naumberg, Helen Parkhurst, and Caroline Pratt, among many others.

At the same time, two European educational pioneers designed alternative methods with roots going back to Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. Maria Montessori was an Italian pediatrician/psychiatrist who studied child development with a meticulous scientific eye as well as a deep religious faith in the divine essence of the human being. She opened her first "children's home" in 1907. Rudolf Steiner was an Austrian philosopher/mystic who developed a spiritual science called Anthroposophy that he applied to the fields of medicine, agriculture, architecture, and the arts, as well as education. He founded the first Waldorf school in 1919. Both of these methods have evolved into important international movements for educational change.

It was during the 1960's that alternative education grew into a widespread social movement. During this decade, of course, countercultural themes that had always been marginal and virtually invisible--racial justice, pacifism, feminism, and opposition to corporate capitalism--exploded into public view. Mass demonstrations, alternative lifestyles and publications, and the urban riots and assassinations of that period led to a deep examination of modern society and institutions. Educators and other writers--including Paul Goodman, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, George Dennison, James Herndon and Ivan Illich--launched passionate attacks against the "one best system" and its agenda of social efficiency. The period between 1967 and 1972, especially, was a time of crisis for public education, when student demonstrations, teacher strikes, and a deep questioning of traditional assumptions shook the system to its core. In these few years alone, over 500 "free schools"--nonpublic schools based on countercultural if not revolutionary ideas--were founded. Open classrooms and magnet schools (public schools of choice) were introduced. And the spirit of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel began to seep into academic and professional circles, leading, by the end of the 1970's, to approaches that came to be called "humanistic" and "holistic" education.

The counterculture did not prevail; over the past twenty years, traditional values have been strongly reasserted in politics and in education. The 1983 report by President Reagan's Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, was a powerful statement of the traditional goals of American public schooling--social efficiency and economic growth--and it led to a tidal wave of political grandstanding, legislative mandates, and frantic "restructuring" mainly intended to produce better disciplined citizens and workers for a competitive global economy. George Bush's "America 2000" agenda became Bill Clinton's "Goals 2000" program--now enacted into law--which continued this top-down movement to harness the young generation's energies to the needs of the corporate economy. Those who worked for progressive, child-centered, or humanistic education within the system during the heyday of the counterculture have found little support for their vision in recent years, and many have turned to alternative settings.

Within the public system there are now many alternative programs for students "at risk" of dropping out because they are so completely alienated by the impersonal routines of conventional schooling. And there are still significant pockets of progressive educators and related groups--such as those promoting whole language and cooperative learning--who remain determined to infuse public education with more democratic, humanistic purposes. But despite these oases of student-centered learning, the educational climate during the past decade has been affected by ever tighter state and federal control over learning, leading to still further testing, politically mandated "outcomes," and national standards. There is some hope in the relatively new concept of "charter schools," which allow parents and innovative educators to receive public funding with less bureaucratic intervention, although it remains to be seen how much freedom such schools will be allowed if national standards begin to be enforced.

As government school systems become increasingly yoked to the purposes of the corporate economy, it is likely that thousands more families and educators will turn to the more democratic and person-centered values represented by alternative schools and home education. For the past century and half, alternative schools have been isolated countercultural enclaves with little influence on mainstream educational thinking and policy. But in the "postindustrial" or "postmodern" era that appears to be emerging now, the industrial-age model of "social efficiency" is possibly starting to become obsolete.

Perhaps, as Ivan Illich envisioned in his 1970 book Deschooling Society and James Moffett describes in his recent book The Universal Schoolhouse, the idea of a public school system may have outlived its usefulness. According to these and other authors, in a democratic, information-rich society, learning should take place everywhere in the community, and young people should have access to mentors who nourish their diverse personal interests and styles of learning. We have a long way to go before this sort of system is in place, but if our society does in fact move in this direction, it may well be alternative educators who show the way.

Thanks to: www.educationrevolution.org

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