Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on February 16th 2016
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“…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.”
Twenty-year-old Nikhil Goyal is not wrong: America’s education system is indeed in shambles. It is possible for students to learn without a constant barrage of testing and it is possible for them to guide their own learning. Goyal doesn’t have to argue these points for me, or a majority of educators, I imagine—we study the educational history he references throughout Schools on Trial and see ourselves as the facilitators he hopes for, even if the current education system views us otherwise. While I think the heart of his argument is sound, I struggled with the way he presents his ideas and couldn’t find the key to fixing the problems in American education, at least not for all students.
Schools on Trial struggles early on from an abundance of unsupported anecdotes and extreme hyperbole. There is quite a bit of “…from what I have observed…” and tales from friends, which can have a place, but should be backed up by real research if intended to persuade. Goyal goes on to call conventional schooling “one of the most oppressive and antidemocratic institutions of modern times” and claim that kindergarten information packets should come with a slew of mental health warnings. By the time he asserted that academically successful students suffer from Stockholm syndrome, my eyes were rolling hard. But I hoped his frustration would lead to a good solution.
Most of Schools on Trial is a push toward free or democratic education, with visits to schools like Sudbury and Brooklyn Free School to highlight potential outcomes. The problem is that most of the country’s democratic schools are not public (and many of the public examples, like Richmond’s Open High School, require admission). It’s great that many of the private schools offer scholarships or sliding scale tuition, but they can only offer so much help.
To counter that, Goyal suggests breaking up large public schools into several small settings that are ideal in democratic education. He highlights the possibility of converting existing spaces and using the community as the classroom for these new schools, but where does that money come from? With so many public schools in horrific condition, expecting districts to double their physical size is simply not realistic. While the detailed examples of successful free and democratic school settings help bolster his thesis, I couldn’t help but wonder if Goyal spent time trying to understand the underfunded, struggling public schools that are most in need of help or if he only sought them out to criticize.
“The challenge is how to bring these schools to more communities, cities, and countries to rescue young people from the clutch of traditional education. Godspeed.”
Godspeed, indeed. But we need more than godspeed as a solution to “fix our educational malpractice”. What does democratic education look like for all students, including those with disabilities and those raised in poverty? I’m not saying it can’t happen—I would love to see it happen—but I have yet to see a realistic proposal. Until then, the concept is far from democratic and an unthinking push for a handful of students seems poised to widen gaps that already exist, causing more damage than good.