Can We Be Saved from School Savers?

By Paul Gaston

Vol. 5, No. 4, 1983, pp. 10-11

Before I had a university professorship, wrote a book, received a Ph.D., won a Fulbright to study abroad, and graduated from the college of my choice, I spent fifteen years (three of them as a kindergartener) working in wood, clay, leather, and silver; singing; acting; folk dancing; playing sports and games of all sorts; and, yes, basket weaving (using Alabama long-leaf pineneedles)--all in a school where these things were thought to be as educational--as basic--as reading and mathematics.

In fact, we didn't categorize things that way, which is one reason why I react badly every time someone talks about going back to the basics. What are the basics basic to, I always wonder. In our school, folk dancing was as important as American History; Arts and Crafts as essential as Chemistry. When we were very young, before we were eight, nature walks were part of our daily routine and learning to read was something we didn't do--there would be plenty of time when we were ready for it. Everything we did was basic and some of what others now call "the basics" we left out until it was time for them.

I don't believe the members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education would share the enthusiasm I have for my school. But, then, I feel the same way about their " imperative for educational reform." AII of those litanies to "excellence," "quality," "standards," and "tough demands"--not to mention the jingoism--frighten me with the vision of joyless students obediently churning out higher test scores.

Every time I am confronted with such blatant examples of competition, coercion and mindlessness as the American way of learning, I think back to the School of Organic Education, in Fairhope, Alabama, where I went, and wish that its values and assumptions could be our inspiration.

The founder of our school--a remarkable woman named Marietta Johnson--always said "education is growth." By this she meant that education should not be training or preparation for future demands but the proper nurturing of immediate needs of the whole organism. She called her idea "organic education" and she strongly believed that no part of a child's development should be isolated from another without the danger of warping the child. The spiritual, mental, and physical must always be kept in balance; stressing one to the detriment of another would damage the whole child.

Because this philosophy pervaded the school--not just the faculty but also the pupils--we never thought about which courses were academic or more basic than others, which would assure you of the college of your choice and which would condemn you to a trade school. There was no "tracking system" and had anyone ever proposed a "college preparatory" class the idea would have perplexed us. The best preparation for the future, we believe, was unselfconscious absorption in the things that naturally and properly interested us at any given stage of growth. We quite literally prepared for the future by not preparing for it.

I don't remember if there were SATs in my day. I'm certain that if they existed as a requirement for college admission we would never have set them up as goals to work toward. Tests were as alien to our idea of education as were honors courses, acceleration, specialization, and preparing for a career. We had no tests or marks in pottery or drama--everyone understood we did those things because we liked them--and it worked the same way for Spanish and Shakespeare: we studied because we wanted to, without being ranked, compared, and classified. One of our major articles of faith was that learning is its own reward.

And we found that learning is intensely satisfying. Because our teachers helped us to care about what we studied, treated our opinions with respect, and encouraged us to share, defend, and refine them, we learned to read and write and reason because those things were important to us, not to meet someone else's expectations of what we ought to be.

Tests, examinations, grades, promotions, honors, rewards and other invidious distinctions masquerading as incentives to learning were all perversions of the educational system, we believed. If you worked to get a good grade or to beat out somebody else, you were warping your own growth, undermining your own education. Why would anyone do that?

No one failed at our school; and, with no failure, the roots of fear were cut off. That released power in many persons who might otherwise have been crushed early in life. With no honor rolls--no awards for any achievements--there was less chance for false pride to develop and more support for the idea of achievement as its own and sufficient reward. With no grades there was no cheating. Cheating was one of those absurdities we


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jokingly called "un-organic." Later, when we went to college, we looked on those who boasted of their anti-cheating "honor codes" as being curiously perverted.

We varied greatly in our talents and backgrounds--we were a good cross section of the community--but the school helped each of us to grow to our potential. There was no mechanical formula for this, no system that could be designed and mandated by some educational authority. Far more important than method or technique were the values and assumptions of our teachers. They believed in the school's philosophy, in organic education. They had faith that if you valued each pupil as a unique individual, took them where they were and worked from there, everything would turn out fine in the long run.

There were certainly standards--we all knew we were expected to do our best--but we never had what the National Commission would call "objective" standards that would show whether an individual student was measuring up to the norm or not. There simply were no fixed reference points by which we could be placed in a continuum in relationship to our peers. We were ourselves in an environment deeply mistrustful of measuring and comparing.

There was discipline, too. We were not a "do as you please" school. But the discipline we had was not imposed by rules and regulations, fear of punishment or lust for reward. It was self-discipline that emerged quite naturally from our confidence in the school and in ourselves and our keen sense of what was right and what was wrong.

Along with confidence we had great pride in the school. Our school spirit--intense and pervasive--was rooted in a belief that we were part of an important experiment in social democracy. John Dewey visited the school in 1913, just six years after it opened, and he made a famous report, stating that the school was showing "how the ideal of equal opportunity is to be transmuted into reality." Our founder said many times that equal opportunity exists only when all children are provided the conditions for the full development of their capacity. We believed those conditions existed at our school. I suppose we were naive, but we held proudly to the idea that our school pointed the way to a sounder, more just and humane democratic society.

Thirty-seven years after graduation I am still naive enough to believe that we had the right idea. I know the National Commission doesn't have it.

Paul M. Gaston teaches history at the University of Virginia and its the author of The New South Creed (Knopf) and the forthcominq Women of Fair Hope. He is a member of the executive committee of the Southern Regional Council.