by Jim Strickland
One of the saddest realizations of my life is that the institution in which I have placed my time, energy, and hope for the past 25 years is failing my own son. Owen is 14 years old and he has not attended school for the past two years since his last experience in early middle school. Since school is the only legitimate place for young people in our society, this has left him with few viable options.
Why is Owen not attending school? Because school is not a good place for him. Here is why:
1) School unnecessarily creates extreme anxiety for Owen because everything he does is scrutinized and judged. He is constantly under pressure to compete because his efforts are compared with those of his peers. This intense competition for approval is unbearably stressful and sucks the joy out of learning.
2) School forces Owen to deny his own interests, passions, and experience in order to focus on an imposed agenda that is meaningless to him. When he has to leave all that matters to him at the classroom door, the classroom becomes a dry, inauthentic, and lifeless place.
3) School provides few opportunities for real work that is done for real reasons. Owen may not be the biggest fan of household chores, but he understands that we all have to do our part to make our household work. In school, almost all the work is artificial, contrived, and done for hypothetical reasons that do not inspire participation.
4) School does not connect Owen with a variety of adult mentors who are doing things that matter. School culture is often dominated by a peer-centered social pecking order that can feel like something out of Lord of the Flies. Yes, good teachers can be effective mentors, but with huge class sizes and their own pressures to produce, teachers can only do so much.
5) School does not give Owen a voice in the decisions that affect his life. It violates human nature and personal dignity to have our lives controlled by someone else. Experience tells us that people support what they help create. School does not do this for Owen.
I believe that Owen is going to be okay. He is a smart, funny, and considerate young man who has a lot to offer our world. But how sad that he cannot be his awesome self in school where he can connect with friends and teachers who accept him as he is and encourage his unique strengths.
I have a dream… a dream that school will become for every child a place where they feel valued and accepted for who they are, a place where they are inspired by real work for real reasons, a place where they can work with adult mentors who have time to connect on a personal level, a place where they learn the art of democracy by having a real voice in the decisions that affect them, and a place where they know without a doubt that they belong. We can do this.
In his classic Experience and Education, John Dewey wrote, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul; loses his appreciation of things worthwhile?” We are indeed in a battle for the souls of our children. School can part of the solution, or it can be part of the problem. The choice is ours.
Jim Strickland is a public educator in Marysville, WA where he lives with his wife and three children. He is a long-time advocate of democratic, non-coercive, and learner-centered education, and writes regularly on these topics. Jim welcomes your comments and ideas at .