Two Perspectives on Educational Change

Talking Too Much Amongst Ourselves?  Two Perspectives on Educational Change

A conversation between Kirsten Olson and Ron Miller

This article appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Education Revolution:  The Magazine of Educational Alternatives (#60).

Kirsten and Ron talk it over.

This article began as an invitation from Ron to Kirsten.  Write about something you’ve learned from the recent publication of the book Wounded By School. Kirsten Olson , educational activist and teacher who is a longtime student of deschooling and 1960s “radical” critics, ended up reflecting on the “state of the movement,” as seen through the lens of attending the AERO Conference in Albany in June 2009.   That AERO meeting was Kirsten’s first.  Ron Miller, activist, editor, and movement leader, helped put the current movement together.

Ron and Kirsten share a deep interest in the movement’s roots, and now are friends thinking about how to work together.  (The picture is taken on Kirsten’s porch, when Ron visited in March 2010.) Thus the article became a dialog, an opportunity to go deeper.

The conversation is really about:  what is your theory of change for creating real transformation in education right now?

Ron and Kirsten invite readers to go online to comment about this piece!. There is already a lively discussion going on there.  We’d like to keep the conversation visible and open to all as we think through some of these issues.


For me, attending the AERO conference for the first time had a deep personal meaning and importance that is hard to describe.  Having read, talked and thought about the radical transformation of schooling for so long, and been deeply in the words of John Holt, Ivan Illich, and George Dennison for decades, I was, in a sense, looking back as I looked forward.  What had the movement become?  Who were we?  And how were we fashioning ourselves in relation to our stormy and important philosophical past?

With my 16-year-old son Sam along as a co-adventurer and co-participant, we were eager and unanxiously expectant (as the late Ted Sizer used to say) as headed off to Albany.  Coming off a long spring of book talks, I hoped this gathering would be unlike many I attend; less hairspray and fewer powerpoints, at a minimum.

I was not disappointed.  NO hairspray!  Powerpoints be damned!  The first night we catapulted to Patch Adams, and met Mary Leue.  We ran into more folks from free schools than we thought would have the budget to be there.  Sam signed up for the talent show (why hadn’t he brought his mandolin?), we met great folks for every meal with no planning at all, and saw how children formed their own culture on site, at the pool, and did a lot of important playing while their parents attended sessions.   From these wonderfully shaggy-headed kids, to the folks in their 70s, 80s and 90s, who had lived the movement and who were greeting (what were in effect) members of their families, I felt and heard Ron’s quiet reflection, “This is my tribe.”  The sense of educational adventurers, critics of mainstream education, often much too alone, coming together in a place where they didn’t have to explain anything to anyone, was palpable.  People were coming home.   Let the mandolins pluck our joy!

Yet at a deeper level, my time at AERO also troubled me.  Not because I wasn’t stimulated and refreshed, welcomed and intrigued—but because from my point of view, the homey intimacy of the meeting—the sense that everyone knew everyone else, and even more important pehaps, what everyone else was going to say, left me uneasy.  The very clannishness of the meeting—the sense that we gather together but once a year–left me wondering:  what is the right balance between the beloved professional family reunion, and the galvanizing-ourselves-to-be-activists-in-the-work, we’ve got to kick this thing up to the next level?  How do we know, and who is going to tell us?


This is an important question, Kirsten. You are asking us to reflect more carefully on the character, and ultimate goals, of an educational alternatives movement. Are we even a “movement” at all, or an isolated tribe or clan? I think you’re right to seek a balance between camaraderie and critical inquiry. Since we are outside the mainstream, working in our various ways to significantly change how society thinks about education, we do need this comfortable place among allies and friends to recharge our enthusiasm, to reassure ourselves that we’re not completely off the deep end. However, if all we do is congratulate each other for belonging to our exclusive club, we’re not going to build a very effective movement.

Even so, I do think there is more diversity at the AERO gatherings than you’re acknowledging here.  We don’t always know what a workshop presenter or a colleague with whom we’re chatting is going to say, and it is not uncommon to disagree, to challenge, to raise hard questions. My experience of these conferences is that the collegial atmosphere enables us to engage in intense, probing conversations without falling into the sort of rancorous, ideologically purist disputes that plague too many progressive movements.  Surely there’s great value in that; indeed, I’d say we have something to teach these others about process. I agree with you, though, that we could be more deliberate, more explicit, about galvanizing the movement by exploring potentially prickly issues.


Good point about many progressivist movements Ron.   I agree that collegiality and respectfulness leads us all to be able to consider deeper questions–and intimacy is important, too.  On this note, I was also really struck by how empowered most attendees were in their learning.  As one session I attended veered dangerously into teacher-centeredness and academic talk, members of the audience took charge and insisted, “Let us ask questions about what you are saying.”  “Slow down.”  If only all the audiences I work with were that activist and sure of themselves!   It was good to see what belongingness, a sense of being home, and lots of practice with managing your own learning, engenders.

But in spite of this activist stance towards learning, what ideas were actually in play intellectually? What important questions–like about the nature of authority, who has traditionally been served by alternative education, and the purposes of education–were being discussed?  How was the future of the movement being framed and galvanized?  In spite of Ira Shor, and Debbie Meier, and many good old time free school founders, I attended only one session (I couldn’t attend them all) and one lecture where really new questions about the political stance of the alternative school movement came up, and these discordant ideas seemed to be greeted with some sense of dis-ease.  (Uncomfortable shifting in chairs, a casting about for “who is authorized” to speak in the audience.)

In many sessions, everyone appeared comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, too practiced in confirming the rightness of each other’s opinions and outlooks for this to actually be a lively exchange of ideas.  (Many of the stories had been told before—many times before—session presenters’ ideas were frequently familiar to audiences, and there were few probing questions.)  Someone mentioned to me at a lunch one day that “the same people speak every year,” and I was shocked.  How could this be, when there are so many swirling, shifting opinions out in the educational reform world—when there is so much to talk about?  How could the organization be forming so few alliances and failing to learn from the world out there, even from folks with whom it does not agree?


I agree that the “political stance” (or better, stances) of the educational alternatives movement is not explicitly defined. The discomfort you observed may have reflected the deliberately non-political orientation of many in this movement. Before we can decide what our political stance is, we need to ask whether an educational movement does, or should, contain a political element at all.   If “politics” means challenging the practices of powerful social institutions, activists can do so directly, through lobbying, organizing, demonstrating, and voting—or indirectly, by going around the institutions and cultivating new ideas and new practices. The “A” in AERO, after all, stands for alternative; most of us are not trying to reform existing systems but to bypass them, gain a fresh start, build something new.  We are not interested, as a movement, in conventional politics. We tend to see such organizing and struggling as the less direct approach—as being remotely removed from the lives of children (to borrow Dennison’s phrase) or the lives of families and communities.

Some of those swirling opinions about educational reform, then, are not especially relevant to the work that many of us are doing. I’m glad that courageous educators are challenging the system from within, putting political and moral pressure on society to change its schools. They are our allies and some of them participate in AERO conferences; they bring good ideas and fresh energy, and I think many of them are inspired by what they encounter among us. Yet I think the predominant strategy among folks in this network is countercultural activism. As Paul Goodman and Dennison said about the free school movement in the 1960s, the value of radical alternatives is that we are building the world we want, now; we are not interested in struggling with the entrenched system, accepting compromise and defeat in the (usually dashed) hope that the system will change someday.

To whatever extent it is true that the same people speak every year (and I don’t think it’s a fair judgment), we need to remember that this is still a marginal movement; there really is not a large pool of potential speakers who understand its core principles and would inspire this group. Still, I accept your point that maybe we should look less for inspiration and more for a “lively exchange of ideas.”


Ron, I find myself thinking what the great Paulo Freire said frequently:  “All education is political.”  All attempts to educate are about engendering a view about what is important, what is morally valuable, what is admirable, what makes life meaningful–what we’d fight for.  So I’m confused about how any orientation towards education would not, at some level, involve a political stance.   And what is indirect activism?  Does that mean no confrontation with the mainstream?  I’m worried about how marginalizing that stance is.  And in my own work I think a lot about the millions of kids who are actually in school right now, who don’t really have an alternative to being in conventional public school because, for most kids, alternatives aren’t abundant.  How do we square their lives with an indirect stance towards the institution that coerces them around their thoughts, behavior and learning choices, and criminalizes them if they do not attend?

So I think it’s important for us, as a movement, to talk openly about these things.   These topics should be on the table.   Because as important as confirming belongingness is (and from my own biography I understand how important that is, when we feel misunderstood, marginalized and misrepresented in a mainstream discourse), shouldn’t challenging each other towards political and social action, and the further honing of one’s ideas, positions and thinking, also be a part of the agenda?  And more to the point, from my vantage—what political actions and alliances was the conference helping members to form?   Whose voices are NOT being heard?  And isn’t there a new, younger generation of alternative schoolers who should be at the center, blogging and networking and challenging?  They need to claim authorization to speak.

A close colleague, a professor of education and a long-time observer of the politics of educational reform, recently called the alternative school movement politically “invisible.”  In spite of its protestations of growth and far greater impact, in comparison to the charter school movement (which also seeks to disrupt and challenge the monopoly of public school education), alternative education is a very, very quiet sister—hardly a voice at the table.  If the movement, which has much to say about the nature of learning, authority and consent, and about conceptions of the student, is to become intellectually and politically influential, how is it engaging in broader, more mainstream conversations about how school and learning should look in the future?   If the alternative school movement is to become more than “isolated countercultural enclaves with little influence on mainstream educational thinking and policy,” as you wrote in A Brief History of Alternative Education,” how will this happen?


I spent about twenty years trying to give this movement a voice at the table. I finally concluded that what I (and most of my colleagues in this movement) most deeply believe actually represents an altogether different table. It now feels rather pointless and futile to me to engage the vast interlocked establishment of public school systems, state and federal politicians, corporate elites, teacher training colleges, textbook publishers, and mass media. We are, in fact, building a counterculture, and we’re just going to have to be patient while the monstrous system of educational imperialism collapses, along with the economic and political imperialism within which it is embedded.

Going back to Freire’s point, I think it is political—radically so—to abandon the system and start a new culture. We aren’t playing the system’s game and accepting whatever modest, sporadic, and tentative reforms it allows us. We are insisting on living our lives and educating our children in opposition to the dominant culture. Isn’t that political? It’s true that we are not thereby immediately liberating the millions of children stuck within the system, but why is that the measure of political authenticity? Jonathan Kozol raised the same concerns about the free school movement, and John Holt responded by saying that whatever pockets of liberation we could achieve represented progress toward change, that none of us can be held responsible for altering the entire system. Yes, there are very difficult questions about the limited race and class identity of this movement, which we do worry about and try to address as best we can. Unfortunately, these limitations are caused by complex social and economic forces far beyond our control. I don’t see public school reformers having all that much success dealing with these forces either; Kozol himself has observed that the “savage inequalities” within the system have only worsened over the years.

I find inspiration in social critics and visionaries who are entirely absent, if not completely unknown, in the school reform literature. I’m thinking, for example, of David Korten’s analysis (in The Great Turning) of the imminent collapse of currently dominant systems, and Paul Hawken’s account (in Blessed Unrest) of the growing global movement for a new culture. I’m inspired by people like Joanna Macy, Riane Eisler, Wendell Berry, Derrick Jensen, and Vandana Shiva, who explain how the very foundation, the underlying worldview, of our civilization is no longer viable. If school reformers think they can tweak the system without raising these fundamental questions, they are not interesting to me, or relevant to the work we need to do. Our task is to build a new world–one community, one small school, or one unschooling family at a time if need be. That’s the message of my book The Self-Organizing Revolution.  That’s what we talk about, and celebrate, at AERO gatherings.


But how do we build that new world?  Can we really do this on our own?  I wonder how we move out, beyond the pool, to be in conversation and form alliances with those who may not have the same points of view yet with whom it might form strategic networks and partnerships?  Who are potential friends and allies?  Do we know?

A recent online discussion of my book, Wounded By School, and my last months of traveling talking to a range of people about the state of education in this country, suggests a vast number of administrators, public school officials, teachers, parents and students who would make wonderful allies in the work of making alternative schooling more visible.  How can conversations with these folks be strengthened?  Where and how can this happen, in every readers’ life?  Shouldn’t everyone be getting out just a bit more?

So in spite of all the wonderful and lively connections and sources of energy I sensed at AERO and in the movement(s) itself, I was not at all satisfied by the savvyness or outward-reachingness of this movement, this revolution.  We will never remake the world by talking quietly among ourselves, with those of us who agree with us and tend to look and think like us.  We radically disempower ourselves by withdrawing from mainstream talk—that stuff going on in mainstream educational publications, blogs, statehouses, and over at the Department of Education in Washington.  It is our job, I believe, to make ourselves heard and understood.  We must be flexible and outreaching and innovative—and be open to new ideas.  (I love this quote:  “I am not willing to trust you until you are willing to be as changed by my experience as I am daily by yours.”  -Victor, in the movie The Color of Fear.)

As a student of John Holt, and of the strategic marginalization of the radical critics of the 1960s within the political discourse, the dangers of withdrawal and turning inward, of failing to insist that one’s voice be heard, or on giving up on the mainstream discourse, is politically perilous. It  does not serve children well.

A recent email from my friend Parker Palmer, another potential ally, observes,  “I agree with you about the nature of institutions which, almost by definition, have some element of coercion built into them. The problem, of course, is that most of society’s work is and always will be done in institutional contexts. The alternative education movement must always be an option for people, one that becomes more widely known and accessible than it is. But my hope is not that it will someday be our dominant mode of education, which is not going to happen, but that it can see itself in part as a ‘lab school’ for things that can and should be done in public education, and act accordingly.”

Is the movement earnestly working to become as widely known and accessible as it can possibly be?  Are every one of us, as educators, contributing powerfully to the discourse on school reform in your community?  If not, why not?

Shouldn’t this be a part of how the mission is defined?


I’ve always loved Parker Palmer’s work. He is a wise and inspiring teacher. But I am troubled by his claim that society’s work “always will be done in institutional contexts,” and I respectfully dissent. It is a reasonable and pragmatic observation; ultimately he may be absolutely right. But I and my colleagues in this movement envision a culture that does not build coercion into its social forms. Maybe we’re a lost tribe of dreamers, after all, but when I see where humanity is heading, I have no confidence in centralized, managed, coercive institutions. Everything is too big and distant, beyond any reasonable human scale—governments, corporations, health care systems, and school systems. I think our sanity, if not our survival, depends on a radical downsizing and relocalizing of modern culture. I don’t trust systems, and I think they are headed for collapse. It is time to secede from them.

So where does that leave us, in this conversation? We are revisiting themes that were apparent during the heyday of this movement, forty years ago, and that show up in many radical movements, such as the Greens. Do we want to be marginal visionaries or frustrated reformers? Are we ideologically or psychologically drawn to purity or to pragmatism? What happens when we try to combine the two sides? I agree with you that we should find allies and talk with them, learn from them, and encourage each other. Ultimately, though, I don’t think either strategy has a proven, effective solution to the troubles of our age. Perhaps the best we can do is each struggle in our own ways to plant the seeds of a more democratic, compassionate and life-affirming culture. ]


Kirsten and Ron:

Readers, we invite you to join in.  What do you have to say?


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