Some Ways to Think About Schooling, Part II: Authoritarian/Libertarian

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Yesterday, I offered a few different ways to think about and categorize different models of schooling and mapped some of these models onto 2×2 matrices. Schools can be categorized in terms of their curriculum (open/closed), their centralization (centralized/decentralized), their setting of instruction (individualist/collectivist), and their setting of attendance (personal/communal).

These allow us to categorize schools down different verticals and can be useful heuristics when comparing different types of schooling, but even these categories exist on a spectrum.

The most obvious spectrum in terms of schooling is one that is a composite of the above categories. I call this the authoritarian/libertarian spectrum, and it primarily reflects the pedagogical style, community, and ends of the schooling experience.

Authoritarian-Libertarian Spectrum (1)

Authoritarian refers to the imposition of power and authority over the lives and curricula of students. A total authoritarian system not only controls the learning plans of students, but also their lives through extracurricular activities, boarding mandates, and strict penal systems.

Libertarian refers to the lack of imposed power and authority on the student’s life and curricula. A total libertarian system not only doesn’t seep into and control the extracurricular components of a child’s education, but doesn’t have any objective imposition of learning goals and objectives at all. Students set their curricula, what they want to learn, and how they will achieve it. Adults may be present to help them achieve these ends, but they aren’t there to impose a specific set of things to be achieve on them.

On the total authoritarian end of the spectrum sits military schooling — which is designed to mirror military life, which itself is a hyper-hierarchical, authoritarian community. Orders are given by officers and followed by grunts, without any questions asked. Still in the authoritarian wing of the spectrum, but closer to the middle, sits traditional public schooling. Since traditional public schools are also organized on an order-and-command basis, and since they also strive towards the ends of creating good members for a community (the body politic), they still have a sense of authoritarianism about them. Some schools are less authoritarian than others, and some teachers are less than others, but the ends and general styles of the schooling technique are rooted in power, control, and authority.

On the total libertarian end of the spectrum sits unschooling. This type of schooling is so devoid of imposed power and authority that students create their own assignments and curricula. They design the structures of their days and their learning agendas. Sudbury schools sit close to total libertarianism, as students set the goals of their learning through play, and govern the structures of the schools through democratic vote. Adults are present, but only to be pulled on as resources and for liability purposes (as noted in yesterday’s post, check out Peter Gray’s Free to Learn (2013) for a great overview of Sudbury Schooling and its roots in anthropology).

Not included in the matrices yesterday was Waldorf Schooling — which is similar to Montessori schooling insofar as it is based off a specific style of pedagogy and includes broad, overarching goals for students to achieve. Waldorf schools are based off the educational insights of Rudolf Steiner, developed in 1919. Unlike Montessori schooling, Waldorf schools have instructors who do guide learning and curricular matters for students, so it falls further towards the authoritarian side of the spectrum than Montessori schools, but is still quite libertarian, as the pedagogical style is itself is much more open than traditional schooling curricula.

To the surprise of some, traditional homeschooling sits towards the center of the spectrum, while still on the libertarian side. Just as the amount of imposed authority may change from public school-to-public school, the amount of imposed authority in the homeschool changes from family-to-family. Many homeschoolers are quick to point out that traditional homeschooling isn’t unschooling. Indeed, go to any homeschooling convention and find that a good chunk of the exhibitors are companies devoted entirely to creating and selling homeschooling curricula and tools. Since homeschools don’t have to have a strong sense of power and authority imposed on the student, they fall on the libertarian side of the spectrum in general.

Charter schools, while technically public schools, have more flexibility when it comes to the standardized requirements imposed by regulators, so students may have more flexibility to explore their ends within the classroom.

It may strike some as odd to use the words “authoritarian” and “libertarian” to refer to schooling. “Schooling is just a fact of life, to use the same word to describe schools as one would use to describe a dictatorship is hyperbole.” Authoritarian schools — military schools, compulsory public schools, traditional parochial schools — may not be dictatorships, but they are strikingly similar to prison — another authoritarian system. In prisons, people have no choice as to whether they are there or not, and their actions throughout the day are tightly controlled and regulated. In traditional schools, students are moved from class-to-class at a bell’s notice, their behavior is closely monitored and regulated, and they have no choice as to whether or not they can leave.

Schooling may be “a fact of life,” but that doesn’t mean that it has to mirror an outdated form of 19th century German military schooling. Unschooling, Montessori, Sudbury, Homeschooling, and Waldorf schools show us that there are options outside of the paradigm many of us grew up in.

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