In last week’s cover story, Marc Maximov dove into the world of self-directed learning, reporting on the first year of Pathfinder Community School in Durham, where there are no teachers, classrooms, or textbooks. 

Ariel Fielding says that this kind of free-schooling is nothing new: “As a graduate of a school not unlike Pathfinder, I saw many of my own early educational experiences reflected there. I also thought the assertion on the cover that this kind of education might be ‘education’s next revolution’ was kind of ironic, since people have been saying that for nearly a century. 

“I went to a free school based on A.S. Neill’s Summerhill—ALPHA Alternative in Toronto, Canada, where the public system boasts nineteen alternative schools from K–8, and twenty-two alternative high schools—and I’ve watched media outlets discover free-schooling with surprise again and again. The fact is that this kind of self-directed learning has been around since at least 1921. Closer to home, Western North Carolina’s Arthur Morgan School has been around since 1962 and is still going strong. 

“People who are new to the anti-authoritarian model of education tend to place it somewhere on a spectrum ranging from preposterous to personally offensive. When my documentary project on free-schooling with photographer Michael Barker landed in the pages of the UK’s Daily Mail, it drew some hilariously vitriolic comments from readers. The upshot was that since not all of the graduates we profiled had become doctors, lawyers, or accountants, free-schooling was an abject failure. In fact, free-schooling teaches many things that students in conventional schools often do not learn at all: how to make decisions, how to treat others with fairness and respect, and how to live ethically and responsibly as part of a democratic community. 

“I think of it in terms of love and fear: traditional education is hierarchical and operates on an undercurrent of fear—fear of failure, fear of punishment—while free-schooling is egalitarian and operates on an undercurrent of love. Surely the world could use infinitely more of the latter; maybe it’s not so surprising that it still seems revolutionary a century after it started.”

Steve Krug adds: “When the kids were little, we lived in an area of spectacular natural beauty and a terrible school system. After trying to work with the school, we ended up homeschooling. We tried a number of approaches for basic curriculum and settled on student-directed education after reading about Summerhill in Neill’s book.

“We agonized about our choice. We found, ‘only’ an hour’s drive away, another group of secular parents, some of whom also wanted to try allowing student-directed education. The group eventually had a building where we all met once a week, the parents offered ‘classes’ in their specialty, and attendance was, obviously, not mandatory.

“It should be noted that for SDE to work, in our situation, we had to be available to explain any concept the kids were interested in. If we didn’t know the topic, we turned finding out about it into a learning experience for both us. It became evident early on that, once reading and math basics were in place, that it took very little of the day for our kids to learn far more than if they had been in a conventional school. They had time to be kids.

“With the group, they learned peer social skills, and talk with adults with an ease we had never known growing up.

“Our first child graduated from homeschooling and went on to college; she’s an ICU RN. Our second decided she wanted structure and went to school for her last three years of high school. SDE had her reading at a college level and doing math at a tenth-grade level. She went on to become a geologist.

“Of all the things we did differently as parents, deciding to try SDE brought the most criticism from family and friends. Were there holes in their educations? Absolutely. Did they find a way to fill those holes? Yes.”

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