• Oksana Simonoff

Alternative education


The New Zealand education sector employs over 100,000 people. Compare this to a large private business that employs one tenth of that. Critique of the education system abounds, without evidence of significant change. Has our education system simply grown too large to change? In the words of political scientist Leopold Kohr “wherever something is wrong, something is too big”. Amid post-war development euphoria, he advocated for a society built on common sense and structures resembling the Earth’s living systems. Kohr believed that the truth of beauty is not about size but about proportions and relations. His voice has been lost in time.


What purpose does one of the largest investments of our country serve? How do we turn this monolithic structure around? In what direction should it be heading?


The problem

The problem with the education system is eloquently articulated in Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society written in 1971. He observes that education has become an initiation into the consumer society. It teaches us from a young age the value of escalation, pushing the pupil up to the level of competitive curricular consumption, into progress to ever higher levels. This requires increasingly large numbers of bureaucrats to pose as teachers, teaching people the superior value of unending progress and “attempting to do what God cannot, namely, manipulate others for their own salvation”. To keep students trapped in the system, this style of education requires ever escalating investments disguised as new football stadiums, chapels, or programs called International Education. Education reformers promise each new generation the latest and the best, and the public is fooled into demanding what they offer - constantly progressive obligatory instruction and ever increasing need to be taught. He is surprised that a very large number of people tolerate this.


Schools operate as false public utilities: like highways, which create the impression of their necessity if people are to move but really generate demand for private cars, schools are presumed essential for attaining the competence required by a society which uses modern technology. Illich warns of the ‘terminal education’ trap, drawing parallel with the Middle Ages when the demand for Church services outgrew a lifetime and led to a trade in indulgences.

However, valuable knowledge is not a commodity to be forced into the consumer. Learning is the human activity which requires least manipulation by others. It is acquired not as the result of instruction but of free participation in a meaningful setting. Instruction smothers the horizon of imagination, depriving incentive to learn and grow in independence. The danger Illich sees is that once young people have allowed their imagination to be formed by curricular instruction, they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. He argues that until an individual is explicitly conscious of the process through which they were initiated to the forces which shape their cosmos, they cannot break the spell and shape a new cosmos. He concludes that such transfer of responsibility from self to institution guarantees social regression while a desirable future depends on us deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption.


In Primate Change, an exploration of changes in the human body from prehistory to present day, Vybarr Cregan-Reid observes that the Victorian schoolroom was deliberately designed with high windows to eliminate distraction with the natural world and sunlight. Chairs were an essential part of the disciplinary structure, and caning was reserved for children who refused to sit on them, to better prepare them for the highly regimented environments of Victorian factories. But young bodies want to move. “The explosive energy we have, when instead of walking we run – not as adults do, but in an all-out sprint – fades at no single, identifiable point during adolescence”. When children show a completely natural response to this factory-mode of learning, they are often labelled unruly, insubordinate and in some cases, ill and can be sent to a special school with other similarly disruptive children who refuse to sit down. The child who enters the education factory liber, supple, energetic, and agile comes out the other end with a body possessing a more limited range of motion in its joints and limbs. There has been a surprising absence of inquiry into what this style of schooling does to our children’s bodies.


Berry Mayall of Institute of Education, University of London in Sociology of Childhood in Relation to Children’s Rights warns that we have too many child professionals who are responsible for surveillance and instruction of children. We find it hard to take children seriously as social actors, consider children as non-adults and moral incompletes and, on this basis, deny them the right to participate in the structuring of their own childhoods. We have excluded children from being independent actors in society and view young people as ‘becomings’ rather than people. Childhood is viewed as long apprenticeship in service of acquisition of cultural capital for the demands of consumer society. However, children view themselves seriously, as moral agents who carry out important activities. They consider their moral status and participation rights being constantly in question. How do we take children seriously as people and social actors and not as objects of adult’s work?


Change agents

Education alternatives have always strived for an outcome different from traditional schools. They often took the form of learning spaces and student hubs and rarely look like schools. They place emotional regulation above the acquisition of academic content and approach children holistically. They do not rely on authority for its own sake and do not school divergent thinking and intrinsic motivation out of the children.


There have been a handful of experimental schools in New Zealand, including the Auckland Metropolitan College, Four Avenues School and Tamariki School in Christchurch. Although Tamariki remains in operation, most alternative initiatives did not survive the cascade of neo-liberal interventions which shifted the focus from a whole person education to educating a ‘worker in waiting’. Public funding is not committed to experimental education, leaving the private sector responsible for innovation, which has instead plunged into the archaic task of teaching the world English.


Big international alternatives still operate including Summerhill School in the UK (open in 1920s) and Sudbury Valley school in the US (1960) and continue to inspire movements around the world.


Though alternative education generally flies under the radar of popular opinion, a recent exception that made international headlines is Elon Musk’s Ad Astra, a private school initially set up for the SpaceX community. Its website states that the skills to invent the future aren’t taught in school. It aims to cultivate student voice, strategic thinking, collaborative problem solving and develop students who are ‘enthralled by complexity and solving for the unknown’. Their values include: collaborate with new friends, embrace the chaos, test your assumptions, expect course corrections, reflect to grow and no speed limit. These are aspirational statements to deliver on.


Forces of change

We are living through an era of a major course correction. No society before left so many problems to future generations to solve, from the nuclear waste we store away for a better day, to squandering most of the topsoil and disrupting the four-billion-year-old Earth’s ecosystem. A typical New Zealand urban lifestyle now consumes in excess of two earths, Australia and the US consume five. Graduates charged with solving these problems attend schools funded by systems that created them. How should we break this vicious cycle? Do we continue to kick the can down the road, or has the time for the wisdom of Leopold Kohr finally arrived? Educators must lead the way in drawing new maps that enable a life that is local, simpler, resilient, and fulfilling and the following thinkers can provide the inspiration.

French philosopher Bruno Latour in Seven Objections Against Landing on Earth laments that modern humans have cut all ties between the world they live in and the one they live off. They have escaped gravity, behaved like absentee landlords and would rather move to another planet, than learn to live on this one. But we are not space aliens, we reside inside a thin biofilm no thicker than a few kilometers up and down, from which we cannot escape. Understanding these limits has political ramifications. Our goal should be to learn to land without crashing and for that Latour believes “we need aesthetics that render us sensitive to the existence of other ways of life. Just as politicians are supposed to hear voices previously unheard and scientists to become attuned to phenomena so far invisible, artists are challenged to render us sensitive to the shape of things to come.”


David Fleming In Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It says that in the future of the Lean Economy our society will need brilliance. Scholarship keeps cultures alive. Culture and arts are core conditions and properties of living in a society, as distinct from living in a place that has the misfortune of being infested with people. At the heart of self-reliance will be the ability to grow one’s own mind.


Eleanor Brown from the University of York casts the net wider and looks at the emerging political framework of Buen Vivir. In Reimagining Education and Shifting Paradigms Brown states that we will no longer be able to get away with just more schooling and need to challenge the status quo. She finds a problematic association between education and Western-style schooling. We need a different ontology from the European modernity upon which our development discourse has been based. ‘Buen Vivir’ is a Spanish translation of the concept of Sumak Kawsay in South American language Quechua. Sumak means ‘full of plenitude, sublime, excellent, magnificent, beautiful’, Kawsay is ‘life, existing in a dynamic, changing, active manner’. This philosophy of living does not see the world as something in need of developing and does not support the drive to amass material wealth in excess of one’s needs. It goes head-to-head with the American dream which in the words of US President Harry Truman holds that “Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge”. Buen Vivr is an open proposal under construction, liberating other worldviews in the face of Western hegemony of development. It challenges the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which remain wedded to the assumption of development and seeks to expose the colonialism concealed within them. It recognises intrinsic value in the non-human world, resulting in an ethical shift and offering a promise of a socio-biocentric civilisation.


This worldview holds huge relevance for New Zealand which is awakening to the treasures of Matauranga Maori and recently acknowledged the legal rights of the non-human world to exist. Given that education has the potential to act as an interrupter, not just a reproducer, of cultural systems, Brown challenges us to create spaces for collective learning where we can imagine education through and for Buen Vivir.


In the words of William Ophuls, education for excellence must “foster beauty, cultivate the reasoning heart, build up our stock of metaphors, liberate intuition and imagination and teach realism and judgement”. Such education will empower educators to build the legacy their work deserves.