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When the classroom leaves the mainstream

EG's picture



When the classroom leaves the mainstream

An exploration of alternative education as a feminist practice 



Students at the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts learn and interact with one another as they please.  Each pupil, aged 4-19, chooses her own academic path, its intensity, and the precise time and way in which she will explore the subject(s).  Or, if she’s not so academically inclined in traditional disciplines, that’s okay, too – she can spend her time as she wishes, inside or outside, exploring nature, playing video games, solving puzzles -- in essence, doing whatever she finds stimulating -- whenever she wants to.  The Sudbury Valley School is one of several schools modeled after Summerhill School in England, a “democratic education” school founded in 1921 (AERO) that is part of a movement in alternative education.  Democratic schools like Sudbury Valley are self-proclaimed participatory democracies that aim to encompass a “full and equal” mantra of student-staff relations and participation.  In this essay, I will visit the values, goals, accomplishments, and failures of democratic schooling in my assertion that, though they seem to ally with feminist goals, they ultimately fail as a feminist practice because of their “underground” nature. 


The aims of alternative education, such as democratic schooling, are as simple as they are important to outline here.  Author Alphie Kohn, an outspoken critic of mainstream education and its fixation on test scores, grades, and competition, addresses what appears to be a fairly widely-accepted set of objectives, which he summarizes in a 2005 address to members of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO):


I am interested primarily in what I think benefits children, what promotes their social, intellectual, and moral development and . . . in furthering a democratic society: not just teaching kids how to live in one but increasingly how to create one where it doesn’t really exist (Kohn).


It doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary; children who live in a democratic society should learn to function in it.  But the way democratic schools aim to achieve their students’ social, intellectual and moral development is out of the ordinary if you haven’t encountered it before.  


It would be well for me to mention that my schooling up until college was exclusively public, and fairly traditional in its curriculums, graduation requirements, and student-teacher relations.  While students were, in each of my grade schools, allowed -- and indeed encouraged -- to offer input in class, we did by no means dictate classroom discussion or curriculum, nor did we decide our own academic requirements. So it is from a publicly educated, and so perhaps limited or a least inexperienced, perspective that I explore alternative education in its various forms, and reach the conclusion that while democratic schools perhaps appear feminist in their own right, they fail in actually advancing a feminist agenda.


It is just as important, then, to define my feminism here.  My somewhat recently developed, and admittedly evolving, sense of the term deals with a strive for human equality both within and outside of gender.  I do not believe that men and women are not inherently different; I do believe that there remains a dangerous and damaging social inequality between these two genders, which, until mended, will perpetuate an unequal world beyond gender.  Feminism, then, responds to that gender inequality, and in doing so, begins addresses other injustices.    


In order to exist as an active participant in this definition of feminism, firstly, the classroom must start small and work for some sort of freedom and equality.  Democratic schools begin to achieve this in their very mission statement, which puts a strong emphasis on students’ freedom to learn and behave in non-structured and fluid ways that mold to each students’ unique learning style and that are “unencumbered by forced curriculums” (Hern).  This highly individualized method of education meshes well with a third-wave feminist approach to gender; just as we should not be forced into gender binaries or labels, a student should not have to fit into a non-fluid learning method that is uncomfortable in any regard.  Just as we should have, without question, the freedom to choose the language with which we define ourselves, a student should be granted the freedom to choose the technique from which she best learns.


There is certainly undeniable feminism here. In that individualized aim, the students are given much power, in the system, while the teachers exist mostly to facilitate each academic endeavor.  Because didactic tendencies do not exist within democratic schools, students and teachers, allies will claim, are equal; on the one hand, teachers may offer insights, resources, and suggestions for their students’ academic pursuits, but the students will always decide precisely how and when their learning will happen.  It is in this “balance,” that proponents of the education find equality, and where some may find a very feminist approach to the education.  It is the same place where I find inherent fault in this very liberatory schooling, and where what could be a feminist school of thought derails.


The problem is that the complete independence that is so strongly emphasized in democratic schooling is something that, after graduation from the democratic school, is hard to find, which Kohn speaks to in his address:


When autonomy is valued to the exclusion of other goals, we run into problems of different kinds [in our goals of] fostering kids’ intellectual development, fostering their social and moral development, and fostering social change so that kids become critics of the status quo (Kohn).


I find these goals admirable, to say the least, and also inherently feminist.  But that the autonomy is alternative  – not mainstream or widely accepted – cannot be ignored.  Not only is the self-governance alternative in the school systems, it is practically non-existant in the world after grade school.  In higher education, in work, in our social lives, we live in terms of hierarchies that are both subtle and apparent.  Graduates of the “full and equal” school of thought may be feminist in their own right, but because their training is relatively obscure and unshared by so many, they may not effectively function in hierarchical context, and the feminist tendency of their education becomes lost and potentially equally ineffective.


I condone the carefully created, progressive nature of alternative education, because it is wonderfully idyllic and something that represents the world as we would like to see it.  I also do not want to perpetuate any notion that a small group cannot make a big change. Within itself, democratic schooling has done just that; it has become a feminist practice, which is an achievement on its own.  But in order that it make that big change outside of the grade school, democratic schooling has to emerge from the sidelines;.  Only when either A: this “underground” concept is brought to the foreground and made mainstream, or B: “real world” hierarchies become less of a presence, can it represent the world as it really is, and eventually begin to mobilize a feminist agenda that shows the world as we would like to see it.  











Works Cited


"Democratic Education." Education Revolution. 1996. Alternative Education Resource Organization. 8 Dec. 2008 <>. 


Hern, Matt. "Four Questions for Democratic Schools." 8 Dec. 2008. 


"Hudson Valley School Philosophy." Hudson Valley Sudbury School. The Hudson Valley School. 8 Dec. 2008 <>. 


Kohn, Alphie. "The Trouble with Pure Freedom: A Case for Active Adult Involvement in Progressive Education." 2005 AERO Conference. NY, Troy. 7 Dec. 2008.


Anne Dalke's picture

On being underground

a number of your classmates have also written recently about re-envisioning education to make it more "feminist"; see especially Learning from My Experiences: A New Model for Early Education; and What Does It Mean to be Feminist in the Classroom?

The strongest echo I hear in your own paper is to the very first text we looked @ in this course, Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas. Woolf argues, you remember, that three causes are identical:

  • establishing a woman's college
  • supporting a professional women's organization, and
  • preventing war.
Her argument is all about establishing an "outsider's society," and my memory is that the class had trouble with that as a feminist ideal: refusing the mainstream, insistently asking, "Do we wish to join that procession...On what terms? Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?"

So: I'm very glad to see you cycling back to the questions with which the course began, and I'd like to nudge you to go on thinking about possible answers. How can either "A" or "B" (democratic schooling emerging from the sidelines, or making hierarchies less real) happen? You argue throughout your essay that the "underground" nature of these "self-proclaimed participatory democracies" that are alternative schools obviates their feminism--which you seem, by implication, to argue must have an effect on the mainstream.

But then you also give us Kohn explaining that their function is to "create a democratic society where it doesn't really exist." How to make what is not? How to educate for what is not? Does (or can) education change the social order in which it is embedded? Are you familiar w/ the work of Paulo Freire and John Dewey? Or William Ayers?! (now there's someone who came out from "underground" to devote his life to liberatory education....)

Do you want to get familiar with these guys...? Where can you go from here? Where do you want to go?