Thursday, July 28, 2011

The School Without Walls by John Bremmer and Michael von Moschzisker

                This book is about a school unlike any I’ve ever heard of. It was written in 1971 about Philadelphia’s Parkway Program. Rather than confine themselves to one location, the students and staff at this school made the entire city of Philadelphia their campus, and curriculum. They gained first-hand experience studying the city. The founders saw education and politics as inseparable from one another. The book begins with the following statement, “America has never had an educational system worthy of itself after pioneering a continent, developing new forms of social and political organization, absorbing countless immigrants and bringing technology into a close relationship with human life, it is nevertheless true that Americans have adopted principles and practices of education belonging to another age and imported from another society. The Parkway Program tries to provide a mode of education in keeping with the major traditions of American life.” (xi). While I do not think a program such as this would work everywhere, I learned a lot from this book. I consider it a worthwhile read as part of my independent study on democratic schools.
                From the authors’ viewpoint, school is a process not a place. They see the current system as obsolete and inefficient. Bremer and Moschzisker criticize the belief that students learn inside the school and not outside in the real world. The Parkway Program was a bridge between students and the community they lived in. The authors state, “Everyone has a stake in education, everyone has a right and a duty to be involved, to participate.” (279) More than once I have bemoaned the community’s lack of involvement in education. I especially feel that those who have retired from working should be involved. However, as a teacher it is my job to reach out to others and ask for help. That is precisely what the Parkway Program did. It involved members from various organizations throughout Philadelphia in educating its youth.
Besides involving the community, the school had other desirable features. It allowed high school age students to take responsibility for their own education. They were permitted to make choices from a wide variety of course offerings based on their individual interests and face the consequences of those choices. The Appendix contains a statement made by the program’s director. In this he says, “We are not the private preserve of any racial, social, economic, or professional group, and, if we were, it would be impossible for us to be an educational program at all simply because the students would then be instruments of somebody else’s purposes, that is, of the purposes of that special group. But in education, the student is always the end, never a means.” (283.) This rings true with everything I’ve learned of free schools thus far. The Parkway Program didn’t indoctrinate or oppress students; rather, it allowed them freedom of choice and responsibility for their own learning. While the program is not a Free School in the strictest sense, it embodies many of the movement’s core values.

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