Monday, December 27, 2010

Emergent education, or, Can friends start a college?

There is a long tradition in American civic life--one that I love.  It is the tradition of small groups of people, friends often, co-religionists sometimes, bonding together to respond to a social problem.  Many things might come out of that response--laws, for example, or organizations, or movements, or communities.  But at the core, these responses have always been organized around an ethos of friendship.

The intellectual history of the tradition runs from Tocqueville through Mary Parker Follett and Jane Addams to Jane Jacobs and Myles Horton and Ella Baker to Steven Johnson.  The organizational history runs from frontier towns to community organizing and social settlements and folk schools to the civil rights movement and into the movements of today.

Today some of the most important thinking and organizing in this tradition is coming out of evangelical Christianity under the umbrella of "the emergent movement."  Emerging Christian organizations have eschewed mega-churches and literalism and are focused on building Christian community out of questions and friendships.  Doug Pagitt puts it this way in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope: "The emergent imagination is at its most basic level a call to friendship--friendship with God, with one another, and with the world."

When we talk about trends in education today, we tend to focus on structure and infrastructure: charter schools, standardized testing, technology, for-profit higher ed, assessment and accountability.  There is some value in this.  But in doing so, it masks the cultural changes that are going on in schooling.

One major cultural tendency is towards standardization, efficiency, and systems.  That tendency runs through all of the structural trends in education--systems of charter schools, national tests, system-wide adoption of technology, etc.  It is largely about measuring outcomes to create a one-size-fits-most way of education. It values the involvement of parents, students, teachers; but largely as choosers.  Pick this school or that one; select this curriculum or that. Leadership is traditional--one person or a small group of experts in charge.  Elected or selected.

The other cultural tendency is towards emergence, relationships, and ecosystems as the basis of education. Where the systematizing trend focuses on choice as involvement, emergent education focuses on co-creation as involvement.  It  can be seen in charter schools, those started by collections of parents and educators who want better options for "their kids."  It underlies the way that home-schooling is no longer a parent teaching her/his own kids at home, but instead a network of parents taking that role, and meeting to share curriculum, go on field trips, or expand educational offerings.  It is hidden in some portions of the open learning movement  and in some versions of technology-enabled education. It is behind collaborative creation of curriculum, and behind efforts to improve advising. It creates flat organizations and has little organizational structure.  People lead where they can lead--they play the role they seek (and are best prepared) to play.

One wonders, though, if it has any chance in higher education.  One would hope so, since higher ed is the home to some of the worst results of big, efficient, standardized education.  But I know of no instance in the recent past where a group of friends got together to talk education and ended up starting a college.  This sort of thing happened a lot in the 19th century, where many small towns had their own locally grown colleges.  Can it happen today?  Can a college emerge?

1 comment:

derek bitter said...

This might not totally count, but St. John's College as it is today started in 1937 when the school was in deep financial trouble. The two principle founders (Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan) of its current classical liberal arts curriculum were given the opportunity to establish a system of education that they thought was ideal. And it has changed little since.