Voluntaryist Schooling at Libertopia 2011 - Part 3: Why We Need Summum Bonum Learning Center – Now!

Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow
Exclusive to STR
The Failure of Conventional Schools
Parents and children are frustrated by public schools (85% to 90% of all students). Not only do they do not meet their needs, but they treat parents and children as if they were sick patients instead of as valued customers. Moreover, student needs are superseded by politically sensitive funding mandates, ethnic and racial mandates that result in long bus rides and gerrymandered curriculum choices, and the practice of social promotion (inflated grades) to relieve overcrowded classrooms. When I taught in the Detroit Public Schools, I was disgusted by the ex post facto “adjustments” made by the administration. We now know that these examples of a butcher’s finger on the scales were only the shoe in the door. Scandals such as illiteracy among teachers,[i] high dropout rates (38% in Detroit),[ii]and widespread test-score fraud have surfaced as the norm in too many places.[iii] It is not surprising that children at these schools become progressively unmotivated, resistant to learning, disruptive, and exposed to criminal behavior on a regular basis – even in so-called “good neighborhoods.” Public schools are one of our society’s most expensive failures – not only in the billions of dollars wasted, but in the high drop-out rates, un-employable graduates, and in the human cost of lost opportunities. How can parents address these problems?
·      The limited number of alternatives to public schools can be expensive, and some of them perform only marginally better than public schools. My neighbor was a teacher at San Diego’s most exclusive private school. Years ago, she told me that the administrators at the school knew they only had to be a “smidgen” better than public schools to hang onto their customer base. Not inspiring, eh? She resigned in disgust.
·      For many busy parents, home-schooling is not an option – despite the extraordinary success of home-schooled children. Many parents do not have the time, skills, and resources needed by their children to flourish.
Most schools suffer from the same root problem, even if their official “results” appear positive: they do not place the long-term needs of the child at the heart of the learning experience. They do not acknowledge that children do not all learn in the same way or share the same interests and abilities. Instead, schools serve the short-term goals and convenience of teachers, unions, administrators, political legislation, curriculum developers, religious leaders, and parents. Yes, parental expectations about the core curriculum and disciplinary outcomes may be contrary to the needs of their own children at times – needs that children would express openly if they believed they would be heard.
The long-term consequences of the conventional approach to education can be seen in the behavior of many adults – even if their educational experiences appeared successful at the time. They often exhibit (1) a lack of curiosity, enthusiasm, and joy in the workplace or in leisure activities; (2) an inability to find meaning and purpose in their lives; (3) an escape into “life substitutes” – such as television viewing and other passive behaviors – instead of being joyful participants in their own lives and communities. Only after they have established themselves in careers do they discover a profound mismatch between their interests and skills when – for the first time – they can finally control their own destiny. “Changing gears” at that stage of life, however, can be so daunting that they resign themselves to the daily grind until reaching retirement age.

The Solution of the Summum Bonum Learning Center
If you read the first two parts of this series, you know that the Summum Bonum Learning Center (SBLC) will be a for-profit learner-driven educational environment in the San Diego area. It will respond to the intrinsic motivations of each child in the following ways:
·      Each child will shape the content, sequence, speed, and direction of the learning experience.
·      Students will be able to take advantage of learning experiences at brick-and-mortar businesses that share the SBLC facility.
·      Instead of using rewards and punishments to stimulate and curb growth, we provide a non-manipulative environment.
·      In contrast with other alternative schools, SBLC does not undermine the intrinsic motivation and autonomy of children by forcing them to obey externally imposed democratic mandates.
·      In contrast with other alternative schools, parents continue to have a “voice” in the process, and they receive training so that they can integrate their voices into the learner-driven approach.
In this way children can respond to the vast array of opportunities, vocational interests, and academic subjects needed to fully develop the “germinal person” buried inside them. This process of self-actualization is the “highest good” (summum bonum) of the child. Children who love art, science, math, history, fantasy, mechanical engineering, design, construction, engine repair, and carpentry – all of them will find a respected place at SBLC. We aim not to produce obedient citizens, but thoughtful, successful, empathic, and productive human beings who love to acquire knowledge and skills while retaining their inborn capacity for joy.

Why Now? The Sclerotic State Is Imploding
By their nature, tax-funded schools ignore market signals that automatically discourage failure and waste. After all, taxpayers cannot withdraw funding if they are dissatisfied. Consequently, as public schools continue to fail the tests of cost-effectiveness and performance, alternative schools will garner more support. At the same time, the demographic makeup of the population is changing; an aging population will have a smaller percentage of citizens in the workforce. As this population draws more heavily on social security taxes and tax-funded medical assistance, fewer funds will be available for public schools. Consequently, the demand for alternatives – especially schools that respond to the individual needs of children – will increase. If you think government will change its tune, consider:
·      In San Diego, where the city’s overgenerous pension fund is deep in debt, the mayor, Jerry Sanders, a former cop, is still trying to find ways to build a tax-slurping stadium for the San Diego Chargers – despite the negative fiscal impact exerted by taxpayer-subsidized stadiums wherever they squat. Bread and circuses anyone?
·      In Washington, D.C., Congress cannot even cut 1% from the budget without the place sounding like a pigsty at slaughtering time.
In his book, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, Butler Shaffer demonstrated that the state can do nothing but create chaos where spontaneous order would have prevailed. In his many essays, he has shown that the state is now so bloated, corrupt, and inert that it can no longer perform even the simplest of functions well. So what are voluntaryists to do? The answer is to begin living in ways that circumvent the state.
We’ve Been Here Before
This is not the first time that empires have imploded. Think of the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the Roman Empire. All died of the same thing: indigestion (to steal a phrase from Scott Ritter). And the United States is on the same track. So don’t be surprised when the train wreck occurs. But we don’t have to be inconvenienced more than necessary. We can have our voluntaryist “non-institutions” (which don’t exist for their own sake) already in place when it happens. Just as Pope Gregory I (the Great) stepped into the breach in the 6th century to feed the hungry, who were fleeing to Rome to escape the Lombards, we can be ready with our “spontaneous order,” our agora, and our schools. But we won’t make the same mistake as Gregory. We won’t become another corrupt state or semi-state. And we’ll be learning how to do it at Libertopia 2011. So why not come and join us? We’ll be in San Diego from October 20th through 23rd – discussing these ideas and many, many more with a roster of speakers and participatory panels. And if you register now, you can still take advantage of the discounted rates. So be there and learn to love the implosion. Hail, Libertopia!

[i] Gharisse Yu, “Retired Teacher Reveals He Was Illiterate Until Age 48,” 10News.com, 11 February 2008, http://www.10news.com/news/15274005/detail.html

[ii] WWJ, “Detroit High School Graduation Rates Rise,” CBSDetrtoi.com, 22 February 2011, http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2011/02/22/detroit-high-school-graduation-rates-rise/

[iii] Patrik Jonsson, “America’s Biggest Teacher and Principal Cheating Scandal Unfolds in Atlanta,” Christian Science Monitor/YahooNews, 5 July 2011, http://news.yahoo.com/americas-biggest-teacher-principal-cheating-scandal-unfolds-atlanta-213734183.html

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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.  


Glen Allport's picture

This is a great series, Lawrence -- you are (in the spirit of STR) truly striking at the root. Schools such as Summerhill, Sudbury, and the coming Summum Bonum Learning Center address BOTH sides of the love and freedom duality: they create emotionally healthy kids who WON'T grow up to idolize some new Hitler or feel the need to crush scapegoats to avenge the pain they suffered from a repressive childhood, AND who naturally and easily respect the rights of others. Free and responsible kids become free and responsible adults: we'll never have anything like a sustainable free society without a LOT more such people. I look forward to seeing Summum Bonum grow and prosper.

Glen Allport's picture

Another point: Public school teachers pay to get their OWN kids out of the public school system at about TWICE the rate that parents in general do. Search for "Public schools no place for teachers’ kids" at the Washington Times (from 2004 but still posted and worth reading). About 20% of public school teachers send their kids to a private school, and in some cities, it's as much as 44%. In other words, those who know public schools best -- from the inside -- are even more desperate than the general public to get their own kids out of our public schools.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Glen, this perception is absolutely correct and has been the case for at least 3 decades. When I was teaching in the Detroit Public Schools for a short time, many of the teachers there would never have considered sending their own children to the schools they occupied. Most of these schools were infested with unqualified staff members and a panic mentality that infused them without relief. I'll never forget my first day as an intern (student-teaching). The school where I was posted was full of banners inside that were horribly misspelled. I later found out that they were prepared by the teachers, not the students! Furthermore, even though I was a history, Latin, social studies teacher, I was regularly posted teaching French (I spoke it well) and English. The unfortunate students at some of these school were never taught to compose essays that anyone would ever want to read. They had it drummed into them to compose paragraphs that followed a useless and stifling format consisting of a lead topic sentence, a middle section, and a summary sentence that recapitulated the preceding content. The result? A horribly repetitious cascade of words that were never capable of developing into anything but a of bird-cage lining. I recall having to fill out (the kids did it for me because it took so much time) three kinds of attendance -- to obtain funding of course from the appropriate sources! In addition, while a few of the schools at the time were well run, an east-side high school (Denby Senior High) regularly had as many as 50+ teachers absent. They were in fear for their lives, and they daily warehoused hundreds of students at a time in the auditorium because of the staff shortage. I was glad to shake the dust of that system from my feet, but I'll never forget how sad I was and how unhappy the students were who had made a human connection with me. I still think of those poor kids and what they were subjected to in the name of teachers' unions, overpaid administrators, and the obscene fraud that they were actually getting an education!

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Hi, Glen. Thank you for your kind words. It is significant that so many people within the voluntaryist community have been exploring the need for a program that comprises both the concept of love/empathy and the standard voluntaryist notion of liberty. I have received a great deal of satisfaction reading about your discoveries in this area over the past few years, and the existence of people like you, who understand the nature of this dual focus, has been an inspiration and catalyst. Several people from the local group here (which meets at Cafe Libertalia) have been investigating this possibility for the past 2 years. Until about 6 months ago, they attempted to work within a Sudbury group, but they discovered that many of the members have a tragic unmet need to feel secure by imposing democracy on the children in their schools -- even though they seem to understand the problems of doing such a thing and our reservations about them. It's only been in the last 6 months that we decided to go forward independently. We recently completed a detailed business plan and have been moving forward on a very intense schedule. The possible existence of a local Sudbury school may actually provide a "critical mass" of public awareness that will benefit the Summum Bonum Learning Center, and we have been able to keep on good terms with many members of the Sudbury group.