An Open Letter to Our Children: Why You’re Not in Public School (and you are at Makarios)
The other day when we were talking about public school and your Democratic Free School (Makarios), we realized that…
- We’ve never really explained to you why you’ve never been to public school.
- Within this absence of explanation, you’ve made up some pretty wacky reasons.
We're writing to set the record straight.
You’re not in Public School Because it’s not Hard Enough
You may have heard some parents discussing this TED Talk (by Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford). It’s about the pitfalls of the “checklisted childhood” and how we parents need to get out of the way of you all building self-efficacy (seeing that your actions—not someone else’s—lead to outcomes.)
It may sound simple, but building self-efficacy is hard work. To build self-efficacy, you have to have a chance to experience it. You have to be responsible for your own thinking, decisions, and trial and error. You have to embrace the quiet space of a little boredom to discover your desire. You have to pull your own weight as part of a community—rolling up your sleeves and getting it done, even when the work is unpleasant.
The way Public School is set up absolves you from this type of hard work. Instead of being self-directed, your direction is determined by a checklist (certain classes to take, scores to make). When the community encounters problems, instead of rolling up your sleeves and getting it done, the janitor or administration take care of it. The role of the student is to complete the checklist, to do as they are told. We’ve seen you in contexts like this, for a very short time, and you find it boring and stifling. It’s not hard enough for you.
Public School also isn’t hard enough when it comes to conversation. We want your days to be full of rich, stimulating, in person talking, some of which will make you uncomfortable! As much as you cherish an idea, we want someone to challenge it, and for you to be accustomed to being resilient in the face of that. There is always something to learn from the person who sees things differently than you do, and challenging people deserve your unconditional love.
In Public School, these kinds of interactions are mostly limited to those facilitated as part of a class (and get interrupted when the bell rings). When the checklist is prominent, there’s not the time for students to “sit around and talk.”
We’ve already seen you doing this work at Makarios. You’ve been around some of the most challenging personalities we’ve ever encountered. At a Public School, these sorts of dynamics tend to get swept under the rug (there’s not the time for dealing with it), but you’ve had the freedom to figure out how to have compassion and healthy boundaries. You’ve already learned that you can have a different perspective and still respect each other. We anticipate that the layers of that learning will keep getting deeper and deeper.
I know! I know! You’re saying, “But Mom, but Dad, these things aren’t that hard.” We see what you mean. Challenges that are invigorating don’t usually feel so hard. From where we stand, though, what you’re doing day in, day out, is anything but easy.
You’re not in Public School Because it’s Too Hard (in the Wrong Ways)
Public School isn’t hard enough, but it’s also too hard. It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s just that what it takes comes at quite a cost.
There is something good and right about self-directed education. When it’s replaced by a checklist, it’s hard. We don’t mean hard in a productive way like we were just talking about, we mean hard in a draining, “I want to be growing, but I just feel beaten down” way.
Here are some hard aspects of Public School that we’re glad you’re getting to skip:
- Being directed what to do more than 80% of the time.
- Living by a checklist that has no correlation to interest or getting a real project done (as it would for a job in the “real world”)
- Play (one of the most important parts of a healthy childhood) is allowed only during one short recess.
- Sitting most of the day, even if your body is screaming, “Get up and move around!”
- Other than recess and lunch (if you’re lucky) no talking except when called on by the teacher.
- Going to the bathroom in a line as a group, each child standing within the confines of one floor tile.
- Getting permission to go to the bathroom if you didn’t go with the class.
- Regularly missing sleep to memorize a bunch of information for the sole purpose of remembering it long enough to take a test.
- Being in classes where you may find the topic interesting, but people keep raising their hands to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”
These kinds of hard things don’t make people better; they just make people frustrated. They don’t build character; they create resentment. They don’t respect the unalienable rights that our country was founded on for people to pursue their own happiness; they betray them. Worst of all, these aspects send students the message that someone else is responsible for their life.
You’re not in Public School Because it’s not Good for you to be Under Constant Surveillance
Bear with us on this one. You see, sometime around the 1990’s, our culture shifted regarding how it allowed children to play without adults around. When we were your ages (11 and 7), we walked places alone to meet up with friends, and it wasn’t a big deal. Our parents weren’t neglecting us by letting us do that—it’s just how things were done. Nowadays, it’s scandalous to allow young children to be out and about, unsupervised. Some people think it’s more dangerous now; others believe that it’s not, but that there’s much more media attention to the dangers that have always been. In any case, it’s different now. Letting kids play in the street, or at the park, or take a train ride sans grown-ups is a form of activism.
Why does this matter? Well, it turns out that crucial things happen for children when they play, unsupervised. Your problem-solving skills and self-awareness take a more savvy role when you’re not being watched by an adult. We can remember what it was like to play on the playground during recess with teachers sitting in chairs watching everyone, and what it was like to play on that same playground after school—an entirely different experience. We want you to have the latter experience, and often.
At Makarios we see you going outside to build a fort or look for bugs, on a whim. We notice you playing with friends without being continuously monitored and starting impromptu games or competitions, all orchestrated by you and your peers. You take it all for granted (as you should), but we’re so glad you have these opportunities in a culture where they are harder to come by.
Is everyone who goes to Public School doomed? Of course not! If our life changed and you had to enroll in Public School, you’d be okay. Thoughtful people find ways to make up for its shortcomings—both while they’re in it and after graduation. It’s what we did. And, having experienced that, we’re elated that another path is available for you—one that skips the worthless life draining frustrations and throws you into the invigorating challenge of being a self-directed learner within a diverse, demanding community. We see Makarios as a corrective to our culture’s inability to let children play unsupervised. You can’t get it after school like we did, but viola!—you can get it during school!
Make the most of it, children. This place is a privilege.
Mom and Dad