THE BLOG
11/16/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

To Fix School, Make it Consensual

Directly after college I took an Emergency Medical Technician course. Hungry to build practical, hands-on skills after 16 years of abstract academia, I hoped the first class would jump straight into the good stuff: how to stop massive arterial bleeding, stick a pen into someone's trachea to help them breathe again, or splint a femur fracture.

Instead, we talked about consent.

Emergency Medical Technicians, I learned, can make all sorts of mistakes. Show up at a car crash and just start moving people around, and you might aggravate a spine injury. Treat a child without her parent's permission, and you might get yourself in deep trouble.

The basic principle was: Don't help someone without asking first. Get consent first. Because when you think you're helping, you might actually be hurting.

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After that lesson, I thought back to my entire K-12 schooling experience. Despite the number of kind-hearted and well-intentioned people who played a part in it, how many ever asked for my consent? How many asked me (and seriously engaged me in) the questions: Did I actually want to go to school? Did I actually think this assignment was a good idea? Was this class actually worth my time? And what else might I have done with my time instead of sitting bored?

School, I realized, is a terrible place to learn consent--which is a shame, considering that consent is the cornerstone of every healthy relationship and community I've ever encountered.

To me, consent means:
  • understanding what you're committing to
  • knowing what the alternatives are
  • saying "yes" while retaining the power to say "no"

To illustrate, let's say you're thinking about signing up for a cooking class. Consenting fully to this class means reading the course description carefully, finding reviews of the class, comparing it with other available classes, and understanding the refund policy.

Having done this research, you're ready to make an informed decision about taking the cooking class, while always reserving the power to walk out.

Now imagine applying this method to every educational situation in your life. That's the daily work of a self-directed learner.

A self-directed high school graduate doesn't simply enroll in the "best college" available to her. She tours campuses, interviews professors, chats with current students, and tracks down recent graduates. She considers multiple colleges. She considers not going to college at all. And if she enrolls, she forever remembers that she can change schools or leave college altogether, if necessary.

A self-directed teenage homeschooler doesn't assume that his parents' choices will automatically make him successful. As soon as possible, he begins taking control of his own education. He uses books, the Internet, and other people to research and inform his decisions. If his parents' curriculum no longer feels meaningful, he advocates for his own interests. If he wants to try school, he proposes it as an experiment. He sees himself as an active participant, not a passive pawn, in his own education.

A self-directed parent who wants her kid to take violin lessons doesn't just sign him up for lessons. She explains her reasoning to him: "I want you to appreciate music," for example. She suggests other activities that could provide the same benefits, such as guitar lessons, digital composing, or attending the symphony. She sets clear expectations for any classes or tutoring: "I want you to give your best effort to three lessons." She gives him the space to think, weigh his options, and respond. She doesn't force, cajole, or emotionally blackmail. She treats her child as the budding adult that he will soon become, and when he says "no," that means no. And when she gets antsy, she signs up for violin lessons herself and leads by example.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive." Education is no exception. To become a self-directed learner is to become, in the words of my friend Ethan Mitchell, a consensual learner.

Reject the tyranny of forced learning, no matter how desirable the end result.

"Don't you make your children learn anything?"

Make? No. I don't make them learn anything. I inquire. I suggest. I offer incentives. But I do not make. I am not their central planner. That job is taken. My job isn't to decree what they will be good at or what they will do or how they will do it. I am not king in their lives. They are sovereign. Their minds belong to them. It is their property, after all.

My job is to approach them with humility and know that my ability to discern what they are to be or to do or to excel in is nothing compared to theirs. My job is to assist them in their discernment. To make experiences, work, play, resources, teachers, mentors, and collaborators available to them to help them as they construct themselves. To talk things through with them, but not talk it all to death. My job is to sit down, shut up, and serve when I can. I direct nothing. Less of me. More of them.

-- Ana Martin (The Libertarian Homeschooler)

This is an excerpt from The Art of Self-Directed Learning by Blake Boles. The original chapter is titled "Consensual Learning". Illustration by Shona Warwick-Smith.

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