“In Order to Give Their Children A Right to Study Painting, Poetry, Music…”

My mom shared a video with me yesterday about The Independent Project. It’s a wonderful sounding program that was piloted at the public high school of Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, MA. This student-driven school-within-a-school was comprised of eight students and lasted one semester. It was comparable to a democratic school; it had more structure than the average Sudbury-model school, but that structure was determined by the participating students.

The Independent Project

The Independent Project

The intent of the program, as conceived by the founding student, Sam Levin, is described here:

His intent was to design a school in which students would be fully engaged in and passionate about what they were learning, would have the experience of truly mastering something, or developing expertise in something, and would be learning how to learn. He felt that the most important ingredient to a school like that would be that it was student-driven.

The semester was divided into four parts, described as: Orientation, The Sciences, The Arts, and The Collective Endeavor. There’s a PDF outlining the full project in detail on their website.

Of course, the idea of a student-driven structure is familiar to all unschoolers and life learners. But it’s still exciting to look at a program that has implemented this paradigm within a public institution, where kids with all kinds of parents might have a chance to experience agency in learning.

Honestly, if I had had the choice between a high school program of this model, or the path I took – unschooling on my own until age 16, when I sought more community through junior college classes (but where I was the youngest student) – I would have chosen this program, hands down.

BUT when I watched the video there was something that gave me pause. As each participating student is introduced in the video, a label is flashed on the screen to tell us the long-term independent project that kid chose and accomplished during the program. There’s a trend:

Three students wrote novels, one wrote a play, and another made a compilation of short stories; one student made a short film, one studied culinary arts, and the eighth student studied women’s trauma and recovery. I would say that at least seven out of eight of the “individual endeavors” the students chose for themselves over the course of the program were very personal, artistic, and creative. And, not one science, engineering, or math-oriented “individual endeavor.”

What’s up with that? Is that a reflection of the arts-starved public school situation we can imagine they came from, having experienced the status quo up to this pilot program? Were they just soaking up the one opportunity for creativity they were going to get?

Had math and science been dulled-down for them by the way they had been taught? Or is it just natural for people to pursue the arts when given a chance to do an “individual” endeavor, as opposed to a collective one?

The student who created the short film said that, outside of The Independent Project, he had been presented with this choice:

“I have on one side of my table a stack of trigonometry homework. And on the other side of my table, some tapes, like this, that I want to upload and make a movie out of… I’m stuck with a decision, where I either push aside my creativity to struggle on something I simply don’t care about, or I go with my creativity, and I do awful in school.”

I get that issue, and I would have been struggling with that if I had been in regular school at that age, for sure. But, strangely, when he said that, it kind of bummed me out…

I wrote two novels before I was sixteen years old. I never studied trig. And to this day, I don’t see myself ever studying higher math. I went to art school and studied painting in college. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that, given freedom, only one out of eight kids would choose to study something that is not in the arts. That ratio just feels off…

It made me think about this John Adams quote I heard years ago; it’s always stuck with me:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

As Americans, have we reached the generations that need not worry about politics and war?  Do we have the luxury of everyone studying painting and poetry and music and…porcelain? (Not so much that last one, probably…or tapestry. Substitute writing novels and making films for those.)

In the Independent Project video, a history teacher at the high school says:

“It’s not as if there’s some sinister group of education leaders who are intent on making American education intellectually and existentially numbing. It’s just the nature of large bureaucracies and large institutions.”

But one concern informing education policy in our country is the desire for more students to pursue math and science, and for more of our students to go into the tech careers that will “push the breakthroughs” that will drive the new and future economy. I would say, if those eight kids who chose pursuits for that one semester represent some big-picture snapshot of what comes with agency – well, it would freak out policy makers.

Again, I went to art school; I’m totally down with kids pursuing the arts. But as a working artist, I recognize the scope and limitations to the kinds of social impact my work will have, and more importantly the tremendous saturation of artists to art markets and professional opportunities. And there have been times, as an adult, that I have questioned not bringing my passions and engagement into a field that more readily serves my community, or at least provides myself with greater financial stability and salability.

I guess what I’m saying is, the thing that has always bothered me about that John Adams quote is the picture of linear-progress. We will never arrive at a point where we don’t have to study all the aspects of living, and the human condition, and problem solving. We need all of it in every generation. And we always will.

So, the question I want to pose – the question that I think relates deeply to education politics and policy and reform in this country – is this: Why don’t more of us want to become engineers and doctors and chemists?

My mom and dad are both science buffs, but they unschooled three kids and yielded an art-history major, a painter, and a dancer. Is that ok? Or are we missing something?