Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Architecture of Education, Part 1

Maxim V "To Teach, as the former of character, and the promoter of the collective happiness of man"
- A. Bronson Alcott, General Maxims by which to regulate the
Instructor's Practice, In Instruction, from the original Journal of 1826

Recently, I was traveling by bus from Seattle to British Columbia, for a business conference on education. I was so awed by seeing the beauty of the northwest for the first time, I would say I was having a downright mystical experience, until my heart sank, when we pulled into a strip mall to pick up some passengers.

It is not that I am so against strip malls, but this strip mall looked exactly like several I
frequently drive by in Austin. I saw a similar strip mall, when I traveled to where I grew
up in New England last year, and visited Indianapolis and Kentucky the year before.
Same strip mall, same architecture, same stores.

Education and how we regard our youth, is what I think about most of my waking moments (and in my sleep, as I dream about it too). I will admit, I am a bit of a zealot when it comes to educational issues.

My mind immediately translated this lack of uniqueness, what I was seeing several thousand miles from home, that looked exactly like what is down the street from me in the Lone Star State where I reside, as a reflection of our current education crisis.

Recently, I had several hours to sit and have a cup of tea with a mom who is married to a world class architect*, while our sons were shooting a movie, in which they had been cast. She is as passionate about architecture as I am education, and started cussing up a storm when she noticed the fake plastic moldings on the windows. She said, this was an attempt to make the building we were sitting in look like something it was not (a quaint European cottage). Her point of view was, why mimic something, with fake plastic, rather than just be uniquely what you are.

At first I thought she was acting a bit nuts, getting so upset over plastic window molding. When the bus pulled into that strip mall however, I realized she is right, and as passionate about authenticity in architecture, as I am about each child being supported in following their individual dreams, and passions, in education.

Upon having this realization, I remembered that in my own high school, there was a room in the center of the building, in which I refused to take classes. My mother was the guidance counselor, so I had access to the class list, and in which rooms classes would be held.

When she asked me why I so adamantly refused to take certain classes, I told her it was because they were being held in the dreaded room-with-no-windows. Pressing me further, as to why this was such a big deal, my answer was, "What if it starts to snow?"

In New England, once it turned cold and gray, I would hold my breath for the first snow fall of the year. I considered it an absolute crime to be stuck in a building where I was not allowed to go outside and dance in those first falling flakes, I certainly wasn't going to allow myself to miss the experience visually, if it happened during the school day.

While living in a small Texas town several years ago, my husband and I rode our bikes by a large institutional looking building. I stopped my bike and said, "I didn't know there was a prison in this town." He looked at me oddly, and said, "Honey, that is the high school." I started to cry. Imagine my horror, when I learned that many of our schools, are designed by architects, who also design prisons.

Is it that we are all forced into a standard system that has absolutely no reverence for who we are as creative individuals, that allows us to accept such conformity, such a lack of originality, and lack of authenticity in our surroundings? Is it that the majority of us are forced to spend year after year learning things that someone else has deemed important, the idea being that we have to be stuffed full of a certain amount of knowledge before we are ready to enter the world, rather than the adults around us holding the space for our own inner exploration and discovery of who we are as unique individuals? That the REALLY important information resides deep within each one of us, and EDUCATION needs to facilitate our own inner journey to bring this information out, to create our own unique dance with the world?

Ariel Miller, M.Div. leads the Bootstrap Education Subgroup. She is currently bootstrapping a home learning program with SelfDesign Global, an organization that has won several awards, and has a 25 year track record, developing new ways of supporting parents, and children in becoming joyful, enthusiastic, lifelong learners.

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