The Old Deluder Satan Act

by Dr. Stuart Grauer on November 26, 2013 Reposted from Dr. Stuart Grauer’s Blog.

“Let your life be counterfriction to stop the machine.”
–Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

The way to spot a great teacher is easy: his/her students are teaching each other. This is because great teaching is not about control, it is about self-direction. At first, that might sound paradoxical, hence this important history lesson: A Short, Entertaining History of Self-Direction in Education in Western Civilization (In 1000 Words).

The thread of student self-direction is one of the most longstanding, contested, promising facets of schooling. Public education in the United States at its earliest was merely a way to get everyone able to read the Bible so they might resist Satan. Ignorance was considered satanic; therefore, The Old Deluder Satan Act was passed in 1647 in Massachusetts to rid our youths of this ignorance.  Hence, even our first education, as indoctrinating and authoritarian as it might appear by today’s values, was at least intended to address empowerment and independence.

The cause for self-directed learning has been hard fought and often misunderstood and set back in western civilization. Large government institutions and programs, even the more enlightened ones, tend to set limits rather than remove them. However, there are some noble trends through history and still today, and I’d like to send out some remembrance of them.

The Hall-Dennis report was released by the Ontario Government in 1968. This milestone put students’ needs and dignity at the center of education, stating, “The lock-step structure of past times must give way… [The student’s] natural curiosity and initiative must be recognized and developed.” The report was commissioned by Ontario Minister of Education Bill Davis in 1965, delivered to him three years later as the Vietnam protest era reached a fever pitch. Like a lot of other protest from this era, Hall-Davis took aim at the over-regimentation and inflexibility of large, public education systems.

Far more important than what Hall-Davis took aim against is what it took aim for: students. This was one of the hallmarks of the movement called “student-centered education,” and I think we can conclude the movement has floundered, though not foundered.  Says Canadian school founder, Carol Nash:

What compelled me to take action and co-found a self-directed public school was the injustice I felt as a child for how I and my fellow pupils were treated in being required to comply with the unpredictable wishes of an authority figure just because she (and in my case, it was always a she) said so.  If I could have I would have taken action as a child.  I tried, but all that it got me was detentions and hours standing in the corner. … At 19, I vowed to find a way to move Ontario’s system of education back to valuing self-direction in its young people. From that point on, I began the steps to accomplish that goal.[1]

Within a few years, the 60s were history, and by 1976, teacher’s strikes forced the old, authoritarian model back onto Ontario Schools. This regression also characterized U.S. trends. What happened to those 60s reformers? I know at least some of them bypassed teaching careers for investment banking and real estate,Einstein Fish Climbing Tree but surely not all. A force of educators engaged in democratic, progressive, independent, and free education remains strong, and their schools normally have waiting lists.

One famous, unlikely hero in this movement to give voice to our students is John Taylor Gatto. No sooner was he named the Teacher of the Year in both New York City and New York State, than he quit the profession saying he no longer wished to “hurt kids to make a living.” His books include manifestos with names like Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction. I always wondered if New York regretted giving him those honors, or considered him a turncoat.

I don’t know how well-known history’s educational heroes are to the layman. However, the ones you are most likely to have heard of— Socrates, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Booker T. Washington, Anne Sullivan (teacher of Helen Keller), John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Albert Einstein, John Holt—shared a simple thing: They viewed and promoted education as a liberating force rather than a limiting one.  In this spirit, the courageous Grace Llewellyn wrote a book in 1991 with an auspicious title, The Teenage Liberation Handbook, that helped launch many free schools and that surely would have been viewed as satanic back in the far less “liberated” days of 1647.  And recall the penchant of Harry Potter’s headmistress, Minerva McGonagall, for testing the boundaries of traditional schooling and for advocating exceptionally dangerous sporting! Who can deny that great teachers are axiomatically liberators?

The yearning for freedom in education runs strong and deep. When I wrote a blog called simply, “Play!” (http://smartblogs.com/education/2013/11/06/play/) for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (a professional organization with 140,000 members) it became one the association’s most popular reads of the year within a few days. This same search for liberation was the sole purpose of my book of stories, Real Teachers. Of course, the Grauer School is hardly a free school. And yet, we are constantly on the lookout for pockets of democracy and self-advocacy that we can promote. The Grauer School approaches student freedom and empowerment by finding space for natural learning, play, outdoor and expeditionary education, Socratic seminars, student proposals, student-led assemblies and clubs, and experiential education.  And yet, at every school, educational choice for the family and freedom for the student still meets with constant counter friction.

In the end, beyond all the politics and externals, there is still the individual. Student choice comes down to the student’s developing ability to choose–not just because of choices we provide them with, but the inner ableness to make choices (half the learning) and handle their consequences (the other half).

Stuart with Deborah Meier 2013Self-directed learning has everything in common with emerging thinking on leadership. As the Center for Creative Leadership notes:

People develop fastest when they feel responsible for their own progress. The current model encourages people to believe that someone else is responsible for their development—human resources, their manager, or trainers. We will need to help people out of the passenger seat and into the driver’s seat of their own development.[2]

As parents, teachers and legislators, its pretty easy to want to control our kids, rescue them from Satan or a C on a test, or a mean kid, or learning differences, or an unfair teacher, or this or that, and manage their lives as though they are incompetent or dangerously errant—they are running off cliffs and we must catch them! These natural forces are in an unending match with forces for freedom, in a constant balancing act. What a good thing that balance is! There can be no greater role in our labors as educators than giving students their own voices. Insisting that our students self-advocate, rely upon their own resourcefulness, and learn by discovery, are prerequisites for leadership roles in a free, democratic—not to mention unpredictable—society.

Above: Stuart with mentor Deborah Meier. Deborah is considered by many as a founder of the small schools movement. She won the MacArthur Genius Award and is a faculty member of NYU School of Education. She has been awarded honorary degrees from many universities around the world. She consults with Dr. Grauer routinely on small school and progressive education.


[1]  Personal email, Sunday, November 24, 2013 11:06:40 AM, jerryaero@aol.com

[2] http://www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/research/futureTrends.pdf/

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