booknotes: the self-organized revolution

The other day, while I was tracking down an errant citation for my thesis I happened to stumble upon the fact that an historian of education (and education alternatives activist) whom I greatly admire had put out a collection of essays on education activism in 2008 that I had somehow missed. So needless to say I ordered a copy. In The Self-Organizing Revolution: Common Principles of the Education Alternatives Movement (Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press, 2008), author Ron Miller considers a variety of "education alternatives" (home-based education, Waldorf and Montessori schools, free schools, etc.) and suggests that although they have historically been resistent to collectively identifying as a movement in fact practitioners and advocates do have a common set of core principles.

The principles Miller identifies are:
  • Respect for every person, including children (human rights)
  • Balance (openness rather than fixed ideology)
  • Decentralization of authority (human scale democracy)
  • Non-interference between political, cultural, and economic spheres of society
  • A holistic or integrative perspective
To me, it is interesting to think about how these five principles or perspectives on humanity, social organization, and human growth, articulate a particular subculture that stretches across different educational counter-cultures (i.e. the home education movement) but doesn't wholly define any one of them. There are home educators out there who in no way subscribe to this vision of how education could or should be. There are public school teachers who struggle within the confines of institutional education to live out a form of education that fits this paradigm. I appreciate how Miller is trying to build bridges between segments of a very heterogeneous bunch of folks (what was that about herding cats again?)

I'm particularly pleased to see the way he foregrounds the issue of human rights and children's rights. "Rather than treating individuals as a means to some culturally determined end (such as national pride or global economic dominance)," he writes, "this perspective insists that every human being is an end in oneself" (48). Decentralization of authority and the principle of noninterference follow from this first principle: in order to ensure that the needs of individuals are not subsumed by the interests of the state or the interests of corporations, education must be dis-entangled from government and for-profit enterprise.

This is not to say Miller believes that the government should not play any role in ensuring that all individuals have access to educational opportunities. Only that he does not believe the government should dictate what should be in the curriculum and how it should be taught. I am not particularly persuaded by his vision of voluntary community-run charities to fund educational programs. But I see in it the seeds of a new way of thinking about funding education: A future system that operated more like the National Endowment for the Humanities, perhaps, than like No Child Left Behind.

This is definitely a book written for movement "insiders" -- folks who already have at least some working knowledge of pedagogical theories and practices, the major thinkers in counter-cultural education, and the recent history of educational alternatives. If you weren't familiar with the work of people like John Holt or know at least a thumbnail version of the history of Montessori education the book might feel pretty shallow and cursory to you. Even I would have appreciated a bit more fleshing out of Miller's vision of what a human-right-centered education would look like. Other historian-activists such as Joel Spring (Wheels in the Head) and Clive Harber (Schooling as Violence) have written a much greater length about possible models for an alterntiave to the national-military-industrial model we're currently stuck with and flailing to sustain.

You can read selections of Miller's work -- including some of the essays that make up this book -- online at Paths of Learning.


  1. Cool- sounds like a book I should read (as a former Waldorf K-8 student who appreciates how I wasn't forced into a lot of memorization and worksheets, but also somewhat resents the lack of science education I got... as a female engineer I'm statistically prone to impostor syndrome anyway, and knowing for a fact that my peers have had more science classes than I tends to undermine my confidence). Probably it's asking too much to summarize his ideas completely here, but who does he think should choose the curriculum, if not the govt? My knee-jerk reaction is to worry about the kids whose parents pull them out of bio class when evolution is being discussed or take them out of sex ed.

  2. @Jess

    Good question! I won't attempt to speak comprehensively for Miller (his website might give you more insight?) but my sense from this book is that he is an advocate of decentralized curriculum development, rather than standardization. He really doesn't seem concerned about children being educated according to the wishes of their parents -- in fact, that is an established legal right here in the U.S.

    There is a conversation to be had about the rights of children whose parents want to keep them from certain types of knowledge-building and exploration. That is, how do we protect children's rights and desires when they diverge from their parents' desires? But in the U.S. right now, it's pretty accepted that until children come of age, their parents get to set limits. And unless there is documented abuse happening, a parent's ability to determine their child's education is not over-ridden.