Season 2, Episode 10: Antonio Buehler
Chris McNutt 0:09
Hello everyone, welcome to Things Fall Apart. I'm Chris. A special thank you to our Patrons for making this podcast possible, two of which are Synthia Jester and Whitney Payne. Thank you for your support. If you have a moment, visit us on our website at HumanRestorationProject.org where we've posted a variety of free resources, podcast, thoughts, and other research available for you. Right now we're currently working on a guide called Don't Get the Wrong Idea, which is aimed at students to dispel myths about anything from popularity in high school to college admissions to standardized testing. We're trying to provide a resource that you could give to students in order to reframe their thoughts about their futures.
A little bit of background information: Abrome is a self directed year long school located in Austin, Texas, with a focus on intentional community and deep dives into goals, interests, passions and happiness. Abrome seeks to create remarkable children without an intentional focus on college or career prep. Instead, Abrome adopts the philosophy that students will learn through play, experimentation, and creation. Students will seek out their own interest and lead their own lives in the model of self directed education.
Joining us from Abrome is Antonio Bueller, who founded the school. Antonio is heavily against the standardization of education. Before starting, Antonio worked as an admissions consultant for those seeking entry into top colleges and MBA programs, as well as a middle and high school teacher at an alternative school in Austin. Prior to that, he worked in the finance industry and the military. Furthermore, Antonio founded the Peaceful Streets Project, an organization aiming to change institutionalized criminal justice toward non violence and has served in a plethora of service projects. I wanted to invite Antonio to talk about his views on self directed education and whether or not public schools are in the best interest of students. And what, if anything, can public schools change to adopt a child focused approach.
You have a pretty crazy CV, I would say. It's obvious that you live and bleed for what you're doing, you believe you're doing what's best for children... Can you describe what's led you to the philosophy of creating Abrome and what you hope it will achieve?
Antonio Buehler 2:18
I guess the best way to answer this is tell you a bit about my background, because it's certainly not been a very direct path, it's been a meandering path. When I was growing up, I was in a pretty poor town, relatively poor, in eastern Pennsylvania. Pottsville, Pennsylvania. And I was the son of a dad who had dropped out of high school and went to Vietnam and an immigrant Korean mother. And so education wasn't something that was highly valued in our family. And I didn't even have any plans to go to college. It wasn't necessarily an expectation.
My dad told me that if I wanted to go to college, I had to get a full ride. And at some point, a teacher pulled me aside and said I should consider going to a service academy. So I went down that path, and I got into West Point, and I went into the military. And that in some ways, really changed the trajectory of my life. Although I spent five years in the military, and I got my MBA at Stanford, and I was working in finance, I had always had in the back of my head a desire to try to do something in education to help other people who necessarily weren't on a certain trajectory in life. When I got into private equity, I wanted to really focus on education, because I always worked with kids on the side, whether it was coaching, football, or baseball, or basketball or mentoring kids, in you know, any of the countries that have been to working in orphanages, etc.
And I said, "Well, I should marry my interest in helping kids and my education with my business pursuits." So I started looking for education companies to buy in. And at the time, I believe education is the key, therefore, all we need to do is really push rigorous, intense education on children that will change their lives. So I started looking at charter management organizations to purchase and I was a big fan of Kip style schools, the type of charters that made kids show up early, go home late, stay on the weekend, stay over the summer, wear uniforms, do chants, all that stuff. I was a big believer. And as I started going down that path, I realize, well, this is really hard. Getting charters set up, buying a charter, charter management organization, this is a lot of government regulation, very long sales cycle, not so sure this is a great business opportunity.
So then I also started looking at curriculum providers. And again, same thing, trying to sell curriculum in schools is extremely difficult. But I realized that there was this whole community of homeschoolers that you could sell direct to. I still had the mindset, the best way to educate kids is to really "force them to shape up" type of education. And as I started going down the homeschooling path I started to really adjust my beliefs with regards to education. And, some of this was from reading authors like John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, that really just blew me away, with the notion that it's not about us forcing children to perform, it might be about allowing them to live their lives.
I went to a homeschooling conference, and the thing that blew me away at this homeschooling conference with either two things, one is, every single child that I talked to, I know that this is a broad statement, but at this conference, every single child I talked to no matter how young, they will look me in the eye and talk to me almost as if they were an equal, it wasn't sort of a I'm talking to an adult, I had to stare at my shoes and kick rocks. And the other thing I noticed was that these children were very affectionate with their families. They weren't saying "get away from me, Mom, you're embarrassing me" type of thing. They were just, they were pleasant to be around and they were happy to be around their parents. And at that point, I was like, "wow, even if homeschooling has absolutely no benefit academically, or in terms of career or college or anything like that, just these two outcomes alone lead me to believe that perhaps there's a better way."
So then I just really started buying into alternatives to education. That led me to unschooling and self directed education. I think that at some point, once one believes that children fundamentally should be viewed as equals in the society, and that their experiences, their childhood, is just as important as their future adult life in terms of them being able to lead lives with meaning and to find purpose and to hopefully have happiness, long streets within that timeframe. I think that it's really hard to come back to the belief that we, as adults, need to sort of really shake them and that we need to "do what's good for them," whether or not it's with with their consent.
And so that's what kind of led me with regards to the place where I decided to launch Abrome. The reason I launched Abrome in particular was I was spending a lot of time really advocating for alternatives to school, whether it was homeschooling, unschooling, progressive schools, etc, I was just encouraging parents to seriously consider alternatives, like, you do not have to accept things the way they are for your children, there are alternatives. And the reality was, is that I didn't want to be someone who's just going to advocate, you because there's a lot of really great people who are advocating out there. But a lot of people are asking, "Well, how do I do it?" And the reality is, is that homeschooling unschooling is simply not an option for everyone. And in a lot of ways, I don't necessarily think - in many cases - they're not the best option for a particular family or learner.
I wanted to create something that allowed people to recognize that to be an example, that there are alternatives to traditional schooling, wherein children can lead happy, remarkable lives where they can find meaning within their life. And they can really pursue things with passion, where they don't have to be subjected to the stress and the unnecessary coercion of schooling where they can improve their health and happiness relative to the population that is subjected to more course of education and methods. And in the process, they don't have to actually sacrifice anything. So many people think that if you choose a progressive or traditional pathway, that for some reason, that means that you're forgoing certain options. I just wanted to show that that wasn't the case.
And there's a lot of great alternative schools out there, that really do focus on giving them the freedom to live their life in a way that's meaningful now, while still allowing them to pursue a really great, excellent education. But a lot of the people who leave the mainstream traditional schooling track, they talked down college, or they discourage certain types of colleges, because they view that that is very much a part of the schooling system, and while I agree with them inn some ways, there's no question that there are people who benefit greatly from going to particular colleges, whether it's because there's a particular professor they want to study under, or whatnot. And people from the lowest end of the socio economic spectrum, there's ample evidence that those are the ones who benefit the most from going to selected universities. If people want to become a Supreme Court justice, I need to go to small handful of law schools. And so I didn't want a narrative to be out there that in order to go down a non traditional or progressive or an alternative education pathway, that you also had to forgo certain pathways that a lot of parents still cling to as an option for their children, because that's still viewed in many ways as as pathways to success. And so I just want to show that you don't have to sacrifice children's present for their future. And in many ways, their future is much better served by by walking away from, you know, more course of schooling methods.
Chris McNutt 12:45
One thing that you said earlier, Antonio, that that was interesting, was you were describing the type of schools that you initially invested in. And it's interesting, even though you're going through a non traditional path, I think it's the same way that many traditional teachers become more progressive or more self directed, whatever you want to describe it. School teachers are the ones that typically excelled at school. So they want to be the ones that went into their classroom and "save their kids." Because that's what happened to them when they were in school, or in your case, more of a military academy style, which is, you go in there and you "make kids learn. "And it seems like over time, the more you read what's out there - I know it's shocking to me - how much information is really out there that promotes more progressive forms of education, and how much is out there that disproves traditional forms of education, at least many elements of it, for example, grading or standardized testing or specific coursework. So it's very interesting that even though you went through a completely separate pathway, the way that you got to progressive ed is very similar in a lot of regards to a traditional educator would be.
Antonio Buehler 14:01
The challenge is that we live in a society where schooling is the norm, and schooling is the expectation, what the overwhelming majority of people experience. Most of the people that I know in the alternative education space, are people who have gone through the system. I don't necessarily think that the system or the experiences of being in our society, that really prioritize a very specific type of educational experience, I don't think that necessarily is what moves people towards alternatives to traditional schooling. I think that's just a function of a society that we're in, and it's not until we actually are able to step back. There's usually something that you know, piques our interest, or something that makes us start to question, but for most people, the reason why they don't support moving away from the course of model traditional schooling is simply because in a lot of ways their head is down, and they're just trying to make it in this world.
This is sort of a societal assumption that goes unquestioned, because we don't have the time or energy to question every assumption in society. Usually it's something or a series of events that causes us to start to question that. And so I think that if everyone had the opportunity to really evaluate this and research, I think that absolutely a lot more people would move this direction. But I don't necessarily credit the traditional educational system as something that has necessarily helped me get there.
Chris McNutt 16:17
It's almost as if sometimes, despite the goals of traditional education, I feel like going through the process almost radicalizes someone in the opposite form. So someone who completely rejects what they felt like they went through is more prone to want to go back and change those things. This is an assumption, it's not true obviously of everyone, however, the traditional form of education tends to disregard critical thinking in a way, you just assume that if you're doing very well at the system, therefore you're going to be successful. If you have always, that must mean that you're a great student, because in the traditional form of education, that is a true statement. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to be successful or that you're even really that good at anything, you might just be really good at following directions, for example, which is not necessarily going to move you too far forward in society to a certain degree.
However, that being said, many teachers aren't going to question that system because they feel like what they're doing is the right thing. They feel like, "oh, if I get all my kids to get A's, I'm a great teacher", which in that view, that's true. But there's a lot more to it than that, obviously. And once you start critically thinking about all the systems that are in place, you're really just gaming the system within you are teaching anyone, and that's getting into banking model of education, where you're just giving everyone your knowledge to move them forward, rather than taking the learner and they're just learning for themselves.
Antonio Buehler 17:53
Yeah, and I feel for teachers that are sort of mired in the traditional sense system, because nobody wants to believe that they're doing anything harmful. Or even if they know that they're in a harmful system, they're trying to do their best, perhaps to mitigate that harm, but the teachers are like everyone else,once you're in a profession, it's very natural to try to elevate your profession to argue that it's engaging a noble cause, because very few people want to say, "yeah, and make money by ripping people off, or by hurting people", even investment.
You know, I used to work in finance, even investment bankers argue about all the value that they add to society, they talk about how they make markets liquid and efficient. And I mean, as someone who spent some time doing that, it's absolutely garbage. When you're there day to day, you were just skimming money off the top, you're often doing it by less than honest means. You're often destroying value, not adding value, but almost everyone that goes through an investment bank interview will go ahead and talk about the reason that they want to be an investment bank is because they want to contribute to society in some way. The military does it, the police do it, politicians do it, right? All these institutions that have very harmful aspects to them. They produce outcomes that directly harm people. Everyone wants to argue that they're doing good and once you're in that mindset of arguing, "I'm doing good, I'm doing the right thing, I'm helping people", it makes it that much harder to then seriously question the institution itself. It's easy to say, "let's make things better", there's certainly things that we can do to make things more efficient or to make them more equitable, etc. But it's hard to really critically analyze the institution, once you've made that part of your identity. And you want to feel like you're doing something positive in the world.
Chris McNutt 20:18
On our last podcast, we were talking about the savior complex in general, and how it specifically focuses on a lot on teachers, I mean, you could go on any form of social media, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or just talk to many teachers, and they do have this heroic mentality. And I don't want to make a statement saying that teachers aren't important, or they're not disrespected in many different ways, because they are, but they're not literal saviors. They're not larger than life figures. Part of the reason is, I think a lot of teachers do go into the profession thinking that's what they're going to do. Whereas, you know, I might be wrong about this, when I feel like an investment banker becomes an investment banker, it's because I want to make a lot of money, a teacher knows when they're going to become a teacher that they're probably not going to make that much money, they're probably going to work fairly long hours for the respect that they're given. And it's not like everything's bad for teachers, but I feel like a huge draw to many of them is that savior mentality, it's being able to go in there and help students, even if it's misguided.
Antonio Buehler 21:23
I won't disagree with that, but I will say, just having had the opportunity to work with and know many teachers, there is a significant proportion of teachers that do it because it's a job that's available, and it's a fairly accessible job. And so I agree, there's absolutely people are going to it with good intentions. And I definitely am not interested in denigrating teachers, but there's very large proportion teachers that do it because it's a job. And it's sort of something, it's an accessible job and the economy that doesn't always have very good options.
Chris McNutt 22:11
I see. Let's talk about the flip side, because your school actually does not have "teachers." So I want to talk about what happens day to day at Abrome because I think it's fascinating. Really briefly, you have four components as a part of what you call the emancipated learning model, which is well being, a strong learning community, self directed learning, and psychological safety. And then you have different ways that these overlap. Is Abrome based off of any self directed learning centers that exist, like I think of Acton?
Antonio Buehler 22:46
Yeah, I wouldn't call Acton self directed learning. But I would say that we look in a lot of ways similar to self directed learning communities, and when I think of self directed learning, I'm thinking of places like Sudbury Schools or other democratic schools, or Agile Learning Centers, or Liberated Learning Network, spaces where learners are fully in charge of what they're doing, they make the decisions as to how they spend their day. There's a lot of schools that will say that they believe in self directed learning, and that the children are in charge, but they'll have things such as core skills time. It's like you are free to learn whatever you want to learn, as long as you spend an hour doing math and hours doing some sort of writing or you're free to do whatever you want to do as long as it fits within this magic unit. And so, I don't believe that's self directed education. I believe that adults, giving options or constraints or boundaries, and then allowing children to have some say, within those constraints, but that's not the autonomy that I think of with self directed education.
We definitely leaned heavily on other self directed education organizations etc. We studied Summerhill, we studied Sudbury, we studied the free school movement, we're actively involved with the Agile Learning Centers. And the way that the day looks at Abrome, looks very much like it does at many of those other places. There are things that we do to try to build community, there are certain events, outings, we have a morning media afternoon roundup, which are optional, but people join up into we have a daily meta session, where we talk about some aspect of learning or life or philosophy or psychology. Again, it's optional, but it allows them to be there for that. And, those are just ways for us to try to connect with learners as a group, before allowing them going out and pursuing their learning however they see fit.
There are minor differences with regards to we don't have a justice committee, as many democratic schools do. But because we focus more or less on democracy, and more in terms of trying to find consensus, but that's a pretty minor differentiation between what we do and what a democratic school does. We want learners to believe that learning happens all time, they don't have to come through the doors to Abrome to start engaging and learning, what we want to do is we just want to provide a space that really facilitates the social interactions that are so important to learning. And to create a psychologically safe space where they feel that they can engage in activities, as long as they're safe, and they respect others, that they can engage in learning in a way that they don't have to fear, ridicule, or judgment or punishment for doing something for going down a pathway that may otherwise, not be accepted in a different setting. Because, it's not what the adults expect, or it's not in line with some sort of social expectation of a peer group,
Chris McNutt 26:50
Our audience might not be familiar with, we've probably heard of these different things, but can you briefly describe literally what a student does? I realize that's a very open ended question.
Antonio Buehler 27:07
What a student does differs greatly from student to student, but at a self directed education school or community, whatever you want to call it, a learner comes in and different communities may have some sort of checking procedure, they may have some sort of morning circle of some sort, and they may have, at the end of the day, some sort of gratitude circle, or some sort of wrap up ceremony or something. But for the large bulk of the day, 90% of the day, there are absolutely no requirements of learners, so they're at Self Directed Education Center, there is no math block, there's no science block, there's no expectation that you're going to be reading by a certain age, there's no mandated instruction of any kind. And so when people who believe in traditional education come into a self directed education space, they look around, and they say, "where's the learning happening?" Because you're really unlikely to come across a bunch of kids doing long division on worksheets, or you're really unlikely to find kids doing physics experiments. You're more likely to see kids playing guitars, playing Minecraft, or Roblox on computers to be on the play set, digging into things, they're sitting around having conversations with each other, working on something that they're building. It's when people walk in, they tend to see children at play and children socializing. And for people who really believe in a traditional model, that is scary, because they question where's the learning happening?
Believers in self directed education recognize that learning is not about checking off certain curricular milestones or boxes in some way, learning is the ability to recognize that there's an opportunity to engage in something and to learn more about it, and if it's worthwhile enough to develop mastery over it, and to develop expertise in it. So for a self directed educator, having a learner who wants to dive deeply into digging in the mud, to investigate what's in there that might to a typical educator - they're just digging in the mind. But I would say, most progressive educators, there's learning happening there, just because you can' check off something according to Hirsch, that doesn't mean that learning is somehow a lesser value.
And in the grand scheme of things, learning math is important. There's no question about it, numeracy is important. But what happens in self directed education spaces is people really get to know themselves and get to know how to interact with others. And when it comes to preparing young people for success in life, that goes much further than learning calculus. Because we have to interact with people in the world. And if we can learn how to learn, then if we do you need to learn calculus, that's a relatively easy thing to do, relative to learn how to read other people interact with our people given take etc.
Chris McNutt 31:05
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I'm curious, and you touched on it before... do you think that these kinds of schools are for everyone?
Antonio Buehler 31:35
Every any sort of extreme statement, I think, is difficult. But I think if these schools are for mostly everyone, and I don't think these schools are necessarily in conflict with the notion of public education. I do not support the schooling system. But not because of the public schooling aspect to it, I think that I think that any truly great society would invest in the education of young people and they would go to great lengths to make sure that all children have access to the educational resources that will allow them to lead meaningful lives. Particularly, the children who are most marginalized and oppressed in society. So I'm a big believer in the notion of public education. And yes, I do believe that public education provided for young people to engage in self directed education is something that is appropriate for everyone. Even children with very unique needs, I think that they deserve to be treated as equals in our society. I don't think that anyone should be subjected to - a lot of teachers of kids may not agree with my wording here - but an authoritarian approach to learning. "You will learn this, because it's important, you will learn this in this manner. Because if you don't, you're going to end up to be a deadbeat or something, or you're going to end up, you know, being a drain on society." I think that that is a very harmful way of treating children.
And so even children with very unique needs, I think that it's incumbent upon us to respect them as human beings, and to allow them to take education in the direction that they hope to take it. And if there are very specific things that we as a society really value, I think that we should approach it in a manner in which we make it clear to them why it's important, and why they should value it, and they should pursue it because it's meaningful.
So literacy, for example, is clearly valuable, it's perhaps the most important thing, from an academic perspective that we can we can do for children is to help them become literate. You know, these schools like Sudbury schools, Sudbury has never had a student graduate who was incapable of reading or writing. And they've never taught anyone how to read. They have, probably I don't know what the numbers, maybe 500 graduates at this point. They've never taught anyone to read yet every single child comes out of their capable reading, which, by the way, is a much better track record than then the traditional schools, right? How is it that these children are able to come out of this system and be able to read, many of them being able to read, at a level that far exceeds those traditional schools? The answer is simply because it's something that children recognize is valuable in our society, it's important in our society, and at Sudbury and other educational communities that really value literacy, they see people doing it. It's not something to be avoided, it's not something that's painful, it's not something that has to be taught. It's something that that people aspire to do. And so they learn how to read, they learn how to read by going to the adults and asking them to read them a book and through that process. Or they go to a slightly older peer and they asked for specific reading instruction. And I think that's a much better way of educating the young people in the things that we really believe are important for them, then telling them, "this is important for you. So we're going to force you to do it."
Chris McNutt 36:13
I actually asked this question too, even though you said that Acton isn't really a self directed school, we did have someone from Acton on before, which they paint themselves as a self directed school... And I asked him the same question. I don't know if I'm 100% on board. I don't know if I could be a self directed educator, I consider myself a progressive educator. But this is the one place where I start to hesitate, which is I think about some issues in society that people don't want to talk about. But if you don't talk about them, then the problem doesn't go away. I think about like, people that grew up in racist families, or that grew up with sexist notions. Do you feel like there's a concern that in self directed learning communities, students just won't pursue learning more about those things? Because they're just not being exposed to those topics? Or they don't want to be exposed to those topics? Because it goes against their worldview?
Antonio Buehler 37:16
Yeah, I actually think that's a wonderful question. The thing is, that schooling, when you force topics upon children, it doesn't go well very often, right? I'm sure when it's a forced discussion, it's something for them to get through, right, unless they're trying to please you? And then they're going to try to get through it in a way that that pleases you. But it's usually not sincere. All you can do is do a simple survey of any freshmen, and they done this - surveys of freshmen at Harvard, etc. - and just ask them basic factual information of stuff that they had to cover in order to test well and do good and get into the various schools that they've gone into. And they can't remember even basic factual knowledge, right? And so then we think, well, "but we're adding into the curriculum, talking about history, oppression, etc." Do we really think that they're picking up anything meaningful from that?
Disregarding the fact that schools have a lot of interests that they're beholden to, and they're certainly not going to talk about racism, or white supremacy, or patriarchy or anything like that in a really deep, profound, meaningful way. Because, you end up making taxpayers mad, or conservative parents mad, etc. But I just don't believe that any sort of efforts to try to push children into these conversations actually leads to them being willing to take these issues on in a meaningful way. And I've seen it before, I've seen it on college campuses, where a child who has grown up in an extremely conservative environment take some sort of course to meet some requirement. I actually spoke in a course at UT recently that deals with issues of black oppression, oppression on the black community, and there are kids there that are taking the course because they just need a credit. It's a curricular requirement for them to graduate. And so they're just taking the course, and they're not hearing anything. They're just repeating the talking points that they've always had. And I don't see it as something that really opens their eyes and allows them to critically examine the society that that they exist within. I think that the best way to get people to seriously question.
What I think you're getting at is talking about issues of oppression and authoritarianism. Those topics, and I think those are vitally important, I think, that we live in. I mean, we are not a progressive society, we're not an evolved society by any means in many ways, we're still very bad. The responses that we're getting now over the stuff at the borders. So how do we get people to actually take on these issues in a way that they reflect, and that they are [going] beyond the talking points that are provided by news outlets, or churches, or parents, etc. And I think that the best way to do it is to have an intellectually vibrant space where people can come together and meet with people have different perspectives, and be able to be in the world and see how things play out, you know, in order to recognize, well, this is worth my time.
It took me until my 30s, to seriously consider issues of gender and race, etc. And in a lot of ways, it wasn't until those issues came and hit me upside the head, through police brutality issues, that I really started to investigate that. But I've had plenty of people lecture me on it before, it never got me anywhere. Even though I went to Stanford for my MBA and Harvard for my Ed degree.... I live in New York City, I never really considered myself a part of a diverse community. The schools aren't diverse, they're diverse by looks, but they're not really diverse when you think about the population there. But being around a diverse group of people and having the opportunity and being in a setting that promotes real intellectual inquiry, I think that's when those topics can be broached in a meaningful way. And I just, I honestly believe that's a much better way of approaching these issues, then trying to trying to bake in some sort of lesson about the racial history of America into some schooling project.
I have noticed for myself, that when there's a reason for me to want to learn it, to be a part of it, to experience it, that's when the real learning happens. And it's not been because someone with some desire to enlighten me has come in and tried to manipulate my environment so that so that I would take those issues on.
Chris McNutt 43:42
Sure, it's honestly kind of a tough pill to swallow, just because it taps into your fears as an educator, which is, even though you might be inspiring learners to be intellectual, you at least feel like you had a certain outcome, which was, "I presented this information, therefore, they might be able to utilize that information." For example, Howard Zinn type stuff is what comes to mind. Understanding the textbook is not factual based information. There are facts in there, but it's not the end all be all. So, to me, that concern is more if you present someone with this information, and you're like, "Okay, you know, you can read whatever you want." And some kid picks up like Killing Lincoln or something by Glenn Beck. And they read it, and they're like, "Man, this is 100% accurate." In a progressive schooling sense, not that this has anything to do with the political mantra - it could be a liberal-based book as well. In the progressive base space there will be someone there to guide them, to have them question what it is they're doing. It's not necessarily that they are telling someone what they'll learn through a lecture, but it's more "So hey, what do you want to learn about here? Let me give you some additional resources and some additional things to steer you to at least critically think about what you're doing."
I think that's the difference I'm trying to get at, which that's a huge difference between progressive schools versus self directed schools which is more of a mentor and guide approach. Whereas [self directed education] is more of a, "you learn for yourself, and then ask questions as needed." There's a little bit more of a top down guidance in progressive schools that you might not see in that self directed school model. So for anything like that, the Acton School that you mentioned, is more progressive than self directed. I'm curious about your thoughts on that idea of someone being needed to question what people are doing?
Antonio Buehler 45:46
Well, I really liked the way that you frame that. I think that you framed it well, and I think that what you said was fair. What my problem is with that progressive model, which I think is a far better alternative than the traditional traditional model is the role of the adult in the space. And I feel like, you kind of straddle the fence there where you said their resource, they're there to provide support....,they're there to suggest different things for them, different pathways to go down, which is a very self directed education approach. The adults are there as helpers, they're there to support, they're not there to guide, and so we have conversations with our learners at Abrome all the time. I had a conversation last year with a learner, who didn't think that there was anything wrong with petty theft or doing recreational drugs. And we were able to have a conversation, but it was a conversation in which I did not say you are wrong. It was not a conversation where I tried to convince him of my position, it was a conversation where I said, let's dive into these issues. Let's look at this in many different ways. If you're okay with it...and we had a great conversation about it. It wasn't that I was that I was saying, "Okay, I'm the adult here. I'm the authority, let me guide you down the right path." It was more we're equals, and because we're equals, you're willing to have this conversation with me in a way that you simply would not if I was some sort of authority figure over you.
And the words that you use, the mentors and guides, it's more of a top down approach. I think that inherently is what reproduces so much of the oppression within our society. In order to question narratives that are presented to us, I think it's important for us to tear down the belief in positional authority. Tear down hierarchy such that young people don't feel that they have to defer to an adult in order to go down the right path. And there's risk to that, because sometimes they go down the wrong path. But by providing spaces where they can question what they're experiencing, what they're learning, where there's adults there to certainly help them, to ask questions, maybe spur questions that that might be meaningful. They are in a position where they're constantly questioning the world around them, as opposed to in an environment where there is some sort of authority, someone that they sort of turn to say, am I doing the right thing? Am I going down the right path? Do you approve of what I'm doing?
And when I when I look at issues like police state issues, for example, which is near and dear to my heart. When we asked ourselves, well, how is it that so many people can just repeat these mantras? Or to side with the person who shot the unarmed person in the back, to side with the person who is clearly engaging in racial profiling? I think that a lot of times it's because they've spent their entire life, their entire youth, turning to other people and asking them for permission, or asking them what's the right position that have here? As opposed to recognizing that it's really their responsibility to figure that out on their own. Self directed education doesn't mean that there is not a benefit of having people with expertise to lean on, but they're there to provide support when asked, as opposed to they're there to step in and nudge people a certain direction.
I think there's very much a lot of bleed between progressive education and self directed education. I think that in a lot of ways, progressive education is a form of trying to transform traditional education into something that's much more humane and less harmful. And I think that there's real value to that. But even in the words that you're using with regards to progressive educators, I think that you touch upon things that is really in line with self directed education. But self directed educators really reject the notion of any sort of hierarchical or positional authority over over young people
Chris McNutt 51:16
That was stated very well, I think that we agree probably on 90 to 95% of things. I think the major difference that I personally feel is that in my perfect view of the educational system, if one were to exist, there would be an option between a more progressive school and an option to a self directed learning school, both of which would be public schools. I don't necessarily believe that the second that there is someone guiding you down a certain path that is innately oppressive, which I believe is what you're saying, which is that the second that someone tells you "here is something that you should learn about," that in turn, is is oppressive. I feel like it depends heavily on how and what is being presented, which I realized is a delicate balance, and that could go out of rye very quickly.
However, there aren't honestly that many progressive schools that are doing that, because it's very difficult to run a truly progressive school, whereas it's not really that crazy to run a self directed school in the sense that the kids are just learning what they want to learn about. You don't have to develop a core curriculum, it's already set. For a progressive school developing that curriculum is very hard to do. In my opinion, a progressive school actually has a lot of that self directed time, and there's just inched in sections of that mentoring that doesn't exist.
I'm not saying that self directed schools aren't valuable. I think that there's a lot of students that could benefit from that. But I also think that there are students that need or want that structure. I should emphasize the word want over need, I wouldn't want a parent to go, "my kid needs to be told what to do. So go here." I would rather it be that a kid says" no, I want someone that's going to kind of guide me down certain things I can look for." I think almost like apprenticeship guild style academia, that you're not going to necessarily get at a self directed learning center. And I know that people I've spoken to that have children at self directed schools, they say pretty often, you know, this isn't really for everyone. "My kid was someone who was a 'self starter'", or there's someone that wasn't programmed with traditional education system.
I wonder if students come into your school, and they're, you know, seventh or eighth grade, how difficult the shift is for them to get towards that mindset, or they've been told for so many years that, "this person is the person in charge", whether or not there's a place for both progressive and self-directed.
Antonio Buehler 54:00
I want to try to hit every point to do it justice. But I agree with you 100%, in my perfect view of education, there's many options available for children. I don't think progressive education, if the child opts into it, is somehow in conflict with self directed education. Self directed educators believe without question that there are times when it makes sense for someone to go to an expert and say, "teach me, like you have done this your entire life, you are an expert, there's no need for me to recreate the wheel, I want you to teach me" or "I need this credential, I need this experience in pursuit of, you know, my longer term objective. And so therefore, I am going to go ahead and take some sort of calculus class to go ahead and get that in order to continue moving down my self directed path." So young people who opt into a progressive educational environment that can very much be self directed and the progressive educational environment, obviously wouldn't be a self directed education environment, but it would be in line with a self directed education, in that's the child who's choosing.
I actually don't see a conflict there. I agree with a perfect world will have many options. I hope I didn't say that progressive education is inherently oppressive. Because if the child opt into it, then it's not oppressive. Like, there are people with fetishes that I simply don't understand, but they opt into it, for example. And so that is not oppressive, if that's what they want, that's what they want. I do who believe that progressive education is hierarchical, though, right? Like it does have an adult over the learner, even when progressive educators talk about coming together and working together to figure out how to move forward. Just like a parenting relationship, the parents just hold a certain level of authority over a child that is really hard to get away from and with that higher hierarchical relationship can come and reproduce many of the problems that you and I both want to address. Various forms of societal oppression.
I do agree with you that running a progressive school is very, very hard. And as a self directed learning space it is much, much easier. And I think that's because one is, yeah, we don't have to develop these curriculum standards, one of the challenges with progressive education is you have to keep reading the child, like a good progressive educator constantly is reading child to try to figure out what to do next. And then in a self directed education space, it's easier, just because self directed education is our natural state of being. And I think that that's something that a lot of progressive educators try to tap into, you even said self directed education is a big component, for truly progressive educators. And so it's just easier, because it's sort of natural.
Then your last point, about children coming in later, I agree, 100%, it's really, really challenging for older children to step into a self directed education space, particularly because they spent so much time turning to an adult to get permission to do something and turn to an adult to learn what's next. And what we've seen with older learners, is it's often extremely difficult for them to take charge of their education. They oftentimes have no idea what to do, it's like, you can do anything you want. And it's paralyzing, because all of a sudden, for the first time, since they were maybe toddlers, they're being told that their decisions are going to be respected, and they can pursue their day as they see fit, as long as they're respecting others.
And for that reason, I encourage people to allow their children to have choice as early as possible, and not try to sort of push it down to adulthood. And I think that for so many children, they spend their entire, childhood and adolescent life and into college always looking for the right answer Always turning to the authority and asking for permission, looking to see what's going to be tested, what's on the syllabus, etc. And then they get to a point where they're out of the nest, they don't have their parents, housing situation, they don't have the food on the table, they have to worry about paying the bills and insurance, etc. And that's when, unfortunately, for most young people, that's when they're finally given the freedom to make meaningful decisions in their lives. I think that that is a huge disservice to young people. For the first time that they're expected to make decisions, it all of a sudden comes at a time in which the stakes are much higher, and particularly for people who don't come from the upper levels of the socio economic ladder, that often means that they only get one or two chances. Then, they're put in a situation where it's extremely hard to dig out of. The way that we approach schooling, in many ways, ends up putting a lot of people on a really, really bad path in life, because they're not ready to make decisions, because we never gave them the chance to really own their lives when they were children,
Chris McNutt 1:00:31
Then how do we communicate that message to people that possibly traditional education is not for their student, instead, they should seek out opportunities such as self directed education? Because, as you just said, for a parent, it's a huge risk, at least in their mind. Because, as you kind of stated throughout this, when you go through a traditional system, you know what to expect, and the parents know what to expect as well, even if they might not understand what exactly, or at least be critically thinking about what exactly is supposed to be coming out of this system, they do know that when they go, they send their kids to school, they can get a class or anything, get a GPA, they can go to college, and then hopefully, they get something in their field.
Whereas if you go into a self directed learning center, that's going to look very odd to I would say, probably the majority of parents because it's just not something that they're familiar with. I recently read You, Your Child, and School by Ken Robinson. And that whole book is really at an elementary level, describing different forms of education so that parents can choose the one that's best for their kid. It's something that you were just talking about, which is, is there an issue that you're seeing at self directed schools that maybe aren't attracting people from low socio economic status? Because either there they have less resources to send their children to the schools? Because it costs so much money? Or just because they're not willing to take that risk as much as someone who has that safety net that others do?
Antonio Buehler 1:02:08
Yeah, both great questions. I think that the communication piece is really challenging. I do a ton of public efforts and public education here in Austin, I give speeches all the time free speeches at the library etc. And it's just hard, because we live in a fear based society, I think that a lot of ways because of the pyramid structure of our society where in order to be successful, in the eyes of the majority you have to rise to the top above everyone else. So your success depends on other people's failure, or at least middling state sort of thing. And because of that fear, I think that it's hard that fear, the fear that my child is going to fall on their face when they're an adult, because they're not going to know how to make decisions for themselves, which should be a very relevant fear of depression and self harm and suicide amongst young people because of the pressures of schooling. And that fear, even though it's completely unfounded, when you look at college admissions, that fear drives people to push their kids to schools, as you said, that do have GPA and class ranks, because they think that that is how they get their kids into really difficult schools to get into, even though it's actually the exact opposite. It's much easier to get in those schools if you don't go to a competitive traditional academic school.
I think that getting over that fear is going to be extremely hard. One of the reasons we started Abrome is we just want to put it out into the world, like, here is an example, right? Because our goal is not to have everyone to come to Abrome. Our goal is to have everyone opt out of a course of educational system that harms children. And we can help move that along by showing people that when you give children freedom, when you allow them to take charge of their education, you have better outcomes, the outcomes that matter most in terms of happiness, health, leading lives with meaning and purpose.
By the way, the outcomes that the rest of society wants us to focus on, which is career path and college. And so by providing those examples, we're hoping that that over the long run will go ahead and change those fears, we want to get to a point where people recognize that putting the kids into a traditional course of schooling system is far more of a risk for their children, then then allowing them to do something that that's more compassionate, and allows the child to have more control over their future.
The second question, is there an issue with regards to low SES with self directed learning? There's no question that private schools have far too little representation particularly among low SES groups. And I think that you're absolutely right, that risk is a big, the perception of risk is huge. With regard to that, one is just the economic resources, one thing that we do at Abrome is we have a sliding scale tuition model. And other Agile Learning Centers do the same. And there are many other progressive and self directed education centers that have some sort of sliding scale, I'm sure you know about them. I think it's Manhattan Day School that is a leader in that regard. But, even with that sliding scale sort of approach, there's certainly people who can't afford to pay anything. For people who believe that their children only have one shot, they've been told time and time again that going into the system and outperforming everyone is the way to radically improve one's chances in life. You know, I get that fear. Unfortunately, it's not an accurate fear, I think that the only people who really benefit from going into the traditional system are people who might need that sort of system in order to establish themselves as full people within society, and I'm particularly talking about undocumented immigrants, to the extent that there are protections for undocumented immigrants to be in traditional schooling system in order for them to get recognized as as full people. That makes sense. I can never blame a parent for doing that, you know, you know, because the alternative is deportation.
But, if the people who are most marginalized and most oppressed by the system, schooling harms those people the most. If we can do a better job of providing access to many alternatives to traditional schooling for them, if we could find ways to fund it. And that's why I believe that self directed education should be a public good. We could go ahead and clearly communicate what the benefits are of allowing the young people to pursue learning in a more natural way and less authoritarian course of way. I think we can get there long term, but in the short term, true, self directed education is something that people with privilege, and the people who quite frankly, probably don't need it as much are going to take disproportionate advantage of. That's an unfortunate reality.
Chris McNutt 1:08:46
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