Reimagining the School

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications.]



“Youth is the eternal chance for the bliss of humanity. Each time this chance reappears, and each time, humanity loses it. Again young boys and girls appear, full of energy and strength, with souls devoted to an ideal, ready to break through the blocked gates of heaven. Each generation has the opportunity to do a great deed in society, but the deed is different from generation to generation. But while youth prepares, society places its tiny goals in front of them and they are overcome by the urges of selfishness and arrogance. Some say that reality is stronger than ideals and that the youth do not have the power to change it. Some eras call out to the youth and demand of them not to surrender to this reality, to defend their beliefs and to do their deed. And they listen attentively, stretch in a great effort, and shake society’s attempt to silence them and prevent the deed.”


~ Martin Buber ~



Introduction and a Dose of Humility


In this paper, I will attempt to give a brief reimagined look at the school as a primary educational institution, focusing mostly on youth (the definition of which is admittedly blurry, but – for the purpose of this paper – meaning around middle school and high school aged people). I will lay out a number of principles that must be accounted for in any expression of education that seeks to be democratic or liberatory, framing them within the terminology of participatory society, and backing them up with specific examples.


I will draw on my experience in the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement, which has specialized in democratic education since its founding in 1913. Many suggestions come almost directly from my time as a leader in the movement’s year-round programming in New York City, its six-week summer camp, Camp Shomria in Liberty, New York, as well as its Israeli counterpart and Kibbutz Movement. In addition, I will draw from my experience as a high school teacher in a program I co-founded called Without Walls, which takes democratic, alternative educational method and content into middle schools and high schools in New York and New Jersey, and particularly in this case, as a teacher of weekly 9th through 12th grade Without Walls classes at The Hudson School in Hoboken, New Jersey. Beyond, I will draw from number of other educational contexts (such as Arab-Jewish coexistence programs and activist groups) in which I have built and facilitated community-based curricula dealing with group-building and community empowerment, as well as larger issues of race, class, gender, environment, consumerism, war, and others.


Still, it is important for me to note that there are educators far older and wiser than I who have written about this, and there are many who practice or have even built schools with very much of this in mind. My description of the shortcomings of educational institutions below are generalizations about the mainstream educational world, and there are countless educators and educational structures that have overcome an enormous amount of the problems facing education in our society. In fact, I have learned much of what I will present from these other institutions that do in fact exist. Beyond examples of schools or educational frameworks that practice many of the values noted above, schools are by no means uniform. A school with smaller classes, or a liberal curriculum, or a good teacher, can change a student’s life. I understand myself to be very much a product of small educational victories won in the face of an oppressive educational establishment; schools and teachers who make small departures from the educati

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