Democracy Reaches the Kids! (2014)

Rekindling the joy of learning
by George Meegan

Democracy Reaches the KidsDemocracy Reaches the Kids! is a tour de force, a blockbuster, and a game changer. It delivers a blow to the ‘education industrial complex’ from which it will not recover, and we are all the better for it. One of the higher density books of ideas-per-page you’ll ever read. Meegan’s pace is quick and energetic, a rich tapestry of facts from all over the world—pertaining to education, both how it has been and how it can be. Taking it all in is like reading Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, though Democracy! shines with genuine compassion and focus. Where Mr. Toffler tends to overwhelm the reader with technology ahead of its time, Mr. Meegan shows us how to liberate our souls and become humanely connected to one another through life-learning.

So who is this guy George Meegan, coming from out of the blue? Per Wikipedia:

George Meegan is a British long-distance walker best known for his unbroken walk of the entire Western Hemisphere from the southern tip of South America to the northernmost part of Alaska at Prudhoe Bay. This journey on foot was of 19,019 miles (30,608 km) in 2,425 days (1977-1983) and is documented in his book The Longest Walk (1988). He has appeared often in the press including the Today Show three times, CBS Morning News and on Larry King Live. Meegan lives Internationally and has a wife, Yoshiko, in Japan. They have two children. He ran as an Independent candidate for the Gillingham and Rainham constituency for the 2010 General Election.

Reading further in the Wiki article, which describes Democracy!, you’ll see George’s self-identified life mission since finishing the Longest Walk has been to preserve culture and language, what he saw so many of during that Herculean journey 35 years ago. The book sprang from notes George gathered during the thousands of miles he traversed and the hundreds of communities that he called home for days, weeks, sometimes months and years.

Meegan’s academic hero and inspiration for changing the way kids learn their way into life is libertarian, anti-compulsory-schooling icon John Taylor Gatto, author of The Underground History of Education and Dumbing Us Down. Gatto also provides a ringing endorsement to the exceptional work George has done in Democracy!. The following is from the front matter of the book:

From the endorsement (for a position in Ecuador’s education system):

Mr. Meegan was an ordinary British seaman, when he set himself at the age of 23 the most extraordinary challenge – to undertake alone the longest walk in recorded history, almost 20,000 miles across deserts, across the Andes, across the trackless Darien Gap, to the far shores of the Arctic Ocean.

He had No money, No specialized equipment, No support team, only his courage and intelligence to relay upon, yet in spite of everything he succeeded. And was honoured by The Guinness Book of World Records, and by the legendary Explorers Club in New York City.

Far from a mere feat of endurance, my classes came to see this walk as an intellectual tour de force, one involving endless calculations and day by day decisions upon which health, progress, and actual survival depended for the years it took to make the journey. It was a testament to unaided human potential, an inspiration for us all.

In recent years I came to know Mr. Meegan as friend, and was delighted to learn that he found additional ways to add value to the human community. At the turn of the Millennium he staged an international ceremony … (John put ´North Pole.´ Accurately it was at the northernmost village in the world Barrow – Eskimo – having embarked years before from the southernmost, in Patagonia.) … bearing the flags of his journey to greet the New Century and to honour the Native Peoples; he inspired his daughter to star in a documentary film in which she walked the Japanese islands between cheering crowds drawn from the man traditional cultures in the archipelago; he developed a culture based curriculum at Kobe University in Japan.

The priceless cultural Heritage of Nations like Ecuador are in grave danger at present from forces of global commercialism intent on commodifying it, preserving it (if at all) in a diluted form. Whatever short term profits this offer, this process ultimately leaves incoherence in its wake, and indigenous cultures in despair. In such a dangerous climate men like George Meegan are worth their weight in gold….

Signed:

John Taylor Gatto
New York City Teacher of the Year 1989, 1990, 1991
New York State Teacher of the Year 1990, 1991
Author: Dumbing Us Down (1992)
The Underground History of American Education (2002)
Weapons of Mass Instruction (2008)

Gatto’s assessment of the essential problems of modern schooling:

  1. It confuses the students. It presents an incoherent ensemble of information that the child needs to memorize to stay in school. Apart from the tests and trials, that programming is similar to the television: it fills almost all the “free” time of children. One sees and hears something, only to forget it again.
  2. It teaches them to accept their class affiliation.
  3. It makes them indifferent.
  4. It makes them emotionally dependent.
  5. It makes them intellectually dependent.
  6. It teaches them a kind of self-confidence that requires constant confirmation by experts (provisional self-esteem).
  7. It makes it clear to them that they cannot hide, because they are always supervised.

Gatto (and Meegan) also draws a contrast between communities and “networks,” with the former being healthy, and schools being examples of the latter; in the United States, networks have become an unhealthful substitute for community.

Unfortunately, the strong point of the the book isn’t formal or structural refinement, rather a surge of ideas one after another. One expects the key priority concepts will be hammered flat and set forth unmistakably in the next edition. Still the alert reader can see the following outlines:

The Basic Requirement

Democracy! starts with a list of six requirements that compose what Meegan calls the Basic Requirement (B Req), which is equivalent to a secondary school degree, yet without compulsion or formalized, regimented schooling bureaucracies imposing a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The B Req is met when a sufficient number of expert tutors or expert examiners in various areas of knowledge that undergird the six requirements sign off on the individual. There aren’t grades per se, only levels of competency; the system avoids negativity for those who have yet to achieve minimal competency by simply categorizing their efforts for that specific requirement or subrequirement as “not examined.”

Meegan’s six requirements composing the B Req are:

  1. Communications: Fluency in one’s mother tongue… at a level of excellence not commonly required today, immersion and saturation, learning to read and write, culturally preserving the language spoken and written in one’s own native circumstances. (English will typically become a major subrequirement, though not mandated)—there is no ‘mandation’ in Democracy! 🙂
  2. Computer literacy: The author says this is self-explanatory and goes on to suggest that computers are to be tools of creativity not to turn children into video gamers and passive receivers of casual amusement. Further, attempts by existing compulsory school systems to ‘teach’ computer skills tend to interfere or block the natural learning of these tools from outside the schools.
  3. Environment: A huge challenge. “As with culture, so with the world, environment can best be studied at the basic level through the prism of the local.” Then Meegan gives examples of the kinds of subjects, the learning of which by millions upon millions of individuals, that will give us a chance in hell of saving the planet:
    • visits to follow the course of tap water
    • nearby river ecology
    • talking to zoo workers
    • a look at factory farming
  4. Culture, local and world: “‘I think people who are successful know who they are,’ says Principal Phyllis Cardinal of Amiskwaciy Academy, Alberta. She’s a Cree and fosters a unique aboriginal perspective, using art, music, and physical education, to her task of building the students sense of ‘a cultural identity.’” This is one of Meegan’s special areas and he devotes several pages of fascinating insights and suggestions to it.
  5. The physical: A discussion of democratization of physical activity via the learning process, particularly sport, and not to confine athletics to a handful of sexy sports with freakish practitioners. Also teaching the value of nutrition and healthful living, taking part in the modern Food Revolution, which is the people’s only hope for avoiding the ravages of Food, Inc., followed by prolonged sickness and death via medication.
  6. The social: “All kids so far as possible should try to develop something interesting about themselves, something for the benefit and or entertainment/communal happiness of others. Respect, according to Harvard education professor, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, is based on curiosity: ‘One of the central dimensions of being respectful to another person is to be genuinely, authentically, curious about whom you are and what you are about, or what your dreams are …'”

And then a handful of additional requirements Meegan addresses with these basics.

The Basic Personal Graduation (BPG)

Then for his coup de grace the author presents his Basic Personal Graduation (BPG) program (the free market/free person analog to the college bachelor’s degree)—and here is where it gets a bit confusing knowing what titles he is applying to what part of his full program. For he also mentions General Education 2000, which at times seems to be synonymous with BPG and other times to be the name for the whole learning enchilada. The number 2000 refers to ‘credits’ or points toward the BPG, and these are a matter of negotiation between student and teacher (examinee and examiner) and whatever voluntary associations form to set the standards. Here are a few paragraphs that hint at the way things might work:

In Democracy education anybody can be a teacher, even—heaven’s forbid—on occasion, teachers! However, a classic source of recognized masters would certainly be retired people and others who may have come by or mastered great some expertises; it all would count. [Personally, when I was a boy my best and most consistent teacher was the BBC, followed by the Scout Association.]

And the bright 11-year-old in the China piece. Democracy! can deal with this relatively easily. The fundamental Computer section can be dealt with by imagination: perhaps a letter to Hong Kong’s elite or perhaps hitching a PLA truck to the nearest terminal, probably in nearby a city. This girl, we can imagine, would, in her village, teach her illiterate neighbours the basics and all by herself. It would in a few years transform the village; it’s a complete virtuous circle. This would also you can be sure, mightily contribute to her own Basic Personal Graduation (degree). And all due credit and allowance will be given for those remarkable students who get, somehow, an education from a difficult start point. They would get more credit say than the hang-out-at-the-mall-crowd. Incidentally the village and the mall would have the same, but unique qualification. Think about it, it’s great isn’t it!!  

We proceed: Somebody having an interest in some rarefied subject, say, for arguments sake, a type of crab, might discover that such a branch of study would have been adjudged to carry perhaps a maximum potential of 50 credits. Incidentally, all credits are appealable, that is if a student is prepared to challenge the adjudicators and if they felt that they had a case then I would firmly hope that they would indeed do so, for that too is the real spirit of GE 2000. The challenging and the seeking, not just the automatic acceptance—with a shrug—of what is handed down.

And what is good for the goose is, as they say, good for the gander. Anyone else is at liberty to also appeal, that is if they feel a miscarriage has been done by over awarding of credits, or some outrage brings into question someone’s level of human education: I think here of hate crimes. For example, back in London in 1997 a certain Mr. Menson was set upon by a gang of whites, doused in fuel and eventually, burnt to death. On grounds of gross violation, Basic (Culture), any graduation would be rescinded and indeed probably never reinstated.

But please, common sense here: not the litigation style of the US. Short, sharp decisions, no backlogs. The student would need to be tested by a master of the subject, though not his own teacher or for that matter a crony of his teacher. The examiner might be selected at random from a list of recognized masters and the exam might require a potential journey, perhaps with this sort of marine topic to some far off port. Imagine the adventure built into this form of education… imagine bon voyage from Mum and Sis at the station, imagine the new landscapes and the drama as the student walks through the seaside town to meet the examiner at his home.

The examiner/examinee would share the same somewhat uncommon study and fine brains could meet and from such a combination perhaps on occasion a lifelong friendship could form. I do hope so. These master/pupil relationships might enrich both parties and hence by extension we of the world beyond. Bringing generations together is also a mission of these reforms.

Whatever points the student might garner would go also and equal measure—and officially—to the teacher. This would splendidly underline the per se equality of achievement of the teacher/pupil. Referrals would take say 10% of the points. These could very quickly form a dazzling set of measurable quality signals and business opportunities apace. There you have it, a fundamental way to naturally take care of the good (or bad) teachers debate and such burning issue of the day as merit pay. How much better than a system where merit money might depend on loaded by locality exam results, perhaps a possibly biased outside assessor or a head who dislikes someone!

When the young interact with the old this increases community spirit, what is largely lost in our modern motor cultures. Think of the bite that can be taken out of loneliness. Imagine, clouds of bright young people charging about doing such things as the oral history of their grandparents or perhaps that of an elderly neighbour. What experience and knowledge (and nightmares)—true education—lies currently buried within those haltering, but often still proud hearts, those of our population who have already lived long.

As I stated, Meegan has perhaps intentionally left out any prescribing of exactly what his system would look like, he only throws up ideas that he thinks will find their way into the ‘system’ by virtue of sociological context. The people will decide how education comes to be. “The market doth provide.” Truly. Could the inventor of ice cream know the details of the consumer business that deals in it? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean his invention or idea cannot sweep the world. Or merely bring joy to a few neighborhoods.

Yet I believe we all wish for more structure and definition in the next iteration of his book, perhaps with actual models put into practice. Lord knows the education industrial complex is poised to fall of its own dead weight and it will be a huge help to have alternatives quickly in place for transition.

One of Meegan’s more attractive thoughts is developing a diploma for one’s whole life, like a scroll, recording all your significant and unique learning achievements from writing a symphony to building a house in the woods to, well, walking 19,019 miles from the bottom of South America to the top of North America without any financial backing. Yes, George Meegan, who performed The Longest Walk, between 1977 and 1983, has channeled THAT profound educational experience into the prescriptive joy of discovery and cultural preservation of Democracy! The combined stories—not to mention the acclaim and celebration that will surely come his way—will make some scroll.

SunFLOWerNote: the reviewer has developed a publishing media that fits well with Meegan’s learning scroll concept—called a storygraph. The learning scroll is a wonderful type of the presentation medium. Described here.

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