Book Review: Becoming Self-Directed Learners
By Scott Holleran
New Trier’s New Left experiment, the Center for Self-Directed Learning, gets its due in a new book. With essays by students and faculty, Becoming Self-Directed Learners (Windy City Publishers, $14.99) is an enlightening record of the school within a school, which existed at New Trier East High School from 1972 until it ended due to low enrollment in 1982.
The authors cite the Center’s most influential thinkers. Among them are a University of Chicago chancellor, a German philosopher, a South American socialist, the founder of the “open classroom” and an arch-opponent of teaching. The book, co-edited by the Center’s co-founders, James Bellanca and Arline Paul, features loose, first-person accounts of how ideas shaped the Center’s radical approach to high school.
Former student Mark Kirk, a U.S. senator from Illinois, admits, for instance, that the Center was so unstructured that he was free to phone an African dictator from school as a prank. Hollywood actress Virginia Madsen writes about learning math in a positive environment. As one might suspect, former students’ essays generally offer a positive appraisal.
They are also honest. One writer describes the Center’s weekly group gathering, in which all learning, administrative issues and grievances had to be addressed and resolved as a collective, as “communal arguing”. The Center’s basic approach—students chose their own “learning experiences”, concentric collectives enveloped the individual, faculty were “facilitators”—comes through, though not in an organized way.
The Center closed over 30 years ago. But the impact of its pedagogy is everywhere in today’s schools, which stress feelings over facts and experience over knowledge—and Center graduates are extremely influential agents of change.
Contributors acknowledge engagement in or influence by left-wing political causes. Most of the approximately 600 students that traipsed in and out of New Trier’s former study hall in room 101—the space assigned to the Center by the administration—went on to work in government, academia and religion.
Former students disclose experiences in boycotting grapes, working on farms, studying bridges, literature and learning about movies with Gene Siskel. One student built a planetarium visited by the son of the founder of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. Another staged a play called “How the West Was Taken”. Another had a “learning experience” on marijuana. Classes studied extra-sensory perception (ESP), physics and apartheid. All of this is in the book. What emerges, in spite of sloppy editing (Obama’s name is misspelled—twice), is an effort to examine education.
The reader will draw his own conclusions. Mine include the observation that the Center’s purported focus on the individual is a false proposition. The real mission was to instill collectivism—to push the student to follow, merge and “fit in” to the herd or the group. The Center’s thesis that learning is self-directed comes across in this 260-plus page volume as a euphemism for whims as a guide to knowledge.
Doing your own thing may feel good for a moment, though it does not necessarily add up to knowledge, success or happiness. The Center for Self-Directed Learning’s premise is contained in its name—the learning is an end in itself, not a means to mastering life—and, in laying this bare, Becoming Self-Directed Learners is true to its inception.
This article originally was published in The North Shore Weekend in July 2014.