Does Self-Directed Mean Self-Centered?

At The Open School, students are allowed to do whatever they want with their time, go wherever they want on the campus, and interact with whomever they choose. With a few small exceptions, students aren’t required to do anything, go anywhere, or talk to anyone. They can do what’s fulfilling to themselves, and we expect that they will become educated this way.

This is in contrast to traditional schools, where the school and the staff provide an agenda for students, which students must follow. In a traditional school, students are working for someone else (even if that someone else has the student’s best interest at heart). At The Open School, on the other hand, students are working for themselves, and they decide for themselves whether they are doing a good job.

I’ve occasionally heard people express concerns that this “individualist” philosophy might produce a generation of self-centered people. The Open School isn’t training kids to perform services for others, and in fact we don’t require them to perform services for others (besides the few small exceptions as mentioned earlier). Are we teaching them that they are more important than others? Are we feeding their (already too big) egos? Are we failing to teach them the value of work in service of one’s community?

Here’s the thing: at The Open School, just like at any school, students have a responsibility to learn, grow, and become educated. That’s their job. Adults’ jobs are to do services for other people; children’s job is to grow up. This is by no means an easy job. The world is a confusing place; other people are confusing; anything worth doing takes a lot of practice to get right (even something as simple as tying your shoes). Children need to develop their skills before they can be expected to use their skills to help other people. And that means they need to focus on themselves before they focus on others.

Back to the question: does this individualist philosophy produce self-centered people? The answer is no, and here’s why. Growing up is not a solitary pursuit. No one can do it alone — it takes friends. By nature, children grow and learn within a context of mutually supportive relationships. They don’t need parents or teachers to tell them this; they already know it. Put a child in an environment with other children and they will spontaneously try to make friends. Sometimes they get it wrong and sometimes they get it right. Often they have to get it wrong before they can get it right. Making friends requires kids to earn each others’ trust, share their excesses with those less fortunate, and play fair.

Earlier on this blog we wrote about a group of girls at The Open School who did a good job of this friend business:

One day, three girls were eating lunch together when eight-year-old Ivy dropped her entire lunch on the floor. Ivy was distraught. Her lunch was all over the ground and she had nothing to eat. The other two girls, aged 5 and 6, immediately jumped into action. They helped her pick up her lunch and offered to share theirs. Ivy’s tears turned to tears of joy. This was an opportunity for her friends to show her how much they cared for her, and they did it freely and with open hearts. … A few weeks later, one of the other girls spilled her lunch, and not surprisingly, Ivy happily split her own lunch with her sad friend.

The children did all of this spontaneously, before any adult even knew what was going on. So while the school itself doesn’t require service from children, children require service from each other, and that’s how they develop important traits like compassion, loyalty, and inter-dependence.

As children grow older, and their skills become more developed, a gradual shift takes place in their nature. They focus less and less on self-development (within the context of mutually supportive relationships) and more on community service. At The Open School, this community service might look like attending School Meeting and helping the school make decisions, or it might mean looking after toddlers at the school’s Under 5 Friday program. Students do this spontaneously without being asked to (I mean, we often ask them to, but sometimes they decide to help without being asked, and this happens more as they get older). It’s another part of human nature.

This gradual increase in taking responsibility culminates in the transition to adulthood: the complete giving up of oneself to help others, via a full-time job, parenthood, or both. Please note that when I say “complete giving up of oneself” I don’t mean that adults have no needs of their own. Just like children, all people need mutually supportive relationships. We are better and stronger when we work together with friends, family, and co-workers. So we are all inter-dependent, at every stage of life, even as our degree of responsibility grows from a tiny seed to a towering oak.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *