Sunday, March 21, 2021

Hedge School

In a world in which people of color have been victims of colonialism, genocide, slavery, war, oppression, there seems to be one group of white folks that share some of this history— the Irish. The colonizing British forbade their language, their religion, sought to destroy their cultural identity, all with the same tactics used in all corners of the British Empire that wreaked such havoc on black folks in West Africa, South Africa, East Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, the U.S., on Asians in India, Malaysia, Hong Kong and beyond. 


One of the tactics was to forbid education, to keep the populace ignorant and make reading and writing inaccessible and in fact, the teaching of it illegal. But the history of colonialism has a parallel history of resistance and Ireland was no exception. In the early 1800’s, the Irish began teaching their children in what was called Hedge Schools, underground gatherings out in the hedges (though in actuality, mostly indoors). The monoculture of Empire was purposefully subverted by Hedge School teachers not only trying to teach the basics of the 3R’s, but to maintain the Gaelic language and keep the forbidden Catholicism alive. 


I love the image of classes gathering in the bushes and the subversion of the monoculture by keeping the gifts of traditional culture alive. In a similar way, the alternative school movement of the 60’s in the U.S. was a Hedge School of sorts refusing “the Establishment,” keeping the humanitarian practices of Montessori or Steiner or Pestalozzi or Dewey alive and growing, refusing to treat education as training for the monolithic military-industrial complex and digging down into the roots of a shared humanity through attention to critical thought, literature, poetry, the arts and social justice. 


The San Francisco School where I taught for 45 years began as one such place, founded in 1966 with Montessori at its core and slowly and organically growing beyond what Maria could initially envision, especially in the arts. We took our shoes off before coming in the school building, served our own healthy hot lunches, went camping for as long as 7 days and reveled in both a whimsical and deeply serious ceremonial calendar which we created to fit our particular character. 


Just about all surviving such schools now have a tuition 30 times higher, have joined associations of independent schools, have drunk the Kool-aid of computers in all classes and while talking the talk of independence, creativity and diversity, have somehow become part of the new monolith of Corporate Culture and so many look alike, feel alike, act alike. 


And the same process at work in that other Hedge School, the work of Orff Schulwerk gathering in elementary school gyms or church basements or university dance studios. Where we once danced to our own drummer, now it’s often the National Standards or the Curriculum Committees or the school “best practices” learned at some Conference that is calling the tune and disguised as freedom, we’re dancing to the proscribed steps. 


It’s time to bring back the Hedge School. Outdoors in reality and/or spirit, intimate and particular, in conscious resistance to monoculture and dominance of the powerful. See you at the rhododendrons. 

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