January 31, 2023 associations education microschools tocqueville

Microschools Are Innovative–And Very Traditionally American

There’s an old saw that goes something like this:  A group of Englishmen need a school built, so they go to the aristocracy: “Build us a school, m’Lord.”  A group of Frenchmen need a school built, so they go to their government: “Education is our right, and we demand you build us a school.”  A group of Americans need a school built, so someone says, “Alright, y’all, we start knocking the frames together Saturday at 6:00am.  Who’s bringing the coffee?”

In one way, microschools are incredibly innovative.  They harness the availability of technology to provide top shelf education tailored to children.  They afford class sizes that make education highly individualized.  They create educational environments that are independent of licensure and unnecessary regulation.  Because of the convergence of technology, small class size, the absence of suffocating bureaucracy, and more, microschools can be so much more responsive than traditional classrooms, changing rapidly to meet the needs of the students.

But they are also very traditionally American.  Often called the renaissance of the “one room schoolhouse”, microschools epitomize a practice that is definitively American.  The opening story about the three groups needing their respective schools originates from a passage in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America.  In 1831, de Tocqueville and a companion were sent from France to the United States to study the American prison system.  They use the opportunity to study American life more widely, and de Tocqueville published his observations in Democracy In America.  And one of his key takeaways was that Americans self organize into organic movements, which he called “associations”, to do just about anything and everything.  When something needed doing or saying, Americans assembled into an self-started organization and got to work:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.  They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.  The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.  If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.  Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France , or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

When parents see that an educational model isn’t meeting the needs of their children, they can get together and form a microschool.  They can structure it how they want.  They can pick the curriculum they want.  They can make the class sizes as big or as small as they want.  And when they do, they are engaging in one of the most innovative and one of the most traditionally American acts imaginable.

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