Freedom to Learn Section V: Some disappointments in innovation – a pattern of failure

"It may have been evident that there was a significant omission in the many examples of the effectiveness of the person-centred approach. There was no description of a whole educational institution built around such an approach sustaining itself successfully over a period of years. This is because humanistic, innovative educational organizations have a poor record in regard to permanence."
This chapter presents thumbnail sketches of person-centred institutions that failed/didn’t sustain over years and the reasons why not.

1.1. Louisville Kentucky

The Louisville school system were marked by steady deterioration and a staff in despair. The school board hired a forward-thinking superintendent who implemented innovations such as week-long human relations workshops, intensive group experiences where people get to know each other as persons – open classrooms, team teaching, student freedom and choice. The new programme was very successful – but it was ended due mainly to wider political events, in particular, divisive racial policies. And the superintendent who had empowered students, parents and teachers was hated and feared by conservatives, to the extent that he felt that he had to resign and work elsewhere.

1.2. Immaculate Heart

In the mid 1960s, Rogers was looking for an opportunity to try out his ideas in the public school system, so he published his proposal in an article which finished with 'any takers?'
"A way must be found to develop, within the educational system as a whole, and in each component, a climate conducive to personal growth, a climate in which innovation is not frightening, in which the creative capacities of administrators, teachers and students are nourished and expressed rather than stifled. A way must be found in the system in which the focus is not on teaching, but on the facilitation of self-directed learning. Only thus can we develop the creative individual who is open to all of his experience; aware of it and accepting it and continually in the process of changing."
The Immaculate Heart system was the most promising taker - consisting of a college, several high schools and a score or more of elementary schools. Rogers' programme set large and extensive encounter groups at the heart of the plan which evolved over various identified phases - joint organizational planning, the intensive encounter group period, a period of invitation, administrative risk, rejection and criticism and assimilation and acceptance.
The innovations empowered the nuns to formulate their own rules - which directly challenged the Cardinal's more rigid set of rules. The dispute was passed up to the highest authority at the Vatican, which ruled against the sisters - prompting the Cardinal to dismiss all the sisters teaching in the parochial schools of Los Angeles. 

1.3.  Union Graduate School

The graduate school was developed to provide independent study programs for those who were willing and able to assume a major responsibility for their own education. It was organised on deeply humanistic lines, including shared governance, peer evaluation and learning contracts. The programme was a great success and is documented in (one of the founding spirits) Roy Fairfield's book Person-centered graduate education. However, the school began to alter its humanistic approach and retreat from its person-centred goals as key people moved on to other things. Success, but then move away from person-centredness. The institution's more conservative hierarchy was re-established and, as Fairfield put it, moved, as is the tendency of institutions, "from charisma and creativity to bureaucracy and routinization."

1.4. Johnstone College

Johnston College's life span was approximately a decade and it was planned by a group of educational pioneers, with no grades, no departments, personal growth labs, decision by consensus and individual learning contracts. The larger aim was to create a "living-learning environment, in which both experiential and cognitive learning could flourish." The pioneers assumed their autonomy from their sponsor, the University of Redlands - however, this assumption was not shared, building in an ongoing struggle between the college and the university - which the university won and it 'absorbed' the college, ending the experiment.

1.5. Kresge College

Kresge College was one of a cluster of new colleges started by the University of California at Santa Cruz and the new chancellor of the college held strong positive views about humanist education. He gathered a core group of five faculty members around him and proceeded to implement his living-learning experimental venture, which went against the wishes of the campus administration, who particularly disliked the emphasis on emotion in learning. The experiment was ended.  

1.6. Experimental College at SF State

This was a "most creative and far-out adventure" and was entirely student-initiated. "One student gathered together a group who were interested in discussing education. Out of the discussion arosean alternative program in education, challenging the conventional one." Faculty helped and "in an astonishingly short time" there were 70 courses involving 1400 students. "It was a college within a college, full of infectious excitement. It aroused national and media interest, which made it possible to bring in leading young thinkers."
There was an early movement against the college by the board of trustees, but the president of San Francisco State and a representative of the US Office of Education defended it, impressed by the learning that was going on. However, a student strike at San Francisco State, the impounding of student funds and the locking of the doors of the office of the Experimental College saw its swift demise.

2.   The Reasons for impermanence

2.1. They pose a threat

"When an organization is truly democratic, when persons are trusted and empowered to act freely and responsibly, this poses an enormous threat to conventional institutions. Our culture does not yet believe in democracy. Almost without exception the 'establishment' - and the people - believe in a pyramidal form of organization, with a leader at the top, who controls his or her subordinates, who in turn control those further down the line. When some form of organization, other than authoritarian, flourishes and succeeds, it challenges a way of being that is very deeply rooted in our society."

2.2 The Lack of a Pool

"Thus far, there are only a few institutions which trust the individual, or believe in teh capacity of a group to be self-governing. Consequently, when the founding leaders leave or retire, where is the group to look for leadership?" So, person-centred institutions succeed for a while but then the pool of person-centred people becomes limited.

2.3 Creeping Bureaucracy

Every organization has a tendency to develop routinized, bureaucratic ways of operation and "anything can become an imposed rule, even freedom ... do I have to do what I want to do?"

3.4 Lack of experience

Self-empowering groups are rare, so we have little or no experience of self-directing group processes. In our culture, we are all familiar with hierarchical and authoritarian behaviour and it is easy to fall back on these.

2.5 The Lure of ‘Power over’

Peope in powerful roles are unwilling to give up that power - and this is true in education. "Administrators of educational institutions may place a higher value on power over people than on the enhancement of learning."

3.   Concluding Comment

"One of the outstanding learnings from the material in this chapter is that the empowering of persons, the encouragement of self-direction, and the enhancement of learning by the whole person - with feelings as well as thoughts - constitute a profoundly revoluationary approach to education in this society."