In many places around the world, education has become something to be endured. A new generation is learning to run a rat race where the main metrics of success are your résumé and your pay cheque – a generation less inclined to colour outside the lines, less inclined to dream or to dare, to fantasise or explore.
Can schools operate on a wholly different view of human nature? What if we give children much more freedom to play and learn on their own?
The thing that moved me the most while I was researching my latest book was visiting such a school in the Netherlands. This school, Agora, relies on the intrinsic motivation of the children. There are no classes or classrooms, no homework or grades, no tests, no timetables. There is almost no hierarchy within the staff. Often, there is no hierarchy at all – the students are the ones in charge.
At Agora, children of all ages, academic levels and socioeconomic backgrounds are mixed together. Difference is perceived as normal, and what I quickly noticed was the lack of bullying. Bullying is often regarded as part and parcel of being a kid. Not so, say sociologists, who have compiled extensive research on the places where it is endemic, such as British boarding schools (the kind that inspired William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies). And little wonder: these schools resemble prisons. You can’t leave, you have to earn a place in a rigid hierarchy, and there’s a strict division between pupils and staff.
At the moment, we spend billions encouraging our biggest talents to rise up the career ladder, but once at the top they often ask themselves what it’s all for. Recent research in 47 developed countries found that a quarter of workers doubt the importance of their work. Most of these “meaningless jobs” are in the private sector – in banks, ad agencies and law firms. Meanwhile, politicians tell us we need to be more educated, earn more money and bring the economy more “growth”.
But what do all those degrees really represent? Are they proof of creativity and imagination, or of an ability to sit still and nod? It’s like the philosopher Ivan Illich said decades ago: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”
Schools like Agora prove there is a different way. The question is not: can our kids handle the freedom? The question is: do we have the courage to give it to them?
• Rutger Bregman is the author of Humankind: A Hopeful History (Bloomsbury)