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Another Way to Understand Fairhaven School

Oct 14, 2012

“Education is a process of expansion—expanding strategies as writers, expanding knowledge as scholars, expanding concerns as citizens. Every class should be a community in which students safely and certainly expand their worlds.”

-Cole Swenson, poet and scholar

Although this quotation speaks to education in the narrower frame of traditional schooling and writing, if one substitutes “school” for “class” in the second sentence, Sewnson has succinctly captured the essence of Fairhaven School, hasn’t she?  Ours is indeed a “community in which students safely and certainly expand their worlds.”

Furthermore, her opening statement- “education is a process of expansion” – could not ring with more truth. One of the gifts of experiencing Fairhaven School is the opportunity to revisit its ideas and realities anew, always looking for fresh ways to name what happens here. For today, then, we try on the lovely, complex concept of expansion.

In many ways the founders of Sudbury Valley School and the founders of Fairhaven School did what we did because we think schools should more closely align with the way the world actually operates. Thus, we prioritize curiosity over compulsion. We establish student freedom and responsibility instead of control and restriction. The school environment we create, then, fosters the process of expansion that the poet Cole Swenson describes above. Here, young people grow in many ways. They grow stronger, as they are physically active. They grow emotionally, since they are working on their relationships (and thereby themselves) in an honest, egalitarian community. They grow intellectually, since they are enmeshed in the constant give and take of ideas and conversation at school, and because they are pursuing their interests because they want to do so.  All of these exemplify expansion.

Expand- verb

1. to increase in extent, size, volume, scope, etc.: Heat expands most metals. He hopes to expand his company.
2. to spread or stretch out; unfold: A bird expands its wings.
3. to express in fuller form or greater detail; develop: to expand a short story into a novel.

In our young people, this is what we seek, is it not? However, this post cannot end with mere expansion. My healer friends and my naturalist friends would not have it so.  In Chinese medical theory, every action has its opposite. Picture the ubiquitous yin-yang symbol. In nature, the same is true. High tide must follow low tide. Flowering leads to seeds falling to ground. Each expansion must have its contraction.
In terms of Fairhaven School, let’s assume that the expansion is aligned with the freedom here at school. Its partner then, its complementary counterbalance of contraction, aligns with  responsibility, best exemplified by the democratic processes at school. I f someone’s actions are too “expansive” and violate the school’s rules, the Judicial Committee will intervene. If someone has an outside-the-box idea, the weekly School Meeting must approve it, perhaps amending the idea (contracting it, if you will.) In addition to the democratic process, students themselves impose contraction as they grow and develop here. They discover their limits, shaping themselves into suitability for the world beyond our twelve acre oasis.
By the time he or she leaves Fairhaven School, a student here has practiced the delicate art of being a person, and has embarked upon the lifelong dance of expansion and contraction that is the ultimate metaphor for a life lived with meaning and awareness. (We will be hosting an Alumni Perpectives Night on October 26th which will be another opportunity to deepen your understanding of the ongoing educational process of a Fairhaven education.)
Mark McCaig
Fairhaven staff

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