Horizontal Structure

The curiosity of children is insatiable. Left alone, people grow up to continue to want to know more and more about our world. However, when children are told they must sit still, must not speak, must not question, their curiosity may not hold up. As long as the person is alive, their curiosity can be revived by an internal motivation to know something.

All of the Baltimore teens I know have at least one area of expertise. Ashley reads every Urban Fiction book the day it hits stores, and can describe the plots and characters as though she knows them personally. Delvon can tell what a fabric is made of by feeling it, and has started to teach himself the very difficult science of pattern making. Derrell and Nicole can walk you through every level of convoluted, 20+ hour video games completely from memory.This proves to me that they are at least as clever as children from more privileged backgrounds at learning new things. [1]

Adolescents in Baltimore City are not often celebrated for their intelligence and understanding. To some degree, this is because many teens are not very knowledgeable about things adults find important. The solution often presented is that we should simply reframe all scholastic learning around video games and fashion, but this is insulting to the scope of the intelligence of our children. Children want to be useful to the world, want to understand their world and, in the right setting, are perfectly willing to work hard for that understanding.

According to the Institute for Democratic Education in America, Democratic education is

“learning that matters. It matters to young people, because it is driven by their own curiosity and goals. It matters to the community, and the country as a whole, because young people gain the motivation and tools to meet pressing societal needs, including prejudice and violence, ecological devastation, and socioeconomic inequities.” [2]

These ideas have deep roots from many corners of the globe, but were popularized more than 100 years ago in the work of Maria Montessori [3], and have been corroborated many times over by other education researchers.  Montessori had great success with children living in housing projects in Rome at the turn of the last century; children society had largely given up on.

The philosophy of the Ulimacho Huvunacho program is also founded in the principles of democracy, specifically direct or horizontal democracy. The current education reform rhetoric pays lip service to student-choice and student voice, but fears any actual control by the student.

There are thousands of schools around the world which are organized horizontally. [4] However, most of these are populated primarily by children from middle to upper middle class backgrounds. The horizontal model has great potential to bring justice to the poor and underprivileged. Indeed, the United Nations declared 2012 to be The Year of the Cooperative, [5] and has called special attention the incredible power horizontally organized businesses can have in low-income communities. There are now thousands of cooperatively run businesses around the world, the majority of which are owned and run by poor women in third world countries. The UN is particularly interested in the creation of youth cooperative businesses.

Young adults who come into their own in an environment like this– trusted and honored by adults, but also challenged and pushed to work hard– will be excellent entrepreneurs and organizers in the future. This has been proven again and again by the Baltimore Algebra Project. [6] Currently there are 20 or 30 graduates of the BAP program, all African Americans in their early-to-mid-twenties, who are actively changing the face of Baltimore for the better. They are doing vast and varied types of work, some overtly political, some decidedly commercial.  But the skills they honed in their work with The Algebra Project—their self assurance, their commitment to consensus based organizing, and their ability to self advocate—have been a real boon for Baltimore. Adding another cadre of 20 young adults every two years who have developed these skills will be of further benefit to our great city.

1. Only the first names of these young people are used in order to protect their privacy.
2. Institute for Democratic Education in America. (n.d.). Our Values Retrieved on December 1, 2012 at http://democraticeducation.org/index.php/about-us/values/
3. Montessori, M. (1912) The Montessori Method. (A.E. George, Trans.). New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co.
4. Alternative Education Resource Organization. (n.d.). List of Democratic Schools [Web Log Post]. Retrieved on October 16, 2012 at http://www.educationrevolution.org/blog/list-of-democratic-schools/.
5. United Nations. (2011). International Year Of Coopreatives.[Web Site] Retrieved from 2012.http://social.un.org/coopsyear/
6. Baltimore Algebra Project. (n.d.). B.A.P: About [Web Site]. Retrieved from http://www.baltimorealgebraproject.org/#!about

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