Considering the critical issues facing America’s public schools, the amount of time the presidential candidates have given over to substantive discussions of our K-12 education system has been pitiful. From high-stakes standardized testing, charter schools, school funding, and zero tolerance disciplinary policies, educators, parents, students, and the general public don’t know where the presidential candidates stand. These are issues that have a direct impact on fifty million students and their families in almost one hundred thousand schools across the country.
Last week, at Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign’s rally in Long Island City, I interviewed Dr. Jane Sanders, social worker, educator, and adviser and Bernie’s longtime spouse. She has served as the provost and interim president of Goddard College and president of Burlington College, both in Vermont (full disclosure: I have volunteered for the Sanders campaign, and I am currently a student at Goddard College). We discussed Sanders’s work as an educator and a wide range of topics in education, from progressive education thinkers like John Dewey and Maria Montessori to hands-on, apprenticeship models of learning. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nikhil Goyal: Talk to me a little bit about your childhood growing up in Brooklyn. I know one of the things Bernie has talked about in his interviews is the amount of unstructured, unsupervised learning and play that was happening.
Jane Sanders: It was great growing up in Brooklyn. The neighborhood was the street. Everybody would get together after school. Somebody would sit out on a stoop and then five other people, 10 other people would come out—a game of stickball or stoopball or dodgeball—all revolved around a basketball or dodgeball. We had fun. It was excellent, because nobody was telling us what to do. We did what we felt like doing at the moment. We had to figure out on our own if there was any dispute of any sort. We worked it out as a group. It was a really good upbringing.
What made you decide to come to Vermont and Goddard College?
I was also a student at Goddard College before. I think you’ve chosen well. It’s a great school. I read Mother Earth News long ago. They talked about town meetings: one person, one vote. People really had a voice, a sense of community. To hear about Goddard, which is all around progressive education and a sense of community, they had their own ways of making decisions, which included everybody. I just was impressed by all that, and I thought it would be a wonderful place to live. I was right. Vermont is fantastic. Goddard was a joy.
How would you describe progressive education?
Pretty much under John Dewey. Just having the students have more of a say in what it is they want to learn. You might be studying philosophy, math, or English, but you’re learning about what your passion is. Instead of having there be a prescribed set of study—that has a person conveying that knowledge to you—the teacher, the professor is a facilitator to try to meet your needs and to get you thinking critically and writing clearly and communicating effectively.