People Don’t Understand Schooling

In relatively recent news, a high school valedictorian really criticized the nature of compulsory schools, and advocated a changed system of choice and autonomy. In response, I have seen many people say that she was wrong for this, and that although schools aren’t perfect, they do serve a great goal of educating all citizens. When people are critical of compulsory schooling, the response is generally this, “So what, you’re against education? You’re defending ignorance, and blind rebellion.”

No. People like myself, those proposing alternative free schools/democratic schools/holistic schools, or the “Valedictorian [who] speaks out against schooling,” are not against education or learning. We are against compulsory schooling. There is a difference between all these things. Learning is a process, or experience, that leads to education – the acquisition of knowledge. Schooling is a system, a specific environment (school) in which the acquisition of specific subjects and information is obligated to take place at specific times with specific outcomes for all. People against this system realize and propose that learning is not as narrow as we think it is. Learning is not something only invoked in a controlled environment. It happens outside of school buildings. It happens on the internet. It happens in a conversation, on a trip, or through reading a book. People against schooling encourage learning, not by the force of standards, curriculum, or career prospects, but rather, through will and intrinsic motivation. External motivation can be a jump-start toward a goal, but is only valuable up to a limited point. In order to learn and succeed, one seriously has to want the end result.

People also try to argue that without school, there would be no base of knowledge to rely on, and that people would be clueless and ignorant. This would be true – before the advent of the internet, and global electronic communication. In his “Open Letter to Educators,” Dan Brown highlights a great point that many people miss when they defend schools – facts are no longer restricted to schools or things such as physical libraries. We are reaching a point in our existence in which holding in all those facts is not necessary to survive in society. We have that breadth of information available to us for free AT places like libraries, and we can pay to buy laptops and internet connections at home. All cell phones now feature internet access. You can read news papers on smart phones, and phones such as the Black Berry have built in dictionary searches. Now sure, we are in the early stages of this eworld of information and communication, but we can only move forward. Point is, as the world of information and communication opens up for free more and more, the need to go to compulsory school to learn a base of knowledge will be useless. In a sense, it already is, but the government pitifully tries to hold to standards and rigid expectations of how information needs to be obtained, and where. People against schools realize that education is a free form occurrence hardly dependent on a physical space to learn in UNTIL you need to specialize, as with higher education. So schools are only necessary for depth, not breadth, and in lieu with the previous paragraph, that breadth is only meaningful if it is brought about by personal will and interest.

“Shakespeare is the greatest playwright. Everyone should read his work.” “Students need the classics. Students must be well rounded.” Humans are specializers, not generalizers. What use is it for our society to function, for everyone to be required to know the same amounts of things at the same time? Especially when much of this information is now readily accessible, and when people are expected to go off to study and work on what they care about anyway. Some people really like cooking, others really like math, or buildings things, and there are artists and writers. Some people like money and the way economics works. We all have inclinations and talents that push us one way or another. Although standardization’s goal is to have everyone learn the same thing and be on the same path for average knowledge, it fails because again, everyone is different and has a brain for grabbing different information, and it is not necessary to be standardized in “the real world.” The only place in which standardization and not deviating from the norm is valuable is in industrial, “blue collar” jobs, and at the typical “desk job.” But as more technology takes the place of human labor in these areas, creativity and innovation is needed more and more for the eworld of communication and exploration, for space exploration, for art jobs, for new technology, for architecture, for industrial DESIGN. Increased and changing aesthetics and efficiency is very valuable for the new way of society. The government mistakenly thinks that more standardization and indoctrination into our society of information is what will bring about innovators in these fields, but freedom and intrinsic motivation is more important. People need room to breathe, think and experiment outside of standard ways of doing things in order for the tweaks and creativity necessary for our lives to be enhanced. Change does not always come from standardization and knowing the same things. Those opposed to schooling see the detriment of standardization that is praised and enforced on the impressionable youth of our rapidly changing society.

Now, those opposed to standardization do not deny structure, for the most part. Humans are very sensitive and complex beings, and as our societies advance, we must deal with equally complex and sensitive systems. Having a certain amount of structure and familiar procedures in our daily lives can actually have us prepared to think outside the norm. Routines are valuable, but again, in most situations, being standardized in the same way becomes a problem. In many situations, having a variety of personality types and thinkers is critical to problem solving. One major qualm that opponents of compulsory schooling have is that uniform standardization does not prepare youth for the random occurrences of “real time” and “the real world.” The government needs to loosen up or break down the standards, allowing enough diversity of thought and action to penetrate school relationships and actions. Standardization does not take emotional and behavioral factors into account. School is often too much of a controlled environment, far different for what happens in the various environments outside of school. While standardization works for this environment, once youth move on to a different stage, or even a different controlled environment, such as college or a job, the rules change, and many are left unprepared to adjust quickly and appropriately, after 12 years of the same methods and treatment.

Another thing defenders of school don’t realize is that everyone is different. Now this seems obvious, but when you look at the nature of compulsory schools, the goal is to have everyone be the same in what they know or aspire to do. Government standards invariably describe what each student should know at each stage of the schooling system and process. It also sets the prescription of what level they should understand the favored information. Advocates of alternatives and learner centered education assert that this isn’t possible, and since the standardization of schooling, it doesn’t appear that the model student is ever lived out truly. It can appear as if standards work because many people graduate from the school system. However, democratic and alternative education advocates don’t see that as a success. Most students save for the valedictorian and a group of contenders probably did the basics to get by, or more realistically, performed at various levels of competence while still meeting the basics of the standards. In “low performing” schools, students get by to the next grade automatically, whether they individually meet the standard or not. People opposed to schooling assert and show through various alternative school models and programs, that learning and education takes place on a case by case basis. People learn in various ways, on various levels. Just look at multiple intelligence theory, emotional intelligence, and learning style theory. People have the aptitude and competence for some areas over others, and demonstrate their education in different ways. This intellectual diversity is crucial to innovation and creative developments, and trying to marginalize this leads to a lessening of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Then there is the argument that, “If it was left up to me at that age [high school, middle school, etc.] I would have sat around and done nothing.” Now, this argument holds some weight and validity. Most youth as they get older in the schooling system probably would do nothing for a while if they suddenly stopped schooling. Actually, many youth do that while they are IN school, and IN a classroom. When a teacher is absent, the class slumps into apathy. On school breaks, students forget everything and they seek opportunities to play and do things relevant to them. The argument goes awry however, because of the reason for this apathy. Think about the lower grades, and children. Years of being told what, how, when, where, and why to learn have not settled into to these youths minds. What to THEY do when given a break? They play, explore, and discover. They are prone to asking more questions, and engaging in conversations about fantasy and possibility that lead them to wonder about life and the world around them. The very young are always looking to discover something that captures their interest. They may not go for depth right away, but they do search a wide array of things until eventually something does stick. But over time of having the learning process being decided for you by everyone but yourself, it starts to sink in that discovering things on your own is not possible, and maybe even useless in the face of the agenda set before you. When a youth seeks to learn something outside of the curriculum, it often is penalized and scorned as “slacking off.” Extracurriculars not done for college resume one-upmanship are also seen as useless. After having your outer school goals and interests put down continually, the experience can lead to apathy, a sort of learned helplessness brought about by lack of autonomy. Youth have no meaningful or powerful stake in their education. Proponents of alternative education assert that youth should have more to input.

This ties into the rebellion argument, saying that those against schooling are romanticizing opposition to authority, and encouraging rebellion for rebellion sake. This is far from the reality of views on this topic. Many, if not all alternatives usually seek to create an environment of empowerment and having a stake in choices made in ones life. Through learner choice and voice in education, students gain responsible freedom and understanding of their personal goals and desires. Many alternatives seek to create an environment of inquisition, in which students don’t take rules and those doling them out at face value. At democratic schools for instance, students vote on the rules of the school, and the hiring of staff. If offenses are committed, legitimate school trials are held to solve the matter and everyone present has say in how the conflict will be resolved. Often at these schools, other barriers such as age segregation are removed for more equality and realistic interactions. In unschooling, a form of homeschooling in which the youth has free reign and guidance from those around him or her to learn what he or she pleases, respect for the youth’s choices is a given. Again, running a muck with TV, video games, and apathy will most often occur in those who have been oppressed. It is a means of escape to finally do something, anything, of your own will before you have to go back to doing merely what you are told and expected to do. Now, for most who have been in the compulsory system, giving power to youth seems silly, but think about the society we live in. Isn’t the United States a democracy? Isn’t this country founded upon the motto of  “power to the people,” and “individual liberty?” Those against schooling argue that compulsory and standardized schools do not allow the freedom of choice and the power of voice necessary to raise citizens of a democracy. They are in opposition to the blatant authoritarianism and top down lack of freedom inherent in most schools.

Many arguments against the learner centered approach are weak if thoroughly examined. I make this bold claim because the rhetoric for their arguments often goes towards the easiest assertions based on the way things were in the past. We need basic facts and skills – but they don’t only come from schools. Technology has changed this access. Most kids would do nothing if given a chance to learn – only if their personal attempts to learn and discover are thwarted by the expectations and systems of those with power. You just want a rebellion – only if that’s what it takes to give youth the early experiences with power, choice, and autonomy necessary for democracy. People won’t even know what the basics are without school’s telling us what the basics are – as if we don’t realize that you cannot get along in modern society without reading, writing, comprehension, and basic math. Kids can’t just learn by themselves – as if parents, books, the internet, libraries, friends, mentors, internships, community organizations, tools and materials don’t exist or cannot be found without school.

Lastly let’s take a look AT computers and AT the internet. Who really taught those who grew up in the information age how to use the internet? Aside from educational games and sparse typing courses, many of use have self taught when it came to the internet, and we still do it. When the latest operating system comes out, do you learn how to use it at school? No, you need to get a feel for it and read the instructions on your own. Do teachers make you learn how to host a website, or do you delve into instructions, css, and html on your own? Is it necessary for everyone to know html and css to navigate the Internet at this point? Not really. Do you need to be a computer programmer to run anti-virus software? No. These are some of the most complex systems in our society, and we have come a long way through experimentation, with some taking interest in more complex parts of the system, and learning along the way. Education is a process and an experiment. It is not final or fixed, and that is what those against schooling really stand for.

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Posted on August 13, 2010, in Alternative Education, Bureaucracy, Democratic Education, Education, free skool, Radical Education, School, Unschool, unschooling, worldschool and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Do you know how to read all of a comment, or can you re-post, because I only see an excerpt.

  1. Pingback: Sunday Surf for Aug. 15 | Finding the Fantastic in Everyday Learning

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