June 6, 2020

If we want educated people we might need to let go of schools


I think every person should think, act & believe according to the dictates of his own conscience without too much pressure from the outside.” – letter from Leroy Pollack to his 16 year old son, Jackson Pollack

We’ve got ourselves a really hot mess of a national debate when it comes to public schools. Commentators focus on how the schools be should run, who should run them, and who should profit from the teaching of America’s children. Most parents I know keep their head down, enroll their children in schools close to home and hope for the best. Meanwhile, politicians and interest groups launch warring campaigns to address the unanswerable questions about standards, testing, accountability, funding, content, instructional practice, and so on.

While they distract us, we never get around to asking the real questions about education.

What would be a good question, you might ask?

Well, if the goal is “education,” we might ask if schools are even a good idea for getting us to that goal.

I know. Sounds crazy.

Of course schools are the most efficient way to transform the masses of culturally dissimilar children into behaviorally appropriate, social productive citizens.


On one hand schooling seems to have worked for more than a century. Especially if by “worked” we mean they have sorted people into groups, provided some with what they need to rule the world of capital and industry, and provide others with enough socialization to obey rules even when those rules don’t work for them.

That’s been a smashing, if not hollow, success.

Still, there is a level of this discussion we must access if education is what we really want. The obstacle?

We are constrained by the limitations of conventional thinking. Our education “leaders” on all “sides” of the debate are nearsighted. Their lobbyists are no better. And the public at large, well, to be frank and insulting at the same time, were mis-educated by the system they’re unprepared to assess when voting for leaders or answering the questions of pollsters.

Here’s a simple question with serious consequences that we should answer whenever engaged in education “reform” conversations: “how can we provide the resources necessary to achieve a truly self-directed, student-centric, humane, and liberationist education for every American?”  

Whatever the answer, I’m sure it won’t be found in the battle between corporatists and unionists. Their weathered management versus labor construct is driving public schools on a stubborn path toward irrelevance. Their left-right educational hegemony will not happen upon an idea that frees education from the cages of institutional stasis, no more than prison guards will address the origins of crime. 

I’m left wondering where is the fresh thinking. And, proving the saying “there is nothing new under the sun,” some fresh thinking comes from old voices.

Enter Ivan Illich and his searing critique of universal public education that disentangles “schooling” from “education.” In “Deschooling Society” and other writings he forcefully argues that industrial, state sponsored schooling has never been interested in the development of the individual. Real learning, the kind that blooms every flower to its most radiant potential, has always been a lesser priority of universal education.  

Illich says:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. – The New York Review of Books, Volume 15, Number 1 · July 2, 1970, “Why We Must Abolish Schooling

While today’s convention is to standardize tests and professionalize teaching, Illich challenges those concepts as the problem rather than the solution. The professionalized institution, he says, creates demand for itself by defining “education” as something only it can provide. Then the institution creates a public need for only its “treatment,” while escalating its own demands for support as the only answer to the need.

Pupils are schooled to internalize the education establishment’s definition, and they suffer the consequences when their individual pursuits do not match the institution’s prescriptions. For those that obey the definitions there is a seat waiting in the elite consumerist classes and the only cost of admission is to continue uncritical financial and political support of the institution.

Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question. Not only education but social reality itself has become “schooled.” Elite professional groups…have come to exert a “radical monopoly” on such basic human activities as health, agriculture, home-building, and learning, leading to a “war on subsistence” that robs peasant societies of their vital skills and know-how. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but “modernized poverty,” dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts. – The American Conservative, The People’s Priest, Chase Madar

Even as the industrial teaching machine grinds down it’s workers, many of my educator friends still talk a lot about the true purpose of education, and they believe the institution as currently constructed can be a vehicle for achieving it. They seem incapable of questioning the premise of their own education even as they lament school reform’s penchant for reducing critical thinking.

One recently told me we were losing Thomas Jefferson’s belief that public schools are the corner stone of a properly functioning democracy. She said testing and other school “reforms” are narrowing the scope of curriculum and obstructing Jefferson’s vision for schools.

I had a reaction something close to heat rash. Having logged too many library hours on Jefferson, holding him as an example of anything worthwhile would be challenging.

By Thomas Jefferson you mean the sociopathic rapist who rationalized and institutionalized the perpetual abuse of human beings?” I asked.

She said “yes,” sheepishly copping to my pestiferous characterization of her forefather. “But his thoughts about education and democracy still have a lot of value.

It was a symbolic exchange. She is a book smart, classically trained, newly minted Ph.d with a laudable track record in conventional public education.

By contrast, I’m mostly self-taught. An autodidact. I was immune to school and it did nothing for me but make me a lifelong enemy of bureaucracy. That said, the precious American library system, which is free and within reach and open to all, even in ghettos, saved my intellectual, spiritual, and economic life. I spent hours nose deep in great literature, how-to books, and various forms of media that showed me the world in much deeper strokes than school could ever accomplish with it’s factory-like time blocks, time-clock teachers, and paper thin education materials.

I was obsessively turned on by learning, but chronically turned off by school. Public “schooling” was always irrelevant and distinct from an actual process of “education” to me.

Illich might say the autodidact has been a diminishing breed for all the years powerful elites have escalated the institution of schooling. The century of bureaucratization, industrialization, and over-professionalization of individual learning and intellectual development has hurt our natural human curiosity and self-direction. Our pursuit of universal “knowing” of useless things has trivialized education. That goes a long way to answer the basic question about schooling being the way we should educate.

So, it’s weird to me when people express how great their k-12 experience was, or when alumni act as if their high schools wera a temple of high religiosity. The sentiment seems vacant and I wonder if they know those buildings with the names of dead presidents, or county fathers, or parts of town carved out by racist urban planners, were created as institutions of social control, not for developing independent minds.

I have no nostalgia about how great a socialized education was, or how excellent programming or great teachers unlocked doors that still unleash my dreams today. To be candid, typing was the best class I took in all my years of “schooling.” Everything else seemed like a hoax to create meat puppets who pledge allegiance to unexamined lives.

That’s what was at play in the conversation between my Jeffersonian educator friend and me. It was the clash between old school and no school.

The conversation was too brief for us to talk about Illich or his theories. It would be unfair to assume how she might feel about his work. Her liberal sense would likely be open to his ideas about liberating individuals to find their own educational path. At the same time, his ideas about the problematic nature of “professionalizing” education would surely offend her devotion to traditional notions of credentials and standards.

When so many have consumed the schooling-as-path-to-democracy trope so fully it will be a near impossibility that many will see schooling is not an enlightenment, but a curse. They will walk dreamily in the fantasies imparted to them by a self-supporting system which seeks more to create more thoughtless romantics than independent, self-actualized people.

We can look to Illich for a final word on that problem:

You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately—consciously or unconsciously—‘salesmen’ for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these. Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up exacerbating the damage done by money and weapons, or ‘seducing’ the ‘underdeveloped’ to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. – The American Conservative, The People’s Priest, Chase Madar

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: