Education Can Lead the Way to a Sustainable Society
Our world is facing an environmental, economic, social and political crisis. This situation has crept up on us, and it’s only recently that most people have begun to notice. Much of my work involves critically examining and commenting on the institutions we’ve created for ourselves and exploring different means to the ends those institutions were meant to reach. One of my main interests involves the 30-year-old unschooling movement as a progressive alternative to the institution of schooling.
I’ve come to realize that one of the main problems with these institutions is their abuse of power. We learn early in our lives that power usually flows from the top down, often as a consequence of physical domination...big kids over little kids, teachers and principals over students, strong men over physically weaker women, big countries over smaller ones.
Those of us who dislike the consequences of this distribution of power usually work outside formal channels of society and arrangements of power to protest, resist and sometimes overturn decisions made by the “powers that be.” And so we learn that democracy involves citizens influencing public policy, rather than authoring it. We learn that the object of political debate is one of persuasion, in the same way that children learn to wheedle and pout and throw a tantrum in order to get their way.
Our negative experiences with power lead us to fear and condemn power. We confuse misuse of power with the positive power to lead and to propose alternatives. Many of us have never even experienced the kind of collective power that can be used to build alternative institutions. We’ve been told one too many times to be quiet, to sit in our seats and listen, and to put up our hands when we have to go to the bathroom.
Beginning in Junior Kindergarten, young people are treated as unneeded and legally minor. They are obliged to attend an often unfriendly – sometimes threatening – place, which robs them of their basic human rights. They’re taught about human rights and government in social studies class, but they’re not allowed to experience – let alone practise – these vital components of good citizenship.
School is a substitute for everyday life, and childhood a rehearsal for personhood. School replaces real experiences with pseudo experiences. It dismisses the value of children’s own experiences, thoughts and opinions, substituting the opinions of a textbook author who often has a different worldview than the student.
At the end of the school assembly line, students with little authentic knowledge are bumped out into the adult world like so many sausages – and expected to suddenly make mature decisions. Fortunately for their sanity but unfortunately for the state of the earth, the parameters of their decision making have been defined by their school experience and mostly involve choosing whether to buy Coke or Pepsi.
And that’s not surprising. The chief function of state-run public education is not to empower citizens to make responsible decisions about the future of the earth or the harmonious cohabitation of the people on it. It was created to groom workers for the factories of the Industrial Revolution. And if those factories are to make a profit, somebody has to buy the stuff they make. The educational system is the perfect mechanism for ensuring a culture of consumers.
It also ensures a cult of experts, which promotes the belief that education is the result of treatment by an institution called a school, just like the cult of medicine teaches that wellness is the result of treatment by another broken institution – the hospital.
In fact, as thousands of unschooling families around the world are demonstrating, learning does not need manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of teaching; it is the result of experimentation and participation. Even though most of what we learn is not the result of teaching, school’s lesson is that instruction produces learning. So schools produce the demand for more schooling. Now that we’ve learned to need school, the value of being self-taught is virtually nil, and we look for others to solve our problems. In order to shelter ourselves, to eat, to be healthy or entertained, or to manage the affairs of our communities, we look to other people rather than our own resources – to “experts” rather than to ourselves, and our relatives, friends and neighbours.
Unfortunately, many progressive people confuse education with schooling and thus the public education system remains sacrosanct. In the past, a strong publicly funded school system may have contributed to a democratic, egalitarian, socially just society. However, schools, as they are currently constructed, do just the opposite. As we have seen, they create institutionalized values, perpetuate social hierarchies, disempower us, and encourage consumerism and consumption.
Of course, the process of changing such an emotionally charged institution is a highly politicized one. It challenges not just our beliefs about education and learning, but a lot of vested interests – like how corporations make profits, how workers interact with employers and who manages the affairs of our communities.
So what is the solution? I believe we must de-professionalize the educational environment and put learning back into the hands of the learner. This won’t be easy. Deschooling ourselves is as difficult as renouncing limitless consumption. But here are some ways to begin.
We can rid ourselves of the idea that education is something you do to people. We can abolish curriculum, text books, lesson plans, testing, grading, report cards, course requirements, homework assignments, schedules and attendance regulations.
This will allow us to treat children in ways that demonstrate our trust in their desire and ability to learn. We will then be able to create a learning environment – which includes role modelling, making the environment safe and respectful, providing access to requested resources, consoling when things go wrong and celebrating when things go right. Then we can get out of the way and not meddle in the process unless we’re invited.
We can hire people based on their demonstrated abilities, character and experience, rather than on the basis of their degrees – or lack of such. Of course, to really embrace this idea, we’ll all have to stop flaunting our own university degrees!
Another step is to de-expertize teaching. Many people, in a variety of different roles and occupations, have much to offer children – as role models and as learning facilitators. So why should teachers and schools have a monopoly on helping people learn things? Sharing skills can be done informally, or there is an increasing number of more formal mechanisms, like skills exchanges and mentorship programs.
We can work together in our communities to create a learning society. We need to tell our politicians to fund museums, theatres – and yes, even school buildings – so they can afford to provide spaces for children to explore, interact and learn on their own initiative. We also need to find ways to help people of different generations teach and learn from each other.
One of the most challenging changes we need to make is in our attitudes toward childhood. In addition to trusting children to learn, we need to respect and advocate for young people’s right to make their own decisions (within parameters that address their physical and emotional safety, of course) and their ability to live democratically and co-operatively if given the opportunity.
Lastly, we need to like children and to want them around all day. This means trusting them with access to the tools of our trades and allowing them to participate in – and learn from – the life of their communities.
No, these are not simple solutions. But we have a choice. Either we can continue to pour increasing amounts of money into a system that is delivering proportionately declining returns – and creating a generation of angry, frustrated people who aren’t much interested in democracy. Or we can put money into creating appropriate opportunities and infrastructures to help people learn – ways that don’t require huge amounts of real estate and bureaucracy and that allow children and young people to participate fully in the lives of their communities...and get a good education at the same time.
I believe that is the only way we will help our children prepare for an uncertain future, and give them the tools to fix the environmental, economic and social problems we have created for them.