Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all nonprofessional activity is rendered suspect. In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.
In fact, learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.
From Deschooling Society (1971), by Ivan Illich
Last night, I finished Ivan Illich‘s disturbing and prescient critique of our modern conception of school.
It was impossible to read the little book without reflecting on the moments of learning in my own life. Despite good grades and an academically rigorous environment, I can recall very little learning that happened in a classroom. For me, learning tended to spring from “unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.” That included conversations at the dinner table; playing chess with my father; endless hours of unsupervised and self-directed play in the woods behind my house; and gainful employment, starting as a teenager.
Illich argues that universal, obligatory schooling is not completely devoid of learning; people do learn to respect authority, trust institutions, and be suspicious of those that lack their same credentials.
Interestingly, Illich also suggests (in 1971!) that we create “learning webs” which would become networks for thoughtful learners to share information via computers. In his other works, Illich (a Roman Catholic priest) predicts the degradation of our health care system and the unsustainable nature of sprawl and automobile dependence.