The important difference between schooling and learning

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.

Circles versus Boxes

I live in nature where everything is connected, circular. The seasons are circular. The planet is circular, and so is the planet around the sun. The course of water over the earth is circular coming down from the sky and circulating through the world to spread life and then evaporating up again. I live in a circular teepee and build my fire in a circle. The life cycles of plants and animals are circular. I live outside where I can see this. The ancient people understood that our world is a circle, but we modern people have lost site of that. I don’t live inside buildings because buildings are dead places where nothing grows, where water doesn’t flow, and where life stops. I don’t want to live in a dead place. People say that I don’t live in a real world, but it’s modern Americans who live in a fake world, because they have stepped outside the natural circle of life.

Do people live in circles today? No. They live in boxes. They wake up every morning in a box of their bedrooms because a box next to them started making beeping noises to tell them it was time to get up. They eat their breakfast out of a box and then they throw that box away into another box. Then they leave the box where they live and get into another box with wheels and drive to work, which is just another big box broken into little cubicle boxes where a bunch of people spend their days sitting and staring at the computer boxes in front of them. When the day is over, everyone gets into the box with wheels again and goes home to the house boxes and spends the evening staring at the television boxes for entertainment. They get their music from a box, they get their food from a box, they keep their clothing in a box, they live their lives in a box.

From Eustace Conway via Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man.

Edmund Burke’s curriculum at the School of Mankind

Manners are of more importance than law…. The law touches us but here and there and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform and insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in.

From Edmund Burke’s “Letters on a Regicide Peace”