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.

Reading about Kids & Learning: 8 contrarian books, videos, and articles

Lately I’ve grown particularly interested in the subject of learning. If you’re interested in a not-so-mainstream take on learning and childhood development, I encourage you to check out the following:

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, 2008

New York Times: Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control, 2009

New York Times: For Forest Kindergartners, Class is Back to Nature, Rain or Shine, 2009

Harper’s Magazine: Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why, 2003 (here’s a version that doesn’t require subscription)

4 minute video from TED: Gever Tulley teaches life lessons through tinkering, 2009

19 minute video from TED: Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity, 2006

John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education, 2001 (I’m about a third of the way into this one, and am growing more concerned with every page)

Next on my reading list is Ivan Illich’s 1971 book Deschooling Society. Clearly, I’m exposing myself to mostly contrarian works. If you have some resources that support more conventional schooling ideas, please share them.

Building a mountain retreat


Whenever we can, we visit the parks and forests around Atlanta, and while walking along the trails, we experience a taste of nature. As wonderful as those afternoons are, they also remind us that our daily lives lack real exposure to the wilderness. And when we manage to find our way to the mountains and hike deep into a dark forest, my family and I rediscover something special.

During one such hike several years ago, we came upon a waterfall in an isolated and seldom visited forest in Western North Carolina. While we picnicked, our young son played in the shallow pool beneath the falls. Watching him, I was overcome with both joy and regret: joy in that I knew this vivid memory would stay with him a long time, and regret in knowing that unless we changed our lifestyle, this kind of experience would be as remote for him as that waterfall was to our daily routine back home.

And so the seed was planted. Ever since that hike, I’ve been plotting an escape to the mountains. Not a complete relocation, mind you. At least not yet. But a place to go, where we can enjoy both the remoteness of that waterfall and the comfort of our family and friends.

Here’s the challenge: The obligations of our life won’t allow us to completely disappear, and our roots in Atlanta aren’t likely to let us go. Moreover, the cost of a retreat is too extravagant for us to carry alone, and even if that investment was within our means today, by ourselves we couldn’t create the kind of community I envision.

Our retreat in the mountains will be a place of luxurious comfort and peace for adults, and one of freedom and exploration for our children. My young son and daughter will adventure deep into the woods, and I may choose to join them. Or I may let them go — alone if they are old enough, or with a group of kids and their guide — while my wife and I stay at the lodge by the fire, enjoying a wonderful meal and the good company of dear friends.

On some days, we may be pulled to the river for fly fishing or stone skipping. On others, we may stretch our legs to the top of a nearby peak. Most nights, we’ll fall asleep with the windows open, listening to the sound of water tumbling over river rocks. And occasionally we’ll join our children on their overnight backpacking adventures, or roast marshmallows with them outside the bunkhouse, where they’ll no doubt want to spend every evening.

As I write this, I am thinking it may come across as extravagant and unreachable. But I believe it is well-within reach for a group of people that share a vision. Here’s how:

When we find the right property, I intend to find a dozen or so founding families to join my family in acquiring it and developing a simple cabin as the retreat’s first outpost. Each family will have fractional ownership of the asset. That means they’ll be able to sell their stake at any time, much in the same way one might sell a regular piece of land or a home. At first, it will be a simple place to visit — perhaps just one or two families at a time. And in truth, it may never expand beyond that.

But assuming the place emerges as alluring as we believe it can, then we’ll grow from there, inviting more families to join us in the development of a gracious lodge.

For our children, picture something like the perfect summer camp, but always accessible year-round. And for us, picture the beauty and scale of the Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island, combined with the comfort of the Old Edwards Inn in downtown Highlands and the friendly community of the High Hampton in Cashiers. And for all of us, picture a remote setting, by a beautiful river, far down a gravel road high in the Western North Carolina wilderness.

If you share my family’s longing for a special place like this, one that we can return to month after month and season after season, please register here to receive updates on our progress. The more interest I receive, the faster I’ll push the plan along. As much as this place will be about the wilderness, it won’t be possible to create it without a passionate community of wilderness lovers.

If you’re interested, please check out the other community that I’ve had a hand in developing. And thanks to Frank Kovalchek for the use of his beautiful photograph.