I am well aware that to question the value of free and compulsory schooling is considered taboo by many people. After all, everybody has been sold on the concept that education, in the form of industrial schooling, is the magic bullet that will deliver humanity, end poverty, provide jobs, create equality, pave the path toward upward social mobility and prosperity, deliver ‘civilization’ to the rest of the world and help develop people to their full potential. That’s the marketing message that most people have come to accept.
But let’s look at the world a little closer. At a macro level, unemployment and poverty levels are both increasing, environmental degradation is the highest it’s ever been, social and environmental injustice are on the increase with no immediate solution in sight. Furthermore the income gap is increasing and local cultures, knowledge and languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame it all on education, more specifically on the free and compulsory model of industrial schooling.
At a micro level the kind of “product” that is churned out from schools is best summed up by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at least with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, or our legs, or our eyes or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods. We cannot tell our course by the stars, nor the hour of the day by the sun.
So why am I blaming the world’s problems on industrial schooling? Our world is full of ‘educated’ people who have gone through the schooling system and progressed through university and other learning institutions. But yet we have economic advisors who advise on the policies that result in increasing poverty. We have architects of wars and of energy draining buildings; engineers whose projects result in environmental destruction of our forests, soils and water and chemists who create harmful pesticides. Let us not forget that we had professional doctors, nurses and engineers that participated in the holocaust and apartheid. One of the reasons is that the industrial schooling system functions purely as a knowledge factory. Knowledge is imparted without any accompanying values or a moral compass that would ensure that the knowledge is well used in the world.
I also blame people’s general unhappiness on the schooling system. The time demands from schooling means that children are simply too busy to play. Yet there is growing evidence that play is fundamental to happiness, innovation, creativity and work enjoyment.
Furthermore, we now know that there are many types of intelligence and different people display different strengths and interests. Yet the schooling system only recognises one kind of intelligence. Thus people who do not fit the school type of intelligence are denied the opportunity to shine and nurture their authentic selves. They often leave the system feeling like complete failures.
Our fragmented communities too are casualties of the failure of schools to produce community oriented people. How does one build and sustain a community? By living it, participating in it, contributing to it and cooperating with others in it. But for twelve years, we drill children in forms of separation, pit them against one another in stiff competition, teach them not to trust one another and encourage them to do everything they can to outsmart one another. Is it really any surprise, then, that as adults, its difficult to actually build a community?
If you’re thinking that schools nevertheless are necessary in order to secure a good life, bear in mind that only a small minority are able to secure well paying jobs that do in fact bring personal prosperity and enjoyment. A larger number of people work at jobs, which might be financially viable, but bring them very little joy or that are not suited to their personalities. The majority languish in menial jobs and struggle to make ends meet. And, now more than ever the number of people that qualify for the top jobs are far outstripping the number of jobs actually available.
If education, in the form of industrial schooling, is the reason for what has gone wrong with the world today, then the concept of education needs to be rethought. We cannot use the same methods to solve problems that created the problems in the first place.
So let us perhaps:
- Imagine breaking down the walls of the classroom and take education into the real world;
- Create a lived experience in place of book learning;
- Embrace our natural sense of wonder and feed it instead of quashing it to focus on a narrow curriculum;
- Transform schools into a place where all knowledge and all kinds of intelligences are welcomed and nurtured;
- Incorporate a value system that respects our environment and all living creatures;
- Integrate the disciplines to educate people to think broadly, to perceive systems and patterns, and to live as whole persons; and
- Repurpose schools into community centres where community problems are solved collectively thus contribute to building a strong community.
Moreover, let us re-imagine how we deliver this education, so that it is democratic and respectful towards children’s freedom, needs and rights. After all, children need to be consulted and be treated with dignity, We need to recognise that they are willing and able to be self-directed in their growth and development. We need to provide them with the needed support and access to resources and opportunities in their own journeys toward a beautiful and kind world.
The good news is that this process has started. Various models are being experimented with: homeschooling, unschooling, democratic schools, tinkering schools, studio schools, Reggio schools, all showing promising results. This is what gives me reason to be optimistic about our future.