“Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. “ – Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
We are all, I am sure, painfully aware that the world as we know it, is in dire need of change. What most of us concerned with this issue, ask ourselves on a daily basis is: how do we reverse the damage we have done to the planet and to ourselves as humanity? Can it even be done?
Yes it can.
Consider this: Everything that exists now, from the way we build our societies to how we treat other species is the result of a process of education. Every single person that is currently alive, has in some way or another been educated or schooled by the generations that have gone before them, to carry on the traditions and habits that make the world go round.
Every dysfunctional family pattern has been passed down generations, just as all ethnocentric history lessons, are passed down year after year in classrooms all over the world. It is a generational cycle of dysfunction that keeps recycling every time a child is born.
Every single human invention that is currently raving havoc on the planet, from the military-industrial complex to war within families, is the result of faulty education; faulty because it creates detrimental consequences, and faulty because it goes against the fundamental aim of education: to teach the upcoming generations how to effectively live and stay alive in the world. That is not what we are teaching them at the moment and the current state of the world is living proof of that. Yet, we assume that the form of education that we know from schooling is the best, and the most optimal and therefore we do not question its legitimacy or monopoly when it comes to decide how our children are to be taught.
We send our kids to school assuming that this is the only option and after all, we think: “”I came out all right after my 8 or 12 or 20 years in the school system and the world is still standing”. Some even go as far as saying that we are “at the peak of human evolution”, and they celebrate the advent of formal schooling believing that its spread into mass society is a great victory for the abolition of inequality because now everyone can pursue their happiness with equal opportunity through schooling – except, they cannot. The purpose of formal public schooling is not, and has never been to give children equal opportunities, and the fact that our societies are becoming increasingly more unequal and more volatile is a stark proof of that.
Educational facilities resembling prisons, age segregated classrooms, exclusive valuation of cognitive abilities over all other human abilities, deliberate dumbing down of the masses to ensure a pliable workforce and consumer population, childism and bullying are but a few examples of how we are systematically educated to become stifled and blunted human beings. Very few of us grow up with effective adult role models who lead by example, in showing us what it means to be human in sustainable and compassionate ways.
The world wouldn’t look the way it does if our schooling had been effective, if it had taught us to care for our world and ourselves, if it had supported us to think critically and question its systems. The world looks the way it does, because bad seeds of knowledge and information for millennia of time, have been passed on as perpetual errors in the production link that increases the errors for every new edition.
To change the current course we are on, a course that, for all we know is leading us closer and closer to the brink of self-destruction, we need to re-asses what it is we are passing on through our systems of education, whether formal (like schooling) or informal (like family dynamics), that is causing us to live dysfunctionally and out of balance with the equilibrium of the earth as a whole.
We have to break the cycles of dysfunction that have been passed on for generations, and we cannot simply do that by offering our children alternative forms of education. How can we do that when our very own starting-point in life is one of dysfunction? It would only perpetuate the dysfunction in a different environment.
To save the world, we need to deschool ourselves, individually and collectively from the current schooling paradigms (that includes parenting and more informal forms of education), that we have been indoctrinated with through our own upbringing, and that we are actively passing on to new generations.
So what does it mean to deschool ourselves?
The concept of deschooling was originally coined by philosopher Ivan Illich in his book Deschooling Society, where he argued that school has an anti-educational effect on society, while we at the same time, ironically, take schooling for granted as the only correct way to educate children.
“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” – Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
Others, especially in the alternative education communities have embraced the concept of deschooling, and for many people who practice unschooling, deschooling is an important step, because both parents and children are indoctrinated into the schooling system, to such a degree that it can be difficult to let it go and allow for a more free approach to a child’s education.
Another proponent of deschooling is Charles Eisenstein, author of the book Sacred Economics (2011) and self-proclaimed de-growth activist. In 2008 Eisenstein organized a workshop titled Deschooling ourselves which was published on YouTube, where he lead a group into an immersion process to discover all the ways that schooling had affected and ultimately stifled their lives. This video is a great example of both the detriment of schooling as well as the importance of deschooling and Eisenstein has furthermore published a deschooling handbook titled The deschooling Convivium: Leaders handbook for those who are interested in embarking on the journey of deschooling.
Besides Ivan Illich, Charles Eisenstein and the unschooling community, not many people know of – or practice – deschooling, or they may use different terms for it, like deprogramming or hacking when it comes to subverting dysfunctional societal structures. Certain forms of therapy and personal development methods have for example incorporated the concept of ‘deprogramming’ oneself from dysfunctional thought- and behavioral patterns, to ultimately free oneself from the past and becoming a supportive member of society.
Deschooling however, must not be confused with the concept of unlearning, because ultimately, we cannot unlearn something that has already been learned. Even if one is able to free oneself from a certain behavioral pattern or belief-system, there will still be a memory of how one integrated it into oneself and accepted it as part of oneself and so it should be, if we are to prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes in the future. We do not forget what has already been learned, but we can decide whether that is what we will continue to live according to, and we can learn new ways of living.
Deschooling is a deliberate deconstruction of the way we have been taught to learn and of the dysfunctional ways school itself has shaped us, as well as the deconstruction of what we have been taught; the ability to critically assess information and to, as the saying goes: “Investigate everything and keep what’s good.” – Something that isn’t taught in school.
Through a process of deschooling, we can reassess everything we have learned, as well as they way we have been taught to learn, and we can empower ourselves to decide on new ways of living, thinking and behaving.
An example could be that I, being taught in a distinct Northern European school system, have learned to see the world through a Eurocentric perspective, a perspective where European thought is the center focus and origin of all other ways of thinking.
By becoming aware of that limitation within myself (through the process of deschooling), I can actively start seeing the world in more holistic ways, by for example traveling to countries outside of Europe and through getting to know other cultures, from a perspective of curiosity and openness, rather than from a perspective of the implicit imperial superiority that I have been indoctrinated with during my school years. Worldschooling is an excellent example of that.
As a sociologist, I can read Japanese social theory or immerse myself in the works of Ibn Khaldun, a renowned Arabic thinker who (outside of Europe) is known as one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, and someone I wasn’t taught about in my years at University. I expand my horizon beyond the frame I have been taught to remain within in school.
What deschooling offers us, is a process of emancipation from institutionalized learning, which in turn gives us the opportunity to take education into our own hands. Even more so, through actively deschooling ourselves, we can begin a process of directively re-learning what it means to be a human in this world.
We can therefore, through deschooling, teach ourselves a different way of living and co-existing, a way that is sustainable and supportive for the restoration of the ecosystems of the planet, something that we are inherently dependent on and yet have forgotten in our current schooling systems. This is imperative if we are going to stand as examples for our children and break the cycles of generational dysfunction, that we carry with us as a latent virus that is unleashed onto our children, whether we like it or not.
When a computer program carries virus and raves havoc on our hard drive, we deprogram it and install a new one that is clean and functional. There is no reason we cannot do that when it comes to our education systems, let alone the world system as a whole.
It is in fact, what is required if we are to save the world.