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Tag: institutional matters (page 1 of 3)

astra taylor on the unschooled life

Astra Taylor is a 31-year-old Canadian-American filmmaker well known for her films Zizek and Examined Life. She is a writer as well, and her work has appeared in numerous magazines. In 2006, Filmmaker Magazine listed her as one of 25 new filmmakers to watch. Astra was unschooled until she was 13, an experience she says shaped the course of her life. While she has chosen to give various “schools” a try throughout her adult life–including a short stint at Brown University, a BA from the University of Georgie, and an MA from the New School, she embodies the spirit of autodidacticism. In the lecture embedded here, she talks at length about her unschooled life. It’s well worth checking out if you hope to better understand what unschooling (or life learning) means. Here you can here it first hand from a grown unschooler. Please watch.

As a side note, I was watching Taylor’s lecture the other night, and my 7-year-old son Aidan (who is unschooled) came up and sat on my knee. He was drawn in from the other room when he heard me listening to the talk. He sat there with me for the full hour and 15 minute long lecture, completely engrossed. It’s neat to see how curious he is to hear others talk about the unschooling life. He, and other unschoolers I know, seem to be keenly and critically aware of their own educational experiences and processes–in ways that traditionally schooled kids are not (at least the ones I know). Maybe this is because they are choosing these experiences completely of their own free will.

If you’re interested in hearing more adult unschooler perspectives, check out the blog of one particular adult unschooler Idzie Desmarais. She is in the process of collecting a series of interviews with unschooled adults.

on reading deschooling society by ivan illich

Ivan Illich offers both a bleak view of contemporary institutionalized society and an inspiring vision of what Deschooling Society by Ivan Illichcould be in his 1970 treatise Deschooling Society. “Good radical stuff,” notes the Observer in its cover accolade. Indeed it is radical in the best and truest sense of the word as defined below:

Radical. adj. Arising from or going to a root or source; Departing markedly from the usual or customary; Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions; slang – Excellent; wonderful.

What’s fascinating about Deschooling Society is that Illich goes beyond criticism of all that is wrong with contemporary western society and culture (arguments put forth by many social critics and educational reformists) to actually propose detailed solutions and alternatives. The problem is, though, his alternatives are so radically (and wonderfully) different and depend so much upon the goodwill of men and women that they are borderline Utopian. Just the same, important changes start by affecting the mindsets of people by stating what might be possible even if ostensibly infeasible.

Before offering detailed–even if radical–solutions, Illich does layout in considerable detail the problem he sees with societal institutions–with institutionalized schooling in particular. He contends that school is the basis of widespread discrimination, is socially divisive, and profoundly inegalitarian. Illich points out how school serves to divide the world into very separate realms which are anything but equal:

The very existence of obligatory schools divides any society into two realms: some time spans and processes and treatments and professions are “academic” or “pedagogic,” and others are not. The power of schools thus to divide social reality has no boundaries: education becomes unworldly and the world becomes noneducational. (24)

Furthermore, Illich suggests that the school system and curriculum serves to assign social rank. Rather than doing as it purports to do–giving everybody an equal chance at achievement–school instead monopolizes the distribution of such chances (12). This is very true. Certainly it is school that tends to systematically separate the haves from the have-nots. We tell kids this all the time, after all, right? School pays off. You want to be diggin’ ditches your whole life? No? Then go to school. To many of us, this seems like pretty sound advice and we don’t for a moment question it. It’s true. The more schooling you have, the greater your employment, material, and fiscal opportunity in our society. Is this fundamentally fair? Only if one has subjected him- or herself to “the form of a ritual, of sequential sacred ordination” (12)–a treatment of years–can he or she be “certified” to gain access to the spoils of “achievement.” Note that this has nothing to do with intellectual Ivan Illich Scholar, writer, thinker.  Ivan Illichcompetency or demonstrable skills. It has everything to do with being “certified” that you have passed through a curriculum–that you have spent a predetermined amount of your time enduring sustained curricular treatment. What is the real purpose of this curriculum?

Illich’s commentary in his chapter on the “Institutional Spectrum” is particularly compelling regarding the differences between true public utilities and services and those “false utilities” that are designed to serve a product (and its related industries) at tax payer expense rather than the good of the public at large. An illustrative example he uses is the superhighway system, which he argues is an accessory of the automobile and serves only those privileged enough to own or have access to an automobile. “Genuine all-purpose roads are true public utilities. Superhighways are private preserves, the cost of which has been partially foisted upon the public” (57). Illich outlines a host of “false utilities” that orient themselves on the far right of our societal spectrum, and school he suggests is the worst of them.

“Modern” technology transferred to poor countries falls into three large categories: goods, factories which make them, and service institutions–principally schools–which make men into modern producers and consumers. Most countries spend by far the largest proportion of their budget on schools. The school-made graduates then create a demand for other conspicuous utilities, such as industrial power, paved highways, modern hospitals and airports, and these in turn create a market for the goods made for rich countries and, after a while, the tendency to import obsolescent factories to produce them.

Of all “false utilities,” school is the most insidious. Highway systems produce only a demand for cars. Schools create a demand for the entire set of modern institutions which crowd the right end of the spectrum. A man who questioned the need for highways would be written off as a romantic; the man who questions the need for school is immediately attacked as either heartless or imperialist. (59-60)

Consider the amount of money the average university graduate has spent on school (not to mention the amount tax payers have spent on him or her, whether those tax payers maximize their own schooling or not). According to Illich, at the time of his writing, “Each American college graduate had an education costing an amount five times greater than the median life income of half of humanity” (34). School is big business in America and most of the Western world. A lot of money moves through the schooling system; plus schooling in America is intricately interwoven with the economy; corporate interests in our schooling system run deep and wide, as the system works to breed workers and consumers. Learning itself has become a commodity–a consumer product. We’ve been for so long and so consistently told that the only learning that really matters happens in school–that in fact, we can’t learn in the absence of curriculum, teachers, and institutions. Our economy is built on this lie. This leaves me wondering about this industry of obligatory mass schooling. Is the phrase and purported principle of “lifelong learning” little more than a marketing tag line to keep the money flowing and to keep people addicted to a consumer product education? What does school prepare us for other than to be better consumers? School is good for the economy, but is it good for our humanity? We can engage in learning without teachers and without schools after all, and we can do it for free. There is learning without teachers!

Let’s be real. No one needs teachers, curriculum, delivery systems, or packaged learning of any kind to take a liberal education. If one can read, has access to books, people, and other such resources, and has a desire to learn, he or she will. That’s it. How much money do we need to spend to have our learning “certified”–with a certificate that, by the way, does not guarantee any learning but rather serves only as testimony that a person has gone through a state approved ritualized process of “education?”

Ok, so what does Illich suggest by way of solution? He writes at length about this, detailing his idea of “learning webs.” “The alternative to dependence on schools,” he writes, “is not the use of public resources for some new device which ‘makes’ people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment” (73).

An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite who earned their education by sharing it.

In order to de-institutionalize and decentralize learning as a consumer product, he suggests a radical new paradigm that puts education back in the hands of the learner and orients it in a real-world context. This new paradigm does not ask the question “What should students learn?” or anything of the kind; rather, it asks “What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?” (78). Illich describes in considerable detail how this new way of providing educational opportunity to citizens might be fairly distributed to everyone–rich and poor–as their birthright. He suggests four established approaches that would help any learner define and get at his or her educational goals. These four approaches or networks include 1) reference services to educational objects, 2) skill exchanges, 3) peer matching, and 4) reference services to educators-at-large. By participating in these networks of learning–these learning webs as he calls them, one would both get an education and participate in providing one to others. This is the part I love. Citizens could draw on these services using a “basic credit” that they could use to learn fundamental skills. “Beyond the minimum, further credits would go to those who earned them by teaching… An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite who earned their education by sharing it” (90). Now that would be nice.

reading ken robinson’s out of our minds

This past summer I read Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative by Ken Robinson. The cover of the book has been sitting in the “Good Reads” (formerly “Now Reading”) area of this blog for nearly a year, so I figured I should drop a few thoughts on the book and rotate the cover image to another book lest folks think me perpetually stuck in this text. Although, if one’s mind had to be stuck in one text perpetually, this might not be a bad choice.

For some time now, I have been fascinated by what it means to be creative, that is, to think and act creatively. Robinson’s book came to me just when I was ready for it. Robinson discusses what it means to be creative and offers a prolonged discussion of how academia and, by extension, many of the driving forces of our contemporary world are systematically stifling human creativity. He traces this matter back to 16th and 17th centuries when the Enlightenment and rationalism supplanted Romanticism along with intuition, myth, and felt sense. “The driving forces of the Enlightenment and of the modern world view,” Robinson writes, “have been rationalism and empiricism. The aim has been to see the material world as it is stripped of superstition, myth and fantasy” (71). This has been felt nowhere better than in the Academy, but by extension has been carried through most post-industrial western culture. “Academicism,” Robinson calls it–“the conflation of academic ability with intelligence” (80). An ability to perform well in school and intelligence are not the same thing, as academic ability embodies only the narrowest of views on intelligence. The Academy privileges above all else “a particular sort of critical analysis and short-term memory” (85). The academic illusion he calls it. This is the idea that all knowledge must be framed in terms of rational, critical, empirical analysis. The disconnect is no more obvious than in the arts, as approached by the Academy.

Professors of English are not employed to produce literature: they are employed to write about it. […] Producing works of art often doesn’t count as appropriate intellectual work in an arts department: yet, the equivalent in a science department, doing physics or chemistry does. So why is it that in universities writing about novels is thought to be a higher intellectual calling than writing novels; or rather if writing novels is not thought to be intellectually valid why is writing about them? (66)

So, regarding this academic illusion, Robinson concludes that it isn’t the subject matter that divides traditionally academic (i.e. privileged) work and knowledge; rather, it is the way in which one engages with the work. “You didn’t do art in university; you wrote about it,” he contends (83). This bugs me because the implications are huge. Our students are being educated out of their creativity (as Robinson states elsewhere). In the vast wake of the era of Enlightenment, we have become detached from what we feel in favor almost exclusively of what we can verify in the physical world. The cost is a division between intellect and emotion (not to mention between science and art), and this is a dire cost. The two are not incompatible nor can they be truly teased apart. The human experience and a more accurate view of human intelligence is one of both emotion and intellect.

This broader view of intelligence and of knowing is something I’ve been exploring with my students for a couple years now through the work of Gregory Ulmer and his mystoriography approach to learning and writing. Ulmer writes the following:

[Mystory is] designed to simulate invention, the crossing of discourses that has been show to occur in the invention process. Realizing that learning is much closer to invention than to verification, I intended mystoriography primarily as a pedagogy. The modes of academic writing now taught in school tend to be positioned on the side of the already known rather than on the side of the wanting to find out (of theoretical curiosity) and hence discourage learning how to learn.

The idea in Ulmer’s mystoriography approach is that knowledge and “the wanting to find out” can operate just as much on a sub-rational level as on a rational one–on an emotional level that is best conveyed through the juxtaposition of words and images such that a mood or a feeling is suggested. It’s messy, intuitive, emotional work that does not fit neatly into the compartmentalized world of the Academy or the rational mind. Robinson touches on this very point when he discusses E.M. Forster’s notion creating as a lowering of a bucket into the subconscious mind to draw up something that is normally beyond our reach (154). Emotion should not be dismissed. It is equally a part of our human experience as is the rational, critical mind. Why one is privileged over the other is a mere consequence to historical, social, and political forces. There is not an innate superiority of intellect over emotion. These are divisions and hierarchies of our own creation–and they are detrimental to human creativity. “A critical factor [in creative work] is intuition and a feel for the materials and processes involved. The relationship between knowing and feeling is at the heart of the creative process” (Robinson 137).

Many of the problems we face in the world today are unlike any we’ve seen before. To address them will take an enormity of human creativity–a dipping of that bucket deep into the wells of our selves to see what we might draw up. We must learn to re-frame our view of knowledge and human intelligence so that we can give proper attention to what is possible. This means asking the right questions. “The most important characteristics of an intellectual age is the questions it asks–the problems it identifies. It is this rather than the answers it provides that reveals its underlying view of the world” (Robinson 72). We must resist single-mindedness in the true sense of the word–and embrace our more complex selves that allow for the richness of our imaginations. “If our explanations are theoretical, our questions are ideological,” writes Robinson (73). We have to reconsider. We have to look again. “Creativity is not a separate faculty so much as an attitude: a willingness to reconsider what we take for granted” (Robinson 137). Everything is possible.

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