Deschooling - A Work In Progress

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By Ben Draper

The term “deschooling” was coined by Ivan Illich in his seminal 1971 book “Deschooling Society” in which he argued for the disestablishment of mass schooling. Since this never came to pass and it seems as unlikely today as ever, the term deschooling has taken on a slightly different meaning. It’s more of a personal process of deconditioning our schooled mindset, which sees all learning through the lens of traditional education, and coming to see learning more clearly for what it is; an inherent and inevitable aspect of living one’s life. 

In preparing for the Deschooling Workshop that I am co-leading with Andre Uhl, I have been thinking a lot about the whole concept of deschooling. Is it really possible for someone to “deschool“ themselves, i.e. to counteract years of conditioning? And what would such a process actually entail? What would be the purpose of such an endeavor? Are there other ways to think about the process of deschooling?

Several years ago while I was attending an alternative education conference I remember a woman confidently declaring that the rule of thumb for deschooling is that children require a month of deschooling for every year that was spent in school. She then pointed out that parents will likely require a much lengthier deschooling period since they may have spent 12 or more years in school themselves. I don’t know where this bogus “rule of thumb” came from but as somebody who never spent a single day in a coercive classroom environment and who has always been free to follow my own interests without pressure or guilt, I can say quite confidently that no one living in our modern industrialized society can ever completely free themselves from the school-mindset, and all those negative limiting beliefs about learning and education that a schooled society instills in people. The idea that it could be accomplished in a matter of months is absurd.

The South African blogger and unschooling mother, Zakiyya Ismail, reflects on her own process of deschooling in a terrific article entitled “An Immigrant Deschooler In A Native Unschooler’s World.” Following Mark Prensky’s analogy of “digital immigrants” and “digital natives” to distinguish the difference between people who have had to acquire digital literacy from people born into a digital world, Zakiyya Ismail makes a clear distinction between immigrant deschoolers such as herself and unschooling natives such as her kids:  

“Despite all my readings on unschooling over the years and my very conscious and deliberate effort to deschool myself I continue to carry the accent of my schooled past with me in the way I approach learning in particular and life in general. Sometimes my accent is stronger, other times I blend into the unschooling world a lot better. Overall, my lens of viewing the world of unschooling – while it is constantly being tweaked, will always be that of an immigrant. A deschooling immigrant. I am very aware of the need for constant introspection to safeguard myself from reverting to patterns of thought and actions dictated by my constantly lurking schooled mindset – from becoming a ‘settler’... One of the fundamental differences between my immigrant mind and my children’s native minds is our focus of attention. I tend to focus on and talk a lot about learning. They simply focus on living. They engage in activities they enjoy or are curious about, which often times leads them into new directions. They don’t measure what they’re doing in terms of what they are learning but I tend to notice and marvel at all the learning that is happening. I can’t help but marvel. I know that learning is a byproduct of living, yet I continue to look for the evidence... When I started on this journey, I truly believed that with a conscious and concerted effort to deschooling my mind, it would be possible for me to transform myself into an unschooler. But what I have found for myself (my eldest is 18) is that I will always be in a state of deschooling in an unschooling world. Very much like an immigrant exists in a native’s world!”

I admire how Ismail acknowledges that it is impossible to completely transcend her own conditioning as a product of mass schooling and how she talks about this as a never ending process of self examination. I find myself questioning, however, her notion of a “native unschooler.” Can we really call someone a “native unschooler” when we are all living in a schooled society where conventional notions about learning and education are so ubiquitous, so deeply ingrained in the culture?

 I was what Ismail would call a “native unschooler.” I spent my first nineteen years riding my skateboard, playing music, and hanging out with my friends. I never did anything because someone else thought I “should.” I didn’t even read a book until I was 17 years old. I started dabbling in higher education when I was about 21 years old and ended up spending about 8 or 9 years at various institutions of higher education around the Boston area. I went to college(s) not for a degree but as a way to follow my own interests as they unfolded. My self-directed education began the moment I was born and it has never stopped for a moment. But when I had children of my own, a funny thing happened. As my son began to talk, count, and then identify letters and recite the alphabet, I began to feel that tug of an anxious parent eagerly on the lookout for signs of academic aptitude. I was self-aware enough to see this process for what it was; a psychological and emotional need for confirmation. But even with increased self-awareness, this background anxiety continued to be there. When he began creating his own taxonomy of Pokémon, classifying them by earth type, water type, fire type and so forth, I thought it was nice that he was doing something he enjoyed. When he started doing the same thing with the elements, classifying them by their atomic number, I got excited! I offered to take him to the library and get him books on the history of how the elements were discovered.  Rationally, I know that what is important is that my son is demonstrating his ability to identify and pursue his own interests. It may be Pokémon one week, the elements another, and playing super smash bros the next. What difference does it make? What matters is that it is meaningful to him, not to me or anyone else. But because of the constant, unavoidable messages of our culture about what learning is supposed to look like, we get pulled along, often unconsciously and habitually, by these cultural patterns of prejudice and anxiety about how our children are engaging with the world around them.

I think that if we are serious about deschooling we have to acknowledge that we are all deschooling immigrants, even those of us who have never set foot in a traditional classroom. We are all trying to carve out a way of living and learning with our children that runs deeply counter to our culture. Therefore, it requires continual self-reflection, clarification, redefinition. John Holt was a product of the industrial schooling system and yet he was also a shining beacon of Deschooled consciousness. On the other hand, I’m sure there are plenty of grown unschoolers and freeschoolers who, never having spent even a single day in school, nonetheless bring  “school-ish” attitudes to bear in the raising of their children. The point is, the dominant ideology of traditional education holds such powerful sway over all of us, playing right into our anxieties about the most important thing in our life, our children, that without diligent self-reflection it is nearly impossible to gain critical distance from it. We would all do well to follow Ismail’s example when she says, “I am very aware of the need for constant introspection to safeguard myself from reverting to patterns of thought and actions dictated by my constantly lurking schooled mindset – from becoming a ‘settler’.”

I think this is what deschooling is really about, developing a critical self-awareness with respect to our unconscious assumptions, biases, and prejudices around learning and education. Deschooling is not about bringing ourselves or anyone else around to a particular view of, or approach to, education. It’s about examining the beliefs and values that we’ve picked up from the culture around us, whether in school or out of school, and seeing whether they really serve us or not.