Teaching versus learning

Some time ago I read the 1971 book Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich (1926-2002). As is my custom, I place 3M flags on passages I want to revisit, and then later come back and re-read and even transcribe those passages into MS Word. Otherwise, it is as if I never read the book. It does not sink in. The second time around is the one that counts with me.

Today I was re-reading a passage by Illich on schooling that so resonated with me that I am reprinting it here. I learned how to read in first grade, how to do accounting in college, and about the tax code early on as a stumbling CPA. When I entered that profession, I was distressed at how little I knew compared to my colleagues, not understanding that we are all like that. Becoming good at what we do is purely on-the-job training. “Brilliant” students who come out of college and take on important roles are a rarity, the stuff of pulp fiction. (I usually put a work of fiction down when I see the words “brilliant young” in reference to a character. I lose willing suspension of disbelief.)

For me, I don’t think I learned anything of value in high school or most of grade school. My real education started in earnest early on and outside my classes.

Our friend and co-writer Steve Kelly refers to schools as warehouses. I could not agree more. We have to do something with these kids to get them out of our hair, so we put them in big buildings with regimented schedules and bells telling them to move about. If they are caught in the hall while class is in session, they better damned well have a pink slip.  (When I was a senior in high school I got hold of a packet of pink slips, which allowed me some freedom to roam.)  Most teachers I know refer to themselves as “educators,” I think because it sounds a little more like a noble calling than being a mere teacher. They look at their job as a mission, helping young people. Illich would set them straight. Here is the part I just transcribed.

                Teachers and pupils: by definition, children are pupils. The demand for the milieu of childhood creates an unlimited market for accredited teachers. School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching. And institutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

We have all learned most of what we know outside school. Pupils do most of their learning without, and often despite, their teachers. Most tragically, the majority of men are taught their lessons by schools even though they never go to school*.

Everyone learns how to live outside school. We learn to speak, to think, to love, to feel, to play, to curse, to politick, and to work without interference from a teacher. Even children who are under a teacher’s care day and night are no exception to the rule. Orphans, idiots, and schoolteachers’ sons learn most of what they learn outside the “educational” process planned for them. Teachers have made a poor showing in their attempts at increasing learning among the poor. For parents who want their children to go to school are less concerned about what they will learn than about the certificate and money they will learn. And middle-class parents commit their children to a teachers’ care to keep them from learning what the poor learn on the streets. Increasingly educational research demonstrates that children learn most of what teachers pretend to teach them from peer groups, comics, chance observations, and above all from mere participation in the ritual of school. Teachers more often than not, obstruct such learning of subject matters as goes on in school. …

… Pupils have never accredited teachers for most of their learning. Bright and dull alike have always relied on rote, reading, and wit to pass their exams, motivated by the stick or by the carrot of the desired career.

Adults tend to romanticize their schooling. In retrospect, they attribute their learning to the teacher whose patience they learned to admire. But the same adults would worry about the mental health of the child who rushed home to tell them what he learned from his every teacher.

Schools create jobs for schoolteachers, no matter what their pupils learn from them.

Page 28 …

*Not exactly sure what he means by this.

10 thoughts on “Teaching versus learning

  1. Oh, but we do learn something in school. We learn we’re incompetent to think for ourselves. We learn to rely on “experts” to think for us. And we don’t even get these lessons from actual experts. Nobody thinks a high school chemistry teacher is an expert in chemistry, or a grade school music teacher is an expert in music. Their job is to tell us what experts say about their given subjects. And the experts they parrot are, of course, the ones who have been selected by Education Experts for inclusion in the curriculum. We are taught that true knowledge is so far removed from us that we can’t hope to attain it; we can only show our reverence for it by parroting it.

    I recently watched a podcast with Bob Odenkirk, one of the few celebrities I’m still enamored of (somewhat in spite of myself.) Asked if there was a comedy sketch he wrote for SNL that he liked but that never aired, he spoke fondly of a piece he created for Jon Lovitz where Lovitz played an authoritarian hot dog vendor. The vendor is training a new kid, and everything the new kid does is wrong. He squirts the requested mustard on a customer’s hot dog, and when the customer leaves, the vendor goes ballistic, screaming at him for the way he squirted the mustard. And so on, and so on, endlessly finding fault, teaching the kid that he’s incompetent and the vendor himself, the vendor alone, understands the true intricacies of hot dog vending.

    If the vendor didn’t actually vend hot dogs himself, but had only read about it and been taught how to teach others how to do it, this might be a great metaphor for the education system itself.


  2. “If humanity is to pass safely through its present crisis on earth, it will be because the majority of individuals are now doing their own thinking.” (Buckminster Fuller)

    Not thinking for one’s self is so common that it is thought to be an attribute of intelligence. Knowing the “right” answers on the SAT will advance a student, get him or her a scholarship. I think of a pure SAT question as “Who shot Abraham Lincoln?” A better question would be “Was Abraham Lincoln assassinated? Elaborate, giving the shortcomings of the official story.” As if.


    1. That’s another curious point my brother related to me: In the US, students are taught in high school who shot whom. Who shot Lincoln? Who shot JFK? Who shot MLK? Who shot Lennon? Even if the suggested answers are accurate: What does it matter? Why bother? Isn’t there a not so subliminal message that life is a shoot-out? As in 99% of American movies the solution to the problem at hand takes the form of a gun. It is crazy.


  3. Mark,

    Consider, please, “Teaching versus Learning versus Rejection”.

    If one were to follow this thread to the end, one would reach Rejection.

    Really? Yes, Really.

    Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, three Neices…all ” vaccinated”. One nice going in for “second vaccination” today!!

    How many of YOU are worthless in your opinion, your mental capability, your lack of this/that?

    You are my people. Family has zero meaning, TV is more “family” and has infinite more value. BG and Fauci!!

    Sick? You have no idea. To those on the fringe, I give you a warm hug.

    I cry.



  4. Some of my schoolmates, and my younger brother, when they were 16 years old, went over to the US for a year to attend high school, improve their English and experience life abroad. And certainly it is a great experience at such an impressionable age. The drawback is that when they’d get back to Germany, they’d be relegated one year with regard to their coetanians because they’d have missed what is taught here. So all in all, they’d have spent one more year in school.

    A couple of random notes of things I’ve been told by my brother and friends:

    US high school level is really easy compared to Germany (or other European countries). European guest students would typically be among the best in class despite the language handicap and not putting in any effort.

    They have a lot of “multiple choice” tests, meaning there is a question and you have to check a box to select an answer from a list of several ready-made answers instead of writing your own.

    “Essay writing” means you would have to write what amounts to a paragraph in your own words (whereas here you are expected to write entire pages). – On the other hand, I read a lot of English and often find that stuff written by Americans is superior in clarity and structure to stuff written in, say, German or French.

    There is something called Health Education, and my brother brought back a voluminous book titled Health. That struck me as something very important that is completely missing from our curriculum in Germany (with the exception of stressing the importance of using contraceptives not to make babies).

    My brother recalled an episode about what I think he called “sex ed”. Let me first tell you how we got to the point where he related that episode:

    The first major propaganda issue that I came to doubt, the first Big Lie, is the so-called “Holocaust” of the Jews. (I had happened upon revisionist literature such as “The Hoax of the 20th Century” by Arthur Butz.) You must know that Holo indoctrination in German schools starts, quite subtly, when you’re about eleven years old. You are basically taught to loathe your own country, your own people, your own identity, but again, in a subtle way. It is sick and effective.

    So, in a conversation with my brother, seeing how grotesque this mental predicament is, I thought about ways to reeducate those Germans whose worldview is distorted in such a manner that they are incapable of recognizing and defending their own group interest and identity. The idea was not to go by rational argument (because reason has been educated out the window as far as this particular topic goes), but instead make a brute-force frontal attack on shame and on what is verboten. So I figured it would be exhilirating to have those lefties march around, as a psychotherapy, and perform the nazi salute on and on and on, and smile while doing so, to perceive it as something positive, to destroy their shame conditioning, and to reopen their minds for reason and argument. A crude method indeed, but I thought it was funny.

    So this is where my brother related the “sex ed” episode from US high school. A young teacher would come in and likely explain the mechanics and biology of sex. The important point, however, would be to drive out everything shameful about sex, and to that effect, the entire class, as a group, would have to repeat aloud: “penis, vagina – penis, vagina – penis, vagina” – on and on, for a minute or so. I was baffled and found that quite innovative, progressive, and probably effective.

    School could be so much better than it is, but I think it is not meant to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Chomsky did a good job of describing an ideal education. A “teacher” is there merely to assist the student, who is learning on his own. The teacher steps in now and then to offer some guidance, but not to tell the student he is right or wrong. That has to come from the student, who is, after all. reading and interacting with many others and so needs little from a “teacher.” The student may go down wrong paths, but so what. His interactions with the world will set him straight, or not.

      Better that than to be sent on a wrong path and judged and graded every day, and be punished for deviation. School as we do it is indoctrination, and teaching is about how to do everything but think properly. Look around us now, not about Germany, but the US, where barely anyone has a clue about what is going on right now. Schooling prepared them for this. Teachers I have known are as clueless as their students. But they think of themselves as missionaries.


      1. Yes, schooling prepares people to be sheeple, although I must say that our teachers were not so bad on a personal level. Then, there is constant post-schooling by the mass media, where even people with decades of life experience can be schooled to behave like morons, as evidenced in this virus hoax.


  5. Things didn’t change much since the middle age, did they? We all learn to read now, but are still unable to understand the law which is put upon us. Or the money. Which is why we have to use lawyers and bankers. We are not allowed to do this things ourselves. Especially in Germany the citizen has to hire a lawyer to have a look into the file. Which then is never for free.
    Superstition is still very present, more since the corona hoax than ever before. We are convinced that so many years after the Enlightenment a new knowledge would be acknowledged and accepted but it is rarely the case. Mass media successfully keep people in the state of hypnosis, where not even the obvious truth is being recognized if it is not the media telling it. The lies are over present and we no longer see them as lies. It even works the same on all levels of education.
    An important part in it plays the belief in genius. It blocks people from questioning things. It tells people this matter is so complicated, you need to be a genius to understand it. If you don’t understand it, it’s because you’re not a genius. That way you can sell any absurdity as science. It’s usually full of magic words or magic formulas nobody understands, except the geniuses of course. Think Einstein and his relativity theory. They give them the Nobel prizes to make them holy and unquestionable. If you take a look at any scientific paper today you’ll see a lot of subjunctive, which makes it science fiction. Translate some of the foreign words, leave the subjunctive out and what’s left is not difficult anymore. And then there is nothing. The infection theory contradicted itself some 70 years ago and this contradiction is still in all the papers, black on white, if you’re willing to read.


  6. it’s actually never off topic today, here an interview with Stefan Lanka with subtitles

    There is more on Dean’s Danes channel:


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