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.
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*Not exactly sure what he means by this.