Shouldn’t Education and Learning Be the Same Thing?
Schooling and institutionalized education have become removed from true, instinctual, and human/humane learning. Humans have been learning since the beginning of time with major discoveries and innovations historically and currently emerging in spite of school. This is the biggest problem I have with schools – most are contrived and coercive and do not honor the innate human need and desire to learn, discover, and evolve.
If order to fully understand the purpose of school, the history of its evolution as an institution needs to be understood. What follows is part of A Brief History of Education in the Freedom to Learn series published in Psychology Today:
If we want to understand why standard schools are what they are, we have to abandon the idea that they are products of logical necessity or scientific insight. They are, instead, products of history. Schooling, as it exists today, only makes sense if we view it from a historical perspective.
Adults in hunter-gatherer cultures allowed children almost unlimited freedom to play and explore on their own because they recognized that those activities are children’s natural ways of learning. With the rise of agriculture, and later of industry, children became forced laborers. Play and exploration were suppressed. With larger families, children had to work in the fields to help feed their younger siblings, or they had to work at home to help care for those siblings. Children’s lives changed gradually from the free pursuit of their own interests to increasingly more time spent at work that was required to serve the rest of the family.
As industry progressed and became somewhat more automated, the need for child labor declined in some parts of the world. The idea began to spread that childhood should be a time for learning, and schools for children were developed as places of learning. The idea and practice of universal, compulsory public education developed gradually in Europe, from the early 16th century on into the 19th. In America, in the mid 17th century, Massachusetts became the first colony to mandate schooling, the clearly stated purpose of which was to turn children into good Puritans.
Employers in industry saw schooling as a way to create better workers. To them, the most crucial lessons were punctuality, following directions, tolerance for long hours of tedious work, and a minimal ability to read and write. From their point of view (though they may not have put it this way), the duller the subjects taught in schools the better.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, public schooling gradually evolved toward what we all recognize today as conventional schooling. The methods of discipline became more humane, or at least less corporal; the lessons became more secular; the curriculum expanded, as knowledge expanded, to include an ever-growing list of subjects; and the number of hours, days, and years of compulsory schooling increased continuously. School gradually replaced fieldwork, factory work, and domestic chores as the child’s primary job.
Schools today are much less harsh than they were, but certain premises about the nature of learning remain unchanged: Learning is hard work; it is something that children must be forced to do, not something that will happen naturally through children’s self-chosen activities. The specific lessons that children must learn are determined by professional educators, not by children, so education today is still, as much as ever, a matter of inculcation
From the Time Magazine article, How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century
There’s a dark little joke exchanged by educators with a dissident streak: Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folk defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls–every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. “This is a school,” he declares. “We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are white.”
It really is a sad statement of the school system when some of our world’s greatest scholars have such strong critiques of institutionalized schooling:
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. Mark Twain
Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. Albert Einstein
It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curious of inquiry. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. Albert Einstein
In school I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me. Steve Jobs
I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Anne Sullivan
Knowledge that is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. Plato
Since every effort in our educational life seems to be directed toward making of the child a being foreign to itself, it must of necessity produce individuals foreign to one another, and in everlasting antagonism with each other. Emma Goldman
Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality. Helen Beatrix Potter
What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook. Henry David Thoreau
Education is one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought. Bertrand Russell
Some of the overt and covert values and messages of our current institutionalized school system include:
- Learning is difficult and involves hard work, discipline, repetition.
- Obedience and conformity are valued.
- There are winners and losers. Winners are those who get the good grades; losers are those who do not.
- There are experts, the teachers, the textbooks, the administrators, who know it all and should not be questioned.
- Learning involves being quiet and sitting still in a desk.
- Traditional paper and pencil tests can measure student learning.
- Learning is about studying what has been and what is rather than what could be.
These educational practices are often taken at face value without being critically analyzed, dissected, and/or tested for truth. Educators and all related stakeholders do not engage in serious contemplation around the question, “What is the purpose of school?” in order to analyze the efficacy of these practices.
I am not advocating for the abolishment of school. Schools offer children and youth many resources they might not be able to get otherwise – communities of learners, mentorships, physical resources, emotional support. I am questioning, though, the broad acceptance by many that institution has to be the way it is. Isn’t a goal of education to learn the process of citizenship, democracy, the betterment of humankind? If so, shouldn’t all of the stakeholders – educators, learners, parent, community members, politicians – engage in a continual process of evaluating and modifying the school system to best meet the needs and desires of all? Evolution as defined as “
The argument, the questions I propose are not new but until change occurs, they are worth revisiting and reconsidering,
As a parting shot, when discussing the purpose of school, can be summarized by a statement made by Daniel Katz in Reflections on Ferguson — What does education mean in a world like this?
School is an enterprise that is premised around hope and purpose. In order to truly engage with the operation of school, a child has to believe that there are reasons and purposes that make sense and has to have hope that school will lead somewhere desirable.