Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Discomfort with Deschooling

| 15 Comments

It’s week 5 of #moocmooc, and we’re reading Illich.

I shouldn’t be uncomfortable with deschooling. After all, I can see all the ways in which the institution of school imposes state control and reproduces social inequality. I can see how edu policies focus more in measurement and standardization than the empowerment of active productive citizens (i guess even the term productive sounds neoliberal in nature). I should be comfortable with deschooling because i live in a country where state education is a total disaster and private education is an expensive, deceptive mess.

Let me just admit that while brainstorming readings for #moocmooc, I am the one who suggested Illich. I had not read him (had a copy of the book, had never gotten around to reading it) but in a discussion with Chris, he seemed like a good fit for what he was looking for. I told Chris later that I had always feared reading Illich would drive me nuts because i couldn’t  homeschool my child here in Egypt. It’s against the law for Egyptian kids (this is well-intentioned, to ensure poor families don’t pull their kids from school and make them work and never get an education; though I know there is a concept called “manazel” as in learning from home, it’s not looked upon positively). Besides, i never understood how working moms managed to homeschool their kids, anyway. From a recent article on the topic on Hybrid Pedagogy (and by an academic mom, no less) it seems that families work together to homeschool, have several curricula to work with and lots of freedom in between, as well as online material (i knew about this from expat friends here who homeschool their kids). I know from conversation with people in the US who homeschooled that they had flexible work schedules or could work from home.

I honestly don’t know if replacing the teacher’s authority and the social complexity of a classroom by the slightly safer (?) authority of a parent (ok, who obviously cares so much more about their own child) and the safer (?) social life of neighboring friends/kids is a good thing. Sure, kids in rich neighborhoods probably go to schools that are bubbles, and those in poor neighborhoods or who are poor go to schools with similar other kids. But still those kids are not handpicked and they become exposed to different kinds of people. To an extent.

I know there is something wrong with my argument here somewhere. I just don’t think homeschooling necessarily is a utopia… That it risks even more indoctrination than schooling. I’m thinking my kid might be better off going to a school, but learning from me to question the authority of the school (and later questioning mine) than only having a handful of close adults as teachers and having no one to help her question them. Or something. And yet I fear what schooling could kill in my child. That it might do damage I cannot undo myself. I went to a great school in Kuwait; I don’t see many like it in Egypt. And none that I can given my current circumstances send her to. As a friend said on facebook, it’s torture being an educator who knows everything that’s wrong with school.

And I mean, kids are natural learners; adults are NOT natural teachers. I think the hybridped article argues for both homeschooling and schooling to create space for kids to pursue their own interests at their own pace. Sounds awesome. How easy is it for parents not trained in supporting that kind of learning to actually scaffold it? Someone recently told me about how he encourages loved ones to pursue their interests and curiosities even if he does not agree with their direction… how many people can honestly do that?

Trained teachers who care about learners can be really truly inspiring influences on children. The opposite, of course, is true, and institutions that stifle teachers who wish they could give more to their students compound the issue.

But is deschooling the solution?

One reason i am very uncomfortable with Illich’s argument is that he seems to advocate for libertarianism. Skip the state because we’re better off without it. On p. 6 he says:

Only by channeling dollars away from institutions which now treat health, education, and welfare can the further impoverishment resulting from their disabling side effects by stopped.

I beg to differ. Healthcare? Really? What is he advocating here? How will poor people get healthcare if the state didn’t offer it? Even bad state healthcare is better than none, surely? I get the dependence argument, but really, what’s he advocating? Or have I soooo internalized modern social structures that I cannot imagine life without them?

And Scandanavian and European socialist healthcare and education systems seem to be doing ok. I think they just put their money in different places, like on training teachers and giving them autonomy instead of focusing on standardized testing (i’m thinking of Finland).

I don’t know, those are my initial thoughts… and I haven’t finished Illich yet, or read the other stuff….

Looking forward to more #moocmooc 🙂

15 Comments

  1. I think you have so internalised the state that you can’t picture a world without it. I don’t mean that as a criticism, though. I am also not sure we can really get rid of it now we have it.

    • Yeah – so my direction now is to think of how i will enrich my kid’s learning outside school (since i am stuck w school anyhow) and i will start dreaming it up now 🙂

  2. When discussing my eldest son’s problematic schooling history in terms of what I could have done, he very emphatically told me that he wouldn’t have been able to stand being homeschooled by me despite some unhappiness in preschools and schools. There are some parent/child dynamics which are too volatile for such an intimate day-to-day schooling. Of course, as you mention. some people manage to homeschool through a community and I imagine that would be a much better solution. Still, as much as I felt at times – with both my sons – that I just wanted to take them out (and home was the only other option), I can see how their essential their socialisation has been since we can’t hand-pick educators or peers at university, in our jobs, etc. I imagine successful homeschoolers would have their own success story, and the situation really isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing; so many factors involved.

    When you say you can’t put your finger on why you’re uncomfortable with what Illich postulates, do you think it’s because he seems politically motivated way more than he is education motivated? I know that education/pedagogy is political, but maybe his agenda is more political than we’re comfortable with? As you point out. why wouldn’t we support state health care? He’s a bit of a purist. It’s not realistic for me in the present day.

    • Tania ur a genius – that might be it. Yes of course pedagogy is political and his political argument makes some sense but not necessarily pedagogical in the main. Although flipping his argument to pedagogy makes sense too – but something is off for me and u may have caught onto it. I need to clarify it for myself

    • I think you’re right Tania. Illich’s thesis is about institutionalization, and how institutions ultimately destroy the things they emerge to protect. Schooling is simply an example of a robust and central social and political institution.

  3. My wife and I unschooled our kids here in Kentucky. They are all adults now. At some point we asked ourselves who was best able to help our kids learn. We used local resources, the fledgling Internet, our own learning selves, and friends and family to help us teach our children. No part of that was easy. No part of that was simple. All parts of that were worth it. Our children are still learning, still curious, and exceedingly useful citizens. Of course, I am their dad, but…

    If you can get a copy of Clark Aldritch’s book Unschooling, then it might help with some of the theoretical and practical aspects of unschooling. Here is his blog site: http://unschoolingrules.blogspot.com/

    • Thanks for this recommendation. I find unshooling quite attractive however I have questions about reconnecting unschooled people back into the mainstreams educational / training system as adults. In the US, the GRE and the Community Colleges offer a couple of re-entry paths though both depend on rudimentary “academic” skills – schooling for schooling sake. If someone “drops out” of the system themselves, then that’s fine, however, dropping someone else out because of my own ideological beliefs or preferences raises obvious ethical questions.

      How do unschoolers deal with this?

    • Thanks Terry – you wrote “of course i am their dad” referring to your pride in them. I would suggest that you are one of the dads who’d know how to arouse their curiosity etc. I don’t mean to be untrusting, bur wouldn’t some other parents be indoctrinating? Not that school isn’t, but at least it’s a diff exposure from home? Honestly it’s hard to think about this because in my case i am pretty sure school is crap here and i would do better, but can’t get a handle on how this would work for others

  4. While my schooling experience makes it attractive for me to agree with Illich accepting that we are failures at building public institutions isn’t something I can accept. I grew up among adults who supplemented my public education. My learning was a kind of social responsibility they felt and was not to be given up on because formal school was less than Ideal.
    Making a social movement out of our failings is a simple and easy way out. My medical care is bad, yet accepting that condition as unchangeable is a form of rejecting the possibility of improvement–and all the people who seek improvement. Many people are fond of their own ideas and conclusions (like me for instance). But how “right” are they when the world they propose is beyond the reach of the majority of us?

  5. Maha,

    I think we are conflating several different concepts here. Deschooling, unschooling, and homeschooling are three different things. Deschooling is not really about alternative education at all, but a critique of a core institution; unschooling is a refusal to “school” in any traditional way, while homeschooling covers a wide range of educational styles and practices organized by parents for their own children.

    Most of your post is about homeschooling. I agree that this is usually just a replacement of state authority with some other type of adult authority.

    In the context of critical and/or anarchist pedagogy, Illich’s ideas are very interesting. He does not say that all institutions are pernicious and often suggests alternatives which are usually small, distributed systems under the control of those who use them.

    You mentioned health care as well. In another book, Medical Nemisis, Illich says that the medical profession is the single greatest threat to public health in our age. He refers to the US health care system of the 70s, but this hasn’t changed much since then. If anything, it has gotten worse. This thesis centers on the idea of a “sickness system” that is profit oriented and dedicated to maintaining illness as the dominant condition, reducing the majority of the population to the status of “patient” – drawing them under direct control of the medical profession. Again, this is easy to see in the US.

    To understand Illich’s ideas, we might need to step back a little to see how power is exercised in society and how we tend to create institutions that disempower and ultimately enslave us. Once we understand this, we may be able to create alternative solutions that are more “convivial”, to use his term.

    • I should’ve clarified i haven’t finished Illich’s chapter. I do find your distinctions helpful, though, thanks Mark.

      My prob w healthcare is that the alternative to public healthcare is…what? Private healthcare? Even worse! Or does he mean individual home remedies? I know all the power and money in hands of ppl like pharmaceutical companies, etc. But what happens when you dismantle public healthcare (instead of reform it)

      I totally get that i’ve internalized this as the only possibility, but the US is particularly bad at healthcare. Other countries do better (though not without their problems).

      • Like Deschooling, Medical Nemesis is a critique of institutionalization. However, Illich did walk the walk and refused treatment for the cancer that killed him. I don’t know whether this was a refusal of medical science or a refusal to submit to a corrupt institution – I suspect the latter.

        This does raise a question about alternatives. One of Illich’s points is that medical practice is not evidence based but rather refers to “best practice”. This sounds a lot like education. Another point regards the structuring of health as a commodity which is then delivered by the healthcare system. Commoditization requires us to construct health as a thing that can be bought and sold. To be healthy, we need to buy-in to the system by becoming patients, if we can afford it. Then, it is only a matter of whatever the market can bear.

        Nationalized health systems are not the answer so long as health remains a commodity since, as with any “free” thing offered to the public, demand will eventually outstrip resources and the system will crash. So, it is not just a matter of how to organize and distribute health care, but also of the social construction of health and disease.

        In a way, we have the same dilemma in education. Learning has been commoditized. Those who pay can get and getting it means that they are better at earning and spending than are those who do not have it. To be a productive member of society means that you have a level of income that enables you to consume enough goods to qualify you for the Gold Card membership and we are clueless that we have lost our independence, our freedom, our dignity, or ability to make decisions for ourselves, that we have lost our futures and ourselves.

        I believe this is the big story here.

  6. I’ve known lots of parents who home school and their kids integrate into society just fine. I went all the way through U.S. public schools and remain poorly socialized but not really damaged. I accept my poor fit in society as the “cost” of independence and I hurt no one in the process.

  7. Thanks for your comments Mark, clarifies a lot of what I experience as a patient in a nationalized system that I’m in fruitless battle with. Will read Illich on healthcare now. There are a lot of problems with the Canadian system that can be attributed to changes in the political philosophies as different parties are elected and take over administration. But I think some of this has to do with the public abandoning the system to caretakers rather than staying active and involved. Or as Maha suggests: giving up on reform as seems the case with education–beyond our abilities.
    Anyone remember the term “wicked problems”? I need to go back and look into the fray with my health providers with an attitude that things can change. Which feels like a crazy idea, wicked almost but the only alternative.

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