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Deschooling Society (ournature.org)
50 points by whalliburton on Aug 24, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

"Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question."

Down here (Australia) you hear "highly qualified" very often. It's used interchangeably with "highly skilled," which is the Governments' favourite phrase. Drives me bananas.

I've also lived in Ireland & heard this terminology used a bit.

Most "Computer Literacy Classes" are great examples of the confusion of "process and substance."

This reminds me of Alfie Kohn's essay What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?

Which reminds me of the Polya quote that "[m]athematics, you see, is not a spectator sport. To understand mathematics means to be able to do mathematics. And what does it mean [to be] doing mathematics? In the first place, it means to be able to solve mathematical problems."

The terms "school" and "society" in the same breath always compel a random dissection. I will make sentence-per-sentence marks.

___ We are all involved in schooling, from both the side of production and that of consumption. ___

I don't believe that we can distinguish these sides anymore in western culture, nor can we believe that we are all involved together, in anything.

___ We are superstitiously convinced that good learning can and should be produced in us-and that we can produce it in others. ___

Superstitiously, yes, but not in others. Learning inherently differs from knowledge. It reins in the whole of one's own life experience into a worldview and ability to perceive through those of others. Knowledge is a commodity, cf. "the end of history," and schooling, as the nearest authority on anything, will tell you that it's worth it, the ends justify the means. The poet Rilke compares scholastic commencement to "slavery."

___ Our attempt to withdraw from the concept of school will reveal the resistance we find in ourselves when we try to renounce limitless consumption and the pervasive presumption that others can be manipulated for their own good. ___

For instance: "resistance" "try" "renounce" "pervasive" "presumtion" "manipulated". . . as an example, can you recall completing a year of primary, secondary, or post-secondary school without seeing at least three of your classmates held to systematic humiliation?

__ No one is fully exempt from the exploitation of others in the schooling process. ___

As is no one of us truly involved with everyone in the schooling of others.

___ School is both the largest and the most anonymous employer of all. Indeed, the school is the best example of a new kind of enterprise, succeeding the guild, the factory, and the corporation. ___

Its first and final claim to fame.

___ The multinational corporations which have dominated the economy are now being complemented, and may one day be replaced, by supernationally planned service agencies. These enterprises present their services in ways that make all men feel obliged to consume them. ___

Bet you can't eat just one. I don't like the stark ambiguity in the use of "supernationally." The connotation is dubious.

__ They are internationally standardized, redefining the value of their services periodically and everywhere at approximately the same rhythm. ___

Mozart for babies. Just do it.

During my last year of high school, I remember asking the college guidance counselors if there were other alternatives to going to college.

They told me my only other choice was to join the military.

Clearly something needs to change.

Very nice article.

All the schools (at least what I have seen) today create literates and many are not even good at that.

Education is meant to give a pupil the strength, confidence and a value system to lead life. "A potter's son learnt pottery. That was true education."

Today, we want equal opportunity and choices, let us create an open education system where pupils can/be guided to choose anything they want to learn which would enable them to live better.

PS: Especially the Indian Education as Ramanujan rightly points out in his Biography "The indian education system was devised to create slaves". All over the world Indians, at least at high school level, are known to be smart at Math, it is a myth. They are better clerks. That is what it was meant to create then when the British Raj ruled here in India.

A book by John Taylor Gatto explains the origin of [modern] school. Briefly: during the industrial revolution in the 1800s, industrial owners realized children were "wasting" their time playing around. If instead they could be pre-trained to be better workers ... so they designed modern school and institutionalized it.

This seems to be one of those theories that sounds nice, but is in reality just someone's politics creeping into their view of history:


I personally loathed school, was homeschooled for a year by my mother who was desperate to get me out of a shitty system, and am certainly no fan of said system, but this article and the debate here remind me why I'm not so enthusiastic about non-startup/hacker material: you guys' comments are, so far, on the whole, not terribly insightful on the subject.

I mean, it is a bad system in many ways, but so are other things like democracies and free markets. That doesn't mean they aren't the best that we currently have. Just look at places where people don't have the guarantee of an education, if you want an example of what things could be like. Tons of kids in Africa would love to have the "crappy" education that is on offer in the US or Europe, because it would be the beginnings of a way out of the poverty in which they live.

Can it be improved? Certainly, but "just git the dadburn gummint outta the way" is, to put it mildly, a bit simplistic for something that even folks like Friedman more or less concede is a merit good ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merit_good ).

It's easy to point out the (many) flaws in the current system, which probably wasn't that pleasant for many of us here. More difficult is coming up with something that could take its place, provide an educated populace, and best allocate people to the educational paths that would serve them best, and of course does all this in a way that is reasonably cost effective, all with a "clientèle" that may very well be quite immature in terms of making important decisions. This is no easy task.

If you had read the article in question you would see that there is much more depth and analysis and yes ideas for a possible change than your caricature.

As for your "kids in Africa", Illich talks much in this article about the young in Latin America and the damaging effects of compulsory education on those children. Please read.

But in case your too busy, I'll try and summarize:

You take your "kids in Africa", whom probably, as you state, all would "love" to attend American schools and believe the American dream.

Let's not forget that many of them would probably love to eat at MacDonalds every meal too, but that not necessarily the best thing either.

Now, what happens to the those kids that cannot pass 12 years of compulsory education (he only uses 4 in the Latin case, but your talking USA) and are now inside a system that requires passing those 12 years. They are now seen as failures and most will internalize that branding. Not nice.

The point I'm trying to make, is, yea, call many of the comments "not insightful", but unless you read the article in question, your only displaying flippant ignorance to call it out for lacking insight.

> Let's not forget that many of them would probably love to eat at MacDonalds every meal too, but that not necessarily the best thing either.

It would beat starving, I bet.

> The point I'm trying to make, is, yea, call many of the comments "not insightful", but unless you read the article in question, your only displaying flippant ignorance to call it out for lacking insight.

I read some random samplings, and it just seems way too handwavy, and full of random assertions, rather than, say, hard facts, for my tastes.

To take his idea of matching people up for learning: might work ok for adults, but it's not going to function to give kids a basic education, unless they're already in a school, and in that case it's still compulsory education.

More difficult is coming up with something that could take its place, provide an educated populace, and best allocate people to the educational paths that would serve them best

Well, for starters, we could return exactly to the system of, say, 1890. Most people had enough formal schooling to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. After that, you could learn on the job or through apprenticeship. Professions such as architects or engineers required 0 - 4 years of post-secondary education. High school drop outs designed great structures such as the New York Public Library, the tunnels under London, or the California aqueducts. Now legal credentialing laws mandate architects have 5-8 years of university. Yet the architecture of the late 1800's is far, far, far superior to the architecture of today. Perhaps if we abolished the architecture schools altogether, and the professors had to find new careers in, say, stone masonry, people would build beautiful buildings again...

The trouble with the idea that "the truth is somewhere in the middle" is that the middle changes through time and place. For example, the average voter in 1900 was a hard-core libertarian compared to the average voter today. If you lived in 1900 would you be libertarian? What ideology would you have if you lived in 1965 China? Was the truth somewhere in between Deng and Mao? You accuse the people who say "government should get out of the way" as being simplistic. But to me, the people who automatically believe the truth is always in the middle are even more simplistic.

The only way to find the answers is find it for yourself. I was once far more liberal/progressive. But after numerous life experiences, plus concentrated reading on almost every political subject, I have come to believe that the far right libertarians ( ie, more libertarian than even Milton Friedman) are the closest to being correct.

Imagine you were in a conversation with a 1900 libertarian. What evidence from the world of 2008 would you show him that would prove his libertarianism wrong? Would you show him our bombed out inner cities as evidence of the glories of the welfare state? ( compare a 1900 account of the slums, http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=8kEAAAAAYAAJ&... to a modern account like "The Corner" or "Gang Leader for a day" ) Would you show him the public schools? The fine learning going on at our state colleges? Would you show him the wonderful Brutalist buildings that our fully credentialed architects produce? Do you think you could convince him that creating a Federal Reserve made the financial system more stable?

As for the original question about the origins of American public schooling - I don't think Gatto is completely right, but he's much closer to the truth than 99% of Americans would realize. A few years ago I took a course on the history of American education. I was shocked to find the progressives who created American schooling did not care at all about students learning or even job training. The original reasons were about Americanizing and assimilation of immigrants in American values. Later on, the emphasis shifted more towards socialization. Actual learning did not become the primary goal until the much later on. The irony is that public schools were originally created by the upper class progressives to control the lower classes. But by 1980, the elimination of tracking and the restrictions of disciplinary actions made public schools uninhabitable by upper class children, thus forcing them into home schooling or expensive private schools.

I didn't say the truth was somewhere in the middle. I simply said that I do not think that "the free market will fix everything" is an acceptable response in this case.

> 1890

If I were black, or Italian, or Chinese, or something else that wasn't very well thought of in 1890, I think I would have a vast preference for the public schools of 2008. I happen to be white, but I believe that one function of public schools is to give everyone something of a shot at a better life than the one they happened to be born into.

Note again that I'm not saying things are perfect the way they are, or that there aren't many good reforms that could be done to improve them (I think we'd probably agree that giving teachers' unions less of a role would be sensible). What I was stating is that compulsory education, despite some very obvious defects, has served us pretty well, and that "throw it out!" without suggesting something better is an uninteresting discussion, albeit far less intellectually demanding. I don't really think I'm up to the challenge either: I'd rather just concentrate on hacking and startup.

Correlation is not causation. We're a lot richer now than in 1890, but is has nothing to do with public schools.

1) We are rich today because we have lots of high-tech machinery. From Otto and Daimler to Ford and the Wright brothers to Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, much of this technology was created by self-taught hackers. Some industrial/engineering education was helpful at points, but it played a much more minor role, and it comprises a tiny fraction of K-16 education today.

2) The modern American schooling system is so degenerate it is actively destructive of the engineering/hacking ethic.

3) 90% of jobs in the economy require nothing more than reading, writing, and arithmetic plus on the job training. Before the establishment of public schools, New England states had 99% literacy rates. Thus historical evidence shows that public schooling was never necessary. Poor people did not reach the middle class through public schools, they did it by finding jobs, teaching themselves skills, and working their way into the middle class. Most though, achieved middle class status because the tools invented by hackers made them far more productive. An assembly worker in 1925 was richer than a worker in 1900 thanks to Henry Ford, not because public schools taught him to build a car more quickly.

4) Despite the fact that public schooling has little or know connection to creating high tech machinery or to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, we dedicate an insane amount of time and money to it. As the article noted, 40% of Americans are either full-time students or full time educators.

5) Education spending outpaces inflation year after year, while the quality gets worse and worse. See this graph for instance ( http://lazowska.cs.washington.edu/img082.gif )

Given these facts, I don't think arguing for complete abolition is unreasonable at all. When you have a cancer, you do not sit around thinking about how you might be able to mutate that cancer into something beneficial. You remove the cancer.

What you describe seems to be some romanticized version to the past. What could be considered modern industry is heavily dependent on the productive ability of the unskilled worker--the skilled "part" has been superseded by either machinery or technological advancement in the productive process--and as such, systems such as those involving master-apprentice relationships, fell by the wayside. As a libertarian, you understand that competitive advantage is of utmost necessary for not only the survival but advancement of business and industry. How could going back to an antiquated, archaic, and dangerous system of production possibly be beneficial to the interests of business? Moreover, have you read of the plight of workers in the 19th century (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factory_Acts, http://www.usp.nus.edu.sg/victorian/history/workers1.html)? It wasn't pretty.

I'm not saying return to the technology of 1890. Most people back then learned on the job. Most people today learn on the job ( very different skills though). The only difference is that today people spend the years 16-22 drinking and playing video games, in kind of a holding period. We could eliminate it entirely and everyone would be better off.

In 1890, a person may have left school at 16 and started working 60 hours a week in a dangerous hard labor job. In 2008, the person could leave school at 16 and get a job working 35 hours a week in customer service. Or anything else. It's not public schooling that made modern jobs so much better, it was the growth of technology.

Since under this proposed system people would start work earlier and have to pay far less for school, there would be a lot more time and money to take off a year sabbatical to travel, save money for having kids, work fewer hours, etc.

Actually Gatto is correct, it's just that the grandparent's summary of Gatto is wrong. And, for the record, the Wikipedia article you cited also contains factual mistakes.

True. Please note: "modern school": a tax-sponsored child care system that free parents for work, and ensures minimal literacy and composed conduct in public.

This is an interesting book. The thesis is basically that the way most of our public institutions are set up the government supplies the razor and the citizen buys the blades. This is bad because A) everyone pays for the razor but only the rich get the benefits because only they can afford the blades B) it forces everyone into the same "school" of education, healthcare, etc. "Deschooling society" is sort of a pun that refers to both public schools but also schools of thought.

Anyway the last time I submitted something from this book it was deleted. Not marked dead, actually deleted. But check out the section on learning webs, it's a cool vision of computer-mediated social networking from 1971.

Yes! Learning webs. Webs of all types.

I envision "the next big thing" as connecting needs with wants outside of the current economic and social structures, down to the smallest scale.

Teacher learns as much as the student.

Sue likes teaching cooking. Sally wants to learn and will bring food.

Grandma Bessy needs someone to help move a few things around the apartment and can pay $1. Joe is downstairs chilling on a stoop, could use a buck and likes helping people.

Will likes teaching programming and gets the bug for a little community hacking session. Scott and Joe and Sue and Larisa are dying to have a little mentoring and work on real cool problems, even if for a night.

Corner farmers market is nearing close and half the produce is about to be discarded. Community center has a nice kitchen and who wants fresh vegetable soup?

Connections and options that would never have occurred otherwise.

Throw in a recommendation engine and reviews of the participants.

Outsourcing on the micro scale.

Temporary autonomous zones.

What's sad about what you're suggesting is that it's exactly how a proper community is supposed to function! You don't even need the Internet to whelp with this, a community center bulletin board will do as long as someone's around to do the leg work and make it the place to check first.

sigh. There is a problem with our society when we have to re-discover what it means to be in a community.

Yes, but you work with what you have, and we have many a broken segmented community. This is just making the bulletin board virtual and helping out with the legwork.

"Corner farmers market is nearing close and half the produce is about to be discarded. Community center has a nice kitchen and who wants fresh vegetable soup?"


I'm pretty sure that I'm your future self :-P

Intellectual, provocative material. Certainly not flame bait.

I didn't have time to go through all of it. I'm assuming that the author doesn't claim to be Moses or start talking about armed revolution or anything radicalized. It looked like well-reasoned, but controversial opinions. Just the kind of stuff to sink your teeth in and practice your critical thinking skills.

So I voted it up.

Wonder why it was deleted last time? Did I miss something in my scan of the text?

I stumbled upon this - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:2005education_spending.PN...

Public spending on education in 2005 as a percentage of the top government (USA - $734,893,675,000)

Here is the worldbank report on how much every country top govt spends on education. (an old report but says it all) http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/...

The Onion article about the 6-year-old (currently sharing the front page) says it a little more succinctly. :)

I agree that we are an overschooled society. Unfortunately, the word "education" has magical properties in right-thinking conversation. You can't say you're against "education", you might as well say you want to grind up the poor and use them for food.

We're making progress at the edges, though. More homeschooling, more ways to educate yourself over the internet. Still plenty of room for new ideas from clever hackers, too. :)

a major factor in overschooled society, and its' warped perception of education, is an overreliance on diplomas. Would HN and the startup scene be remotely as fertile, exciting, open and (to an extent) meritocratic if investors refused to invest in teams lacking MBAs and advanced computer science degrees? In this book, Illich advocates the kind of 'anarchic' world we love the Internet for - an open world where new knowledge, new skills are just a Google away - exchanged and shared in an extremely informal gift economy (one that is forced, for better or for worse, on people trying to get financial gain from it - due to piracy). Where creativity and work is open to anyone (go read about him and then edit his wikipedia page - nothing would make him happier).

I wouldnt really go so far to say that schools should be shut down because they do serve one good purpose - making friends (even though you could do that in other means), but its a good meeting point.

The big thing that needs to go from schools is structure and the focus on 'success'..

Essentially the fact that people from similar age groups are considered equal - have to take the same courses - for the same amount of time - subject to the same exams - and imparted an extremely flawed relative ranking system is all horribly wrong.

In the real world the harder part is creating that structure - learning from open markets, finding out what you want to do and from that figuring out the courses you want to take - the people you want to learn from - the peers you want to work with.

And success is not about getting good grades but more about taking your own path which gets you your own happiness and the ones you care about.

I wouldnt really go so far to say that schools should be shut down because they do serve one good purpose - making friends (even though you could do that in other means), but its a good meeting point.

One of the worst aspects of government institutions is that we become dependent on them. We then no longer remember how life could have existed without them. Before the age of the university, young people would meet interesting other people through fraternal associations, clubs, coffee houses, and pubs. In these societies you could find a rousing chess game, talk politics, start a charitable activity or even purchase group health insurance. The University of Pennsylvania, was originally founded by Ben Franklin as society for his friends to promote their mutual intellectual advancement. The cost was nearly free. The idea that we need government to subsidize "making friends", that finding a group of intellectual peers requires spending $50K a year in tuition, is preposterous.

like many 'order out of chaos' systems, government tends to be a self-reinforcing system, unfortunately, leading to ever increasing ordering of its environment. the only way it can apparently beat the second law of thermodynamics is to consume ever more resources out of its substrate. your body is the same way - it gets bigger and maintains itself, but has to eat.

as kevin kelly argued 10-15 years ago - death is an essential component of healthy, evolving ecosystems.

There is a Noachide law to "Set up courts and bring offenders to justice." This is a biblical law for Jews and Non-Jews alike, and it makes sense: even the most righteous, well-behaved and respected people will have disagreements with each other, and in a society with no government, implanting conflict-resolution, law-giving and judgement institutions would be a very good justification and first step to establishing one.

As long as a legal and judicial system is not abused to the detriment of the society for which it serves, this aspect of government is very useful.

You don't need a court system to resolve conflicts and disagreements. People do it all the bloody time without involving the government

Yeah, be my guest, try running a country without a judicial system. Go back 4000 years or more, or into a hunter-gatherer society...

yep ..makes sense.

I like the latter part of your comment. Reminds of jobs stanford speech. 'You've got to find what you love'

"The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting." That created beautiful typefaces later on PCs :)

"Essentially the fact that people from similar age groups are considered equal - have to take the same courses - for the same amount of time - subject to the same exams - and imparted an extremely flawed relative ranking system is all horribly wrong."

More and more I realize "one size fits all" is never true.

Is there a startup opportunity for a service that takes applications and places students in apprenticeships, internships and specialized training in fields they show aptitude in? Like a headhunter for high school kids. Companies pay a finders fee to the startup, the startup team is responsible for only passing along great candidates.

I'm a former Ivy League admissions officer. I could see a few people from that world wanting to be a part of something like that. I read 2000 applications while I was there and many, many of those kids could have benefited from an alternative route...there just wasn't one.

I've thought about alternative routes, and my mind continually drifts back to one idea: let capitalists run the education systems on a local scale. The key part that I have not figured out is the motivation for enterprising individuals to start their own schools while maintaining an environment that is cheap enough to allow even the lowest of the low-income groups to send a relatively bright child to the school.

For those interested in a historical take on how the universities essentially became a state church, I highly recommend the blog Unqualified Reservations. This post is an excellent overview: http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2008/05/ol7-ugl...

Since he did so much schooling himself (the only reason he could even write this article and do the necessary research to be taken seriously is because of school) it's hard to take him seriously

Au contraire. If someone says that doing something or going somewhere is a waste of time, I'd be much more inclined to listen if he had actually done so himself.

Hmm. So you would take the opinion of a car mechanic that has never driven a car?

His 'necessary research' was a period of traveling, observing, and critically attempting to understand these issues, not some 'Education Reform 101: Introduction to Critical Thought' lecture course.

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