Public schooling is necessary for society to ameliorate inequalities, and, more relevantly to this website, overcome the tyranny of superficial divisions such as race, religion, gender, class, and so forth. In the US, before public schooling, if people went to school at all, it was most likely with only those in the same social strata. While this certainly still goes on to some extent, in both public and private settings, it is nowhere near as bad as it was before. People are generally exposed to a broader diversity of people and ideas. However, there is still much work to be done to reform our school systems. Schools should continue to be operated through democratic institutions, but the methodology and practices by which we approach schooling should be radically altered, especially given recent technological advancements.
In 1971, the political philosopher Ivan Illich wrote a rather provocative book, called Deschooling Society. It was about modern educational systems and the way that they perpetuate hierarchical thinking by solidifying it in children from a young age. This hierarchical thinking filters out to the rest of society creating negative feedback loops which result in all sorts of problems.
Insightfully, he wrote that education should be self-directed using “learning webs.” He explained further that, “The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.”
Now that his dream of a learning web has been realized beyond all expectations, maybe it is time to rethink education. We must rethink not just how technology can be utilized within current educational frameworks, but how technology can make new, equally legitimate frameworks possible.
The American pragmatist John Dewey had similar ideas about the need for self-direction in education. In his treatise Democracy and Education, Dewey wrote, “Individuality as a factor to be respected in education has a double meaning. In the first place, one is mentally an individual only as he has his own purpose and problem, and does his own thinking. The phrase “think for one’s self’ is a pleonasm. Unless one does it for one’s self, it isn’t thinking. Only by a pupil’s own observations, reflections, framing and testing of suggestions can what he already knows be amplified and rectified.”
It is said that pragmatism is one of the few distinctly American philosophies, so none of this should be all that subversive. Another distinctly American individual, Mark Twain, once wrote “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
In this vein, Dewey continues, “…there are variations of point of view, of appeal of objects, and of mode of attack, from person to person. When these variations are suppressed in the alleged interests of uniformity, and an attempt is made to have a single mold of method of study and recitation, mental confusion and artificiality inevitably result. Originality is gradually destroyed, confidence in one’s own quality of mental operation is undermined, and a docile subjection to the opinion of others is inculcated, or else ideas run wild. The harm is greater now than when the whole community was governed by customary beliefs, because the contrast between methods of learning in school and those relied upon outside the school is greater. That systematic advance in scientific discovery began when individuals were allowed, and then encouraged, to utilize their own peculiarities of response to subject matter, no one will deny.”
Unsurprisingly, most truly paradigm-shifting thinkers have had little advanced schooling or at least have been very self-directed. If such self-direction is not fostered from an early age, it is unlikely that our society will produce many Einsteins.
My questions are: how can society best accommodate the ideas put forth by the thinkers I mentioned? What sorts of decentralized learning methods have you all found that work successfully? How could students who were educated using a decentralized or self-directed method be recognized with a degree?
Is the idea of degrees in opposition to this notion? After all, appeals to authority are not logical, and anyone who puts too much stock in a piece of paper is committing a common logical fallacy.
Finally, is there something about “human nature” that makes hierarchy unavoidable? Familial relationships are almost always hierarchical, but maybe justifiably so. Is societal hierarchy rooted in familial hierarchy?