thoughts on deschooling

This week I’ve been really digging into Matt Hern’s anthology of short essays on deschooling, Deschooling Our Lives, which was initially published in 1996.  It’s super-accessible, and very comprehensive in scope.  Here are just a few quotations to illustrate, I hope, the breadth and depth of deschooling’s concerns.

First, from an essay entitled, “Challenging the Popular Wisdom: What Can Families Do?”

I can feel free only in the presence of and in relationship with other men (sic). . . .  I am not myself free or human unless I recognize the freedom and humanity of all my fellow men.  –Mikhail Bakunin


From a section of that same essay, “Caring for children as a political activity:”

Our role as parents and caregivers is not to ensure that our children develop the capacity to survive the rigors of modern life.  Our task is to establish ways of childrearing so that children develop in a non-hierarchical relationship with others, and with the natural world– so that they genuinely regard freedom as education’s ultimate end.  We might even define deschooling as the development of a sensibility– nurturing a keen consciousness and appreciation of social and individual freedom, cultivating an unaffected capacity to imagine a communal, authentically democratic society with this image in mind, beginning with the creation and development of institutions such as freer, more humane and more diverse alternatives to the family.  With this definition, we embrace deschooling as a revolutionary opportunity.


I take this final statement about the family to mean the nuclear family– the creation of a broader conception of community which allows for a more expansive individual freedom.

Matt Hern, in his essay on safety, “Losing an Eye,” quotes Ivan Illich on professionalism:

Profesionals tell you what you need and claim the power to prescribe.  They not only recommend what is good, but actually ordain what is right. . . .  This professional authority comprises three roles: the sapiential authority to advise, instruct and direct; the moral authority that makes its acceptance not just useful but obligatory; and charismatic authority that allows the professional to appeal to some supreme interest of his client that not only outranks conscience but sometimes even the raison d’etat.

Hern concludes that “constant surveillance and monitoring is not the path to real safety for our kids.  In trusting children to make decisions about their lives, we can support the development of responsibility at many levels.”

The following are comments are from Aaron Falbel:

Learning is like breathing.  it is a natural, human activity: it is part of being alive.  A person who is active, curious who explores the world using all his or her senses, who meets life with energy and enthusiasm– as all babies do– is learning.  Our ability to learn, like our ability to breathe, does not need to be improved or tampered with.

I love what this has to say about human nature– that it is a process as much as it is a specific thing.  Falbel continues:

Let me be clear: I am not against all forms of teaching.  It is a privilege and a joy to help someone do something he or she has freely chosen to do, provided that we are invited to help.  I am against unasked-for, I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good teaching.


I do have a problem with professional teachers– people who try to turn whatever knowledge they might have into capital, into a commodity.


. . . Let us do our own part to create a more open and accessible society, where knowledge and tools are not locked up in institutions or hoarded as closely guarded secrets, by offering (not imposing) to share our skills with others.  Take on an apprentice.  Hang a shingle outside your home describing what you do.  Let your friends and neighbors know that you are making such an offer to any serious and committed person.

David Guterson on Homeschooling:

Placing the child at the center of her education does not put our culture, by extension, on the periphery; on the contrary, it lays the groundwork for successfully bringing the two together, for instilling in her a lifelong thirst for understanding her world.

And finally (for now), Susannah Sheffer channeling John Holt:

Imagine that I am traveling into the future in a time capsule, a nd that I come to rest, five hundred years from now, in an intelligent, humane, and life-enhancing civilization.  One of the people who lives there comes to meet me, to guide me, and to explain his society.  At some point, after he has shown me where people live, work, play, I ask him, “But where are your schools?”


“Schools?  What are schools?” he replies.


“Schools are where people go to learn things.”


“I do not understand,” he says, “People learn things everywhere, in all places.”


“I know that,” I say, “But a school is a special place where there are special people who teach you things, help you learn things.”


“I am sorry, but I still do not understand.  Everyone helps other people to learn things.  Anyone who knows something or can do something can help someone else who wants to learn more about it.  Why should there be special people to do it?”


And try as I will, I cannot make clear to him why we think that education should be, must be, separate from the rest of life.


This was my first vision of a society without schooling.  Since then I have come to feel that the deschooled society, a society in which learning is not separated from but joined to, part of the rest of life, is not a luxury for which we can wait hundreds of years, but something toward which we must work, as quickly as possible.  (from Freedom & Beyond, 1972)


Well, OK, one more.  This from an essay entitled “Thinking about Play,” by a music teacher, Mark Douglas:

How can you deschool music?  Stop thinking about music as a thing to learn and start thinking about it as a thing to do.


. . . I think it is cruel to hold a six- or eight- or ten-year-old kid to adult terms of commitment when many adults do not themselves understand the meaning of the word.  The many failures and tragedies that we adults have lived through and still carry with us cannot be healed by enforcing default regimens on the young around us.  Music is to be enjoyed on its own terms, not because it fills another’s agenda.

Douglas points out in his essay, rightly that, the verbs most associated with music are “playing” and “making.”  I think this is an excellent model for learning generally.  I wish, in English we could “play knowledge” more grammatically.

1 thought on “thoughts on deschooling

  1. Pingback: John Holt (educator) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia |

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