Many revolutions fail when they tear down one system only to replace it with another embodying the same unconscious habits and beliefs. An education revolution would be no different. Personally, I’ve noticed time and again the habits of schooling infecting what I do; sometimes I end up perpetuating the mind-set even when I speak out against it.
How to avoid recreating the old within the new? How to prevent the underlying problems from expressing themselves in new form? Ideological vigilance is not enough, which is why I have decided to “deschool” myself, to bring these unconscious habits into my consciousness and dispel them.
In that spirit, I offer up this list of some of the habits and beliefs of schooling that I’ve noticed in myself. None of these are exclusive to school, of course, just as school doesn’t exist in isolation from other institutions of our civilization. These habits and beliefs are ambient in our culture; school is just one way of enacting and reinforcing them.
1. Seeking “credit” for the right answer.
2. Seeing problems as having a right answer, and thinking that by articulating the solution, I have solved the problem.
3. Seeking external validation for choices, as in “What should I do?” (I can’t just choose, can I? How do I know it’s the right choice? I had better go ask someone.)
4. Work: a matter of completing assignments.
5. Life: a process of graduating from one externally provided program to the next.
6. Status: defined by rank within an institution.
7. Personal worth: dependent on external evaluations.
Wait! As you read through these points, do you notice any habits of schooling operating within yourself? Are you skimming them to simply check if you “know” them already (as if for a quiz)? Are you evaluating each one to determine whether it is right or wrong?
It was in school, after all, that we first learned that it’s important to be right, to hold the correct opinion, and to be able to produce the right answer. Well, what about letting go of being right and just listening without judgment? Listening truly and deeply to another person is a new thing for me, one that requires combating habits of constantly evaluating myself and others, or listening only enough to garner information.
Because another belief of schooling is that . . .
8. Information is knowledge, and that to know about something is to know something. This belief is related to . . .
9. Knowledge and intelligence can and should be quantified, or at least evaluated, and thus . . .
10. Constantly evaluating yourself as well as others.
11. To say nothing of measuring performance by external standards . . .
12. Seeking external validation for performance and achievements . . .
13. Wanting to be recognized as smart . . .
14. Wanting to be recognized as right, and simply . . .
15. Wanting to be right.
I remember standing one time at the front of a Penn State classroom when I abruptly saw my entire teaching and writing career as one long attempt to be right, and to prove my rightness to whoever would listen.
Well, no one really cares if you’re right. You don’t get any bonus points from God or anyone else for holding correct opinions your whole life. You maybe can impress people sometimes, but so what? They’ll just walk away impressed.
What creates rich and fruitful relationships is not being right, but providing things to people that are useful to them—in other words, giving. Establishing rightness is really just a subtle form of taking. It took me a long time to figure this out, and I wasted many hours on Internet Listservs taking turns being right with everyone else, as if all the world’s problems would be solved “if only everyone would agree with me.” That mind-set is just another variation of that old school habit of thinking that if you write down the right answer, the problem is solved.
This list represents just a sampling of the habits of schooling I’ve uncovered in my life. No doubt you can think of many more; perhaps you can find in this very essay some that are still unconscious to me. But of course, comparing and critiquing others is yet another pesky habit of school that is rarely useful in the real world. Perhaps instead, we should cease schooling ourselves and one another.
Excerpted from Education Revolution (Winter 2007–08), a magazine published by the Alternative Education Resource Organization. Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from 417 Roslyn Rd., Roslyn Heights, NY 11577; www.education revolution.org/aeromagazine.html.