Ivan Illich wrote in 1970 that “some words become so flexible that they cease to be useful,” referring to school and teaching and explaining why he was about to dedicate a chapter of Deschooling Society to the “phenomenology of school.” However one feels about Illich and philosophy, his point is that we have such different images of and experiences with schools that it can’t be assumed we mean the same thing when using the word. What are we talking about when we talk about schools?
From the one room schoolhouse and village schools to the 1500 student labyrinth of a suburban high school, from the state-run preschool down the street from me here in Harlem to the $40,000 per year elementary schools downtown, what qualities make a school a school? For Illich, those qualities are a focus on adolescents and relatively shared concept of who is an adolescent, teachers and students in clear roles where power and presumed knowledge are very uneven, and attendance policies that “tend to make a total claim on the time and energies of its participants.” A more contemporary list might also mention segregation of youth by age, continuous assessment and judgement of performance, and ongoing efforts at standardization.
The mission of the school varies depending on whose perspective one takes. In the textbook Exploring Education, Sadovnik, Cookson, Jr., and Semel summarize 3 ways the mission of schooling is discussed in the US. First, there’s the “democratic-liberal” position that the school system’s goal should be to offer equality of opportunity and create an educated population. Next, there’s the “radical-revisionist” position that school serves the interests of the elite, focusing on social control and economic considerations. Finally, there’s the “conservative perspectives” which insist schools have a responsibility for developing “the powers of intelligence” and a “common culture” among all students by rigorously training them according to classical “Western” tradition. In all of these perspectives, schooling — and specifically mass schooling — is an institution that acts on young people, according to its own schedule and agenda, which young people and their families have little to no power over.
As Sanjay Sarma writes in the introduction to Grasp, “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much raw human potential the global educational winnower routinely sacrifices for the sake of a consistent product, but there’s every reason to believe the wastage is vast…” The winnower, sorting who is profitable to invest in and who to discard, is not interested in the realization of our fullest collective potential or individual opportunities to live satisfying and meaningful lives. To manage large numbers of students towards preset and standardized ends, the institution must train them as objects who internalize its own goals and whose bodily needs, emotional expressions, and social interactions are controlled and scheduled rather than messy, vital, and human aspects of living one’s “wild and precious life,” to quote Mary Oliver.
But our embodiment, emotions, and social relationships are important to both our ability to learn and to our general well-being. Students are complex and dynamic people, with desires, interests, creativity, potential, a need for agency and connection. They’re — we’re — learners, continually striving to make sense of and integrate new information about our worlds as we experience them, beyond the bounds of any school and the lessons it wants us to take from our interactions with it. No one arrives on their deathbed full of regret because they wish they’d spent just a few more weeks consumed with stress about a scantron test.
So what have dissatisfied learners, educators, parents, and caretakers come up with as alternatives? We’ll explore a few of those experiments next.