How School Colonizes Minds and Cultures

John Holt was deeply influenced by Ivan Illich and as I study both I am deeply struck by their vision of what education had become by the early 1970s and where they thought it was likely to go given its trajectory. Sadly, their worst predictions about schooling have come true, and the loopholes that allow individuals to learn and grow outside of institutionalized education are being closed in some countries and tightened in others in order to ensure that everyone receives the same professional treatment from school.

I’m also struck by how few homeschoolers, unschoolers, and alternative educators seem to grasp the insidious concept behind the seemingly innocuous statement that so horrified Holt and Illich, “The world is my classroom.” Indeed, I’ve seen tee shirts and homeschooling/unschooling books and articles that make this proclamation verbatim. As Holt wrote in his 1976 book Instead of Education: Ways to Help People do Things Better (reprinted in 2004 by Sentient Publishing):

I understand now, as I did not understand at all at first, why Illich reacted with such horror when I suggested that we should push the walls of the school building out further and further. This seemed to me a perfectly good metaphorical way to describe what I wanted to do in abolishing the distinction between learning and the rest of life. Only later did I see the danger that he saw almost immediately. Think again about the global schoolhouse, madhouse, prison. What are madhouses and prisons? They are compulsory treatment insitutions. They are places in which one group of people, A, do things to another group of people,B, without consent because still a third group, C, has decided that this is the right thing to do. Prisons, at least those dedicated to some notion of rehabilitation, which by the way a recent study shows that most prisoners hate and fear, are places in which one group says to another, “We are going to keep control of your life, keep on doing things to you until we think you measure up.” In the same way the doctors in the mental hospital say to the patients, “We are going to treat you, keep doing things to you until we think that you measure up, i.e., have recovered, are ‘sane’.” From here we see that school is exactly this kind of compulsory treatment institution. Society has decided that one group of people, the educators, shall be entitled to treat, to do all sorts of things to another group of people, the students, whether they want it or not, until the educators think that the students measure up, are ready to go out into the world and live. At no point is the student allowed to say, that’s enough. It’s for the educator to decide what’s enough.

And so a global schoolhouse would be a world in which certain people would have a constant and unlimited right to subject the rest of us to various sorts of tests, and if we did not measure up, to require that we submit ourselves to various sorts of treatment until we did. Seen in this light it is indeed a most horrifying prospect.

Illich, a priest, viewed the situation in a similar way but with a different lens:

Arnold Toynbee has pointed out that the decadence of a great culture is usually accompanied by the rise of a new World Church which extends hope to the domestic proletariat while serving the needs of a new warrior class. School seems eminently suited to be the World Church of our decaying culture . . .

. . . School serves as an effective creator and sustainer of social myth because of its structure as a ritual of graded promotions. Introduction into this gambling ritual is much more important than what or how something is taught. It is the game itself that schools, that gets into the blood and becomes a habit. A whole society is initiated into the Myth of Unending Consumption of services. This happens to the degree that token participation in the open-ended ritual is made compulsory and compulsive everywhere. School directs ritual rivalry into an international game which obliges competitors to blame the world’s ills on those who cannot or will not play. (From Deschooling: A Reader, edited by Ian Lister.)

Last year I heard of a movie, Schooling the World, that deals with these issues from today’s point of view but I had not seen it nor did I know much about it. This month my friends at the posted this excellent essay, Occupy Your Brain by Carol Black, about the colonizing effects of mass education and the global schoolhouse and I learned that she is the creator of the movie and website, Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden. Here is some of what she wrote:

Once learning is institutionalized under a central authority, both freedom for the individual and respect for the local are radically curtailed.  The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, think her own thoughts, or even  use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure.  Family and community are sidelined, their knowledge now seen as inferior to the school curriculum.  The teacher has control over the child, the school district has control over the teacher, the state has control over the district, and increasingly, systems of national standards and funding create national control over states. In what should be considered a chilling development, there are murmurings of the idea of creating global standards for education—in other words, the creation of a single centralized authority dictating what every child on the planet must learn.

The problem with this scenario should be obvious: who gets to decide what the world’s children will learn?  Who decides how and when and where they will learn it?  Who controls what’s on the test, or when it will be given, or how its results will be used?  And just as important, who decides what children will not learn?  The hierarchies of educational authority are theoretically justified by the superior “expertise” of those at the top of the institutional pyramid, which qualifies them to dictate these things to the rest of us.  But who gets to choose the experts?  And crucially, who profits from it?

I urge you to read this essay in its entirety and to consider arranging a showing of the film as a way to encourage people to challenge the idea that compulsory education is innately good and vital for all communities.


In one of those great moments of synchronicity, I just learned that the film will have a free public screening at Harvard University on April 11 as part of a film series at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, from 5—7PM at Askwith Hall, 13 Appian Way, to be followed by a discussion with its director, Carol Black. If you're in the neighborhood, come and watch it with me!