Schooling is Not the Same as Education

Ivan Illich explored how schooling is not the same as education in his book Deschooling Society in 1971; other writers, such as Paul Goodman in the U.S. and A. S. Neill in the UK, also wrote about this distinction. Nonetheless, in the twenty-first century most parents and educators are quick to claim that education is primarily what happens in school; education that takes place outside of school’s measuring and recording apparatus is inconsequential or extracurricular at best.

For three decades I’ve seen homeschooling and unschooling get more positive press and more adherents, but it is still not at a level to sway the animosity and outright dismissal of homeschooling by educators, the general public, and policymakers (“I guess it’s their right to do it, but I don’t like it,” is the general attitude I detect from these groups).

I want to share some ideas that help explain why this is so from a very interesting article written by Harriet Pattison for the Journal of Philosophy of Education 49, November 2015, “How to Desire Differently: Home Education as a Heterotopia.”

Pattison shows how difficult it is to judge homeschooling on the grounds of it being considered better than school or different than school—this is because we are automatically comparing homeschooling to school-created, school-enforced measurements of success. For the better-than-school crowd, they choose to use school measurements and time frames to rate their success as homeschoolers, thereby openly giving these measurements their support. For the different-than-school crowd, using a school comparison such as grade level, notes Pattison, “implies an acceptance of the justification for, and the efficacy of, schooling’s means of measurement.”

In particular, I was struck by her discussion of how “the philosophical divide between autonomous home educators and advocates of education as schooling created a communicative impasse.” This communication breakdown has been an issue for as long as I can remember—John Holt (and many today) struggled to find the right words to describe learning that does not resemble learning in school nor is measured on the scales and time frames of conventional school learning. Throughout my work and with my colleagues at HoltGWS we sought to broaden our perception of education so it is not bound nor judged by school-imposed assumptions about living and learning. More recently, in conjunction with Dr. Peter Gray and others, we started, so people can see their educational options, including homeschooling. This, too, has had limited success because of the communication problem: this title is felt to be too negative about school. We are now in the process of changing that organization into a new one, the American Association for Self-Directed Education, in the hope the public will more readily understand what we are about. Here's the definition of education we developed for the AASDE:

Education is the acquisition of knowledge, values, and skills that are conducive to a satisfying and meaningful life.

The communication issues we face when presenting a different vision of education are well described by Pattison: “. . . the alternative label ensures that home education is seen as a contrast . . . Employing the concepts and categories of mainstream education . . . joins an educational position or statement to the dominant discourse and therefore acts to continue and support its power.” Such paradoxes fill this essay, and Pattison is good at noting how this is true from the personal to the political levels: home education “is legal, yet the site of much official unrest; a point of political resistance and a point of personal defense; heavily frowned on and idealistically championed. It is described both as a safe haven for children and families and as a form of abuse. It physically disrupts the social rules of time and space, and conceptually disturbs the cultural and social binaries of home and school.”

Writing for her colleagues in philosophy of education, Pattison calls for using the idea of heterotopia as a way to remove the weight and educational assumptions of the dominant discourse that prevent any serious exploration of alternatives—for instance, that education must be a thoroughly planned, age-graded enterprise administered only by professionally trained people.

“There are implications here for all involved in education and for all concerned with how society deals with difference. As political discomfort about how to handle alternative education grows so does the urgency with which new philosophies are needed to embrace and traverse a new landscape. “The rise of home education offers the chance to consider the legitimacy of current understandings of education and the limits and restrictions of the conceptual tools on which this understanding is founded.”

Last week, when I first learned about this paper and began thinking about it, two news stories crossed my desk that show how homeschooling, and in particular the “different from school” position (unschooling), is making inroads into some mainstream education discussions. An article in the Christian Science Monitor claims, “A once-utopian idea—allowing kids to ‘discover’ their own education path while learning at home—goes mainstream.” The second is this podcast from Driven2Educate. It is an interview with Ken Danford, cofounder and executive director of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland, MA. Ken makes it explicit that it is okay to leave school if you are not thriving there (“If the system isn’t serving you, stop trying so hard and get out”). Ken also describes how you can have a far more meaningful education by leaving school and pursuing your own studies with family, community, and institutional support from places like North Star. This interview spurred a Huffpost Education blogger to write about it.

Ken has been operating North Star for 20 years; I’ve been working at HoltGWS for 35 years. John Holt, Ivan Illich, Paul Goodman, A.S. Neill and many others wrote 50 years ago or more about our need to create alternatives to school as well as alternative schools. I don’t know when the education establishment will listen seriously to the ideas these writers and educators present—but as the Monitor piece and Ken’s interview indicate, parents and young people appear to be more open than the education establishment is to conceiving education as a broad, intrinsically motivated endeavor rather than a factory-like process to be endured.