Deschooling our Lives
by Matt Hern
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Foreword
by Ivan Illich
 
 
LEAFING THROUGH THE PAGES OF DESCHOOLING OUR LIVES transports me back to the year 1970 when, together with Everett Reimer at the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, I gathered together some of the thoughtful critics of education (Paulo Freire, John Holt, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Kozol, Joel Spring, George Dennison, and others) to address the futility of schooling - not only in Latin America, which was already obvious, but also in the so-called developed, industrialized world.
 
On Wednesday mornings during the spring and summer of that year, I distributed drafts of essays that eventually became chapters of my book, Deschooling Society. Looking back over a quarter century, many of the views and criticisms that seemed so radical back in 1970 today seem rather naive. While my criticisms of schooling in that book may have helped some people reflect on the unwanted social side effects of that institution - and perhaps pursue meaningful alternatives to it - I now realize that I was largely barking up the wrong tree. To understand why I feel this way and to get a glimpse of where I am today, I invite readers to accompany me on the journey I took after Deschooling Society.
 
My travelogue begins twenty-five years ago when Deschooling Society was about to appear. During the nine months the manuscript was at the publishers, I grew more and more dissatisfied with the text, which, by the way, did not argue for the elimination of schools. This misapprehension I owe to Cass Canfield Sr., Harper's president, who named the book and in so doing misrepresented my thoughts. The book advocates the disestablishment of schools, in the sense in which the Church has been disestablished in the United States. By disestablishment, I meant, first, not paying public monies and, second, not granting any special social privileges to either church- or school-goers. (I even suggested that instead of financing schools, we should go further than we went with religion and have schools pay taxes, so that schooling would become a luxury object and be recognized as such.)
 
I called for the disestablishment of schools for the sake of improving education and here, I noticed, lay my mistake. Much more important than the disestablishment of schools, I began to see, was the reversal of those trends that make of education a pressing need rather than a gift of gratuitous leisure. I began to fear that the disestablishment of the educational church would lead to a fanatical revival of many forms of degraded, all-encompassing education, making the world into a universal classroom, a global schoolhouse. The more important question became, "Why do so many people - even ardent critics of schooling - become addicted to education, as to a drug?"
 
Norman Cousins published my own recantation in the Saturday Review during the very week Deschooling Society came out. In it I argued that the alternative to schooling was not some other type of educational agency, or the design of educational opportunities in every aspect of life, but a society which fosters a different attitude of people toward tools. I expanded and generalized this argument in my next book, Tools for Conviviality.
 
Largely through the help of my friend and colleague Wolfgang Sachs, I came to see that the educational function was already emigrating from the schools and that, increasingly, other forms of compulsory learning would be instituted in modern society. It would become compulsory not by law, but by other tricks such as making people believe that they are learning something from TV, or compelling people to attend in-service training, or getting people to pay huge amounts of money in order to be taught how to have better sex, how to be more sensitive, how to know more about the vitamins they need, how to play games, and so on. This talk of "lifelong learning" and "learning needs" has thoroughly polluted society, and not just schools, with the stench of education.
 
Then came the third stage, in the late seventies and early eighties, when my curiosity and reflections focused on the historical circumstances under which the very idea of educational needs can arise. When I wrote Deschooling Society, the social effects, and not the historical substance of education, were still at the core of my interest. I had questioned schooling as a desirable means, but I had not questioned education as a desirable end. I still accepted that, fundamentally, educational needs of some kind were an historical given of human nature. I no longer accept this today.
 
As I refocused my attention from schooling to education, from the process toward its orientation, I came to understand education as learning when it takes place under the assumption of scarcity in the means which produce it. The "need" for education from this perspective appears as a result of societal beliefs and arrangements which make the means for so-called socialization scarce. And, from this same perspective, I began to notice that educational rituals reflected, reinforced, and actually created belief in the value of learning pursued under conditions of scarcity. Such beliefs, arrangements, and rituals, I came to see, could easily survive and thrive under the rubrics of deschoooling, free schooling, or homeschooling (which, for the most part, are limited to the commendable rejection of authoritarian methods).
 
What does scarcity have to do with education? If the means for learning (in general) are abundant, rather than scarce, then education never arises - one does not need to make special arrangements for "learning." If, on the other hand, the means for learning are in scarce supply, or are assumed to be scarce, then educational arrangements crop up to "ensure" that certain important knowledge, ideas, skills, attitudes, etc., are "transmitted." Education then becomes an economic commodity which one consumes, or, to use common language, which one "gets." Scarcity emerges both from our perceptions, which are massaged by education professionals who are in the business of imputing educational needs, and from actual societal arrangements that make access to tools and to skilled, knowledgeable people hard to come by - that is, scarce.
 
If there were one thing I could wish for the readers (and some of the writers) of Deschooling Our Lives, it would be this: If people are seriously to think about deschooling their lives, and not just escape from the corrosive effects of compulsory schooling, they could do no better than to develop the habit of setting a mental question mark beside all discourse on young people's "educational needs" or "learning needs," or about their need for "a preparation for life." I would like them to reflect on the historicity of these very ideas. Such reflection would take the new crop of deschoolers a step further from where the younger and somewhat naive Ivan was situated, back when talk of "deschooling" was born.

Bremen, Germany

Summer 1995

Table of Contents
1. Kids, Community, and Self-Design: An Introduction, Matt Hern 1
 
Part One - Looking Back:
Some of the Roots of Modern Deschooling 9
2. On Education, Leo Tolstoy 10
3. The Intimate and the Ultimate, Vinoba Bhave 16
4. Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich 23
5. Instead of Education, John Holt 27
 
Part Two - Living Fully: More Recent Analysis 33
6. Sweet Land of Liberty, Grace Llewellyn 34
7. The Public School Nightmare: Why Fix a System Designed to Destroy Individual
Thought? John Taylor Gatto 39
8. Challenging the Popular Wisdom: What Can Families Do? Geraldine Lyn-Piluso, Gus Lyn-
Piluso, and Duncan Clarke 48
9. Losing an Eye: Some Thoughts on Real Safety, Matt Hern 58
10. Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No, thanks. Aaron Falbel 64
 
Part Three - Just Say No: Staying Home 71
11. Dinosaur Homeschool, Donna Nichols-White 72
12. Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense David Guterson 76
13. Doing Something Very Different: Growing Without Schooling, Susannah Sheffer 81
14. Thinking about Play, Practice, and the Deschooling of Music, Mark Douglas 89
15. Homeschooling as a Single Parent, Heather Knox 94
16. Learning as a Lifestyle, Heidi Priesnitz 99
17. Deschooling and Parent Involvement in Education: ALLPIE - A Learning Network, Seth
Rockmuller and Katharine Houk 103
 
Part Four - Schools That Ain't: Places That Work 107
18. Summerhill School, Zoe Readhead 108
19. A History of the Albany Free School and Community, Chris Mercogliano 113
20. A School for Today, Mimsy Sadofsky 120
21. A Wonder Story Told by a Young Tree, ilana cameron 126
22. Windsor House, Meghan Hughes and Jim Carrico 134
23. Liberating Education, Satish Kumar 140
 
Part Five - A Reading and Resouce List 143
Books, Magazines, and Organizations for Deschooling 144

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