Monday, August 15, 2016

Public Education vs. Public Schooling

I am a true believer in, and a full supporter of, public education.

The trouble is that public education and public schooling have become synonymous. Schooling is one method of education; but it is certainly not the only one and, I argue, not the best one.

Until we separate public education from public schooling--to truly "deschool" our perspective on learning--we will be mired in a debate about reforming one, singular method of education (that is, schooling) while ignoring other methods of education that could be (and I believe are) better.

In his pathbreaking 1970 book, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich writes: "Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring" (Introduction).

A perfect example of educational webs, as opposed to funnels like school, is the public library. I write often about public libraries as ideal examples of currently-existing, taxpayer-funded, community-based, self-directed learning hubs. Libraries are amazing! They are openly accessible to all members of a community and, unlike schools, do not segregate by age or ability. They offer classes, enrichment opportunities, lectures, events, ESL lessons, computer courses and a whole host of other, purely optional, non-coercive public programming. They are brimming with gifted facilitators who love "learning, sharing, and caring" and who are eager to help guide community learning. Increasingly, libraries are expanding their offerings beyond books and digital information to become hackerspaces and makerspaces. Many libraries lend out items such as tools, musical instruments, kitchen supplies, recreational equipment like fishing poles and snowshoes, and even gardening plots. If one library doesn't have what you want or need, you can freely choose another. In some cities and towns, libraries take over summertime distribution of the federal free- and reduced-lunch program to help nourish children all year long. Some libraries, like the McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, which made headlines for taking over an abandoned Wal-Mart building, are open 355 days a year. Public education at its best.

The primary difference between public education and public schooling is that the former is open and self-directed, while the latter is compulsory and top-down. Both are community-based and taxpayer-funded; both can lead to an educated citizenry. But public education, like public libraries and community learning centers, can foster an educated citizenry without the cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual wounding that we so often find in coercive schooling. Parker Palmer writes in the Foreword to Kirsten Olson's excellent book, Wounded By School, about "the hidden and long-lasting wounds that result from the structural violence inherent in the ways we organize and evaluate learning, wounds that range from 'I found out that I have no gift of creativity,' or 'I learned that I'm no good at sports,' to 'They drained off my self-confidence,' 'I emerged feeling stupid,' or "They put me in the losers' line and I've been there ever since.' Equally sad and profoundly ironic is the wound that may be the most widespread of all: the eagerness to learn that we all bring into the world as infants is often diminished and even destroyed by our schooling."

By moving beyond the paradigm of public schooling, toward public education for all, we can open ourselves up to enormous possibilities for learning. We can foster a citizenry that is not only educated, but happy, competent, and fulfilled because individuals' innate curiosity and natural drive to learn and do have not be squelched by schooling's narrow, one-size-fits-all method of education. We can encourage innovation and imagination--skills profoundly important to confront the seemingly insurmountable challenges our planet now faces and that are nearly impossible to cultivate within a forced schooling model that values conformity over creativity.

We can do this. We can support public education in its truest sense and open ourselves up to the panoply of community-based, taxpayer-funded education possibilities that will sprout when we move beyond the shadow of the public schooling dinosaur.


  1. I believe that by "educational webs" Illich was referring to something that facilitates connections between people. It's like a place (real or virtual) where interested learners can be introduced to doers/more advanced learners. If there's a person in town who spends their days cooking and gardening, and a kid is interested in cooking and gardening and they meet and seem to have good chemistry, that kid could spend parts of their days with that person, watching them, asking questions, trying things with their own hands (with supervision to make sure that they don't get hurt). With time the kid's skill would grow, and they would become more helpful to the other person, being able to take over some tasks. Then they would probably feel confident enough to engage in those skills on their own, in their own home, in which case they might like to be introduced to another kid who's interested in learning these skills, and would like to watch how they're done at a basic level...

    When you view things in that way, it is clear that a library is not a web, but rather another sort of funnel, just a non-coercive one. There's a big difference between reading someone's book, which is a very linear experience (you start from the beginning, you go through all the sentences and all the chapters no matter what's already in your head - unless you're specifically looking for just some of the information, in which case you'll skip some parts and focus on others). This is in contrast to meeting the person who wrote the book, getting to discuss things with them that are concerning to your life right now, getting their input, offering your ideas regarding some of what they're thinking of, maybe watching them do whatever activities that the book is based on, maybe even trying to participate, seeing how it feels to you (rather than reading about how it feels to them). That would be a more bottom-up "learning, sharing, and caring", which ironically Illich can't give us through his books, all he can give us is words, with only the words that he chose to include there and nothing that could be customized to our experience or our ability to understand his points.

    1. Ivan Illich explains his webs by stating: “A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.”

      In 1970, it's unlikely that Illich could even imagine the myriad ways that modern technology create these educational webs for all. I can learn Spanish by Skyping with a native Spanish speaker in Barcelona! I can learn advanced math for free with Khan Academy! I can take MIT classes online for free with MIT OpenCourseware! The list goes on, and public spaces, like libraries and other possibilities we have yet to invent, can facilitate equal access to these webs and promote expansion of self-directed education without the need for forced schooling.

    2. From this quote it still sounds like he's talking about people learning from other people, through observation and interaction. There's a subtle but critical difference between this "real" learning and what we think of as learning (which is usually top-down). One example to highlight that difference is when looking at what someone like your daughter learns from her beloved math teacher. You can view it as you do: she's learning math, obviously. Or, you can view it as: she's learning to teach math to kids in a fun and engaging way (you wrote that she already served as a teaching assistant at some point, which is exactly how she would go about honing that skill). Of course you can say, why can't it be both? Of course it can, only that what people are driven to do is generally inspired by those that they look up to (parents and beloved mentors), that's where they see skills used in context and learn how to connect them to their own lives, in the quest to become valuable and productive members of their communities.

  2. Hi Kerry,

    All of this appeals to me, but of course I'm a homeschooling mom. A member of the proverbial choir, if you will.

    What would your sales pitch be to all the families that say they're quite happy with their kids' schools?

    1. Hi Amy, so great to hear from you! I think the real key here is for us, societally, to untangle American education from American schooling. They are two completely different entities. Schooling is one method of education, but it is not the only one. It is time we look much more critically at the skills and attributes necessary for citizens of a pluralistic democracy living on a planet in peril.

  3. Hi Kerry, I'm curious to hear your reflections on transitioning from a (talented) school system participant to your current perspective with four children. I'd love to read your reflections on deschooling for yourself and your husband, or your experience if you made the transition somehow differently.

  4. Just read your article. Good one.I chose to teach in a public high school precisely because I pitied the children who felt forced to be at school, who felt trapped like I did when I was their age.