School or Education?

Do We Want School or Education?

Robert J. Burrowes

As our world continues to unravel in response to the impact of our uneconomic activities on ecological systems, it is obviously worth asking searching questions about the nature of modern society. By doing this we can make intelligent decisions about the direction in which we should move as we thoughtfully respond to the interrelated crises we face.

For many people, the central question is this: Will tinkering with human society be enough to get us out of this mess? Many people think not and I am one of them. For the moment, however, rather than focus on the nature of the economy, political systems or other aspects of modern societies, I would like to discuss the issue of education.

For a long time, people in different parts of the world have struggled to expand access, including access for girls, to school. This struggle still takes place in many countries. But I want to add my name to the list of people who question whether school is the best way to get an education. And there are many reasons why I believe it is not.

In essence, schools are designed to teach a disintegrated set of ‘knowledge’ and skills that are useful to those businesses and corporations which provide employment, however menial, in the mainstream economy. This schooling is taking place even now when there is little evidence to suggest that the mainstream economy is capable of providing full employment and, more importantly, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that this economy will need to be utterly transformed if we are to survive the interrelated ecological threats to our survival.

Let me briefly state some problems with school: it is highly damaging physically, sensorily, intellectually and emotionally. Schooling requires the child to spend six hours each day sitting in a school classroom, for up to 13 years. Physically, the classroom utterly destroys posture and movement patterns because the human body is designed to move regularly. If you have ever witnessed the grace of movement of a village African who has never been to school, then you know this too.

Sensorily, the best classroom is devoid of stimulus compared to nature and this exacts a heavy cost by dramatically curtailing the child’s learning opportunities as well as stifling the development of their sensory capacities themselves. Have you ever been awestruck by what an indigenous person raised in a natural environment can learn from a smell, a touch or a breath of wind, or how they can track an animal?

Intellectually, the school classroom offers a mind-numbingly boring and incredibly limited range of topics all taught in lock-step as if each child was identical and had the same interests and learning rates.

Most importantly of all, however, the school classroom helps to destroy children emotionally because it requires the child to be submissively obedient to their teachers. This means they must consciously and unconsciously, all day, every day, fearfully suppress their awareness of the feelings that evolution intended would guide their behaviour at that time, including those that would guide their self-directed learning.

Do you remember being stuck in a classroom, feeling utterly bored while staring out of the window wishing you were running around free outside? The problem is that as we grew older our fear made us learn to suppress our awareness of our feeling of boredom, which was telling us an important truth about how we were spending our time. But this feeling of boredom (as well as the fear that suppressed it and the anger that it ‘acceptably’ represented) still lives deep in our unconscious playing an unconscious part in shaping our behaviour even today (including by making us able to ‘tolerate’ a host of other boring activities, including those at work). Many other suppressed feelings are similarly stored. If you had the power, what do you wish had been your childhood now? What do you want for our children?

I wonder, therefore, if we might not usefully take some time to reconceive our concept of education and how it might be delivered in the world that must now rapidly emerge, so that education might play a useful role in shaping that emergence.

So here is my idea. First, I am going to assume that each child has the potential to achieve self-realisation and to define this, simply, as the capacity to reach their full potential. To do this, the child will need to develop a powerfully integrated mind in which mental functions such as sensing, thoughts, feelings, memory and conscience work together seamlessly so that the child can act with initiative, conviction and courage. And, of course, this can only happen in an environment in which the child is nurtured as a whole person. This child will be able to engage in a deep critique of society and to then courageously participate in the nonviolent struggle to renew human civilisation in accord with our highest ideals however these manifest in each society, given its unique history, ecological foundation and set of cultural relations.

‘This is ambitious’, you are thinking pessimistically. Of course it is, if you are still trapped in that childhood classroom. But let’s get out of it!

Each child is genetically programmed to be highly functional: able to sense an enormous amount from their surroundings, to feel, to think, to use memory and conscience as necessary. And to learn at an incredibly rapid rate; for example, children in many parts of the world learn several languages simultaneously at a very young age (without going to school to do so). But, mostly, we get in the way of children learning, without meaning to do so. How? Simply by not listening when a child tells us what they need and want. Given a choice, I believe that no self-aware child would go to school for more than a day (unless it was doing so to escape a more dysfunctional environment at home).

If we lived in communities, rather than nuclear families, that nurtured each child by listening to them, provided them with opportunities to learn knowledge and skills that enhanced individual and community self-reliance relevant to their future (such as permaculture, participation in group decision-making and conflict resolution processes), and which gave them the chance to learn contextually (whether reading, writing, relevant mathematics, geography, agricultural practices, political economy, tool-making, healthcare or anything else) as they participated in community activities, then each child would be spared the boredom we suffered and have the opportunity to realise their ‘true self’. Moreover, by living in a wider community, our own shortcomings as parents and teachers (including any tendencies to be violent) would be diluted by the immediate presence of other adults/teachers. And we would dilute any shortcomings of theirs.

Do you think your street and neighbourhood could be a community? If you would like to consider one model for this type of future, which takes into account ecological imperatives, you are welcome to consider participating in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth’.

The tragic reality of human life is that few people value the awesome power of the individual Self with an integrated mind (that is, a mind in which memory, thoughts, feelings, sensing, conscience and other functions work together in an integrated way) because this individual will be decisive in choosing life-enhancing behavioural options (including those at variance with social laws and norms) and will fearlessly resist all efforts to control or coerce them with violence.


This article ‘Do We Want School or Education?’ was originally published in various progressive news outlets in July 2013.

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