Are Schools the Problem, and Are We Bound to the 19th Century?

My son at six years, with his dog. Seemed rabbit-hole-esque enough to illustrate that learning happens in every moment of life.

In defense against the battle being waged on homeschooling, Lawrence W. Reed wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education about the misconception that school was institutionalized for the sake of illiterate masses. Reed made the case that literacy was indeed not an issue two centuries ago.

I encountered an exchange about this content suggesting that schools are not fully to blame for declining literacy performance*, and that our society is influenced by a “lazy entertainment culture.” I actually believe schools are indeed not fully to blame. But I do not think our entertainment culture is lazy or a deterrent to learning. The discussion is made even more complex by the nature of performance measures.

*Performance measures, cohort outcomes, literacy rates – these are standardized measures and not true indicators of whole aspects of learning and knowledge attainment or application.

The premise of Reed’s essay is to debunk the myth that we needed institutionalized education for the sake of the masses. He provided a thorough overview of the elite knowledge attainment and wide access to many types and levels of information 200 years ago. He openly omitted for the moment, the preclusion and oppression of slaves and to certain degree, women from all, or certain access. He also illustrated the high functional applications of knowledge and skill then, as compared with relative low functional preparedness, now.

But in terms of our current cultural trends and influences, comparison across two centuries is a bit of a stranded analysis. Exponentially speaking, there can be no comparison. This is my jumping off point.

Parents restrict their kids’ natural urges to practice the functional skills of this age. I believe they do so out of fear projection, no matter how well-intended. This limiting, prohibiting, judging, restricting, and dismissing of media and other forms of visual, audio, and meme culture (including gaming) breeds a certain and noticeable level of social and functional ignorance.

I have witnessed this phenomena between my son and other whole life unschoolers and their schooled peers. It is disturbing, and frustrating for the kids who have not been held back from practicing and exploring with their generation’s tool sets. The *limits* many people place on “allowing” children and teens certain exposure to content creates taboos and extreme trajectories. They create the very reality they fear.

While I don’t take issue with Reed’s content or the purpose of his essay, a comparison of schooled literacy now to literacy of the early 1800s and prior is not necessarily a congruent comparison. I for one, dislike reading that flowery stuff. Give me emojis, please. Give me cave paintings and art. Let me fill in the blanks with my imagination and preferences. Better yet, let me press a button and get there in a faction of the time. I don’t feel this is a bad thing.

I don’t discount the evidence that school contributes to continuously poorer performance on standardized tests and measures. But these measures are assigned erroneously and in limiting ways. The more the testing is diluted according to demographic analysis, the further away from reality things get. You cannot reverse-engineer homogeneity.

Functional knowledge is also relative – school does not teach the functional skills required for the 21st century. Reed demonstrated this clearly. Schools have diminished intellectual capacity by wiring the brain not to question, but to accept input. This wiring is reinforced (flash to kids who parrot their parents rather than thinking aloud for themselves). The authoritarian nature of schooling is responsible in large part for individuals being any measure less mature and discerning today than for the same ages even a century ago. Our brains were hijacked.

Colonial and Victorian societies had their share of misguided choices and pastimes, though, relative to our own era. And school is not the only system on the hook for limiting perspectives and neglecting the development of functional skills.

While school is a paradigm of indoctrination, parenting is entrenched in forms of indoctrination and authoritarianism. Why is it that teachers are now being afforded all but adoption papers by parents who are frustrated trying to do it all for the first time in quarantine? This is an ancestral issue, complete with cultural influences and well-intended (or, unquestioned) normative measures passed down through centuries without relative purpose.

Parents are not seeing that the responsibility for connection with their children starts with them. But rest assured, this is also an age of compassion. When we know better, we do better. Or at least, we can try to build a bridge to reshape the predominant paradigm.

Narratives are important as we seek to level up the paradigm of learning, and what we pass forward as education. I think the focus needs to be on shedding school authoritarianism and standardization, not on controlling the indulgence in cultural interests of current society. We need to open up that highway and let kids experience freedom of choice, freedom of thought, and whole life autonomy.

Parental fear is responsible in tandem with the authoritarian nature of school for preventing the natural flow of societal learning and functional application of information. Someone not being able to read content from the 1800s has little to do with how much Netflix or YouTube they consume. Our society is different.

We also don’t have the need to read as much as we did then. I speed-read or scan much of the content I consume, while my son’s generation absorbs similar sound bytes as they move through video content. The format is different, but they are in control of when they speed up or slow down to focus. The method works, and when they have questions, they detour down a rabbit hole that might contain a combination of video, written, or functional life aspects around a topic. They even research, collaborate, and invent. And when quarantine is not an issue, they are facilitated towards even more open-ended excursion.

These trips through winding pathways instill a natural complexity of comprehension. This can be compared to what schools try to do when they make attempts to integrate subjects that don’t appeal to students’ interests. This fabricated learning is boring, inherently disjointed stuff that schools coerce kids to digest. Then they pollute the process further with standardized testing and far-fetched, relatively meaningless analysis of these data.

Thank goodness I have the freedom to indulge in whatever my brain wants to accommodate in a given moment most of the time. Children should have the same freedom to develop their own minds. Our experience with whole life freedoms tells me they can be trusted to do so when facilitated gently.

Information in this century is readily available. We can take exponential shortcuts. But we have to have the ingenuity and creativity to find answers and solutions to our 21st century problems. Intrinsic motivation is a far more powerful learning tool than coerced, authoritarian education.

Is the question really about literacy…. or is it about self-direction?

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