Natural Life Magazine

Challenging Assumptions in Education
From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society
~  book excerpt - the introduction  ~
by Wendy Priesnitz

Our education system was designed to fight and win political and economic wars. We needed people to build bombs, radar and airplanes. We now have different problems, which require different types of solutions. Our present technologies are not sustainable. We need to figure out how to reverse climate change, feed the world’s population and preserve the planet’s clean water supplies. We need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels by developing renewable energy technologies. We need to change our waste management procedures, before we bury ourselves in both consumer and toxic waste. And more. The problems are so big that in order to fix them, we need to find new ways of working together rather than fighting with each other.

Unfortunately, our public education systems are not set up for solving these modern problems. Although today’s young people are living in a sophisticated, fast-paced, highly technological world, the schools we make them attend are still operating much like they did a century ago. The dilemma is that as long as we educate people in traditional ways, they will perpetuate the current way of doing things. In order to make change, we must fundamentally transform how we think about learning and the position of individuals in society.

By our very use of words like “teaching” and “schooling”, we seem to accept the idea that some people at the top are doing things to other people farther down the totem pole. Our current education systems reflect our society’s paternalistic, hierarchical worldview, which undervalues children in the same way it takes the earth’s resources for granted. Nothing less than a complete paradigm shift will change this situation. And in order to create that shift, we will have to examine and challenge our assumptions about children and learning.

Challenging assumptions is not easy. Like most other people, my upbringing and my schooling taught me to accept what I was told by my parents, my teachers and everyone else in my life. I did that well. I was a good little girl and got good grades in school. I came from a working class family that lived in a mid-sized industrial city. Nobody in my family had gone to university and nobody suggested I go there either. My dream was to be an airline stewardess as we called flight attendants in the 1960s. But I had not been encouraged to go after my dreams; instead, I was supposed to know my place. So as a relatively naive 19-year-old, I went to teachers’ college. I was a good girl there too and got good grades once again. And I actually got quite excited about the prospect of filling little heads with important facts.

"Our current education systems reflect our society’s paternalistic, hierarchical worldview, which undervalues children in the same way it takes the earth’s resources for granted."

When I graduated, I got a job teaching at a school in my old neighborhood. What disappointment and disillusionment to discover that I was spending most of my time yelling at kids to keep them from swinging from the lights and jumping out the windows! They were not interested in my carefully planned lessons and colorfully decorated bulletin boards. In fact, they didn’t want to be there at all. So I ended my career as a school teacher after only four months.

Then I did what I should have done while I was attending teachers’ college. I started to think about how people well as what we need to learn and why. I decided that all those lessons I had so carefully memorized in teachers’ college about how to motivate students to learn were absolute nonsense. I realized that we learn things better if we are not compelled and coerced; if we are given control over what, when, where, why and how we learn; and if we are trusted and respected. I realized that until schools get in the way, children do not need to be forced to learn…because curiosity about the world and how it works is a natural human trait.

Around the same time, I met and married a man who agreed that we would not send our future children to school. When I was pregnant with our first daughter Heidi in 1972, I fought anger, frustration and sometimes despair at the state of the world into which I would bring her. Propelled by a desire to make the world a better place for our children, we decided that Heidi and her sister Melanie who was born 18 months later, would grow up unfettered by many of the assumptions people make about children’s subordinate place in the world.

Then, when the girls were ages three and four, we started a home-based business to publish Natural Life. We had no training or experience in the media world. But we knew that we wanted to provide information and inspiration to help people question the status quo and the conventional, consumer-oriented ways that were damaging our Earth.

Our home business was a deliberately alternative economic, social and environmental choice. But little did I know that the entrepreneurial experience would have ramifications far beyond the value of putting food on our family’s table – or that it would teach me to challenge assumptions...about economics, education and food production, and about what is truly important in life.

In 1979, in an attempt to communicate with other families who were challenging the assumption that children must attend school, I founded the Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers (CAHS). It was a national network that helped launch many of the provincial support and advocacy organizations that are in place today in Canada.

At any rate, as the end of the 20th century loomed, current events made me wonder if those small, personal choices I was making were enough. I watched child poverty and the abuse of women and children grow to epidemic proportions globally, while social safety nets were being torn apart in the name of fiscal responsibility. Youth crime appeared to be increasing, fueled at least partially by the violence that surrounds us, both in real life and in the media. I saw indigenous peoples still fighting for their basic rights. I saw logging companies continuing to ravage forests, tobacco companies cynically buying their way out of responsibility for their deadly product, global warming wreaking havoc with world weather patterns, garbage dumps overflowing, nuclear power plants and oil tankers leaking and toxic chemicals being found in mothers’ milk.

That is how, in 1996, my need to “do more” led me to accept an invitation to run for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. Although I had no formal experience with politics, I realized that, as the feminist slogan goes, “the personal is political” and many of the choices I had made in my life were, in reality, political.

The Canadian Greens were only thirteen years old at the time, and I took on the daunting task of trying to build a truly progressive, grassroots alternative to the mainstream political parties. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that from day one, many in the tiny party wanted a party that was not a party, an organization that would not organize and a leader who would not lead. This seems to have translated into a distrust of initiative, which resulted in lack of action, as well as seemingly endless conflicts about structure and process.

I eventually resigned, disillusioned by the party’s lack of ability to walk its talk, in spite of some wonderful policies and dedicated people. Later, I realized that the experience had taught me something important, in the same way that my brief school teaching career had done. I had learned that only when we have truly rejected the top-down model of organizing our lives and our institutions, will we be able to concentrate on building sustainable communities.

And surprise, surprise, I realized that I had known the source of the problem – and hence the solution – all along! One of our most revered (and hierarchical) institutions takes young children, molds them into obedient consumers and fits them into their places in the hierarchy of our society, leaving few of them able to do anything except accept the status quo while bemoaning its problems. So I ended up back where I had started from – thinking about children and how we equip them to save the world, or at least to live happily and productively in it.

There are few assumptions more entrenched than those we have about how we educate children. So I decided to write Challenging Assumptions in Education to help others examine those assumptions and to explore alternative ways of thinking about how we can help children grow up into problem-solving, assumption-challenging, compassionate citizens who think independently and participate in the life of their communities and countries.

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Of course, challenging assumptions can be uncomfortable. No matter how open-minded we are, most of us have at least one sacred cow based on the way we were raised or are currently living our adult lives. So some of the conclusions in my book will be controversial to some readers. They certainly are radical, because my own process of challenging assumptions has convinced me that we need to do nothing less than dismantle our public education systems and start over from scratch. There is no point continuing to pour increasing amounts of money into trying to fix our school systems, when it is those very systems that are the problem.

Sociologists, futurists, politicians, entrepreneurs and even some educators talk about the need for a revolution in education. But what they envision really amounts to nothing more than tinkering with the old, crumbling structure. Although there have been many cosmetic alterations to public education over the past century, the traditional blueprint for education persists...and it looks like a factory. From time to time alternative schools and programs emerge that are teaching a so-called “child-centered curriculum”, or that are using team-teaching or a program of integrated studies or some other new pedagogy.

But the context of these well-meaning and sometimes less oppressive alternatives is still hierarchy and coercion. Most people still believe that children and young people must be made to go to school or else they won’t become educated. And even the most radical critics of the school system seem not to want to abandon the belief that children must be processed for a life as producers and consumers.

This is not surprising, since education is, itself, an industry. Our present system was designed to prepare workers for an Industrial Age culture, teaching authoritarianism, self-repression, and strict obedience to the clock. True to the industrial model, control over what is to be learned rests somewhere inside a huge bureaucracy that oversees both teachers and students.

Getting rid of the factory model of public education challenges not just our assumptions about how children learn, but a variety of agendas related to who manages the affairs of our communities and how corporations make profits. It is those vested interests which allow other wise insightful and community-minded people to ignore the scandalous malfunctioning of our billion dollar education industry.

Overturning the education industry is not some kind of utopian dream. The transition from “educating” to “learning” is being recognized by a wide variety of often conservative business people from management guru Peter Drucker to futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler. Drucker, in his book Post-Capitalist Society, writes of a society based on knowledge, one in which all society is an open, lifelong learning system in which every person can enter any level at any time.

"Getting rid of the factory model of public education challenges not just our assumptions about how children learn, but a variety of agendas related to who manages the affairs of our communities and how corporations make profits."

The Tofflers, in their book Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, write that schools operate like factories. They say, “An important question to ask of any proposed educational innovation is simply this: Is it intended to make the factory run more efficiently, or is it designed, as it should be, to get rid of the factory model altogether and replace it with individualized, customized education?”

Some futurists were even thinking in those terms two decades ago. Back in 1979 the Research Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education commissioned a study on future trends and strategic planning. The author of one scenario, Dr. Norman Henchey, a professor at McGill University’s Faculty of Education, foresaw the end of compulsory education by the year 2000. In his fictional account of the future, Henchey described a transition from compulsory schooling to a concept that he called “Guaranteed Access to Educational Services”, which he said was inevitable because the definitions of schooling and education have become “so broad that any definition of compulsory learning has little meaning and is unenforceable”.

Here we are in the new millennium and that sort of change has not yet happened. And it will not happen until we give up on the hierarchical, coercive, industrial model of education – whether it looks like a public school, a charter school, a private school, or a home school. We must deschool society, as author Ivan Illich put it back in 1970, rather than merely reform the institution. We must demolish the institution of schooling because it impedes learning and enslaves children. Then we need to put both money and creativity into creating opportunities and infrastructures that respect children and help them learn.

To do that, we must challenge our dearly held assumptions about the purpose and process of education. These are assumptions that have created a society that chooses consumption over action, that favors developing new weapons to relating to each other, that encourages production over conservation.

I believe change on the scale that is required happens one person at a time. So I hope that you will embark on your own personal journey to deschooling our society…and help put learning back into the hands of a learner that you know.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and Life Learning Magazine, and a journalist with 40 years of experience. She has also authored thirteen books. She is the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school as children. This article is excerpted from her book Challenging Assumptions in Education.


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