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separating learning from the natural process of living

In Search of Great Skills
How we are separating learning and growth from the natural process of living
By Jim Strickland

If Napoleon Dynamite (of the 2004 film of the same name) was right when he said that “girls only want boyfriends who have great skills,” then I’m surprised my marriage has lasted 15 years. It’s embarrassing to admit, but my wife has already figured it out and swears she loves me anyway, so here goes: I have very few great skills. Ouch… there, I said it. Sad, but true.

Now before I go any further, let me qualify my confession by saying that I have now become, in my mid-40s, a virtual skill-learning machine. This past summer alone, I learned how to make homemade pizza, started knitting, took up gardening and taught myself how to play “Hey There Delilah” on the guitar. Not bad for a recovering incompetent. But how did I make it through school and this far in life without learning how to do anything really useful?

Well, let’s think about that. Schools are designed to prepare (read “program”) our children to fit into the world (read “economy”) as it is. And the world (economy) that currently exists is largely controlled by powerful multinational corporations that exert enormous influence over our governments, our schools and even our minds through mass marketing and control of the media. These corporations don’t want people who can actually do anything. They need people who will follow directions, work long hours, put corporate needs before their own and those of their families and, of course, consume.

So, is it any surprise that this is exactly what our schools teach: obedience, willingness to put aside our own needs and interests, submission to someone else’s imposed agenda regardless of how meaningless and irrelevant it may seem, dependence on “experts” to tell us how to live our lives?

When I think of great skills, or the basic skills needed to live a good, meaningful life, I think of verbs like growing, making, building, creating, playing, connecting – skills that unambiguously add to the quality of our lives. Growing food is living directly. So are knitting a hat and playing music.

Doing what someone else says will prepare us for some hypothetical need we may or may not have in the hypothetical future is living indirectly at best. But we tell our children that they must submit to these soul-squashing exercises in irrelevance if they want to be “successful” in life. By pushing this secondary, once-removed learning that is disconnected from real experience, we are systematically alienating our children from the basic competencies of the good life and creating education addicts.

Social thinker Ivan Illich put it well in his important book Tools for Conviviality: “People who are hooked on teaching are conditioned to be customers for everything else. They see their own personal growth as an accumulation of institutional outputs and prefer what institutions make over what they themselves can do. They repress the ability to discover reality by their own lights.”

We are creating a generation of dependent consumers who are losing the ability to define the good life for themselves. And as Napoleon will attest, the girls aren’t happy.

"Our schools teach obedience, willingness to put aside our own needs and interests, submission to someone else’s imposed agenda regardless of how meaningless and irrelevant it may seem, and dependence on 'experts' to tell us how to live our lives."

So…what to do? Novelist C. S. Lewis wrote that “a sum can be put right: but only by going back ‘til you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” In other words, we’ve made some mistakes, some bad decisions, that will not be corrected by simply tweaking the system. In fact, one popular definition of insanity is repeating the same behaviors and expecting different results. When something is not working, our first response is often to do more of it. Not particularly smart or effective. Going back in order to correct the errors that led to our current situation is going to take courage, fresh thinking and a willingness to shift paradigms.

What are some of these historical mistakes that are separating learning from living and creating a world that is both inhospitable and inaccessible to young people? Here are three examples:

For one thing, we have built our entire culture around the automobile. Our self-imposed dependence on cars and other motorized transportation is not only having dire environmental consequences, but it is also undermining the sense of place and personal connections we need to maintain strong, healthy communities. Children growing up in the suburbs are especially isolated from the real work of our world. We have created a lifestyle and a long-distance infrastructure that is unsustainable – unsustainable energy consumption, unsustainable stress and unsustainable age segregation. Schools are becoming the only legitimate places for our children to be. Not a healthy situation.

Another mistake, closely related to the first, is our movement away from primarily local economies. Strong local economies use less energy, strengthen our sense of community and provide a wide range of work worth doing for all ages and abilities. This grassroots diversity makes local economies naturally more inclusive and better able to integrate learning with the rest of our lives. Children can see first-hand how their community works and can learn by observing and participating.

A painful example of this second roadblock to developing great skills is the way industrial agriculture has undermined small, family-owned farms. In his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben writes that “the number of farmers has fallen from half the American population to about one percent, and in essence those missing farmers have been replaced with oil.” What could be more fundamental to the good life than working in harmony with the natural world to produce the food that keeps us alive? But most of us don’t even know where our food comes from, much less how it is produced. Corporate-controlled industrial agriculture has alienated us from this process, disconnecting us from the earth and shrouding this essential knowledge in a crippling veil of mystery.

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One other barrier to natural learning is our continuing insistence on compulsory school attendance. By its structure, methods and very existence, compulsory schooling teaches the absolute antitheses of democratic values and healthy self-reliance. Legally mandating school attendance requires the state to define what constitutes a “school” and the content of an approved curriculum. Since the state functions largely at the beck and call of the corporate world, this essentially allows the powerful corporate elite to determine what our children should know and be able to do. Given that it is these very elite that are perpetuating the other errors I’ve mentioned, it is quite unlikely that compulsory schooling will do anything but continue to support these debilitating trends. Don’t expect any radical changes here.

These are just a few examples of how we are separating learning and growth from the natural process of living. We need to go back to these forks in the road and work the problems afresh. Imagine what it will take to decrease our addiction to speed, distance and oil? To build strong local economies? To reclaim control of our learning and our lives? These are places we can start to create true learning communities where acquiring great skills comes as naturally as breathing. And while you’re thinking about that, let me catch you a delicious bass. 

Jim Strickland lives in Everett, Washington with his wife and three children. He is a community-based educator in nearby Marysville where he works to promote non-coercive learning and the development of true learning communities. Jim invites response from readers who are interested in joining the conversation on integrating learning with the rest of our lives. He can be reached at This article was published in 2009. 


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