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Dear Kairosians

Recently a friend of mine shared on Facebook his belief that schooling of children should be “stopped, possibly even outlawed”. This is a very successful business person, holding a senior position in an international corporate. So I take his opinion seriously, because of his global vantage point, even though I believe he is wrong. I’ve chosen to briefly unpack this issue in this month’s newsletter, as this issue it seems is a popular one with many people in society, and often in our own Kairos community too.

The proposal is a variation of the ideas of the Deschooling Movement, perhaps most notably championed by philosopher, social critic and Roman Catholic priest Ivan Illich in the 1970s. The proposal of “Deschooling Society” (the title of Illich’s most well-known book), is even more eloquently expressed, in my opinion, by his sociologist friend, Everett Reimer, in “School is Dead,” a book that influenced me enormously when I read it in my first teaching post in rural India in 1996. Reimer’s book was the original seed for me to consider that one day I might do something as crazy as starting a different sort of school. I remember reading the last page and thinking to myself, this book is going to change my life. And so it has.

The Deschoolers’ premise is a romantic one, attracting easy support for its vision of a more respectful, compassionate and creative environment within which a child may learn through free exploration and self-discovery. We are a school community in which these ideas find much traction, and the idea that a child should enjoy an “unschooled” education is one which deserves to be unpacked. 

I recognise that in some cases, for various possible reasons and despite the risks, homeschooled education is a preferred option for a child. I am more concerned here with argument of the Unschoolers. 

From one vantage point, their argument comes from a profoundly privileged position, for the assumption is it assumed that through elimination of school as an institution, children would have (thanks to natural market forces) the freedom and the opportunity to access resources and networks which will provide an all-rounded cognitive, social, emotional, academic and physical development to children of society. This is most certainly unlikely to be true for the majority of the world’s population of children, certainly the majority of South African children. By deschooling South Africa, and most other countries, the majority of our children would be absorbed quite easily back into the child labour market which the mines and factories enjoyed in the past. 

School itself was conceived of as “a place apart”, or “a place of free time” — the Greek etymology of the word (skholé). Educational visionary John Dewey (whose “Lab School” within the University o Chicago was similar Kairos in many ways, I believe) saw school as an “embryonic society”, within which children can explore their world in a safe and stimulating environment, protected from the economic necessities of labour and survival. 

It is true that the mass schooling model itself was designed, ironically, on the factory model, and so grades and bells and an assembly line set of classes and syllabi come directly from the idea that the school might aspire to convert children into economically productive adults through the manufacturing process of the school. As pointed out in a previous Headmonsterly Hmmm, this meant that children who don’t “fit” into that manufacturing system need to be redone or discarded. From this perspective it easy to identify with the position of the Deschoolers. 

However, when the Deschoolers say they are rejecting the institution of school, they are in fact proposing a transformation of the school environment. The weaknesses of schools are not inevitable, and schools are certainly being pressed to evolve as their educational weaknesses become increasingly exposed. It seems to me Kairos is a representation of a global transformation of the institution of School without sacrificing the institution itself. Protecting children from the selfishness of corporations and the violence of the free market is necessary, and so Kairos and other innovative schooling systems around the world offer society a stepping stone of social progress without the risk of degeneration back into a system that fosters child labour.

The emergence of the Global Village, thanks to Internet communications, international travel and associated technological phenomena, is pressing the schools of the world to transform. Some are being hooked by the romantic arguments of the privileged few to reject the institution entirely.

Unfortunately, however, more often than not there are unintended consequences for families, who run the risk of their children growing up alienated and isolated, with substantial educational gaps. Because life circumstances change so often, and children themselves change their wishes regardless of their long-term needs, children may struggle to acquire the normative skills that society expects within the time scale expected. 

There is a vitally important balancing act between inviting children to achieve a healthy work ethic by engaging in sustained, self-motivated activity to achieve a series of on-going productive results, on the one hand, and challenging them to acquire skills that are relevant to the on-going “games” of life, which includes the more arbitrary academic expectations of the school system. 

Some of these expectations are not arbitrary however, and it is often unrealistic to expect a child and his or her family to identify them correctly. Most importantly, the purpose of school is not merely to acquiring the skills to one day complete a job of one’s choosing: it is far more than that, and exactly why “school” is conceived of as “a place apart”. The authors Gabriel Chanan and Linda Gilchrest put it far better than I can, as they respond critically to Ivan Illich and the community of Deschoolers of the 1970s: 

“Acquiring the ability to do a job is only one of a number of aims in education. In order to do an average working class job one needs very little formal education. Even in doing an average middle class job the ability to learn from the job itself and from those you work with, and the confidence that comes from status, responsibility and expectation, are probably more important than formal education… Most jobs, mental or manual, do not draw on more than a fraction of the whole person, including his education, formal and informal, and his talents and interests. To educate people for jobs is to diminish them as human beings. However, to understand one’s job, to see its function in society as a whole, to know something of its scientific and historical background and of the legal political developments that govern it – to know, in other words, far more than you strictly need to know in order to do the job – is an aim more suitable to a true education.”  

Schools provide the environment in which this understanding becomes possible. Transformation of schools as they exist today is what is needed, not eliminating them. In a future blog, I will contemplate the various aspects of possible transformation, the rationale for the particular choices Kairos has made amidst these possibilities. This includes the fact that we aspire to offer an “ever-renewing curriculum”, and are always eager to rethink our model, “defossilizing” our fixed ideas and transforming ourselves afresh.

Wishing you a wonderful break.

Headmonsterlishly yours

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