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[iDC] Education Should Be Inefficient

“I would say for both of us though, unschooling has been more about slowness, about paying attention, immersing ourselves bizarre art projects, volunteering, staring off into space, talking to friends, and reading books, reading books, reading books. We sometimes learned quickly, when motivated or excited to master some skill, but typically we learned at our own pace, which was often slow (sometimes so slow it looked as though we were doing nothing at all) and with lots of detours.”

“I know we’re excited about learning networks and social media and peer this and that. But maybe the most radical thing a teacher can do is tell students to be alone with an idea.”

The best classes — the ones that made me question unschooling — were all about the teacher, who became a role model of sorts, whose enthusiasm was infectious and who, without being authoritarian, was authoritative, and pushed me harder than I would have pushed myself.”

Astra Taylor wrote:

Hi all,

Trebor has been prodding me to add my two cents based on my experiences as an unschooler and as someone on the academic periphery. For the last five years I’ve been a documentary filmmaker focusing on academic/philosophical themes (I directed Zizek! and Examined Life). I was unschooled until the age of 13 when, believing I would be locked out of opportunities in adulthood, I decided to go to public high school. It was a sociological experiment in many ways — I had never had a curriculum, a bed time, an alarm clock, worn shoes all day, taken tests, given grades, had more than one or two friends at most. I lasted three years. After that, I did undergraduate for two and a half years before getting an MA in Liberal Studies at the New School.

I recently gave a talk at the Walker Center last year in which I talk about my childhood, the transition into formal school and the university context, the history of alternative education in the US, and some of my concerns about it — namely the problems of privilege and withdrawal from the public sphere, not to mention the unsettling fact that so many libertarians love unschooling too. If you’re interested, you can watch it here.

Trebor asked me a very good question: What can the university learn from unschooling? It’s a tough one, one I’ve never quite posed to myself, so please forgive these scattered thoughts.

I should begin by saying I am a firm believer in self-directed learning; in fact, I believe human beings can’t help but learn. My sister, who is 18, has spent a handful of months in formal school and, compared to her peers, she is certainly “educated.”

That said, I’m growing increasingly wary of some of the rhetoric that I hear being deployed in discussions about the future of education and in conversations I’ve been having recently, namely strains of techno-determinism, anti-institutional ardor, and easy individualism.

Lately, I’ve been thinking very hard about how important it is to defend institutions of higher learning. I can list the way they’ve disappointed me in my sleep – they are too expensive (and debt really is a means of social control), disciplinary focus can be myopic, there’s not enough emphasis on communicating with a broad public, they reproduce structures of privilege, the meritocracy is bunk, testing and grades are jokes, they are run like business with little commitment to students and learning, the student is treated as a consumer/customer, the staff as disposable. All that and more. Yes, but.

Why do we need physical campuses? Here are some ideas. Because you know all those states that you fly over? Imagine them without college towns (Athens, where I grew up, is basically built around a library thanks to UGA). Because they provide meaningful work and intellectual livelihoods (college should and could be cheaper, but not from slashing teaching costs – and we know that’s really about increasing profits not lowering fees). Because even if colleges all crumbled tomorrow, elementary and high schools aren’t going anywhere – college is the one institution that grants people some space to devote themselves to learning with a modicum of control over what they learn, a place to undo some of the damage that’s already been done. Because digital archives are no substitute for institutional memory.

Going around with my films I have met dozens upon dozens of people who say they haven’t had an opportunity to think about theory/philosophy since college. They miss the abstraction, the intellectual debate for it’s own sake. Has the university served these people, by at least granting them a few years (though possibly at an enormous cost) to devote their attention to such matters? Or has it let them down by reinforcing the dependence on the classroom setting, on teachers, on book learning by curriculum and instruction?

For now, here are some rather random reactions rooted in my upbringing. I’m not sure how much one can generalize from it, given how unusual it was, especially in Georgia where we were outnumbered by the conservative Christian homeschoolers 10,000 to 1.

Education vs. Credentialing

First, there’s the issue of education and credentialing. The two processes aren’t the same thing, obviously, though they sometimes overlap. And of course credentials can be necessary to professional advancement. Even if you don’t use them explicitly (the only times I ever had to prove I possessed a degree was to get into grad school and when I adjuncted in the sociology department at SUNY New Paltz, the worse paying job I’ve ever had — and also the hardest) they are no doubt put to work implicitly in many instances. I feel at ease and welcome in academic environments in a way my friends who lack college experience do not; I feel entitled to access certain conversations they feel left out of. It’s important to acknowledge these less overt benefits, the cultural capital that we cash in even when our job doesn’t require we hang our degree on the wall. I just read an excellent account of a year at the Wharton Business School, an example of credentialing at it’s purest and most absurd. Grades are meaningless (the school keeps them confidential), the profs readily confess the students don’t learn anything or care to, but they pay a ton of money and get jobs otherwise inaccessible to them at the end of it despite the fact they know not much more than when they enrolled.
http://www.phillymag.com/articles/feature_is_wharton_ruining_american_business/

When people (like me) criticize credentialing there’s often this idea that talent or ability or experience should somehow replace degrees, that some authentic measure should replace this inauthentic phony bureaucratic one. After all — I’m a filmmaker because I made movies, not because I went to film school (I didn’t). But I’m not so sure this is much of a leap from the meritocratic logic that the school system and business sector currently reinforce and uphold: the idea that the best will rise to the top, that society should be ranked by talent and ability. I want to somehow square self-directed learning with the ideal of education being a great equalizer, but I’m not sure that’s easily done.

When I talk to young people, I basically tell them that school is a game, but learning isn’t. Because a university education often equals a lifetime of debt, I try to share the few tricks I used to get out quick, explaining how I graduated in two years (by leaving the overpriced Ivy League for the free public option that also took AP credit, by designing a curriculum in which all the classes needed to fulfill the major happened in the same year, and by doubling up on independent studies, taking tests to skip core curriculum, etc) and why (to get into grad school faster, which was tuition free after the first semester and gave me more autonomy – though I got an equal and arguably more useful education working at Verso Books during the same period).

That said, I understand why people want to go to school, even in this age of the Internet when teaching yourself or finding an online learning community is easier than ever. School is a real space one can situate a life in — the Internet, not so much. The aforementioned younger sister wants nothing more than to go to art school, something I vociferously advise against on practical grounds – the debt she would incur will never be paid back and she would be better of simply investing in some sort of creative project or career. Also, predictably, I wonder who can be taught to be an artist? What credential makes one creative? But what she wants is resources, encouragement, a place to inhabit and explore, a real space community, to be emboldened in directions she wouldn’t go on her own, to be given achievable goals, to postpone joining the workforce while having health insurance. Who can blame a diehard unschooler for wanting these things?

Another small point is that I’ve noticed is that many of the people who are most excited about the possibility of alternative education models, who make a fetish of self-directed learning and education as slavery, are often part of the credentialed classes. It’s easy to take advantage of personal learning networks if you already have degrees from a fancy school, as many (but not all, I admit) of the people involved in the new crop of education experiments do. I think one reason highly educated and credentialed people latch on to alt ed theories is there’s a sense that we are at heart autodidacts, despite schooling. In a way, we’re the group most attached to the romantic idea of the university as a community of scholars, so attached that we want to recreate that ideal elsewhere. That’s not a bad thing; what I’m calling attention to is the way these education experiments often remain bound to a very classic notion of the academy.

Efficiency

I recently read Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which provides an excellent history of schooling’s coevolution with industrialization. Efficiency is not a good word in my opinion and I’m not sure it can be reclaimed to serve progressive ends…

What I appreciate about alternative education, and the parts of the university I love best, is the commitment to inefficiency. Education should be inefficient! (That’s my soundbyte). I just interviewed a filmmaker — she directed the marvelous documentary The Oath, which was recently released. She mentioned going to a Sudbury school (a radically democratic school, where the students, no matter how young, vote for their teachers and staff). Some years she read, others she drew. One year, she said, was the “year of climbing trees.” Who knows what she learned in the branches, but it may have been a lot.

I was unschooled without highspeed Internet (first logged on freshman year of highschool); my youngest sister doesn’t remember life without constant highspeed access. I would say for both of us though, unschooling has been more about slowness, about paying attention, immersing ourselves bizarre art projects, volunteering, staring off into space, talking to friends, and reading books, reading books, reading books. We sometimes learned quickly, when motivated or excited to master some skill, but typically we learned at our own pace, which was often slow (sometimes so slow it looked as though we were doing nothing at all) and with lots of detours.

I’m very interested in the promise of digital learning and technology. I know people who have certainly preferred online learning experiences to face to face ones. When? When the material is interesting, the teacher vibrant, and there are levels of interaction between the faculty and students. The least “efficient” online classrooms may be the most effective ones in the end.

Boredom

Often people ask me if I was bored at home as a child. For us boredom was something to be worked with, passed through: it was a pit stop along the road to being engaged, a state of being very different from being entertained. “When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mother would say, a phrase that still rings in my ears and one that reveals what may be the essence of self-education, the forceful injunction at the heart of unschooling, the secret of its reverse psychology, if you will.

Boredom and solitude are connected in my mind. I wonder if, in all the talk of group learning and p2p and collaboration we forget this. I know we’re excited about learning networks and social media and peer this and that. But maybe the most radical thing a teacher can do is tell students to be alone with an idea.

Open Access

It seems to me that the problem of access to information is the least of our concerns, the easiest problem to fix. Sure, as an unaffiliated scholar who occasionally wants to read an obscure text, I’m frustrated by my lack of access to JSTOR and my inability to get into Bobst without a crazy song and dance routine. It’s exclusive and inconvenient. (If anyone can make me a research assistant so I can get university library access in NYC, please write me — I’ll be in your debt)

Nonetheless, as we all know, lots of amazing stuff is on the Interent, and there’s more and more of it everyday. But Google U only goes so far (and reading Jeff Jarvis’ book, it goes so far in a pretty creepy direction – not to mention that Jarvis, who in his TED Talk says f*ck the SAT has also bragged about how his kid is going to the Ivy League, no doubt because that’s where the money and power is). I had some classes in college that were bullshit, that I would have loved to take online, get a decent grade, and be done with. The best classes – the ones that made me question unschooling — were all about the teacher, who became a role model of sorts, whose enthusiasm was infectious and who, without being authoritarian, was authoritative, and pushed me harder than I would have pushed myself.

Authority

When it comes to democratic education some people assume that it’s about the leveling of authority, or horizontal relationships, about no one being above you or possessing secret access to knowledge that you don’t have.

In my mind, again, the issue is authoritarian vs authoritativeness – compulsory schools overflow with instances of arbitrary, irrational authority (when I went to high school I couldn’t believe I had to ask permission to go to the washroom). In the classroom, though, the point isn’t to deny authority exists, to pretend everyone is equal in knowledge and ability, or to disavow expertise and experience if you have it. That kind of authority can be inspiring and it’s also powerful; a legitimate authority, a teacher with knowledge, can grant the student permission to trust themselves and their capacity, their potential. The positive uses of this sort of authority are important to acknowledge, and too easily ignored by people (like myself, on occasion) who cheerlead for self-directed learning….

All the best,
Astra Taylor

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Jun 24, 14:10
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