Towards a New Process for Learning What is Important

Critical Life Skills
What is the purpose of education? Those of liberal bent tend to assert it is to allow us to become what we were intended to become — fully capable individuals and members of community. Conservatives are more inclined to believe it is to acquire the essential survival skills of modern society, efficiently. And there are practical souls who think its purpose is to learn how to make a living.
How would we ‘score’ the current formal education system of affluent nations on its ability to achieve these purposes? I would grade it rather poorly:
  • Enabling us to realize our full capability — D
  • Enabling us to acquire modern survival skills, including how to make a living — F
Institutional education has no time, ability or flexibility to help us realize our full capability. Besides, its methods — teaching in the abstract in classrooms disconnected from the ‘real’ world, to bums on chairs — are not effective because this is not how we learn. As Gustavo Esteva says, we learn better when no one is teaching us, by doing and observing, not by being told.
The survival skills we need in a modern society are not addressed by the teaching of obedience, numeracy, literacy, and ‘management skills’. As the chart above indicates, to survive we need to learn how to learn, we need to understand how the world works, we need to learn to think, critically, creatively and imaginatively and adapt, how to work together, and how to self-manage — to take care of ourselves and each other. Formal school systems teach us none of these things. Because they are so artificial, inflexible, and predicated on 1-to-n knowledge transfer, and because they depend utterly on the passivity of students, they cannot possibly hope to teach us these things.
My book on working naturally, in Natural Enterprises, has the daunting task of giving readers — in the context of guiding and facilitating them through a process for learning how to make a natural, responsible, sustainable living — enough survival tools to do this effectively and successfully. And much of the book aims to give readers the courage to learn how to use these tools.
But no book or classroom can teach people how to use these tools. You learn how to understand your strengths and passions, how to find partners for an enterprise, how to do research on what people need, how to innovate continuously, how to imagine possibilities, how to collaborate, by doing, by practicing, by discovering what works and by making mistakes.
Our formal education system has no time for practicing and allows no room for making mistakes. In this system, practicing is remedial work for those not competent enough at rote learning and not blessed enough with native skills to get it right the first time. And in this system, making mistakes is fatal, carrying the unbearable stigma of failure.
It doesn’t matter that Inc Magazine discovered that the only attribute that correlated strongly with exceptional entrepreneurial success was previous business failure. These ‘exceptional’ entrepreneurs had either the good fortune to fail quickly and inexpensively, or the inherited wealth to be able to bounce back from ‘failure’.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the proponents of our education system that if students aren’t succeeding, it is the teachers who should be given a failing grade.
The greatest critics of the formal education system — people like Ivan Illich, John Holt, and John Taylor Gatto  — would have us believe that the designers and proponents of this compulsory system deliberately conspired to make students helpless and dependent (incompetent to make a living for themselves, and hence frightened and compliant to the point they will put up with the drudgery of wage slavery). Whether or not this is true, the reality is that now, thanks to automation and other technology, we no longer need that fear and obedience to keep the industrial economy humming along.
In fact, that complacency and incompetence has now become a liability. The rich and powerful need increasing masses of dumbed-down ‘consumers’ (brilliantly defined by Jerry Michalski as “gullets who live only to gulp products and crap cash”) to buy their junk and keep their ROI growth up to shareholders’ expectations. But since those consumers are (mostly) no longer needed in the industrial economy and since (even in times of low interest rates) creditors will only subsidize mindless consumption so far beyond the consumers’ earnings, the corporatists have had to turn — for new production and new consumption — to globalization. This lets them externalize (leave taxpaying citizens to pay for) the social and environmental costs that enable them to buy cheaper from struggling nations and to sell to new consumers in those same nations.
The works in affluent nations, deliberately cowed and dumbed down by the education system, have become increasingly useless, worthless, expendable.
What’s to be done with them? With us?
The answer, I believe, is entrepreneurship — relearning how to make a living for ourselves.
My book, and entrepreneurial programs and networks (like BALLE) can get us started. Those who have the innate critical and creative thinking skills, sufficient self-confidence, the time to find appropriate business partners, and to make mistakes, and to understand themselves well (their Gifts, their Passions, their Purpose) will be equipped to succeed at this, on their own terms.
They will become models of working naturally and Natural Enterprise that others can follow. But will this be enough to transform our dysfunctional and unsustainable economy? I’m not sure it will, unless we also work to replace our education ‘system’ with something that works in post-industrial society.
What might this replacement look like? How do we learn, naturally, or as Illich says, convivially?
Illich would tell us that this replacement would not contain experts, or institutions, or processes that commodify learning. Gatto would tell us it would not have teachers, or classrooms, or curricula. Esteva, sounding a bit like Bucky Fuller, would tell us it is hopeless to try to fix, re-form the existing system — we need to create an entirely new learning process, and let the old system crumble.
I suspect this new learning process would have these attributes:
  • It would be a self-managed process, both at the individual and at the community level. We would trust people to do what they want, to learn. Esteva found that in Mexican ‘radically de-schooled’ communities, young people quickly grew bored of mindless activity and began to pursue the natural inclination to learn. When I was in my last year of high school, we were exempted from classes if we attained certain test grades, and by the end of that year we had learned to learn from each other and from the real world, away from classrooms and teachers, so well that our ‘de-schooled’ group won almost all the scholarships.
  • It would be based on apprenticeship (which literally means ‘grasping’, ‘understanding’), learning by observation of those acknowledged by the learner as having exceptional capability, and on practice (literally, ‘becoming better’).
  • It would be playful, joyful, fun.
  • Skills like literacy and numeracy would be learned in the context of apprenticeship and practice, not as separate ‘subjects’.
  • The entrepreneurs and artisans from whom we learn would not be paid, but would know that they would eventually be rewarded for what they showed others, what Esteva calls receiving a ‘cooperaciÛn’.
  • The role of those who care about learning would be creating tools that make learning easier and more powerful.
  • The activities of selected mentors would be primarily listening, facilitation and, when requested, coaching.
  • A key objective of the process would be achieving autonomy, freedom from dependence, self-sufficiency.
  • Another objective would be cultural regeneration — relearning local (connected to place) skills that have been forgotten.
  • The process would be improvisational and evolutionary, not planned or designed.
  • It would be based on growing hopefulness, not raising expectations or achieving goals.
  • It would entail renouncing those technologies and other obstacles that impede true friendship, which is essential for collaboration and learning to make a living together.
But this describes a process that is local and community-based. What about cities and other places that have no real community? Such places lack what Esteva calls the ‘conditions for apprenticeship’ and the cohesion that allows collective learning (rather than 1-to-n teaching).
Perhaps the reason that the most successful experiments in rediscovering this kind of learning process have been in small, relatively ‘uncivilized’ places in struggling nations is that these are places where true community still exists. For those of us in anonymous cities, and in ‘modern’ places where we think community has something to do with shared goals or interests, it may be frightening to discover that deep community is a precondition for true learning, and that, without such learning, an entrepreneurial, natural economy may be unachievable.
Lots to think about.

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2 Responses to Towards a New Process for Learning What is Important

  1. Vish Goda says:

    Dave,As you say, we can only provide the framework and the guidelines, but it is finally left to the community to follow through. The only true system that will work is that which will let the community discover their own ways, working within the framework.But there is a fundamental requirement – commitment. How committed do you think our society is towards changing the way we live? And the biggest problem is to find the commitment in ourselves to stay the course, no matter how long and hard it takes and continue invest in the next generation – because our generation is already beyond any repair – we just have to clear the path for the next.RegardsVish Goda

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Andrew Campbell, in response to this post, sent me a link to a John Seely Brown 1992 article on education. Brown quotes Tagore as saying that despite his (Tagore’s) teacher’s attempt to teach him, he was able to ‘steal’ some knowledge. In other words, while we can sometimes learn in spite of formal education, it would be much easier if we allowed learning to occur more naturally. Brown concludes that “the classroom, unfortunately, tends to be too well secured against theft…only replicas and not the real thing are on display”. Lovely.

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