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The Problem With Trying to Change Minds – September 9, 2010
Everyone is back in town this week, now that school has started up again. (I always find it a bit disturbing how the cycles of our community life revolve so much around school.) So the tiny patio at my local café, which I had pretty much to myself all summer, was so crowded today that (omigosh) strangers were sharing tables. My tablemate wanted to chat, rather than let me write in my journal, so chat we did. The conversation – like everything else, it seems – came around to school. So I told him about my work about open source/self-directed learning for children. Well, that silenced him! Then he asked, incredulously, “How can anybody in their right mind possibly approve of – let alone advocate for – depriving children of their education?” I gamely ignored the reference to my brain and tried to explain the difference between school and an education, describing how one doesn’t necessarily become educated merely by attending school. Shortly thereafter, he nodded ever so slightly in my direction and left.

As I walked back to my office, my right mind intact, I tried to come up with a succinct way of helping people understand that a self-directed education can actually be a better education. But the notion that a child’s education is the result of teaching by an adult “expert,” in a dedicated building, during certain hours of the day in certain months of the year, is too ingrained to be easily challenged.

Later, scanning the many links that had accumulated while I was on vacation last week (with my 37-year-old mostly self-educated daughter), I found an article in the Calgary Herald about unschooling life learning. It was well-done, but some of the responses to the article were depressing, especially a supposedly humorous but clearly ignorant take on the subject by another Herald writer named Naomi Lakritz, an outspoken columnist who apparently got her start writing for supermarket tabloids. Aside from her obnoxious tone and the tiresome play on words (which the use of the word “unschooling” makes all too easy) in the title “Uh, boss . . . I think I’m going to unwork today,” this writer appears to have something in common with my morning café companion.

In the world according to Lakritz, “education is all about teaching kids what they don’t know.” Perhaps that’s what schooling is about, but it’s not what’s learning is about. And then there is this sticky word “education.” In the broadest sense, education is any act or experience that has an effect on the mind, character, or physical ability of an individual. However, the conventional use involves giving and getting an education, suggesting that it involves teaching kids what they don’t know – that is, something one does to another, rather than something one does for oneself in a motivated, self-reliant manner.

But here’s the thing: I suspect that both my café companion and Lakritz would, if asked, say they value the notion of self-reliance in education and in life. So there must be more to this sort of closed mindedness and rigidity confusion about what an education really is.

First of all, there is that adult arrogance called adultism. Many (most?) adults find it difficult to imagine how children can take responsibility for anything, let alone lead their own learning. In this parent-knows-best manner, they assume that kids won’t want to learn history, math, literature, or responsibility and must be force-fed their education.

There is also the cynicism that if not forced to work, people of all ages will slack off. What a sad commentary that is on the human race!

And then there is resistance to change, to things that we think embody values in which we don’t believe, to ideas that are unconsciously threatening to us or to our worldview. According to a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we often do more than just reject new or “offensive” ideas; psychologically, we actually push back against such challenges, reasserting our own familiar structures of meaning. And that might explain why people like my café acquaintance and Lakritz (or the numerous other people writing nasty comments about media coverage of unschooling life learning over the past while) feel they have the right to insult or mock others who see the world in a different way.

It’s too bad, because their misperception results from viewing both self-education and its results as part of a rapidly changing present and through the lens of their own out-dated past, rather than as an innovative path to the future. “Who cares about F. Scott Fitzgerald anyway?”
Posted: 2010/09/09 4:09 PM

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