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An Education Fit for a Democracy
by Roland Meighan

Unschooling is an education fit for a democracy.
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In a democracy, schools are a bad idea from the outset, but in a totalitarian society they are an excellent idea where the purpose is to produce a particular kind of people. They are those who are conformist, fatalistic to the will of the elite, gullible to the dictates of the rulers, ageist in attitude, and who, generally “know their place” in a clearly stratified society.

This raises a few awkward questions such as, “Why is a totalitarian-sympathetic learning system operating in what likes to call itself a democracy?” Does this mean that this is really a rudimentary form of democracy and may even be merely pre-democratic, constantly regressing to non-democratic formulations? Or, that the leaders do not want more than a very primitive form of democracy? (Or, as [British politician] Tony Benn suggests, they loathe democracy and its ideas of power-sharing.)

There are a few clues that this might be the case, for such a society might, irrationally, maintain a monarchy, or have a non-elected second chamber of government, or run a special set of schools specifically to reproduce members of an elite with strong authoritarian tendencies. Its state schools may suddenly decide to make uniforms compulsory, and institute drug tests for the inmates.

In my book The Next Learning System, the ten or so time switches of change that will move learning systems into more fluid patterns are given. Five have been noted as of major significance:

We now have an information-rich society with direct access through information communications technology. When mass schooling was established, people lived in an information poor-environment. Since then, radio, TV, specialist magazines, computers, videos, etc. have provided the means of making most of the products of the knowledge explosion readily available to anyone who wants them. This is just one of the reasons why home-based education is so successful.

We now know much more about how the brain actually works. The new technologies allow us to watch a living brain at work. As a result, most of the assumptions of behavioral and cognitive psychology are in question. The brain, amongst other things, is better at pattern-making than pattern-receiving.

We now know of thirty different learning styles in humans. It follows that any uniform approach is intellectual death to some, and often most, of the learners, and is therefore suspect.

We now know of at least seven types of intelligence. Howard Gardner in his book The Unschooled Mind (1994), reports his work on multiple intelligences. Seven types of intelligence (analytical, pattern, musical, physical, practical, intra-personal and inter-personal) are identifiable. Only the first is given serious attention in most schools. Yet, we now know that so-called “ordinary” people are capable of feats of intellectual or creative activity in rich, challenging, non-threatening, co-operative learning environments, and that the narrow competitive tests currently in use to achieve “the raising of standard” just prevent this from happening.

Home-based education has proved to be remarkably successful. There is a clutch of reasons why this is so, but a significant one is the use of purposive conversation as a learning method, in substitution for most formal teaching. Self-managed learning is another to replace teacher-directed instruction. A learner-friendly setting, efficient use of time, toleration of different learning styles, multiple intelligences, are amongst others.

In 2004, Professor Ted Wragg from the U.K.'s Exeter University proposed that we do away with standardized tests (including SATS). A bolder, more radical approach is to phase out mass coercive schooling altogether. It is, after all, a learning system from last century devised in the previous century to cope with an information-poor society and the needs of industrialization. Even during the last century it was described as “compulsory mis-education” (Paul Goodman), “the tragedy of education” (Edmond Holmes) and the “betrayal of youth” (James Hemming). It was devised for totalitarian rather than democratic societies, which is why it was so popular with leaders such as Stalin and Hitler.

A radical change is going to be needed to get a learning system fit for a democracy. It needs to get away from domination and its endless stream of uninvited teaching. It needs to recognize that, in a democracy, learning by compulsion means indoctrination and that only learning by invitation and choice is education. So, it needs to be personalized in the sense of being learner-managed, based on invitation and encouragement and, if we actually believe in life-long learning, non-ageist. It needs to be democratic in at least three aspects – its organization for participation rather than imposition, its monitoring procedures for the celebration of learning rather than incessant and stultifying testing, and in its adoption of the learner-directed, more natural approach.

For the benefit of those who claim that this is all just impossible dreams, we already have a democratic learning institution in our midst based on these principles. It is called the public library system. There are others, such as museums, nursery centers, home-based education networks/cooperatives and community arts programs. So we already know how to make such systems work. I even know just a few schools that are attempting to work to these principles, as far as the mass coercive system allows. The most successful form of genuine education available for children at present, however, is home-based education, and, unsurprisingly, these families usually make a bee-line for their local democratic learning institution – the public library.

It was in 1977 that I first began to look into home-based education with my own young son in mind. My wife Shirley, who a few years later died of cancer, was probably the best teacher of infants I had seen in my travels around schools. Then, my own teaching, first in secondary schools and then in teacher education, was well rated by others. But as two “successful” teachers, with our insider knowledge, we knew the severe limitations of school-based education. So we began to look into the possibility of educating at home, only to stumble on the birth of Education Otherwise and its founding group of a few other parents thinking along the same lines as ourselves.

Soon after that I found myself in court as an expert witness supporting Iris and Geoff Harrison and their family, and their right to home-educate using the autonomous approach of “I will do it my way – using the help and support of others as necessary” rather that the authoritarian approach of “you will do it our way – or else” of the mass, coercive schooling system.

So, I became an “educational double agent” and for about 15 years, some of my time was spent in teacher education, preparing post-graduate students for a career in schools, and some of my time was spent researching and supporting families who chose to educate their children at home.

Since I have always argued for a more flexible, diverse and personalized learning system, I saw no necessary contradiction in the double agent role. But some colleagues, wedded to the orthodoxy of the mass coercive schooling system, were disturbed by it.

Partly, this is due to the fact that home-based education tends to expose, rather starkly, the severe limitations of the schooling system and the damage it inflicts. This damage starts with forcing the surrender of the influence of the family to be handed over to a group of so-called “professionals”, whose training and awareness is frequently limited to the crowd instruction and crowd control form of education. The damage continues with the second surrender to the tyranny of the peer group. The system requires that the constructive approach of those families seeking to create a better world is gradually replaced with the fatalistic “toughen them up for real life in the nasty competitive world” philosophy. Only in home-based education does the family begin to strike back.

Despite my social scientist’s cautious approach to appraising the home-based learning I was seeing, the distinction between the two learning systems – school-based learning and home-based learning – became clear. The contrast between school-based and home-based education has been likened to that between factory farming and the free-range option. The consequence is that young people educated at home are usually far more mature than their schooled counterparts. I realized after a while that I could spot the difference within minutes of meeting a young person for the first time. Home-educated young people did not treat me as if I was a potential enemy and conversed with me with ease and poise, on serious as well as trivial matters.

Recently, I was present when panels of young people who have been educated at home and are now adults have been telling audiences about their experiences. It was a cheering and positive event. One young person told of how he decided perhaps he should do some examinations and try university, since the message all around him in society was that this was worthwhile and the way to go. After a term of low-level misery at university, he reflected that what he really enjoyed was his part-time boat-building activity at weekends in a friend’s business. So he told his tutors he was leaving university. There was plenty of protest about how well he was doing in the courses, and disbelief that he wanted to have a practical career, not an academic/professional one.

Others on the panels came to university late as mature students after trying various activities and occupations before selecting their careers, one as a nurse, another as a lawyer. Another declared that the only examination she had ever needed was the driving test since she ran her own successful business. If ever she needed more, she would settle down and work to get them.

The contrast between the two learning systems is also illustrated by research on the experience of those who go into school as teens. Just as there are many reasons why people opt for the home-based education alternative, there are also several reasons why they may choose to opt into school later on. Some express a desire to spend additional time with friends or to make new friends, or become involved in organized sports – particularly important in the USA where sports scholarships may be on offer. Some say that the academic work is a draw by working with experts and also the facilities in science subjects. Some are drawn to the challenges of meeting peer group pressure, meeting different types of people and having their ideas challenged. Some see personality as a factor, especially if they are extroverts who want to develop communication and leadership skills.

However, the available research does not give much of an advert for schooling and shows the inmates are likely to have been kept artificially immature and somewhat brutalized by what Holt calls “the long practical course in slavery” that is school. A study by Michael H. Romanowski, reported in Home School Researcher, Volume 15, number 1, 2002, shows how most of the students’ hopes are dashed in reality. Students had to adjust to the time frame of school with its rigid timetables, structure, habits, rules, customs and expectations. Next, the learning process was quite different. Students had been used to one-on-one learning situations or self-directed learning but now had to cope with large classes, multiple teachers, different teaching styles and nightly homework.

The respondents in the Romanowski study reported that they learned to cope, but they paid the price of finding their interest and motivation in learning declining. Although most indicated they thought the academic work might be difficult for them, in the event they found the opposite to be true. But they paid a different price: “…there was no room for creativity or individual thinking.”

Earlier researchers (e.g. Smedley, 1992) have proposed that home-educated people were more mature than their schooled counterparts. The respondents in the Romanowski study found this to be the case. As a result, the aim of making new friends was largely thwarted.

The peer culture caused many value clashes. One centered around cheating. Fighting, sex, drugs, alcohol and stealing presented other value clashes. The emphasis on materialism and appearance also came as a shock.

But can we imagine a world without schools? Gerald Haigh, former head teacher and now a journalist, thinks we can: “Fanciful nonsense? Don’t be so sure. My grandparents knew about workhouses. An accepted part of the social landscape for centuries, they now seem impossibly inhumane and counterproductive. One day, school will be seen like that – a transient phenomenon, destined to fade gracefully away as the forces that created them gradually lose their impetus.” (from “Goodbye to today’s workhouses”, Times Educational Supplement 21/1/05)

If we want a learning system fit for humans in a democracy, we have to face up to the stark proposition that school is not the solution, it is part of the problem.

Roland Meighan worked as a writer, publisher, broadcaster and consultant. He researched home-based education in the UK since 1977 and was owner of Educational Heretics Press, Nottingham, UK. He was Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Birmingham and then Special Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham. He is also an acknowledged “educational heretic”. His article “Restructuring Education” appeared in the November/December 2004 edition of Life Learning and “Some Educational Superstitions of Our Time” was published in the March/April 2005 issue. This article was adapted from “Comparing Learning Systems: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the counter-productive” (2005, Educational Heretics Press). Dr. Meighan died in January of 2014.

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