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The Educator’s Dilemma and the Two Big Lies
by Daniel Grego

When “educate” was used only as a verb, its meaning was clear. In Latin, the verb educare never took a male subject. Men were simply not equipped for the task. According to Ivan Illich (as quoted in the book A is for Ox by Barry Sanders) Cicero told us “nutrix educat.” The wet nurse nourished the growing child. As they grew, children began to walk, to speak, to feed themselves. This was the natural course of events. No adult thought to take credit for these developments, just as no adult thought to take credit for an infant’s breathing.

A time might have come in a young man’s life when on his own initiative or at the insistence of his parents, he would submit himself to the instruction of an elder who had mastered some art and who would assume the responsibility of teaching it to the apprentice. Girls were taught the arts of home management (this is what the word “economics” literally means) by their mothers and grandmothers and aunts. In their book The History and Philosophy of Education Ancient and Medieval, Frederick Eby and Charles Flinn Arrowood wrote: “They were taught to make garments, to spin, sew, weave and cook.”

These relationships were customary, not compulsory. They were part of the unique cultural life of each place. Children who were not victims of fatal accidents or diseases grew up to take their places in adult society. They learned from experience, from the example of adults, from participation in rituals and from stories. Learning was embedded in the diurnal activities of the community in which one lived and suffered and died.

Young men of leisure began studying in schools in ancient Greece. (It is from the Greek word for “leisure” that our word “school” derives.) But this was not because they were deficient. They had time to kill and certain arts, rhetoric for example, were best taught and practiced in groups.

It was not until the 17th century that John Amos Comenius described schools as a means to “teach everybody everything.” (Omnibus, omnia omnino docendi.) Something happened. Suddenly, “education” became a noun, a “something” that children were born without and needed to get. A system of schooling was designed to process children, to ensure that they received the treatments necessary for their maturation. . .

To read the rest of this essay, please purchase the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier, in which this essay appears.

Daniel Grego is the Executive Director of TransCenter for Youth, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One of his major interests is exploring the confluence of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry. He lives with his wife Debra Loewen, the Artistic Director of Wild Space Dance Company and their daughter Caitlin Grego on a small farm in the Rock River watershed in Dodge County, Wisconsin.

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