Monday, 24 December 2012

School Is Dead - Introduction

A radical book for radical times

When it was published in 1971, this short book, or "essay" as it describes itself, was a provocative and subversive bombshell. 

It starts with a quote from Margaret Mead:

"My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school."

Margaret Mead - educated but unschooled

The 60s and 70s was a time of radical social and political change. Set in this context, "School is Dead" asked some significant questions about the purpose, value and effectiveness of schools. 

These questions are still being asked today - one of my Grade 4 students asked in a reflective moment last term, "Why do we have schools?" 

When I shared this with a colleague, she sat back and nodded her head. "I ask myself the same thing every day," she said.

But interestingly, when you google the phrase "school is dead" these days, you don't find links to philosophical discussions on the meaning and purpose of a formalised education system, you get instead references to the horrific tragedy of mass shootings in schools across the USA. 

Where did this book come from?

The author, Everett Reimer, describes the book as a result of a conversation with Ivan Illich held over 15 years, starting with their first meeting in Puerto Rico in 1954. 

Ivan Illich - proponent of the de-schooling movement

This book has a very keen awareness of and focus on the needs of Third World countries, an important perspective that can be easily forgotten in our western affluence.

"Schools are an essential element in a world in which technology is king."

This was written in 1971 - before the computer, the mobile phone, the internet - but is a more accurate prediction than any Mayan calendar.

And the problems with technology being king? Well...

  • technology promises unlimited progress to unlimited numbers of people - which is not possible as the population will reach a point that is unsustainable. Reimer states, "We retain breathing space only by letting poor babies die at ten times the rate of privileged babies."

  • the promise of unlimited progress implies that all people in the world can have the same standard of living as that enjoyed in the USA. "Raising world consumption standards to US levels would multiply the combustion of fossil fuels by fifty times, the use of iron a hundred times, the use of other metals over two hundred times." - and this written in 1971? Seems almost prophetic in terms of global warming and fossil fuel consumption.

  • schools perpetuate "the system" and the dependence on technology. Reimer says that at the start of the 20th century, schools were a minority institution and there were alternative educational options for people not suited to schools. He attributes the rapid growth of schools to the needs of a rapidly growing technological society - the monopoly that schools have over education feeds and is feed by the monopoly that technology has on the world. He suggests that other alternatives to schooling provide an escape from these monopolies.

"Our main threat today is a world-wide monopoly in the domination of men's minds."

So we are not dealing with small, insignificant issues here. I will be interested to read the rest of this book.

Another candidate for worldwide domination

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