UnCollege — a Bold New Approach to One’s Education?

John SenerBy John Sener

(Author’s note: this article is an adaptation of a recent blog piece on my web site.)

Is “UnCollege” a bold new approach to one’s education? A colleague recently told me about the UnCollege web site and the related manifesto. I’ll take a closer look later, but my first reaction is: been there, done that; still have the T-shirt in my rag pile though….

Reading this manifesto was a stroll down memory lane, recalling the similar movement in the 1970s and the critics who proliferated then. I did not see anything in this manifesto that I have not seen before, although maybe I’ll find a new nugget or two upon closer examination. (Nice collection of past critical quotes though, although where’s the Vonnegut quote about how my teachers could have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me?). Coyne and Hebert’s book, This Way Out, covered this ground for its time back in the mid-1970s, as did Ronald Gross’s The Lifelong Learner.

Despite the wonders of the Internet and digital technologies, the shortcomings of this approach are essentially the same now as they were then:

The “academic deviance” approach, like Anya Kamenetz’s, is a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) approach; the problem is that most people don’t want to be DIY with their education any more than they want to be DIY with their car repair, home building, etc. Everyone’s an autodidact to some extent — that is, they can teach themselves things on their own — but academic autodidacts who can do their entire education on their own are a far rarer species. The manifesto may move a few to action, but it lacks a driver to move masses of learners to action.

The real crux of the issue is that learning is not the same as formal education. There’s always a semantic thicket to negotiate when making this distinction, especially when “education” is used to mean “learning from life” in the broad sense that Mark Twain used it (“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”). We tend to forget that Twain made this observation at a time when relatively few people were schooled, and before the time when formal schooling replaced the world of work as the de facto career of youth. So to say, as the manifesto does, that

To learn from life you do not need anyone’s authority. You only need to believe that what you are doing at this very moment is somehow educational.

not only confuses learning with formal education, but also reflects a naive, oversimplified notion of what education is really all about.

The manifesto’s occasional descent into being dogmatic and reactionary doesn’t help its cause either. For example, the manifesto’s argument for saying the education system is “broken” is very shallow, as this recent ETC Journal article demonstrates.

Having said all that, it’s good to see this meme alive and kicking again. It’s certainly an understandable reaction to our society’s current overemphasis on educational attainment as the sole path to career success, but by itself I don’t expect it to make much impact.

These days, I find it more interesting and potentially more fruitful to explore ways to make education more open and permeable rather than rejecting it altogether. (There is, after all, more than one way to be contrarian.) Promoting initiatives like prior learning assessment, stackable credentials, reviving the knowledge creation function, and greater use of learner-generated content and knowledge will all help make education more permeable.

There are also a lot of good ideas contained within this manifesto — challenging authority, self-directed learning, promoting creativity, strategies for developing independent capacities for success — which also happen within education sometimes and of course should happen a lot more. As with the Free Learning Rules movement in general, this manifesto could become part of a useful foil to a greater educational permeability.

But please, let’s not delude ourselves that a new Aquarian dawn is within our grasp and that formal education will dissolve before the awesome power of free learning. Personally, I have no desire to re-live the ’70s — been there, done that; still have the T-shirt in my rag pile….

7 Responses

  1. […] post: UnCollege — a Bold New Approach to One's Education? « Educational … Posted in Technology Education Tags: and-use, emily, emily-hixon, engage-students, interview, […]

  2. Thank you John, for pointing to the emperor’s new clothes.

    When I think back on my own schooling, I remember the useless, the banal, what was left out, and what was done right. Then, I compare with what I might have done on my own. That’s really scary.

    I took partial differential equations and Gaussian integrals in college. I actually used them in graduate school. I don’t think I could have managed to learn them on my own because I would have given up before I reached the “good” part.

    I had a horrible bunch of history classes in both high school and college and learned nothing except for a dislike of history. Then, one evening, I turned on the television and saw Jacob Bronowski on “The Ascent of Man.” I was an instant fan of history, real history, not the endless lists of names, battles, and dates.

    Self-schooling just does not work. Why do the trades have apprentices? To make money or demean beginners? You all know the real answer.

    Our instructors should be our “masters” as we apprentice in learning. To the extent they’re not, our education system is broken.

    Incidentally, I have self-taught myself many things, include writing software, electronics, and electrical wiring (as in wiring a house). Learning this way creates a “Swiss cheese” knowledge, and you don’t know where the holes are until you run into them. The advantage of schooling or education done well is that no holes are left.

    • True, self-schooling does not work, Harry. However, I’d argue that you get much more aware of the holes in your “Swiss cheese” knowledge when you learn by yourself, then when you get taught by an institution that claims to impart hole-less Cheddar knowledge.

      Contrary to you, I had great history classes both at high school and college, but they were strictly micro-history. So my perception of the subject was not even Swiss cheese, but a few tasty chive bits swimming in cottage cheese. After completing all the assignments, just before the exams I could probably have bluffed my way through, I dropped history as a minor of my BA degree: had I kept it, I might have been called to teach it, and those chive bits were not a sufficient preparation for that, I felt.

      I just found Sugatra Mitra’s Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education TED talk (1): see in particular 16:08 – 17:14:

      A self organizing system is one where the system structure appears without explicit intervention from the outside. Self organizing systems also always show emergence, which is that the system starts to do things which it was never designed for. Which is why you react the way you do, because it looks impossible.
      I think I can make a guess now: education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.

      Mitra made this provocative statement at the end, and what he advocates is actually setting up conditions within education that will allow children to learn, not on their own, but collaboratively: connective learning. Whether this would work on the world scale he suggests at 17:38 ca remains to be seen, but it seems a path worth exploring.

      (1) July 2010; I found it via the Wikipedia article on Deschooling Society, which I looked up because John’s article made me think that if Ilich had called his book “Uncolleging Society” instead, it might not have been such a success.

      • I love the Mitra quote and will have to explore it further. However, I’m going to have to disagree with the premise: education is most distinctly NOT a self-organizing system. Although it is a very interesting question as to whether or not it should be.

        I also sense that we get caught up in excessively dichotomous thinking when it comes to education. Self-schooling does work for some, and learning on one’s own works for most; but self-schooling does not work for most, and at any rate “self-schooling” is arguably an oxymoron, given that education is fundamentally a dialectical relationship between society and its individual members. I think Harry’s comment about “Swiss cheese” learning gets us closer to a more useful starting point, which is working on the boundaries between education and learning instead of focusing on the holes or on the cheese — that is, the boundaries between what we can learn on our own and what we need to fill the holes — the edges of the holes if you will.
        (If that makes any sense…)

  3. In the US, being a PHD gives one a passport to the world of education, while others , regular educators are ignored, The PHD’s make the decisions. That’t the way it is. It does not matter if their views are in the silo, or if they really get how education works. Classroom experience means nothing. So I really appreciate this essay.

    There are new learning opportunities that are media enhanced. imagine cooking , only knowing it from relatives and books and the new exposure to just about anything.

    Changing world.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    • Bonnie,

      As someone who has never bothered to obtain my “passport,” I understand what you are saying but hope you are wrong about it ;-). This is why I have enjoyed working in online education so much — it has been a place to be right in the thick of change and have an influence without the credential. While it is true and ironic that even now I would not be allowed to have a teaching post at most institutions because of my lack of credentials, even though I have informally mentored various colleagues over the years who now have their PhD, eventually I realized that what I was actually being excluded from really wasn’t very important to me.

  4. We like to talk about each learner being different. Some do well in traditional classes. In fact. we are wrong to always talk about the failure of traditional schools since they do a remarkable job for many students. On the other hand other students find alternative learning to be their cup of tea. The challenge is a combination of alternative learning opportunities.

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