By 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….
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