Five Myths About Education

by Peter Sigrist

Source: The Lead On Update

For at least 170 years, a simple and incendiary argument has been present around the margins of public discourse — an argument with the potential to radically transform society. It asserts that education is fundamentally oppressive and should give way to continuous self-directed learning. While I'm new to this line of thinking, I find it increasingly persuasive. Could bringing an end to education make us more innovative and effective in pursuing justice, peace, healthy ecosystems and other objectives of primary importance?

By education I mean the hierarchical administration of standardized curricula for a fixed period of time. This isn't a rebuke to the teachers who've given me so much over the years; they consistently work miracles within a system that places massive responsibility on them for a small fraction of the pay they deserve. The following is a brief explanation of why I'm starting to think that education, as defined above, does more harm than good to individuals and society. It's structured around five common assumptions, which I call myths for the sake of argument.

Myth 1: Education preserves collective knowledge.

Education preserves knowledge, but so do libraries and websites. The knowledge preserved isn't fully collective, but a product of decisions made by a relatively small group of people about what should be included. Deciding on a base of knowledge that everyone should be familiar with seems especially limiting and impractical. Given the need to excel in graded assignments and standardized testing, it doesn't leave much room for student exploration. Education can also legitimize inaccurate information under the banner of expert authority. Although better approaches encourage students to critically assess all information, education isn't the only way of cultivating this mindset, and even works against it due to inherent power imbalances.

Myth 2: Education offers valuable means of evaluating performance.

Evaluation by instructors can encourage tunnel vision, obsequiousness and a false sense of general superiority/inferiority in students. Evaluation isn't always a bad thing, of course, and I wouldn't say that all forms of standardized evaluation should be discontinued. However, it should be seen for what it is: a normative mechanism based on the priorities of a well-intentioned (in most cases) but not infallible group of people with the power to decide. In education, this power includes determining what is taught, how to teach it, how to evaluate learning, and how well a student manages to learn. Student achievement within these parameters tells us only the degree to which they temporarily mastered the parameters, or at least gave the impression. While evaluation can also motivate students to learn, impressing an authority figure or acing an exam isn't a lasting source of inspiration. Internal motivation and genuine interest drive learning that is evident in a person's lifelong pursuits.

Myth 3: Education limits the abuse of power.

Education helps and often encourages students to question authority. It also helps us develop skills that can be used to identify and combat the abuse of power. But it is just as likely, if not more likely, to be co-opted by abusive power. Education is an integral part of established power structures. It requires submission to authority and helps students become authority figures themselves. Critical thinking is valued in education and can lead to change, but oppressive power dynamics remain. There is little incentive to reject them in practice, and great incentive to follow directions.

Myth 4: Education reduces class divisions.

Education promotes class mobility while entrenching class divisions. It helps many talented, hard-working students from low-income families to become wealthy, but class hierarchies persist. Educational institutions perpetuate them to a greater extent than banks and prisons. Their cost, rankings and exclusivity are the most obvious factors. At the same time, professors almost invariably accept the validity of classifying humans economically. Even if they reject the notion that some people are superior to others and more deserving of resources, their class-consciousness fosters an "us versus them" mentality based on the same divisions that give rise to inequality. Class hierarchies are only as real as we make them, and education contributes to this reality.

Myth 5: Education is necessary in preparing for a successful career.

There are many people who've become highly successful without much education. There would probably be more if it wasn't so difficult to access quality information and prove one's competence without educational affiliation. Higher education is a very expensive and structured form of self-directed learning. While it certainly helps with career advancement, learning doesn't end at graduation.

In an ideal world, teachers would no longer be expected to motivate and discipline students, and authorities would no longer establish the curriculum. These responsibilities would belong to each individual. Knowledge would be accessible to everyone as we pursue our individual and shared interests. Evaluation would be used to assess our ability to do specific jobs, but it wouldn't be a mandatory part of the learning process. People would associate freely in learning, work and play.

In the absence of education, we might not accomplish as many important things. We might need more external discipline. It might be more difficult to work together without the structure that education provides. These are legitimate concerns, but do we really need others to decide what, how and with whom we learn?

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  1. There are plenty of thinkers and pedagogues that have developed and applied self-directed learning approaches. The critical understanding of the still ongoing conventional educational apoproach started with Heinrich Pestalozzi. Today we can find many education centres based on Montessori's or Emmi Pickler's approach. Ecuador had an incredible experimental school called Pestalozzi Education Foundation. You can read about it in Rebeca Wild's books.

  2. Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget and Vygotsky, all of these authors provide comprehensive theories and practical alternatives to conventional education

    1. Thanks again, Jordi. I'm wondering what it would be like without obligatory education as defined here. I found the film "Free to Learn" (on The Free School in Albany, NY) really interesting.

  3. some inspirating (and entertaining) words:

  4. I found this piece very thought provoking Pete! Firstly because the in the process of my PhD I've had to unlearn some of the 'ways of learning' I developed in a rigid and most definitely oppressive South African education system, and relearn how to learn, if that makes sense (I found Vygotsky on process very interesting as I've grappled with this personal battle).

    On the other hand two thoughts occurred to me when I thought about the wider South African context:

    1. After 1994 the government instituted a new curriculum called 'outcomes based education' based on much more of a self-directed approach to learning and continuous assessment (rather than assessment through tests, grades etc). Not quite what you imagine here but possibly a step towards it? It has now been scrapped because 1) we now have a generation of functional illiterates, and 2) it actually worsened class divides: to work well outcomes based education needs really skilled teachers who act as facilitators of learning. While private schools had the resources to hire and train teacher/facilitators, government schools did not.

    2. While there are many people who do make it in the world with little or no formal education, there are many more who don't. We have a 45% unemployment rate, and at the same time a huge skills shortage - we don't have doctors, engineers, teachers, we have too many unskilled labourers. In South Africa there are many people who are forced into self-directed learning because they don't have any other choice - teachers don't arrive, schools shut down for months on end, schools are too far away. The battle for these people is to get some direction!

    Just some thoughts from the other side of world. Great post.

    1. Thank you for bringing my ramblings into contact with reality. :) I appreciate the chance to reconsider them in light of existing situations. Last week a colleague mentioned that student-led curricula in the Netherlands were proving ineffective for lack of skilled facilitators. Your first example reminded me of that, and the second underscored the risk of ending up without enough qualified people for needed jobs. Maybe there could be training programs that give people the opportunity to prepare for such jobs later in life, regardless of whether they've completed formal education? Maybe the programs could be funded by employers, or with resources freed up by restructuring the current education system? I think people who are out of work would be highly motivated to develop the skills needed to secure a good job.

    2. Well, I do think the place where reality and the ideal meet is a good place to be :) Always there seems to be a tension between those people trying to think pragmatically from within the box to bring about small, but real, gains for people, and those trying to explode the box - which could bring about major changes for the good, but could also end badly. I find it interesting to think about if, where and how those two approaches to inequality can intersect.

      I think in your response to my first comment you are thinking more pragmatically (and I agree with your suggestions - the worst thing the post-apartheid govt. in South Africa did was scrap the apprenticeship system, which operated somewhat along the lines you suggest above), but I liked your original post because it made me think about how we could change the value that is placed on certain types of knowledge above others and what that could mean for transforming broader social and economic structures. Its important to think like that too. So thanks for making me think!

  5. i would like to say about the last thing about career and education, education is self realisation more than taking text book lessons in a broad sense

  6. Regarding the school in East Albany, NY, it seems a little chaotic, not very convincing. Open education subsititues authority with rules and motivation: it works with more rules than conventional education!! There are plenty of examples of open education centres with the same philosophy following different methods (waldorf, montesory, decroly, piaget, etc.) that have better academic results than conventional education. There's an excellent example of a public school in East End, London, one of the poorest areas in the UK:

  7. Very interesting, Jordi. The thing that struck me most about the school in Albany was a sense that the point was to put democracy in practice, to practice living and working and learning with others democratically. So it's not about results, but about daily experience, sometimes arguing or getting lost or making mistakes, but learning through this to coexist peacefully and constructively.

  8. Peter, I completely agree in everything you say. The objective is not achieving good academic results, but helping our children become good, intelligent, happy, fulfilled people. However, when I saw the video on the school in Albany I thought I would not put my childern there, while I'm convinced I'll give them an open education. It doesn't give an image of a carefully prepared environment, mainly regarding its spaces and its learning materials. Perhaps the video doesn't show what it really is, but I've come across more convincing images of open education centres, such as the one in East London. The thing is that open education requires more effort and reflection from educators and parents than what it may seem to most people. It is far more difficult and involves investing more resources and time, but our children deserve it and our world needs it!

  9. I felt the same way while watching the video about the school in Albany. I'm glad the filmmakers didn't try to idealize it, instead showing the troubling and inspiring sides without commentary. Good to hear of other examples that appear better organized, and I agree about the need for more time, effort and reflection on the part of parents and larger communities.

    Maybe there should be less separation between childhood learning and the objectives of everyday life. There's definitely a lot of good in schools, and they're probably necessary for a healthy society, but what if they were less institutionalized? What if parents were free to spend more time directly with their children and other people in their community to improve living conditions locally and even globally? Maybe children could learn through this activity, taking on leadership roles and contributing something useful to society in the process?

    Again I'm slipping into idealism, and maybe it's good for children to be removed from the daily work needed to solve problems in the world until they've had time to mature and develop a foundation of necessary skills. Just wanted to expose those questions to criticism.

  10. Education is merely understanding