Un-schooling as decolonisation is the theme of a Reimagining Education conference to be held in Johannesburg on October 20 and 21 and news of it has already triggered a backlash to the idea of removing children from established schools. This is unsurprising because child-centred, democratic education of any kind has always attracted hostile reactions from establishment sources.
To equate the power and violence of colonialism with the existing school system — both at the state and elite private level — was bound to raise hackles, however correct the analogy may be. And it is correct because both systems aim to bring about conformity to the existing political and economic order.
As many educators have pointed out over very many years, education is not a neutral process. The latest — and growing — debates about “un-schooling” are also not new. Nor are the often harsh and bigoted reactions to it.
In a South African context, where most of the schooling system is, to put it mildly, a mess, the demand that every child attend a school, no matter where it is or how it malfunctions, is ridiculous. But this is the demand of often ill-informed individuals in and outside the departments of education when confronted with what now seems to be labelled “un-schooling” or, more correctly, alternative education.
The response from many of those who condemn parents who have removed their children from school ignores the reality on the ground and the wealth of ideas available from many educational thinkers. It is from these thinkers that many home schoolers draw their inspiration and, to provide social interaction for their children, often create alternative “schools”.
Behind both these developments is an agreement that established schooling systems, by and large, often cripple rather than cultivate the innate potential of children. Some theorists, ranging from Homer Lane and AS Neill in Britain to Anton Makarenko in early Soviet Russia, the Brazilian internationalist Paulo Freire and Don Lorenzo Milani in Italy, managed to put their theories into practice in various ways.
Risinghill: Death of a Compre-hensive School, by the educator Leila Berg, and Letter to a Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana — eight students of Milani’s Barbiana school — along with essays by Michael Duane and John Holt’s How Children Fail are all part of a substantial literature on alternatives and the failure of official schooling systems. They share in common the idea that, in most cases, school systems kill initiative and operate to bring about conformity to an existing order.
These educators and those who heeded — and continue to heed — their advice, saw the need to go beyond the tool skills of literacy and numeracy, and refused to accept and conform to dictated educational norms. Above all, they saw the need to promote critical thinking in an environment that would encourage self-confidence and self-discipline.
Rather than have students settle for being — to use James Baldwin’s term — sediment in the bottom of a stagnant pool, they should be encouraged to think about alternatives for a better society; about progress and advancement. Only well-informed critical thinkers would be capable of this and this is what lies behind much of the support for “un-schooling”.
In his 1971 book De-Schooling Society, the theorist and polymath Ivan Illich argued for the establishment of “educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring”. In this, he foresaw our modern internet age and he believed that such technology could not be properly used by conventional schools.
In South Africa, pupils are being provided free access to study materials on the e-Classroom platform established by Natalie Wood, and teachers can upgrade their skills using the programmes devised by Dr Michael Rice. These were the sorts of resources Illich saw as helping to build an educationally more healthy society, minus schools.
An ascetic polymath who worked in 10 languages and could make his way in four more, Illich tended to dismiss all structures and was influenced, although not on that score, by the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Freire, best known for his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, referred disdainfully to the dominant schooling system as “banking education”: pupils seen as empty vessels into which teachers deposit information, attitudes and ideas.
This is the “sausage machine” authoritarianism that was rejected by the global homeschooling movement, much of which morphed into un-schools such as the alternative schools movement in New Zealand. It is usually, but by no means always, better-educated, middle-class parents who adopt and support this course.
There are also various religious fundamentalists who remove their children from state schools because they wish them to be trained only in the dogma of their particular beliefs. This, I argue, is an extreme example of the crippling of the intellectual potential of children and amounts, on one level, to child abuse.
But given the choices faced by most parents concerned about education and the future for their children, it is little wonder that there is a growing movement away from established schools. For example, although corporal punishment is now outlawed, it continues to be seen as an essential part of the disciplinary regime for children.
Yet even in the absence of the cane or strap, the “blank slate/banking education” approach, governed by arbitrary timetables, kills initiative and teaches that might is ultimately right. This seems reason enough to remove a child from school.
That this is happening has resulted in claims that “un-schooling” is illegal. It is not. It only becomes illegal if no other form for education is provided.
This is similar to the provisions that were made in a number of countries, including Britain. But it is widely recognised that the isolation of the home means that home- schooled children may be deprived of social contact. This, in turn, led to homeschoolers coming together to, in some cases, establish small alternative “un-schools”.
In South Africa a number of “un-schoolers” either meet on a regular, even daily, basis, studying and working together, or they arrange more informal contacts. And, where such alternative schools exist, they are often less costly on parental pockets than local state schools. And they tend to involve much more parental time.
So to demand compulsory state schooling for all children, especially given the condition of the South African system, is irresponsible. Instead, the education departments and the supporters of this form of universal schooling might do well to look at alternatives to what is, in most cases, an ongoing disaster.
Terry Bell was the founding principal of the primary division of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco), the ANC school in exile, and co-author of the first primary curriculum adopted in Tanzania in 1980 by the ANC’s national education council