I was fortunate enough to speak at an event in San Francisco this summer about the necessity of deschooling yourself for leading a successful life. The audience consisted of young intellectuals and entrepreneurs who might want to step off the traditional school-to-cubicle conveyor belt and try different approaches to eduction. They were generally open and amenable to what I talked about. I discussed my own experience leaving school after being a top student, trying to develop a work habit that allowed me to be continually productive, and what struggles I and others had had with deschooling ourselves.
Almost every question came back to the same issue: structure.
“Don’t you think most young people need structure in their education?”
“Isn’t structure a good thing for people?”
“What kind of life can you lead outside of a structured environment?”
The thing is, I don’t disagree with the premise behind these questions. Structure is incredibly important for individuals to lead free and fulfilling lives. In fact, structure is so important that it can’t be left to one-size-fits-all models in schools.
These questions assume that without an imposed structure on your life, you can’t have structure. You have to have somebody telling you when you have to study X, what you have to do to do Y, and a certain path that must be imposed on you to get you from a kid to a productive member of society. Though the questioners didn’t mean it this way, this assumption takes an inherently pessimistic view of people. It views them as being so listless, so self-absorbed, and so short-sighted that they couldn’t possibly lead productive lives without imposed structure. Defenders of schooling like to mock dissenters for wanting kids to just play all day instead of learning (despite strong evidence that play is a better use of time).
This is hardly the case and the confusion with deschooling with the complete removal of structure stems from this misunderstanding.
Deschooling isn’t the complete removal of structure in our lives. People need structure. Without some kind of narrative to build his life around, man has a difficult time moving forward, being happy, and being able to set ends and develop paths to develop them. Schooling creates the facade of created structure through a system of imposed structure. It takes many people and puts them down a limited number of paths. This makes people believe that they have structure in their lives and are forming narratives. It isn’t until a particularly bumpy part of life — a corporate downsizing, a close death in the family, or some other large event that shakes their identity — that they realize that he hadn’t yet built the structure he needed for his life. He’s come to equate process with substance; degrees with knowledge; and graduations with experience.
Deschooling is stepping outside of this system of imposed structure and engaging in the individual process of creating your own structure for yourself. This isn’t easy, especially in a thoroughly schooled society. The individual, used to getting up and going on a clearly defined schedule from hour-to-hour and day-to-day and semester-to-semester, is now forced to create a schedule for himself. He’s forced to do this while simultaneously watching his friends and family go through the same system of imposed structure.
There are at least three areas that we must focus on if we want to allow the process of finding created structure. The first is to have focus. Find what you are good at and focus on it relentlessly. If you can’t do that, remove what you are bad at and focus on what is left over. Do not waste time on the unnecessaries. This allows us to figure out where we want to be in a few years and develop a path to get to it. Too often school leaves us with the mindset of, “well, I want to get into Penn. Then I’ll go to a top program from there. Then from the top program I’ll get a good job,” but never forces us to ask why we are going for that job in the first place. We focus on the process more than we focus on the substance and where the process takes us.
The second area to cultivate is creativity. Creativity isn’t simply being able to make a nice painting or write a pleasant creative story. Creativity in our own lives means so much more than this. It means being able to see ourselves as being multifaceted. You aren’t just a law student. You aren’t just a doctor. You aren’t just an entrepreneur. This is important for the individual’s ability to craft identity over a lifetime. If a given project or path fails, she can pivot to another path, creatively taking her talents and passions elsewhere and not getting stuck in the rut of viewing herself as a failure. It’s no secret that schools have a propensity for crushing creativity — read any number of studies about the importance of the arts, music, or creative work outside of assignments and tests — but it also has a much more sinister effect on creativity in the grander scheme of human knowledge. By teaching to tests and mandates, school removes the importance of creative knowledge seeking from the human experience. We aren’t pushed to ask the big questions as often and must turn our attention to what we currently know. Without this mindset, humans are free to ask “why not?” more often. When they ask it in school now, the answer comes down to little more than, “because it isn’t on the test.”
The third area is to develop an attitude of play. One of the most important things I’ve internalized over the past 2–3 years is that life is ultimately a series of games and should be seen as such. These games can be played many times over. If you worry about a given path too seriously, you focus more on the process of going about that path than about developing the right mindset to enjoy it and to find it meaningful. This isn’t just a self-help platitude, either. Having an attitude of play helps us learn more easily. When we view our work as not drudgery but as something enjoyable and meaningful, we find new ways of accomplishing tasks. Play is a central tool in the human being’s cognitive toolkit for learning new processes. Without it, we’re not much smarter than machine learning AI.
Focus, creativity, and play give us the tools and mindset necessary to create structure for ourselves outside of school. By removing the barriers of imposed structure and by engaging more deeply in our human potential as creative problem solvers, we can not only create meaning and structure for ourselves outside of a system of grades, tests, assignments, and bureaucratic career paths, we can also unleash a new attitude of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.
Deschooling isn’t the removal of structure from our lives. It is the process of reclaiming our rights as individuals to determine what that structure ought to be for ourselves. We don’t need a school board or a Secretary of Education or a Vice Provost to tell us.
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Originally appeared as “Deschooling isn’t the opposite of structure — it’s the height of it” at ZakSlayback.com on September 18, 2015.