The Pipe Dream of Letting Students Learn

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
5 min readSep 11, 2017

Or how needlessly oppressive modern schooling truly is


You’re reading my thoughts at this very moment as I’m reading Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. :D I was literally just thinking about school basically being a storage space for kids and that turning it into exactly what you describe would be the best immediate solution, if it cannot be abolished.

While Illich’s ideas are from the sixties and consequently a bit antiquated in the specifics (technology has advanced beyond his most optimistic estimates and he does have some pro-communist bias, for example), he does explain in much more detail than me what exactly is wrong with compulsory schooling.

Already decades before the internet, he proposes “an educational web”, providing students with resources and connecting them with peers and elders dynamically, based on what and how they want to learn. Again before modern computers, he proposes using educational games as well.

The sad thing is how absolutely easy it is to do today on the practical level, with computer-based technologies like internet, open source software, or 3D printing. However, the entrenched educational bureaucracy and the mentality of most parents (a product of the school indoctrination to see school as the only option) make it so hard to gather the necessary will.

As any change is unlikely to come from within the current educational bureaucracy, I think what has to be dealt with first is the stranglehold of certification based more on attendance and standardized testing rather than actual ability. As long as employers will require degrees alone rather than actual knowledge or skills regardless of a degree, parents will on the whole not let their children learn freely in conflict with the requirements of conventional schooling. Private employers can make a difference here.

There may be some progress made also as a result of strikes of parents along with their children that are already happening against the insanity of standardized testing-based education. Especially if they become more widespread. Or teachers could start a strike for some other reason than raising their wages for a change, in the line of some individual award-winning teachers who have resigned in protest of some insane policies.

I personally started school with the best possible grades at no effort, until I was about 12 years old and figured out that grades are pointless. From then on, I was content with Cs or even Ds, any passing grade, as long as it allowed me to focus on things much more important to my future career, like playing computer games or debating. I even got hired recently by a progressive software developing corporation to do a job based fully on English skills, despite the fact that I have no certificate whatsoever (as a form of protest).

“Only” because I have the skills.

However, that’s obviously no systematic solution for now, just mostly luck on my part and hopefully a preview of what future holds for most or all people. If I wanted to, I could have easily become a conventional teacher or an academician, but as strange as it sounds, I would really find it unethical for any other purpose than to try to subvert the system from within.

What’s strange to me is the lack of outrage about how kids are treated by most educational systems — like inmates. To me, even the fairly liberal schools I attended were very oppressive in ways that are unjustifiable. They haven’t even taught me to read, write, and compute, actually, because I did that myself before I started attending first grade. Anything I didn’t choose to learn myself (learning it by myself) has eventually turned out to be useless to me, and I can still remember that I was aware of how stupid school is.

When I say things like this, adults often respond by saying that while I can teach myself things and don’t require being told to learn or what to learn, it wouldn’t work for most kids because they’re apparently stupid, or something. Well, I’m not sure that those adults have ever met children. I have worked with countless grammar school, high school, and university students on improving their critical thinking and speech skills, and the group with the least potential to learn and improve always were the university students.

Because of what schooling had done to their minds by that point.

It may sound exaggerated, and many people would argue that they turned out fine (a statement that, when uttered, immediately puts itself into question). However, I am absolutely serious. The most insidious aspect of intellectual violence is that it often robs the victim of the mental faculties necessary to become aware of and understand the damage that was done. One can hardly know what he or she could have known, who he or she could have been as a person, if the suppressed potentials were instead developed.

What’s usually disregarded as a silly youthful rebellion against school is something that I only find more and more justified as a I grow more educated in philosophy and science. What gives the authority to anyone to decide what it will look like inside someone else’s mind when they grow up? What arrogance. There are many things that I respect — wisdom, personal integrity, accomplishment, or at least when people eventually turn out to be more right about something, proving others wrong with logic or science.

To how many teachers does that apply today? To how many bureaucrats?

Unquestioningly obeying directives from one’s superiors or “experts” isn’t wise or a sign of integrity. Neither is blaming kids for one’s own failings. As for accomplishment, pursuing vacuous titles granted by attendance and obedience and lording over subordinates while (ab)using whatever smidgen of authority one has been given is a mockery of what it means to accomplish things. Not to mention what it says about one’s character.

When I was very young and had those perfect grades, I was outright insufferable as a person, following the example of academic elitism. I was encouraged by my teachers to build up an ego based on the sense of intellectual superiority. Consequently, I have antagonized my classmates, or pretty much the whole village. This took about a decade to undo, not to mention how painful was the realization that it is me who is the asshole.

Now the only thing that makes sense doing for me is to simply forget that the whole thing ever happened at all (circa twenty years of education), and move on. Because of how dysfunctional it was at promoting any kind of personal growth, it hasn’t connected me with any community anyway with which it would make sense to maintain relationships, so it’s not particularly hard to do, but it feels like waking up from a coma after two decades.

Thank god that at least in my country, it hasn’t left me with any debts. Coupled with that, it truly seems like some kind of Sisyphean punishment for being born, more than anything else. I can only hope that our generation will put pressure on the institutions to gradually shift education toward that “educational web” paradigm, or that the progress of information technologies will disrupt the whole thing further by simply existing.

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