Learning is Natural — School is Optional

In 1968, during my first year of teaching in a Pennsylvania public high school, I tried to persuade my students to take an interest in history.

I had the following quotation on my classroom bulletin board:

“Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

One day a student asked me, in all sincerity, “Why must I study history? I just want to train horses.”

To this day, I still struggle with her question. Why do we think coercion is a good approach to learning? She got good grades in my course, but she said she forgot almost everything because she really didn’t care. Given the chance to talk about horses, on the other hand, she seemed to know everything and forget nothing.

In truth, I had my own personal struggles with compulsory schooling. By the time I reached high school, I was frustrated with what school imposed on me. I loved history and I wanted to learn what I wanted to learn. But I would get in trouble for reading a history book in math class. I often felt that school got in the way of my education.

However, not until I read “Deschooling Society” in 1971 did I realize that the institution of school itself is the obstacle to learning for many young people. The author, Ivan Illich, pointed out that the costs of schooling kept going up while the outcomes kept going down.

Decades later, it’s the same. The costs at every level of schooling are still climbing — but with growing skepticism as to whether school is worth the return on investment. Yes, there are excellent schools and excellent students, but many more people than we realize simply don’t like school and the results show that.

If schools fail to meet the needs of many students, why do they still have a monopoly on the resources and goodwill available for education in our society?

We have come to confuse learning with schooling. Learning is now measured by the number of years in school and the number of diplomas collected. Informal learning, acquired through direct experience, or self-directed learning, driven by personal interest, are regarded as inferior to school learning. Yet, there is a growing resistance to school and the hallmark measure of school progress: standardized testing. Last year, a half-million school children opted out of standardized testing.

The parents of more than two million American children of school age refused to send their children to school at all and “home-schooled” them instead. Some parents turn to self-directed learning programs, such as North Star in Massachusetts, where my eldest son Josh works part-time as an advisor and teacher.

Ever since I read about the concept of deschooling, I wondered what it might look like in practice.

Ken Danford, a former middle school teacher, founded North Star in 1996 to assist teenagers who wanted to leave school and to give them a place where they could learn in their own way. Danford is against compulsory schooling, not schools themselves. His own children chose the more conventional path of schooling. But Danford’s North Star program has demonstrated that many young people who hate school still want to learn.

They don’t need to be forced or persuaded and they don’t have to stay in school to learn — if they can choose what they study. Voluntary classes and the absence of tests encourage young people to rely on their own self-motivation.
Adults assist young people as facilitators, not dictators, whose role is to “make possible” rather than “make sure.” They help young people choose their activities, including those that North Star itself offers — from learning a musical instrument to a variety of classes taught without tests or grades.

I heard one of North Star’s former learners speak about how, despite hating high school, he started to attend community college classes because he chose to do so. Without ever having graduated high school, he went on to graduate from college, as do many North Star kids, because he chose to do so. North Star now serves as the model for “Liberated Learners,” a network that helps new programs replicate North Star’s successful efforts to support learning beyond the schoolhouse.

Author James Herndon once suggested that freedom of education in Western democracies will eventually come to pass, like freedom of religion. He said, “There is no law anymore that people must go to church…so many people don’t while others do.” Eventually, our society must recognize the simple truth in North Star’s slogan:

“Learning is natural. School is optional.”