Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No, thanks.

Many people use the words “learning” and “education” more or less interchangeably. But a moment’s reflection reveals that they are not at all the same.

Excerpted from Hern, M. 1996. Deschooling Our Lives. Stony Creek, CT: New Society Publishers.

Aaron Falbel is a free-lance writer, editor, philosopher, and musician. Together with Gene Burkart, and under the guidance of Ivan Illich, he is attempting to piece together the history of homo educandus. He lives with his wife Susannah Sheffer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This article, originally printed in the magazine, Growing Without Schooling (#92), presents a cogent analysis of education. Aaron is a careful and clear thinker, and this piece reflects his thorough understanding of both Holt and Illich. His analysis and suggestions are radical, but also practical and reasonable.

IN 1982, A BRITISH INTERVIEWER ASKED JOHN HOLT HOW HE DEFINED the word “education.” He responded: “It’s not a word I personally use. . . . The word 'education' is a word much used, and different people mean different things by it. But on the whole, it seems to me what most people mean by 'education' has got some ideas built into it or contains certain assumptions, and one of them is that learning is an activity which is separate from the rest of life and done best of all when we are not doing anything else, and best of all where nothing else is done—learning places, places especially constructed for learning. Another assumption is that education is a designed process in which some people do things to other people or get other people to do things which will presumably be for their own good. Education means that some A is doing-something to somebody else B. I guess that, basically, is what most people understand education to be about.”

The interviewer pressed John further: “Very well, but what is your definition?”

John replied, “I don’t know of any definition of it that would seem to me to be acceptable. I wrote a book called Instead of Education, and what I mean by this [title] is instead of this designed process which is carried on in specially constructed places under various kinds of bribe and threat. I don’t know what single word I’d put [in its place]. I would talk about a process in which we become more informed, intelligent, curious, competent, skillful, aware by our interaction with the world around us, because of the mainstream of life, so to speak. In other words, I learn a great deal, but I do it in the process of living, working, playing, being with friends. There is no division in my life between learning, work, play, etc. These things are all one. I don’t have a word which I could easily put in the place of ‘education,’ unless it might be ‘living'."

I wrote the following statement at the request of Ivan Illich to try to explain the difference between learning and education. I realize that “education” is a difficult word to pin down—some people may use it in the way that I use the word “learning.” But I believe that John Holt is right in saying that most people use “education” to refer to some kind of treatment. (Even “self-education” can reflect this: a self-administered treatment.) It is this usage that I am contrasting with learning, and this idea of people needing treatment, whether carried out in schools or homes or wherever, that I wish to call into question.


Many people use the words “learning” and “education” more or less interchangeably. But a moment’s reflection reveals that they are not at all the same. I invite you to take this moment and reflect with me on this idea.

Learning is like breathing. It is a natural, human activity: it is part of being alive. A person who is active, curious, who explores the world using all his or her senses, who meets life with energy and enthusiasm—as all babies do—is learning. Our ability to learn, like our ability to breathe, does not need to be improved or tampered with. It is utter nonsense, not to mention deeply insulting, to say that people need to be taught how to learn or how to think. We are horn knowing how to do these things. All that is needed is an interesting, accessible, intelligible world, and a chance to play a meaningful part in it.

If the air is polluted, then it can become difficult to breathe. We cough, wheeze, and gasp for air. Similarly, if our social environment is polluted, it can become difficult to learn. Today our social environment is thoroughly polluted by education—a designed process in which one group of people (educators, social engineers, people shapers) tries to make another group (those who are to be “educated”) learn something, usually without their consent, because they  (the "educators”) think it will be good for them. In other words, education is forced, seduced or coerced learning—except that you can’t really make another person learn something that he or she doesn’t want to learn, which is why education doesn’t work and has never worked. People have always learned things, but education is a relatively recent innovation, and a deeply destructive one at that.

It is ironic that education, carried out by well-meaning people hoping to produce or enhance learning, ends up attacking learning. But this is precisely what happens, despite all the good intentions. In the climate of education, learning is cut off and disembedded from active life. It is divorced from personal curiosity and is thus profoundly denatured. Learning shrivels as it becomes the result of a process controlled, manipulated and governed by others. It deteriorates into empty actions done under the presure of bribe and threat, greed and fear. We all know this to be true from our own “educational” experiences.

When I speak of education, I am not referring only to that which goes on in schools. Today “education” takes place in many guises and settings: through the mass media, in the workplace and in the home. We adopt the educative stance when we feel it is our right and duty to manipulate others for their own good.

Let me be clear: I am not against all forms of teaching. It is a privilege and a joy to help someone do something he or she has freely chosen to do, provided that we are invited to help. I am against unasked-for, I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good teaching.

I do have a problem with professional teachers—people who try to turn whatever knowledge they might have into capital, into a commodity. I want to live in a society where casual, asked-for teaching is a matter of courtesy, not a quick way to make a buck. Sure, there are times when it is proper to compensate a teacher for his or her time and effort. But the new educational supermarkets, which offer courses (for a fee) on everything from breastfeeding to sensitivity training are a step in the wrong direction. Though such courses are not compulsory they end up convincing people that learning through living is inferior to instruction. For instance, why learn to diaper a baby by watching Granny do it when you can receive “parental education” from - a professional parental instructor?

Most of us have forgotten what it was like to follow our own noses, to ask our own questions and find our own answers. Years of educational treatment have convinced us that learning is, and can only be, the result of teaching. We grow up into adults who insist that our children “receive” an education. We trust neither ourselves nor our children to learn.

The last thing I want to do is improve education: rather I want to escape its noxious fumes, to offer my help to anyone seeking similar detoxification, and to clean up the environment where I can. If you are interested in joining me, there are some steps that you and I can take that will help clear the air of “education” and create a cleaner social environment supportive of learning.

First, let us rid our own minds of the prejudice that views others who opt out of educational treatment as “delinquents,” “failures,” or “dropouts.” Let us view them instead as wise refuseniks, as conscientious objectors to a crippling and dehumanizing process. Let us act in a way that removes the stigma currently hanging over the heads of educational underconsumers.

Second, if we agree that children are good at learning, let our attitude and dealings with young people bear this out. Let us resist the temptation to become educators, to rub the noses of the young in our greater experience by adopting the roles of teacher, helper, and instructor at the drop of a hat. Let us trust people to figure things out for themselves, unless they specifically ask for our help. (As it turns out, they ask frequently. Small children, whose curiosity has not been deadened by education, are usually brimming over with questions.) The nature of the toxicity inherent in education is precisely that so much of the teaching that goes on is unasked for. Let us endeavor to rid our own behavior of unasked-for help.

Third, let us not discriminate against the uncertified when it comes to the matter of employment. Several landmark studies have shown that there is no correlation between educational training and performance on the job. (See especially Ivar Berg's The Great Training Robbery, Beacon Press, 1971.) If we must assess competence for a given job, let us assess it as directly as we can, and not conflate competence with length of sitting done in educational institutions. We can also deflate the value of educational currency by refusing to talk about our own educational credentials. Take them off your resume! Demand that others judge you by your actual talents and accomplishments, as you would judge others.

Fourth, let us do our own part to create a more open and accessible society, where knowledge and tools are not locked up in institutions or hoarded as closely guarded secrets, by offering (not imposing) to share our skills with others. Take on an apprentice. Hang a shingle outside your home describing what you do. Let your friends and neighbors know that you are making such an offer to any serious and committed person

Fifth, let us outlaw exploitative labor, not child labor, the prohibition of which currently denies many forms of meaningful participation to the young. This will help end the policy of age discrimination, which mandates that the young be taught about the world before they are allowed to learn from it by participating in it.

Sixth, let us support libraries, museums, theatres, and other voluntary, non-coercive community institutions. (Many libraries, for example, are open only during working hours. when only those with the luxury of a research stipend may use them. With more support, they could be open evenings and weekends.)

Additionally, let us create more spaces in our communities where young and old (and those in between), can get together to pursue unprogrammed activities of all sorts: arts, crafts, sorts, music, hobbies, discussion groups, etc. Let us end the policy of shunting young and old into separate institutions “for their own good.”

Finally, think up more ideas of your own! As a society that has been addicted to education for several generations, we have lost the ability to imagine what it might be like to grow up and live in a world free of pedagogical manipulation.

If you agree with this statement, or just find it provocative, make copies and discuss it with your family, friends, neighbors, and fellow workers. Send a copy to distant friends and invite them to do the same.

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