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Growing Without Education

  Schooling and education are modern concepts. They tend to mean shaping young people according to the wishes of adults to fit into modern society. What if you are a parent who is not happy with modern society, who does not want your child to 'fit in', who does not want to shape your child at all? This article suggests that although it would be a good thing to keep your child out of school, it would be an even better thing to keep your child away from all forms of education.
By Aaron Falbel  

Both John Holt and Ivan Illich eventually came to see that escaping from schooling was only a beginning, a first step in a journey of social change they hoped people would take. They saw that people could easily abandon school yet still cling tenaciously to the idea of education, even when homeschooling or deschooling was allegedly being carried out.

In 1976, Holt wrote Instead of Education in which he argued against education, not just against schooling. He defined education as "something that some people do to others for their own good, molding and shaping them, and trying to make them learn what they think they ought to know." Holt saw the entire enterprise of education that is, of people-shaping as morally pernicious. And, influenced no doubt by Illich, he saw education as bolstering a type of society he felt was shallow, hollow, empty, alienating, unsustainable, and ultimately "antihuman."

In 1976 he wrote:

"Education... now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and "fans," driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve "education" but to do away with it, to end the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves."

I might quibble with Holt about that last bit regarding helping people to shape themselves, but I'll leave that for another essay. What I want to emphasize here is that Holt and Illich's critique of education is linked with a larger critique of modern society in general. In other words, their objection to education is part of a certain political outlook, which homeschoolers may or may not share. My aim in writing this essay is not to convince readers to adopt this political outlook. But if readers do share these concerns about the fate of modern society, I'd like to invite them to explore the way in which education is a key component of the mess we're in.


Education teaches us that our native abilities for learning are inadequate, that they must be developed and improved upon by submitting to or even seeking out pedagogical management of some sort.

Education props up and bolsters the absurdities of the modern world. Education as people-shaping, whether it happens in a school or at home, is geared toward making people fit in, shaping them to fit in, whether that means getting into college or getting a good job or just "being successful" in the modern economy. Now, we all want our children to be successful, don't we? Not necessarily. If we agree with Holt and Illich that society is in as bad a shape as they say it is, then becoming a success in such a society may be the worst thing we could wish for our children. In an overly materialistic, tremendously voracious, wasteful, exploitative, consumptive, technophilic, militaristic, competitive society, being a successful, functioning member would only compound the problem.

I also want to underscore that much of what Holt and Illich find wrong with society can be classified as having to do with economics or more precisely with the way economics controls nearly every facet of our lives. Illich, in particular, links education with the notion of scarcitv. He defines education as "learning under the assumption of scarcity." This is a rather technical point, so it might take some explaining. Scarcity is the linchpin of economics, of economic society. By scarcity, Illich does not mean a temporary lack or shortage but a generalized condition or perception that things are of value in proportion to their rarity. Money is the most obvious scarce commodity. If money were abundant and freely available, it would cease to have economic value it would become just paper. The same is true for abundant human activities that are rendered scarce: they become commodities. Learning, dwelling, working, walking, and healing become education, housing, jobs, transportation, and health care. Verbs are turned into nouns. These latter nouns are scarce and must be obtained or purchased from someone else.

Illich writes:

"Economics always implies the assumption of scarcity. What is not scarce cannot be subjected to economic control. This is as true of goods and services as it is of work. The assumption of scarcity has penetrated all modern institutions. Education is built on the assumption that desireable knowledge is scarce. ... The identification of that which is desireable with that which is scarce has deeply shaped our thinking, our feeling, our perception of reality itself."

Thus, education only appears when we feel a need to make sure that certain scarce knowledge is imparted. Knowledge that is abundant in the world is readily learnable and therefore needs no special arrangements. Of course, life itself sometimes necessitates schedules, deadlines, and other "arrangements" in order to do the things we want to do, or are obligated to do, but these are not educational arrangements. They are simply part of the logistics of life. This difference is important. In an interview with the CBC radio broadcaster (and homeschooling father) David Cayley, Illich explained how he came to link up the concept of education with the economic notion of scarcity:

"I asked the question, which are the conditions under which the very idea of education can arise? You can't have the modern idea of education if you don't believe there is knowledge knowledge which can be packaged, knowledge which can be defined, knowledge which constitutes a value which can be appropriated. I therefore became concerned with the mental frame or space within which the concepts by which we construct the notion of education can take shape. ... This was the beginning of my interest in writing a history of scarcity. ... I began to speak of education as learning under the assumption that the means for this purpose are scarce. If I had only one desire, it would be to get across to the people who study education, researchers on education, that they should not study what happens in education, but how the very idea of this nonsense could have come into existence."

Under the rubric of education, the natural, human activity we know as learning becomes commodified and is therefore made scarce, regardless of whether one actually pays money for instruction. Learning then has to be acquired at school, at home, on the job, through an apprenticeship, over the Internet, on TV, via the news media and then accounted for. To reject education means to reject in our own minds, at the very least, this type of accounting, even if the homeschooling laws currently on the books require it. To ask what is wrong with the idea of education, then, is to ask what is wrong with modern economic society.

For Illich and Holt, and other critics as well, economics takes what is best about humanity and deeply corrupts it. It turns care, love, neighborliness, kindness, community indeed, most aspects of life into professional economic services. Economic competition pits people against each other. Economic hegemony takes what people used to be able to make and do for themselves and turns them into commodities and services that must be obtained or purchased. This becomes tragic when people are profoundly alienated from such basic subsistence activities as providing their own food, water, clothing, fuel, and shelter. For example, people are hungry in the U.S. today not because there is a shortage of food we discard billions of pounds of edible food annually but because some people don't have the scarce money/jobs necessary to purchase it. People become victims and hostages to the ups and downs of the economy, in which, according to the laws of scarcity, there must be winners and losers.

Scarcity is linked with two other concepts that lie deep at the core of modern society: Progress and development. Most of us grew up viewing progress and development as "good things," but decades of pollution, environmental degradation, social polarization, resource depletion, and frustrated expectations have convinced some of us otherwise. Education is a form of human development that knows no end or limit. Education as preparation-for-life teaches that the good life necessarily involves a scramble for scarce resources. Education teaches us that our native abilities for learning are inadequate, that they must be developed and improved upon by submitting to or even seeking out pedagogical management of some sort. Education teaches us that we must adapt ourselves to society as it is, that we must keep pace with the dictates of "progress," that life is a race, and that we need education to get ahead of the next guy or else we'll be left behind.

Growing without education is a deeply radical concept. It criticizes not just the means (schooling) but the ends: the goal of "the educated person" and the type of society that person is being educated into. Children who grow without education may or may not come to embrace the larger social critique outlined here. That must be their own decision. But they will be a lot freer to make up their own minds on these matters than those who are educated to accept the myths of modern economic society.

Holt and Illich reject the notion that children have educational needs. They have interests, things they are curious about, questions they want answered, things they want to do or try but these are different from educational needs. Desires are not the same as needs. Desires are wishes or wants that may or may not be satisfiable. Needs, according to Illich, are demands for commodities or services, which come to be regarded as entitlements. Needs can only arise when one can identify a technical process whereby the perceived lack can be indeed, ought to be satisfied. Only after the consolidation of the food production and distribution industries did people have a "need for food." Prior to that, they were hungry.


People have always been curious, have always learned things. Only recently, when learning was disembedded from the rest of life, and treated as a separate entity that could be delivered and administered, did people feel a need for education (and feel deprived if they didn't get it). Historically, this need coincided with the emergence of economic society in the 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to this time, education, in so far as it existed at all, was a leisure pursuit or was connected with highly circumscribed activities. It was not needed, certainly not as a prerequisite for life, as the modern-day concept dictates.

A magazine entitled Growing Without Education would not look very different from the magazine entitled Growing Without Schooling except that it would probably not contain articles about innovative approaches to math or reading or history or what have you. These subjects simply do not exist in life apart from the real-world activities in which they are embedded. Readers of Growing Without Education magazine would not worry whether the young people in their midst have "enough" math or are reading at an "age-appropriate level." Articles in Growing Without Education magazine would stick to descriptions of interesting things people did, not how a certain apprenticeship advanced their knowledge of biology or history or whatever. Young people who are growing without education would pursue activities strictly for their own sake, not for the sake of their education.

I fully realize that laws in many states require that we chop life up into school subjects. But my purpose for engaging in this thought experiment is to be clear in our own minds what we are buying into when we "educate" our children at home. It is one thing to fill out a report for the principal or superintendent full of educational jargon to make them happy. It is another thing for those reports to colonize our own worldview and influence the way we relate to children.

For me, what is most important and most beautiful about the concept of growing without education is that, freed from the constraints of education and the mindset of scarcity, from trying to fit their kids into an unworkable society, families could finally concentrate on living, on the quality of life in their neighborhoods and communities. They would have the time, space, and mental energy in their lives to ask of themselves: What kind of life do we want to live? How can we go about living it? How can we live a decent, grounded, rooted life even in a society that militates against decency and groundedness? (Michael Fogler's book, Un-Jobbing, is one person's attempt to answer such questions along the lines I have been discussing.) These are among the questions that education obscures, questions that can be uncovered and brought to light if we can allow ourselves to grow without education.

  This is a slightly edited version of an article that first appeared in the American home-schooling magazine Growing Without Schooling, volume 130. This magazine can be contacted at the website: <>

Issue 14 of The AISLING Magazine contains another article on the same topic by Aaron Falbel.
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