What Did School Teach You Part 2: The Return of the Autodidact

In the last post about what school taught us, I used the argument put forth in Ivan Illich’s text Deschooling Society, to make some various claims. Once again, Illich’s overarching point was that contemporary modes of Western education conflate process with substance, or, this make the processes and credentialism of teaching synonymous with the actual knowledge that should be learned. Someone with a degree is viewed as someone who should understand that subject matter to a certain level, but rarely is this the case. What actually happens within degrees and school systems is a catastrophic feedback loop, which looks like this:

1. A system of credentialism or grading is introduced, people can achieve higher or lower grades respectively on a hierarchy of understanding

2. The higher grades are achieved by those who supposedly have a greater understanding of the subject, and the lower grades by those who supposedly have a lesser understanding of the subject

3. The teacher’s modus operandi like most people working a non-passion job within a capitalist system is simply to keep it. The teachers understand that the greater the number of pupils who achieve a higher mark, the greater the reflection on their performance and ability as a teacher

4. The curriculum then becomes attuned not to a general mode of understanding regarding the subject, but to a constrained outlook relating to ‘What will be on the exam’

5. Students no longer study to actually study…for knowledge, but to get higher grades on an exam

6. Younger students begin to internalize this system and worry not about whether they understand a subject, but whether or not they’ll ‘get a good grade’ (and the system/loop begins its revolution)

This is a form of indoctrination. We can’t blame the teachers, most of whom got into the job for earnest and sincere reasons, and we can’t blame the students because they have no say in what goes on. Once again, who’s to blame is large abstract body of committee members, council workers and bureaucratic brown noses whose entire purpose is to create systems of social, cultural and intellectual vindication. Closed systems which create proofs that something is working, and when that system doesn’t work, they just move the goalposts…I mean, no one wants to lose their job, do they?

What’s the conclusion of this loop? Students and teachers end up learning very little. Teachers remain within the confines of ‘whatever will be on the exam’ and students remain in the same confines due to that being their only route to a future. But I bring good news, this is changing. Many of you may have seen that Harvard – the great helmsman Western education – has just announced that all its courses for 2020-2021 will be taught online, but the tuition fees for undergraduates will remain the same, precisely $49,653.

Unfortunately for Harvard most of their new undergraduates will be ‘extremely online’ people, who are all very knowledgeable with what can be acquired via Google. And what can be acquired? All manner of courses, across all subjects, for very low fees, if not entirely free. And these courses aren’t low quality either, they’re often created by working professionals to teach knowledge and know-how which will actually be used in the workplace one plans to go into.

Perhaps it’s my own personal bias, but I’m willing to make a prediction here. We can mark this decision by Harvard as the beginning of the end of traditional modes of schooling/learning. Harvard’s decision plus the recent increase and intrigue in online courses for the sake of learning, will strike a firm blow to the behemoth that is credentialism. As someone who is working within the online philososphere, I can tell you first hand that more and more potential undergraduates are opting for affordable online courses, largely because their primary reason for study isn’t a job, but it’s actually (shock horror) because they want to learn, they actually enjoy the subject. They would rather work with someone who’s teaching out of passion for the subject, than be sacrificed to the great system of credentialism.

The autodidact’s making a comeback, the experiences of 10-30 years of disgruntled undergraduates (combined with increasing debt) is finally making its way to the younger generation, and due to their existence, which is now primarily online, they can finally escape the indoctrination of their schools. Schools will of course tell you that you should go to university, you should continue your studies. Why do they tell you this? Because by-and-large a higher number of university placements looks better on the school’s and the teacher’s record. But now the left-behind grads are coming back to haunt them, making it clear that it might not be worth its (lifelong) purchase. And perhaps, if you really enjoy a subject and want to learn it, you should just go…learn it.

It’s one of the most tyrannous crimes of modernity, the idea that a credential is proof of understanding. The idea that to trust someone to do anything – even on their own – they need some form of certification or bureaucratic proof. No one is allowed to do anything anymore; it first has to proven that they could or can do it. The knock-on effect of this of course is that before doing anything you get indoctrinated into ways of doing it that you might not enjoy, or might not work for you, or are often completely wrong. When people state they’ve done something a little out of the ordinary, say, built a wooden planter, put up some guttering or fixed their washing machine, you’ll often hear the same old responses “Oh wow, you sure you know what you’re doing?” or “Where did you learn to do that?’

Become the person who learnt to do it themselves, get out of the mindset that you need a bureaucratic proof to learn, enjoy or partake. We used to tame the frontiers, and now we need a license to go fishing and permits to grow vegetables. It’s pathetic, and I beg you not to become part of it. Repair things that break, try with the knowledge of failure, believe that you can figure stuff out without a third party, tinker with life and all its parts and most importantly, be a sovereign individual, tend to your own actions!

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One thought on “What Did School Teach You Part 2: The Return of the Autodidact

  1. I can’t be so optimist as you. Societal pressure is strong, and appearance and pretense often seem to dominate the system dynamics. While I agree that there are some exceptions, and that those exceptions might be becoming more available than ever, I still believe the kind of people interested in this is a minority and will always be. I have the belief that learning is not only unattractive to a lot of people, but even kind of uncomfortable. In contrast, systems based on acceptance of the rules and obedience, even if far more mediocre, might inspire a higher degree of certainty, less doubts, a simpler path. Even if I might prefer your narrative, I can’t dismiss this perspective easily.

    Anyway. I have been reading a few of your latest posts, so I decided to comment something and show some support for your contributions. Even if I know you will keep writing anyway, maybe we can encourage other silent readers to give some feedback too!

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