Deschooling Society: An Illustrated Primer for Apes

“Everywhere the hidden curriculum of schooling initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent. Everywhere this same curriculum instills in the pupils the myth that increased production will provide a better life. And everywhere it develops the habit of self-defeating consumption of services and alienating production, the tolerance for institutional dependence, and the recognition of institutional rankings. The hidden curriculum of school does all this in spite of contrary efforts undertaken by teachers and no matter what ideology prevails.”  -Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1970)

In the Science Fiction novel The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson, a neo-victorian aristocrat (Lord Finkle-McGraw) charges John Pierceval Hackworth, an engineer, with the task of hacking the too-rigid system of formal education by creating a “Young Ladies Illustrated Primer.”  The purpose, the New Atlantean confides, is to instill in his grand-daughter the one thing that schooling never can: subversion.

Hackworth illicitly makes a copy of the completed primer, only to lose it to a gang of thugs. The book, an immersive repository of technical knowledge and folklore that adapts to the psychology of its user, ends up in the hands of the abused and impoverished Nell, a girl from the zones between the affiliated tribes.

I love Stephenson’s book, and have read it several times. My “teaching” philosophy, were I to have one, would be simply this: steal all the primers you can, make copies, and give them away for free.

Saying these things, I’m standing on a long wooden bridge, juggling fire. What I’m saying is hard to hear, because my mouth is full; I’m gnawing on a finger of the hand that feeds me.

On the long drive to the airport that I make three times a week, I listen to audio books, long strings of sound stretched East to West, across fields of yellow flowers. One I checked out recently was Our Inner Ape, by the primatologist Frans de Waal. There are actually two apes in humans, he argues: not just the competitive, dominance-seeking Chimpanzee, but also the gentle, sex-loving Bonobos. Chimps, I remember de Waal saying, have “hierarchy-reinforcing” personalities, as opposed to the more fluid arrangements of the less famous species. “Hierarchies aren’t always bad,” he claimed (I’m paraphrasing here) because they clarify social relationships. “Imagine going to a University, with no way of telling who was the janitor, and who the professor. You would have to talk to each individual, in order to actually understand where anyone stood.”

Yes, I thought, as the sun was rising behind me. Yes, yes. Long live the bonobos. Down with the chimpanzees.

This is my internal contradiction, and burning bridge, the fence I stand on as I pound stakes into a less delineated earth, the beetle that I’ve swallowed: as a dealer of cards, anything I say is on an inclination of power relationships, in the service of a brand, and a pyramid. In the ecology of the internet I want to deal only in horizontals. If you place yourself below me then, to you, there is nothing I have to say. Likewise if you think you are my superior.  Any networks my digital self acknowledges are those of absolute equality. Sequence only, and information.

Lord Finkle-McGraw understood: creativity can’t be taught, because institutionalized attempts at teaching subversion can only drive the splinter of obedience farther in. Here is Illich again: “…all educators are ready to conspire to push out the walls of the classroom, with the goal of transforming the entire culture into a school,” or later: “…an individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” I learned about Deschooling Society from a peer-to-peer university online, one with no fees, teachers, enrollment, or set curriculum.

We learn, we learn, and swing from trees.


2 thoughts on “Deschooling Society: An Illustrated Primer for Apes

  1. I stand here on my own wooden bridge juggling fire — a product of traditional education, a career defined by for-profit educational/research institutions and now feeling the need to scream at my loudest that this system isn’t working for my children. Three little bright and talented kids who would, and do, gain so much more from a week at the farm than they do from a semester of standardized elementary curricula. I have to Google math terms to be able to help my 10 year old complete her homework. I was recently introduced to the concept of Unschooling by a friend with whom I attended a FDA protest last month. I like it, and it’s inspiring the bonobo philosophy within me to take my kids away from the hostile, judging environment of their school (I’m also an anthropologist, so I understand fully the bonobo reference). I just need access to a Bunsen burner.

    1. Thanks Suzanna! Having children, I imagine, would definitely raise the stakes in the debate over standardized education, and the resulting standardization of life/thought/society. Sounds like yours, though, will at least have a thoughtful, caring family to help them make sense of things (as, luckily, did I).

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