[iDC] education should be inefficient

Astra Taylor examinedlifedoc at gmail.com
Thu Jun 24 13:28:49 UTC 2010

Hi all,

Trebor has been prodding me to add my two cents based on my experiences as
an unschooler and as someone on the academic periphery.  For the last five
years I've been a documentary filmmaker focusing on academic/philosophical
themes (I directed Zizek! and Examined Life).  I was unschooled until the
age of 13 when, believing I would be locked out of opportunities in
adulthood, I decided to go to public high school.  It was a sociological
experiment in many ways -- I had never had a curriculum, a bed time, an
alarm clock, worn shoes all day, taken tests, given grades, had more than
one or two friends at most.  I lasted three years.  After that, I did
undergraduate for two and a half years before getting an MA in Liberal
Studies at the New School.

I recently gave a talk at the Walker Center last year in which I talk about
my childhood, the transition into formal school and the university context,
the history of alternative education in the US, and some of my concerns
about it -- namely the problems of privilege and withdrawal from the public
sphere, not to mention the unsettling fact that so many libertarians love
unschooling too. If you're interested, you can watch it here:

Trebor asked me a very good question: What can the university learn from
unschooling?  It's a tough one, one I've never quite posed to myself, so
please forgive these scattered thoughts.

I should begin by saying I am a firm believer in self-directed learning; in
fact, I believe human beings can't help but learn.  My sister, who is 18,
has spent a handful of months in formal school and, compared to her peers,
she is certainly "educated."

That said, I'm growing increasingly wary of some of the rhetoric that I hear
being deployed in discussions about the future of education and in
conversations I've been having recently, namely strains of
techno-determinism, anti-institutional ardor, and easy individualism.

Lately, I’ve been thinking very hard about how important it is to defend
institutions of higher learning.  I can list the way they’ve disappointed me
in my sleep – they are too expensive (and debt really is a means of social
control), disciplinary focus can be myopic, there’s not enough emphasis on
communicating with a broad public, they reproduce structures of privilege,
the meritocracy is bunk, testing and grades are jokes, they are run like
business with little commitment to students and learning, the student is
treated as a consumer/customer, the staff as disposable.  All that and
more.  Yes, but.

Why do we need physical campuses?  Here are some ideas.  Because you know
all those states that you fly over?  Imagine them without college towns
(Athens, where I grew up, is basically built around a library thanks to
UGA).  Because they provide meaningful work and intellectual livelihoods
(college should and could be cheaper, but not from slashing teaching costs –
and we know that’s really about increasing profits not lowering fees).
Because even if colleges all crumbled tomorrow, elementary and high schools
aren’t going anywhere – college is the one institution that grants people
some space to devote themselves to learning with a modicum of control over
what they learn, a place to undo some of the damage that’s already been
done.  Because digital archives are no substitute for institutional memory.

Going around with my films I have met dozens upon dozens of people who say
they haven’t had an opportunity to think about theory/philosophy since
college.  They miss the abstraction, the intellectual debate for it’s own
sake. Has the university served these people, by at least granting them a
few years (though possibly at an enormous cost) to devote their attention to
such matters? Or has it let them down by reinforcing the dependence on the
classroom setting, on teachers, on book learning by curriculum and

For now, here are some rather random reactions rooted in my upbringing.  I'm
not sure how much one can generalize from it, given how unusual it was,
especially in Georgia where we were outnumbered by the conservative
Christian homeschoolers 10,000 to 1.
Education vs. Credentialing
First, there's the issue of education and credentialing. The two processes
aren't the same thing, obviously, though they sometimes overlap. And of
course credentials can be necessary to professional advancement. Even if you
don't use them explicitly (the only times I ever had to prove I possessed a
degree was to get into grad school and when I adjuncted in the sociology
department at SUNY New Paltz, the worse paying job I've ever had -- and also
the hardest) they are no doubt put to work implicitly in many instances. I
feel at ease and welcome in academic environments in a way my friends who
lack college experience do not; I feel entitled to access certain
conversations they feel left out of.  It's important to acknowledge these
less overt benefits, the cultural capital that we cash in even when our job
doesn't require we hang our degree on the wall.  I just read an excellent
account of a year at the Wharton Business School, an example of
credentialing at it's purest and most absurd. Grades are meaningless (the
school keeps them confidential), the profs readily confess the students
don't learn anything or care to, but they pay a ton of money and get jobs
otherwise inaccessible to them at the end of it despite the fact they know
not much more than when they enrolled.

When people (like me) criticize credentialing there's often this idea that
talent or ability or experience should somehow replace degrees, that some
authentic measure should replace this inauthentic phony bureaucratic one.
 After all -- I'm a filmmaker because I made movies, not because I went to
film school (I didn't).  But I'm not so sure this is much of a leap from the
meritocratic logic that the school system and business sector currently
reinforce and uphold: the idea that the best will rise to the top, that
society should be ranked by talent and ability.  I want to somehow square
self-directed learning with the ideal of education being a great equalizer,
but I'm not sure that's easily done.

When I talk to young people, I basically tell them that school is a game,
but learning isn't. Because a university education often equals a lifetime
of debt, I try to share the few tricks I used to get out quick, explaining
how I graduated in two years (by leaving the overpriced Ivy League for the
free public option that also took AP credit, by designing a curriculum in
which all the classes needed to fulfill the major happened in the same year,
and by doubling up on independent studies, taking tests to skip core
curriculum, etc) and why (to get into grad school faster, which was tuition
free after the first semester and gave me more autonomy – though I got an
equal and arguably more useful education working at Verso Books during the
same period).

That said, I understand why people want to go to school, even in this age of
the Internet when teaching yourself or finding an online learning community
is easier than ever.  School is a real space one can situate a life in --
the Internet, not so much.  The aforementioned younger sister wants nothing
more than to go to art school, something I vociferously advise against on
practical grounds – the debt she would incur will never be paid back and she
would be better of simply investing in some sort of creative project or
career.  Also, predictably, I wonder who can be taught to be an artist? What
credential makes one creative?  But what she wants is resources,
encouragement, a place to inhabit and explore, a real space community, to be
emboldened in directions she wouldn’t go on her own, to be given achievable
goals, to postpone joining the workforce while having health insurance.  Who
can blame a diehard unschooler for wanting these things?

Another small point is that I’ve noticed is that many of the people who are
most excited about the possibility of alternative education models, who make
a fetish of self-directed learning and education as slavery, are often part
of the credentialed classes.  It’s easy to take advantage of personal
learning networks if you already have degrees from a fancy school, as many
(but not all, I admit) of the people involved in the new crop of education
experiments do.  I think one reason highly educated and credentialed people
latch on to alt ed theories is there’s a sense that we are at heart
autodidacts, despite schooling.  In a way, we’re the group most attached to
the romantic idea of the university as a community of scholars, so attached
that we want to recreate that ideal elsewhere.  That’s not a bad thing; what
I’m calling attention to is the way these education experiments often remain
bound to a very classic notion of the academy.
I recently read Callahan's *Education and the Cult of Efficiency*, which
provides an excellent history of schooling’s coevolution with
industrialization.  Efficiency is not a good word in my opinion and I'm not
sure it can be reclaimed to serve progressive ends…

What I appreciate about alternative education, and the parts of the
university I love best, is the commitment to inefficiency.  Education should
be inefficient! (That's my soundbyte).  I just interviewed a filmmaker --
she directed the marvelous documentary The Oath, which was recently
released.  She mentioned going to a Sudbury school (a radically democratic
school, where the students, no matter how young, vote for their teachers and
staff).  Some years she read, others she drew. One year, she said, was the
"year of climbing trees."  Who knows what she learned in the branches, but
it may have been a lot.

I was unschooled without highspeed Internet (first logged on freshman year
of highschool); my youngest sister doesn't remember life without constant
highspeed access.  I would say for both of us though, unschooling has been
more about slowness, about paying attention, immersing ourselves bizarre art
projects, volunteering, staring off into space, talking to friends, and
reading books, reading books, reading books.   We sometimes learned quickly,
when motivated or excited to master some skill, but typically we learned at
our own pace, which was often slow (sometimes so slow it looked as though we
were doing nothing at all) and with lots of detours.

I'm very interested in the promise of digital learning and technology.  I
know people who have certainly preferred online learning experiences to face
to face ones.  When?  When the material is interesting, the teacher vibrant,
and there are levels of interaction between the faculty and students.  The
least "efficient" online classrooms may be the most effective ones in the


Often people ask me if I was bored at home as a child.  For us boredom was
something to be worked with, passed through: it was a pit stop along the
road to being engaged, a state of being very different from being
entertained. “When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mother would say, a
phrase that still rings in my ears and one that reveals what may be the
essence of self-education, the forceful injunction at the heart of
unschooling, the secret of its reverse psychology, if you will.

Boredom and solitude are connected in my mind.  I wonder if, in all the talk
of group learning and p2p and collaboration we forget this. I know we’re
excited about learning networks and social media and peer this and that.
But maybe the most radical thing a teacher can do is tell students to be
alone with an idea.

*Open Access*
* *
It seems to me that the problem of access to information is the least of our
concerns, the easiest problem to fix.   Sure, as an unaffiliated scholar who
occasionally wants to read an obscure text, I'm frustrated by my lack of
access to JSTOR and my inability to get into Bobst without a crazy song and
dance routine. It’s exclusive and inconvenient.  (If anyone can make me a
research assistant so I can get university library access in NYC, please
write me -- I'll be in your debt)

Nonetheless, as we all know, lots of amazing stuff is on the Interent, and
there’s more and more of it everyday.  But Google U only goes so far (and
reading Jeff Jarvis’ book, it goes so far in a pretty creepy direction – not
to mention that Jarvis, who in his TED Talk says f*ck the SAT has also
bragged about how his kid is going to the Ivy League, no doubt because
that’s where the money and power is).  I had some classes in college that
were bullshit, that I would have loved to take online, get a decent grade,
and be done with.  The best classes – the ones that made me question
unschooling -- were all about the teacher, who became a role model of sorts,
whose enthusiasm was infectious and who, without being authoritarian, was
authoritative, and pushed me harder than I would have pushed myself.


When it comes to democratic education some people assume that it's about the
leveling of authority, or horizontal relationships, about no one being above
you or possessing secret access to knowledge that you don’t have.

In my mind, again, the issue is authoritarian vs authoritativeness –
compulsory schools overflow with instances of arbitrary, irrational
authority (when I went to high school I couldn’t believe I had to ask
permission to go to the washroom). In the classroom, though, the point isn’t
to deny authority exists, to pretend everyone is equal in knowledge and
ability, or to disavow expertise and experience if you have it.  That kind
of authority can be inspiring and it’s also powerful; a legitimate
authority, a teacher with knowledge, can grant the student permission to
trust themselves and their capacity, their potential.  The positive uses of
this sort of authority are important to acknowledge, and too easily ignored
by people (like myself, on occasion) who cheerlead for self-directed

All the best,
Astra Taylor


Hidden Driver
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