I just returned from a lunch in which I decried a local news station’s tendency to call their weather forecast a “futurecast,” when the future is (in my mind) kind of assumed in the definition of the word “forecast.”
But that said, the word keeps popping into my head as I read texts for the New Media Seminar. This week was the chapter on ”Learning Webs,” from Ivan Illich’s 1971 book, Deschooling Society. I have a problem with Illich’s fundamental critique as I understand it of institutionalized education. ”Invariably,” he writes, “it shapes the consumer who values institutional commodities above the nonprofessional ministration of a neighbor.”
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 pupil 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.
In other words, schools are fundamentally alike in all countries, be they fascist, democratic or socialist, big or small, rich or poor. This identity of the school system forces us to recognize the profound world-wide identity of myth, mode of production, and method of social control, despite the great variety of mythologies in which the myth finds expression.
I personally don’t have such a bleak view of institutionalized education, but maybe that’s because I’m a product of it and therefore can’t step outside of my institutionally-shaped perspective.
However, I do appreciate some of his suggestions of ways to deal with what he sees as the problem, and some of that involves some nice futurecasting on his part about approaches that are now coming (back?) into vogue.
He wants self-directed education instead of education conducted at the behest of institutionally certified teachers. His four “approaches which enable the student to gain access to any educational resource which may help him to define and achieve his own goals” are:
1. Reference Services to Educational Objects-which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories, and showrooms like museums and theaters; others can be in daily use in factories, airports, or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off hours.
2. Skill Exchanges–which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.
3. Peer-Matching–a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.
4. Reference Services to Educators-at-Large–who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators, as we will see, could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.
I dig autodidacticism. I appreciate the fact that Illich recognizes that pure autodidacticism is really unlikely–that it’s helpful to turn to experts (and peers) for guidance.
But I was particularly struck in all this by some points he made while discussing approach #1 above, on the need to facilitate access to things used for formal learning. Expanding on the point summarized above, he wrote:
In a city opened up to people, teaching materials which are now locked up in store-rooms and laboratories could be dispersed into independently operated storefront depots which children and adults could visit without the danger of being run over.
If the goals of learning were no longer dominated by schools and schoolteachers, the market for learners would be much more various and the definition of “educational artifacts” would be less restrictive. There could be tool shops, libraries, laboratories, and gaming rooms. Photo labs and offset presses would allow neighborhood newspapers to flourish. Some storefront learning centers could contain viewing booths for closed-circuit television, others could feature office equipment for use and for repair. The jukebox or the record player would be commonplace, with some specializing in classical music, others in international folk tunes, others in jazz. Film clubs would compete with each other and with commercial television. Museum outlets could be networks for circulating exhibits of works of art, both old and new, originals and reproductions, perhaps administered by the various metropolitan museums.
So, aren’t those pretty much makerspaces, hackerspaces, community workshops, and the like? Books like Martinez & Stager’s Invent to Learn or Chris Anderson’s Makers: the New Industrial Revolution describe how just such spaces can affect (and are affecting) schools and learning.
Once again I’m struck by the way thinkers in the non-digital past are describing systems that are now being created. It happened with Vannevar Bush and the Memex. It happened with Doug Engelbart and, well, almost everything. And here–in a small way, to be sure, and not unique to him–it’s happening with Ivan Illich.
Now, as an aside, I was further struck by Illich’s comments immediately following my last quotation above:
The professional personnel needed for this network would be much more like custodians, museum guides, or reference librarians than like teachers. From the corner biology store, they could refer their clients to the shell collection in the museum or indicate the next showing of biology videotapes in a certain viewing booth. They could furnish guides for pest control, diet, and other kinds of preventive medicine. They could refer those who needed advice to “elders” who could provide it.
I’ve got a riff on the whole notion that librarians and others of our ilk have a lot in common with park and museum guides–that, for instance, we could very much adapt Freeman Tilden’s Six Principles of Interpretation–but that’s a post for another day soon.