The End of State Schooling

The End of State Schooling

I hated school. To be sure, I did not hate learning during my younger years, but I did despise the fact of my being condemned to wear out the days of my childhood under the tutelage of people who represented an institution that, it seemed, neither knew nor cared about me. I intuited this even at a young age, as I am sure many children do. In my experience, the best teachers were the ones who were able to reach their pupils in spite of the institution of compulsory schooling, not in virtue of it. They allowed their young charges to spend extra time outside, wander the library in search of interesting books without a particular purpose or "learning goal" in view, bang out the chalk brushes on the fire escape, etc. But even these teachers were on some level constrained by the disciplines and aims of state schooling. They, too, had curricular mandates to fulfil, boxes to check, bells and schedules to follow, superiors to report to with indicators of student "progress", and - above all - a public to convince of the efficacy and necessity of institutional schooling for learning.

I myself have been in the employ of state schools in various capacities over the years. Admittedly, it is rather odd that someone who claims to have hated school would choose school teaching for a career. (My career path has been a somewhat convoluted one; apart from working in a variety of non-school related fields, I have also worn the disparate hats of university instructor, private high-school teacher, public high-school teacher, private ESL tutor, and home-schooler of my own children.) Without delving too much into my own career, I can say in retrospect that there was a time when I believed that the school institution could be reformed, that all it required were bright, young teachers willing to make a difference in the lives of their students. Of course, in my youthful arrogance, I believed that I was just such a candidate for the role. This is not uncommon; in fact, there is something of a professional culture in teaching that encourages young teachers fresh from the faculties of education to go forth and make their marks on the lives of the generations that follow. This attitude itself, I wish to argue, is but one of the symptoms of the general malaise that I am calling state or institutional schooling.    

It is now my firm conviction that the institution cannot be reformed. It is not a matter of training and deploying better teachers, strengthening school "culture", or crafting educational policies that will ensure each student is treated as the unique person he or she is. I am not taking sides in the debate over the predominance of STEM subjects or whether there should be more vocational training in schools as opposed to a general emphasis on academics. This is also not a conversation about ways to make classroom instruction more "differentiated" (an edu-speak buzzword that refers to the simple practice of meeting the needs of different persons in a manner that befits them) or strategies for building more "diverse" and "inclusive" curricula. No, these are but a variety of riffs on a single theme, as not one of them calls into question the legitimacy of the school institution itself. They are all attempts to produce wine by pouring it into the same old, outworn wineskins. The latter analogy falls apart only in virtue of the fact that even old wineskins were once useful.

What, then, is the core problem with institutional schooling and what do I think should stand as an alternative? My analysis of the school institution as such is not unique; I will draw from Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society, which is as pertinent now as it was in the early 1970s, and Luigi Giussani's The Risk of Education. The deeper philosophical framework of my argument comes, however, from the work of French philosopher Bruno Latour, especially We Have Never Been Modern. On the basis of these powerful critical resources, I argue that the problem of institutional schooling is at root a problem of modernity. As Illich puts the problem, it has to do with the mistaking of institutional process for that towards which the process aims. The process becomes an end-in-itself, a self-legitimating core of rituals which in fact extends itself across society as a whole (i.e. it is not restricted just to the school) and whose aim is the perpetuation of itself. To put the matter in Latour's idiom, the school is "modern" in that it ritually enforces the dualisms of nature/society, fact/fabrication, scientific truth/pre- or un-scientific myth, outer reality/inner feeling, etc., while meticulously separating that work from its other task - that of creating a plethora of social-cultural-natural "hybrids" that depend ever more deeply on the school institution.

An alternative to the work of modern institutional schooling is not, therefore, anti-modern reaction, post-modern ironic complacency, or independent schooling models that change only the curricular content while leaving the form intact. These all remain fundamentally modern in the dovetailing sense put forth by Latour and Illich. They all remain forms of what Illich calls "manipulative institutions" whose primary purpose is the production of dependency on the institutional process itself, i.e. on its monopolization of training in skills and knowledge, its control of access to a livelihood and its enforced lesson that people cannot flourish without a class of professionals and experts showing them the way. (DS, 38) Reaction against the programme or ironic posturing within it does nothing to alter its hold on the mind, imagination and praxis of the public.

Neither do independent alternatives to government or state schooling do much to enculturate their pupils in a way of life outside of the dominance of these manipulative institutions of state schooling. They are, in many ways, just as manipulative as their "public" counterparts. In fact, a good deal of so-called "faith-based" schools in Ontario, Canada, where I reside, adopt the province's curricular and teaching standards as the legitimate game plan for a pupil's "educational" right of passage into the adult world. Even here the pupil is initiated into the myth, the "hidden curriculum" of schooling, which holds that "bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent." Even here, despite the best efforts of the most caring, compassionate teachers, the institution reinforces the "habit of self-defeating consumption of services and alienating production, the tolerance for institutional dependence, and the recognition of institutional rankings." (53)

The signal of the end of state schooling is, therefore, a call, in Illich's language, to de-school society. We must recognize in it the impetus to an alternative way of envisioning and enacting, not only our educating and training of the young, but our relationship as persons generally to the institutions which we build and which, in turn, give shape to our habits and sense of identity. It is then that we may find an alternative in institutions that liberate us as human beings for the interwoven tasks of learning, creativity and friendship.

I would be willing to wager that there are not just a few people out there who, like me, hated school. Many of us cannot say exactly why we hated spending years of our lives the the classroom under teacher-led, curriculum-based instruction, but the lack of a reason does not negate the intuition that something is woefully wrong. This is not to say that the school has failed in its mission, for that would be to misunderstand what the school is in fact designed to do. Institutional schooling succeeded so well with me, in fact, that though I despised it as a child, I could not leave it. For a time I believed (or thought I believed) the notion that, despite my childhood reservations, school was somehow an unmitigated good that I could, in turn, share with others - whether they wanted to receive the gift or not. It was my time spent working in an "alternative education" programme with disadvantaged rural students from a certain ethnic-cultural-religious background, many of whom resented the idea of compulsory "learning", that finally brought me to see the actual curriculum of enforced dependence at play and the deep-rootedness and pervasiveness of the problem.

In what follows, however, I will focus, not on my personal journey, but on clarifying and deepening my claims as to the core problem(s) of state schooling and a viable alternative to this institution. I contend that any such alternative will be non-modern in Bruno Latour's sense, or perhaps post-liberal in the sense of the emergent movement in Britain led by theologian John Milbank and others. That is, it will be, not one state-run institution, but a network of community initiatives guided by a more generous and robust public sense of the common good than what we have currently.

First, however, we must address the argument that school is good for kids.

Isn't School Good for Kids?

A common refrain in our culture is the claim that kids need to go to school because school is good for them. School is good for a child's social and academic development. It is good for her sense of self-worth, as she becomes able to branch out from the home and accomplish important tasks on her own. It is good for her independence and self-determination, as well as her sense of communal solidarity and belonging beyond the tutelage of the family. These claims are in fact part of an argument about institutional schooling that most often is not made fully explicit. The argument (or series of arguments) proceeds as follows:

1. Children need to develop a sense of self and communal identity.

2. While the family is important in a child's development, her sense of self and community depends on institutions beyond the family and on which the family depends.


3. A child needs institutions beyond just the family to flourish (i.e. develop a sense of self and communal identity).


4. Institutional schooling is the most efficient and appropriate way of enabling children to flourish in the wider community.


5. Children need institutional schooling.

There is no question, at least to my mind, that 1. and 2. are true. Aristotle famously argues in his Politics that, while the family is an indispensable component of the social and political life of fully-formed human beings, it cannot be the end-all and be-all of this life. That is to say, the family is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of human flourishing. Households and kinship networks help human beings meet their most basic needs for food, shelter, recreation, care and a sense of belonging. But, for these things to be meaningful, they must find their fulfillment in institutions beyond the family, chief of which (Aristotle argued) is the polis or community of humans united around a shared vision of human flourishing and a form of self-governance. Human beings govern themselves in the context of a political community wherein they share the responsibilities of building and shaping the institutions of what we would call civil society. One of these institutions involves the education of the young in preparation for their full participation as citizens in the polis. If we take 1. and 2. for granted, it follows that 3. is also true, if by institutions beyond the family we have in mind something like those of the good community in Aristotle's sense.

The Greek ideal of participation in the good community was friendship. Aristotle reconciled the idea of individual self-fulfillment in the life of virtue with the idea that this fulfillment that comes by way only of one's being part of the good community by contending that the good life itself is a kind of productive tension between self and community that finds expression in the mutual sharing of friendship. Friends strive to help one another achieve the good life, each for himself, insofar as they build and share in a way of life in common.

Education into Virtue: Against the Tyranny of Modern Mass Education
The more one has mass education, the more half-baked ideas, obstinately middle-brow tastes and crude populist scepticism tend to come to the fore. This cannot be overcome without readmitting “the Good” into education.

As John Milbank argues, the philosophers of the early Enlightenment were somewhat able to restore and hold in balance the productive tension of the Greeks between individual and political community, and to hold fast to the ideal of friendship (recast in terms of mutual sympathy), especially in regards to education. Whereas even friendship according to the Greeks was the telos ultimately of political life (although Plato was ambivalent on this score), the early Enlightenment borrowed from its Medieval and Christian humanist antecedents in discerning an aim beyond political life. Education was not, therefore, exclusively for the sake of generating citizens, but the life of the political community itself could contribute to a person's final aim of the pursuit of freedom and knowledge, ultimately of the moral good and the divine. Persons would still, of course, need to be educated into full participation in the good city or political community, even if the latter was, in turn, to be integrated into the fuller "education" of beatitude.

Yet, to the degree that the Enlightenment emphasized too greatly the role of rationality in maintaining this balance, to the point of assigning it an autonomous function in discerning the "aims" of human life, it tended to reduce these aims to mere material fulfillment or contentment. Even David Hume's idea of sympathy, argues Milbank, which was to unite the community around mutual aims could not in practice withstand a corrosive utilitarianism on account of the absence of a shared sense of the transcendent good. Over the past 200 or so years, then, civil society has tended to be swallowed up by the modern state, which is incapable of sustaining the productive balance of personal and political virtue or promoting goods beyond itself.

This may seem like a digression from the argument presented above; however, we are now able to see more clearly precisely how 4. is a false premise. We must, in fact, examine the role that institutional schooling has played in the production of our modern malaise. John Milbank writes:

The upshot is therefore that the State entirely subordinates education to its own interests, which are those of strength and survival. The main thrust of educational policy is to persuade the individual - apparently freely, but in reality coercively - that his own self-interest coincides with the interest of the State.  

This is the hidden curriculum of modern education, and it is opposed to any idea of flourishing put forth in either Greek or early Enlightenment philosophy. To accomplish its aim, the school must, as Illich points out, convince the public that learning is the result of teaching and that teaching can only be effectively provided by the state or by state-approved apparatuses. (DS, 22-3)

Is teaching a profession?
A blog that explores both contemporary issues and perennial topics and themes in philosophy. Brian Rogers, Ph.D.

I have written elsewhere on the reasons why I think teaching is not a profession, but in line with Illich's basic contention, I am not contending here there aren't good teachers. As I noted above, I think that there are. Rather, it is that modern schooling as an institution reduces learning to a process that can be planned and delivered, often in manipulative ways, and tailored to the supposed demands of the state-market economy.

Teachers in this system are functionaries who in fact fulfill ever-greater roles in the coordination of the individual to this state-market economy. The individual learns that her role in the wider system is that of "progressive consumption" and that her success in school - measured by her acquisition of abstract "skills" and "knowledge" - will determine her success in the future. Moreover, the preparatory function of schooling is that of a double alienation. Pupils learn to isolate themselves from their wider communities by participating in the weird rituals of the school-building-workshop (or now, by spending inordinate amounts of time online in "virtual classrooms"), and they learn to isolate themselves from their own knowledge by rendering it a commodity to be put on the market. (DS, 34) Illich writes:

School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition. (34)    

In fact, teachers increasingly fulfill a number of roles in an institution which continues in ever-greater ways to resemble a religion, i.e. that of "disciplined consumption." (DS, 33). They administer the "sacrament" of a curriculum, supposedly the the only way to attain learning and a passage to full membership in the other institutions of modern life, which also resemble the school in the sense that they exist to encourage ever-greater participation in their machinations. Likewise, health care, policing, corporate business, etc. exist to create patients, policed individuals, consumers and employees, etc. Modern "professionals" are the priests and functionaries of this state religion of forced institutional dependence. (24-5)

Over the years, I have taught in wide array of different programs and have taught students from  a wide range of socio-economic, ethno-cultural and academic backgrounds. It is my experience that, generally speaking, those pupils who come from the most privileged homes, usually the ones that push schooling as a right of passage into adulthood (and there is a correlation here) are on the whole the most willing to alienate themselves from their own curiosities and creative impulses. Many produce "excellent" academic work that is still somehow devoid of spirit, as if somehow on some level they do not truly care about what they are doing. Pupils from lesser well-off homes socio-economically (whose families have "learned" the modern lesson about the relationship of knowledge to class distinction) or from homes that do not value the path of modern mass education in the same way, tend to show greater degrees of resistance and "fail" (on institutional terms) to produce what the curriculum demands of them. They are, however, less willing to alienate themselves; they see through the ritual of mass schooling, even if they cannot articulate their intuitions in these terms.

Admittedly, this is all anecdotal. I bring it up, not to "prove" the points I am making here (the arguments stand on their own merit, I think), but to illustrate the common way in which I think students of all backgrounds and levels of ability learn to negotiate their relationship to the institution. They all discern that the school is curricular in nature. For one to achieve "education", he must follow the pre-determined path mandated by the state and delivered by the teacher-priest. He must learn that "learning" comes only to those who have been initiated. While some are more willing participants that others, all are coerced into believing that their "success" depends on their level of buy-in to the institution.

All of this, of course, would not constitute a knock-down argument if it were the case that the state school is in fact still a good educator. One might state in rejoinder to my argument that, while total state dominance over education may be bad in some ways, perhaps it is good in others, especially if such a centralized institution is able to deliver the goods of education effectively. I have so far addressed the form of schooling without delving much into its curricular content. Is it not good that pupils learn skills and academic knowledge? Who else, if not the school (and perhaps a few home-schoolers) is going to teach them? Moreover, perhaps it is good that people in the 21st century learn how to "fit in" to our modern institutions, so long as they find a role to play. It is not as though we could return to ancient Greece or even to the vision of the early Enlightenment. Perhaps some alienation is good, provided individuals have some measure of choice over their curricular and career pathways.

I'd be willing to wager, however, that if each of us would even briefly consider the pathway of his or her own learning, from the most tender years onward, it would become quite evident to us that most of our knowledge and know-how was acquired outside of school. I do not believe this to be a coincidence for the very simple reason that most learning is not pre-planned and curricular. Neither is it generated on demand through compulsory programmes. I provide a reason as to why this is the case in what follows.

The State is a Poor Educator

I anticipate two lines of objection to the arguments against institutional schooling as I have laid them out thus far. I anticipate that these objections will be cleared up as I defend my deepest claim, which is that the state school is a poor educator because it is compulsory and curricular.

The two objections are as follows:

1. The first is what I would call a "liberal" defense of state schooling which holds that, for all of its failures, modern education provides individuals with the widest-possible range of freedom over their own destinies. This defense, which is really a defense of the idea of autonomy or self-determination, counters "perfectionist" ideas of freedom that would assign or prescribe specific aims or ends for the educational process to follow.

2. The second objection, which I would say is rooted in a progressive concern, contends that there is no viable public alternative to state schooling, which, for all of its many flaws, is still better than forcing education into the private sphere, where inequalities would abound. State schooling levels the playing field and produces as much social and economic equality as is possible in diverse modern societies.  

Basically, I think that, if the state is a poor educator (which it is), then both of these objections are misleading and beside the point.

Teachers and educators who work for state-run public institutions often have much to say about learning as a process but little to say about what learning is by nature. We cannot, however, understand how effective someone or something is at educating young people unless we understand what it means to learn. For, it is at least possible that we are deceived, i.e. that we do not in fact know what we believe we know (or know it only partially or in the wrong way), when we claim that we know what it means to learn. And if we do not know much at all about learning, then no matter how much we emphasize processes, programmes, procedures and educational policies, we are in fact in the dark about what all of these amount to or what their actual content is.

Thankfully, there is a long philosophical tradition, no younger than Plato, that examines the nature of learning from which we can draw. In Meno Plato's Socrates famously lays out his contention as to why learning is nothing at all that can be inculcated by a teacher. According to the well-known learner's paradox, if I do not already know what I seek to learn, then how do I know what to look for? (Meno, 80e) Conversely, if I already know it, then how is it that I must learn? Plato resolves the paradox by heightening its tension. I must already know what I need to learn; yet, I must know it in a way that is not yet or no longer accessible to me without a guide. That is to say, some event must trigger my recollection of what it is I already know. The first paradox is compounded, then, by a second. How, in fact, do I recognize the event of my awakening to knowledge to be what it is? The teacher must somehow assure me that the pathway of inquiry I am on is in fact a fruitful one, i.e. one that is not pointless but is in fact worthwhile because it integrates my own life back into the structures of intelligibility I perceive.

As Luigi Giussani puts it, the teacher has to reassure her students that there is, in fact, something there to be learned and that it is good, though the existential nature of learning means that each person must ultimately discover this for him or herself. Because knowledge is discovered only within the context of a tradition of inquiry, the teacher's role is that of initiator into this tradition. Inevitably, for this reason, if she has no choice but to "risk" proposing her own unifying vision of knowledge with the understanding that her students are free to either creatively and non-identically adopt it through improvisations on what has been presented to them, or reject it. This is not an imposition on the part of the teacher any more than Plato's Socrates imposes knowledge of the geometrical figure recollected by the slave boy in Meno, for if awareness of nature or that-which-is-to-be-learned implies a totality, then some attempt must be made at finding it by both teacher and student. (RE, 70-1, 105-7). This is the case especially where that totality of what is to be learned is understood ultimately to be infinite, i.e. the outermost horizon of our actions, and the meeting place therefore of our inherited traditions and life itself. "To educate," writes Giussani, "means to help the human soul enter the totality of the real." (105; italics omitted) To learn, I believe that, not only is there something there to be known, but that it ultimately "fits" together with all of my other bits of knowledge in light of some insight into the whole. I also understand myself to be part of the fabric of the reality I come to know.

In short, education on this view is ultimately concerned with freedom, the kind of freedom that comes, not in the proliferation of shallow consumer "choice", but in the person's finding a way to make sense of her world in light of some guiding principle. The principle can no more be planned and delivered than a mathematical insight can be produced or a musical symphony deduced from first principles. But this is how state schooling treats learning when it conflates it with the institutional process. On some level, however, the institution understands this to be the case, which is why it will, in the same breath that it proclaims the utter necessity of schooling, claim (dishonestly) that learning is a deep and mysterious thing or that it happens quite free of institutional manipulation.

What is needed is, following Bruno Latour, a clearer anthropology of modern schooling that refuses to play along with this game of separating its purification of the learning process from its administrative-technological-bureaucratic activity.

The school institution posits the modern double-separation (in Latour's sense), first of the sphere of pure nature, objectivity, and things in themselves from that of society, subjectivity, and that which is for a perceiver. Much of the work done at school is in fact this task of purification. The first separation happens this way: A student learns in biology class, for example, that there is a realm of pure nature indifferent to social and individual perspectives, such that the drives of the biological organism are in fact what ultimately determines even human choice. The same student learns in history or English class that human decision is the thing upon which entire civilizations are built and structures of meaning fabricated. Returning to biology, or perhaps physics, class, she learns that, while nature is completely indifferent to society, we can harness its power through the study of it. The transcendent object becomes immanent to our activities. Likewise, in her humanities courses - perhaps sociology - the student discovers that, though human beings construct society, the latter has a hidden power over the individual and her understanding of the world. These "identities" are really functions of social structures. The social whole, however fabricated, takes on a transcendent life of its own.

     The second separation makes the first one possible. It keeps the institutional work of creating ever more hybrids of nature-culture, subject-object, science-myth, fact-opinion, etc., separate from the process by which the two poles in the parallel dichotomies are painstakingly distinguished and by which things are sorted in accordance with one or the other. Thus, for example, the dissected animal in biology class is not to be thought of as a fabrication arising from a network of practices through which something like "biological object" makes sense. Instead, it is carefully placed on the side of nature-as-it-really-is, while the tools, instruments and institutional implements that go along with the entire complex of meaning are to be understood as mere social constructs. However, a reversal in meaning can then take place. The dissected frog is also merely something to be used - nature completely at our disposal, which the tools, however constructed, are the instruments of pure science, something that supersedes us in reality and importance. The student learns that nature is at once completely separate from society yet at its beck and call, while society is completely constructed by humans yet absolutely beyond them also, with powers of its own. Everything can be justified on the basis of these series of reversals. School, therefore, teaches us the lesson that we "modern" people are able, all at once, to see nature for what it really is, on the one hand, and therefore to control it, on the other. We also learn that we can dismantle and re-build any facet of society, yet learn also that social forces are ultimately beyond our control, and can be called upon as an explanation of most anything.  

The process is successful only to the extent that it continues to be able strictly to maintain the double separation. In that way, it can justify its programme on the basis of the claim that it is nothing besides an initiation of its students into an understanding of the way both nature and society are separately and in themselves.

The student exploring her inner self in English class, to take another example, is likewise encouraged to isolate and focus upon that "reality" apart from everything else, perhaps even apart from the objective condition of her having a social identity. Never mind that the situation itself of someone's being compelled by a vast, expensive bureaucratic machine to carry out this activity of purification - i.e. of self from other, inner from outer, etc. - is bizarre. The point is that it succeeds only to the extent that the activities of the school-mechanism in fabricating the sorts of situations where something like "my authentic self" can make itself known to me in writing can be dissociated from the work of "education". The school is to be thought of merely as an institution that makes the completely natural work of self-discovery possible, a kind of neutral forum or meeting ground for the happening of learning, pure and simple. Of course, it is not that, nor has it ever been so. In fact, what is taking place is the creation of what Latour terms a hybrid, i.e. an existence that is the interwoven expression of both "social" and "natural" realities together in one thing or one complex of things. In this case, the inner self of the English student is a peculiar artifact made possible by the situation afforded in the state-school apparatus. The inner self cannot be reduced to social categories or functions, i.e. it is in that respect something natural. However, it cannot be found or defined in isolation from such phenomena.

The work of the school is not merely to have students create the hybrids of inner selves, dissected frogs, etc., but to learn to separate this work from the job of "purification" of the hybrids into categories. The frog and the inner self are "natural" while the processes of exposing them are "social". Yet, on the other hand, these phenomena are available to be grasped "knowingly", which must mean that the processes themselves are immutable ways of "knowing" reality around us. If that is the case, then we have a method for reproducing (and enforcing) knowledge everywhere. "Learning," it turns out, is something that can be planned, executed and repeated identically in every place and every time. It can be prescribed a curricular structure; it can be packaged, transferred across contexts and possibly even encoded in computer programs. Moreover, every institution can model itself on the school insofar as each one of them can play the same game of hybridization and purification.      

As Latour might argue, an anthropological study of the school curriculum would bring to view the way the institution can be used as a tool for coercing the unschooled or the inadequately schooled into the regime of total schooling. If some complain that modern schooling imposes its views on the public, the institution will respond that it merely provides its students the conditions where they can uncover the bare facts of nature or society without prejudice or interference. If others contend that there is not enough moral instruction, the institution will respond that it equips students to "express" themselves authentically, the best that can be achieved in a pluralistic society. Pure objectivity and pure self-determination: these are the separate justifications that, when taken together, can counter any objection to the programme. Visions of the common good will be ruled out by the education machine tout court as partial or oppressive - an inappropriate contamination of objective fact or subjective freedom - while it simultaneously insists on its own productive work of hybridization.

If indeed human freedom is orientated by activities that strive for an integration of life and tradition, nature and culture, thing and society under some sense of an overarching good, then the state school provides no exception. It is a poor educator because it hides the fact that it is inherently totalizing; this is not an institutional fluke but the very function of the school's nature as curricular. That an anthropology of this institution is possible means in retrospect that it never was what it has claimed to be, i.e. the impartial and liberating educator of all. It is just as prescriptive and partial as any initiation into a pre-modern mystery cult, or even more so given the fact that it cannot own up to its insistence that there is truly nothing at bottom to be learned besides the manipulation of the natural world or the raw assertion of will. Its "magic" is to insist that it relies on no magic at all.

It is misleading to maintain, as liberals tend to do, that any genuinely learned insistence on the striving after virtue and the common good in education is "perfectionist", as if there could be no public consensus around education's object without the imposition of some one view over others. To make this claim is to remain committed to the defunct "post-metaphysical" notion of the 20th century that there can be no overlap or analogy between visions of the good and that public institutions must, as a result, insist on formal neutrality with respect to matters of ultimate concern. As we discussed with reference to Milbank's thesis, the tendency of modern institutions, given this strict formal separation of public reason from private faith, is to debase both. "Reason" increasingly reduces to a utilitarian calculation seeking maximal material fulfillment or pleasure seeking, while views concerning the ultimate good are emptied of their content and rendered matters of personal choice, at best, or mere irrational beliefs, at worst. This institutional arrangement is hardly liberating to individuals of good faith who wish to cooperate with their neighbours in the building of educational networks of genuine value.

I have argued that a sound anthropology of the state school, as the one made possible thanks to Latour's critical work, exposes the way in which this institution is symmetrical in its function to parallel forms of ritual initiation into a comprehensive way of understanding the world. If this is the case, then it follows that the claim that state schooling is somehow unique in its being purely impartial/scientific or liberating/authentic can be understood as an artifact of the system. This insight also grants us a criterion for our being able to say that the state school is not an effective educator. While it projects the illusion of its being completely open to every difference, in actuality it suppresses genuine risk-taking and creativity, as well as the implicit human desire to pursue the common good, essential elements of education by the best lights of the philosophical tradition from Plato through the Enlightenment.  

Is it not the case, however, that state schooling levels the playing field by providing disadvantaged groups and individuals access to the goods of education? What of the second objection to my claim that the state is a poor educator? I address this objection in the final section of this essay.


What is the Alternative?

By now, I have driven the steak far enough, I think, into the heart of the state-school beast that the remainder of my moves will be anticipated easily enough. Suffice it to say that I am no advocate of private education. I share with progressives the desire to achieve an equal distribution of the "goods" of education among members and groups within society. As Illich contends, genuine public networks or "utilities" are best suited to achieving this aim because they are self-limiting and encourage the liberating use of technologies and other tools, that is to say, their use for the sake of human flourishing, creativity and freedom. (DS, 40-1) Where I part ways with most progressives is in their insistence that state schooling is a public utility of this sort. It is not. It is neither self-limiting nor liberating, as we have already seen.

A further point that I would add here is that the state school does not teach skills or academic subjects very well, either. So the claim that it spreads the good of education far and wide must be qualified with the further claim that it "debases its currency" as Milbank puts it. Children and young people learn skills fairly naturally by emulating those they admire. Illich points out that, even in the rare instance where a child learns how to do something (e.g. paint, spell, read, play basketball, etc.) via lessons at school, the helpful portion of those lessons consists in those practices the institution baulks at: memorization, drills, rote learning, etc. These practices do not fit into the curricular model of schooling, where a child or young person must follow a pre-ordained pathway for obtaining knowledge, complete with "learning objectives" alongside regular teacher "check ins", "instruction and assessment cycles", and "progress reporting". All of this gets in the way of actual learning, which takes place in the recesses, the lunch-break conversations, the leisure time spent outside school. By and large, my own children taught themselves to read, and this after I pulled them out of school because my second son's teachers were insisting that he was "behind".

If the school unnaturally forces skills development into the curricular mode demanded of academic studies, it simultaneously tends to reduce the latter to the former. Students increasingly are indoctrinated into the idea, for example, that they study literature for the sake of learning how to read well, rather than developing the former skills so as to learn how to appreciate literature. Ironically, if the literature is treated nothing besides a training ground for "critical thinking" or some such abstraction, students then learn not to regard such levelling practices with a critical eye. This is good training for a world, not of artistic beauty, but of office memos and advertisements. All are "texts" designed to nudge us in one direction of manipulative calculation or another, some in more sophisticated ways than others. Some "texts" might lead us to protest the system via abstractions (e.g. "racism is bad") without thereby understanding it. This is not the initiation into a tradition of humane learning but is a kind of learned ignorance that combines a calloused indifference to the best of what humanity has achieved with a self-righteous sense of "educated" superiority over the ordinary.

Liberal learning is increasingly, then, being sold out by the state to multinational corporate interests which seek, not independent citizens, but compliant and docile populations of producers and consumers. The introduction of surveillance technologies into the classroom, e.g. cameras that document "student learning", normalize the idea that behaviours which come most naturally to us are those called forth and monitored by others planning out our pathways in advance. The plan respects neither the traditions of intellectual inquiry enshrined in classical education nor the ordinary ways of life or festivities enjoyed by communities of people. One would be mistaken, therefore, to think that there is anything genuinely progressive about state schooling.

Why, then, is there an almost instinctive reflex on the part of many of us to defend this institution against supposed threats of privatization and inequality? If the school is not a good teacher of skills, nor a respecter of academic inquiry, nor yet even a last bastion of public organization against private manipulation, why the impulse to defend it? Why else besides the fact that it is so deeply entangled in modern life that to call it into question is almost to call for revolution? Yet, revolution is precisely not what is called for.

Instead, might we begin to move in the post-liberal direction of organizing public education networks that are more mutual and cooperative in nature? Instead of behemoth school boards, exclusionary state credentialing systems, and authoritarian teachers unions we as a public could rely on what Illich calls an "institutional inversion" of school which places the means to coordinating, administering and delivering educational aims back in the hands of citizens. Such would allow those who are truly skilled or educated to take a leadership role in guiding and leading others in the development of their own potential. (DS, 71) Perhaps beyond even Latour's analysis of modern institutions, we might say that a post-liberal direction for education might mark the return of something like the Aristotelian ideal of moral friendship in the context of the good community, where through a network (perhaps organized via the Internet) the relatively educated tutor those who are relatively less so, "an activity meaningful for both, having no ulterior purpose," all in light of an emergent understanding of our shared destiny as human beings in light of the transcendent good. (71)

I believe that just such a tectonic shift in our educational landscape is underway. It is not so much that we must end state schooling as it is that this institution is coming to its own end. It was never what it thought itself to be, and its death may well be a sign of the emergence of something much saner and healthier for humanity.  


Image: Author Unknown. Children sat at desks. N.d. BBC, London, United Kingdom. BBC Victorian Britain: Victorian schools. Accessed:

Aristotle. Politics. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. 1113-1316.

Giussani, Luigi. The Risk of Education. Trans. Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia. New York: Crossroad, 1995.

Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Accessed:

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Milbank, John. "Education into Virtue: Against the Tyranny of Modern Mass Education." ABC Religion & Ethics. 9 May, 2014. Accessed:

Plato. Meno. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1997. 870-897.

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