Previously I explored the strained relationship between advocates of traditional schooling and of self-directed education. Drawing on the political, social, and cultural inertia that has developed around schools, the former group retains a belief in the importance of these institutions to a democratic republic, to the economy, or to a collection of other projects, as well as a corresponding level of trust in their ability to meet the attendant potpourri of demands we place on them. Conversely, reacting against the standardization, bureaucratization, and professionalization administrative progressives and later accountability reformers mapped onto schools, the latter group views traditional school as inimical to authentic learning and intellectual freedom, harboring a concordant deep-seated distrust of schools as public institutions.
To be sure, this is a radically reductive and generalized assessment of a tension I consider to be manufactured in the first place. Supporters of traditional schooling and of unschooling likely disagree as much with peers as they do with members of the opposite group, precisely because these categories are so broad and because they can accommodate such a diversity of visions—of schools, of education, of the state. Rather than a metaphysical statement of fact about the education, then, I intend the above description more as a social history, designed to capture the subjective perspectives, the arguments, and the rhetoric these camps deploy in attempting offset themselves from one another.
The primary misunderstanding that fuels this artificial distinction centers around the indexical nature of terms such as “learning” and “education”—the meaning and scope of which political, social, and cultural contexts shape regularly. At school, we are receiving an education, and may or may not be learning anything. At home we might be learning something but do not believe this is constitutive of education. At play with our friends we are neither learning nor receiving an education and yet agree that we enjoy it and grow from it. Or the very opposite of each. Regardless of individual difference, however, what these contrasts make clear is that how we conceptualize “learning” or “education” shapes the discourse we are then able to have about them. If education is endemic to the traditional classroom, unschooling and other alternative pedagogies will always be secondary, inferior; alternatively, if we co-locate education with play or the freedom to follow personal interests, then the traditional classroom and its many mores will inevitably fall short.
Of course, the point of sharing these narrow definitions is to demonstrate their inadequacy, their factitiousness. For as John Dewey so lucidly argues in his 1916 classic Democracy and Education, authentic learning is contingent on educative experience, itself contingent on practice over and above being tied to any particular physical locality such as the school or the home or the church or the playground. Certainly these spaces can foster educative experiences, but there is nothing inherently educative about them absent the appropriate conditions. Building on Dewey’s expansive understanding of education, Lawrence Cremin in Public School develops what he terms an ecological theory of education. Much like Dewey, Cremin conceptualizes education primarily as an experience. He therefore focuses on the “relation of various educative interactions and institutions to one another and to society at large,” in the process displacing the traditional school as the center of education and considering instead the multiplicity of “configurations of education” that give rise to educative experiences across society (p. 24). For Cremin, as for Dewey, the absolute grounds on which we can differentiate between the traditional and the radical, between formal education and self-directed learning, are therefore theoretically unjustified. There is learning and there is education—and then there are the diverse environments across which they occur.
For any critical observer of education, Cremin’s ecological perspective is likely underwhelming. “Of course we learn outside of school; of course our families our friends our sports teams and our churches facilitative educative experiences,” exclaim these readers. Yet the theory is important for two reasons. First, it erodes the traditional school’s monopoly over education, transferring a certain degree of agency and responsibility to individuals for the practice of education. And second it elucidates an obvious dynamic that had prior to its publication attracted comparatively little scholarly attention, in turn highlighting this transfer of agency. Combining these two conclusions, I want to suggest that Cremin’s theory identifies a crucial shift in our cultural understanding of the self and of the self as it relates to education and to institutions. That is, I propose that the publication of Cremin’s ecological theory of education begs a the following historico-sociological question of context: what about modernity has enabled us to conceptualize first education as a social institution—or has suggested that might be useful to do so; second the self as something unique, individual, and separable from institutions or from society; and consequently third the self as something possessed of agency and determination that can engage in and guide its own pursuits, education included?
Intellectual historians, cultural critics, and philosophers have traced these contours of these types of questions since at least the Enlightenment, when the likes of Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, and Leibniz systematically recast the human in the mold of the rational. Too, historians and sociologists of education, from Tyack to Cuban to Cremin to Labaree to Ravitch, have written extensively about the evolution of the public school—about the social and political forces that have shaped it over the years and in turn about how this institution has shaped our society and our political system. I am not recommending, therefore, that we return to the beginning. Rather, I am suggesting that we apply these methodologies and these lenses in order to explore the social and political contexts responsible for the aforementioned recent changes in Cremin’s configurations of education—changes that have enabled us to conceptualize something like self-directed learning and that have shaped how we perceive the “self” so central to this new learning paradigm; changes that construct the logic within which it even makes sense to discuss the self and self-directed learning. Put differently, I am suggesting that there is much to be gained in tracing the etiology of this emerging form of education, which in the context of 16th century Europe, say, would not compute, and which would make equally little sense in the epistemologies of many indigenous communities today. From intellectual history to post-colonial theory, then, this post above all recommends a more prying study of the self and of self-directed learning—for the better our understanding of these development, the better our ability to forecast their future and ultimately to understand and leverage their various facets in service of learning more about ourselves and about our world.