Self-Directed Learning and Post-Colonialism
In what will be my final contribution to this site I would like to continue the line of inquiry I established in my previous two posts, which examine alternately the historical origins of unschooling and of self-directed learning and propose a more focused study of the social, political, and other contexts that combine to enable us to consider the self as an individual agent and learning as a particular type of (classifiable) activity. Implicitly, in arguing in the course of these posts as I have, for the generation of a sociology of self-directed learning, I have hoped to frame this pursuit as the product of a particularly Western, post-Enlightenment, post-industrial modernity—that is, rather than as a fixed type instead as a social construction endemic to the culture the logic of which makes possible any distinction of difference between the self-directed and the traditional. Put differently, I have hoped to demonstrate that Cremin’s ecological theory of education can appear novel only from within a particularly modern context, where private and public institutions pervade and partition social life and legitimate the attendant differences that necessarily and purposefully emerge—between wealthy and poor, upstanding and corrupt, healthy and sick, masculine and feminine, educated and uneducated, etc.
Combined with my earlier historical analysis, the above suggests that self-directed learning as popularly understood emerges—is constructed—not as a positive category but rather negatively, out of an opposition, defining itself against the paradigm of traditional schooling. True, when Johann Pestalozzi and later John Dewey explored play and learning they did so organically, understanding these activities first and foremost as naturally appropriate to humankind. Yet they develop their theories some years prior to the accelerated development of the modern state that characterizes the West following the end of World War II and so, much like those of Cremin, these can seem enlightened only within the context of this modernity. Thus, while in principle capable of being studied as an entity unto itself, self-directed learning is at the same time, and importantly, inescapably caught up in a larger social and political dynamic, premised and contingent on, and sustained by, the construction, continual redefinition, and legitimation of alterity.
Considering this framing it is perhaps only natural to extend this study beyond the conceptual spheres these Western paradigms define—in other words, to consider self-directed learning from the post-colonial perspective. Here, rather than concluding our investigation with the development of either a positive or a negative definition we would ask instead how the notions that support our diverse conceptions of self-directed learning interface alternately with colonialism and with the post-colonial project of liberation—how the dominant pole in the oppositional dynamic in which self-directed learning participates has been the site of cultural genocide and how considered organically this way of coming to understand might equally work to indigenize education, to borrow a term from post-colonial theorists. Consequently it would explore self-directed learning as it likely simultaneously supports and stands in opposition to the larger project of decolonizing education.
To begin, I propose that any sociological or historical understanding of the development of public education as an institution—as an instrument for the reproduction of often colonizing and always hierarchical social structures—must join with a parallel study that seeks to understand indigenous epistemologies, to understand education generally and self-directed learning particularly from the perspective of First Peoples. As with any project that reaches across cultural and disciplinary boundaries this type of study is sure to be met with resistance, especially from self-proclaimed pragmatists and disciplinarians. And yet I wager that any theory of self-directed learning that does not contend with the social reality that shapes its discourse, any theory that emerges out of strict nativism or disciplinarity, is at best underdeveloped and at worst oppressive. Though I advocate for the post-colonial and indigenous perspectives primarily because I believe they are central to dismantling pervasive structures of oppression, I do so as well, then, believing that these perspectives enrich and enlighten education research generally.
As this site continues forward I hope only that the foundational lenses I have suggested here might inform future research, might turn future study to consider history and context, might turn our analytic lens back upon itself and on the conditions that enable it—and in so doing might afford to this project all the more clarity, insight, and ultimately virtue.