Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.
— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
I was by all means an excellent student. I excelled at elementary school, middle school, and high school assignments. I always had an excellent report card, participated in several major extracurricular activities, and held down some kind of job when legally allowed to do so. But I also hated school.
I didn’t hate learning, but I hated the idea that I had to fill out arbitrary test preparation forms through 11th grade and spend my time on assignments dedicated to preparing me for an exam I knew I’d do fine on anyway. Most of my teachers hated it too, but, like me, relented themselves to the fact that this is just the hand we had been dealt.
For the most part, I was an excellent student not because I simply loved the idea of being an excellent student qua student, but that being a good student meant freedom. If you got good grades and did well on the exams, you could afford to leave class a few days a month to go work on a project you got more personal satisfaction out of (for me, this included musical projects, newspaper, pet projects, and some of the clubs I was involved in). Nobody would have an incentive to hold you back. If you caused some worry for the school, they’d be more skeptical.
I found I learned best and most when giving myself over to those projects. Editing from newspaper, leadership and mathematics and history from music, history and public speaking and rhetoric from student congress, and philosophy and rhetoric from forensics are just a few of the areas I learned more from being engaged in a project tangentially related to them.
I was also a good student by college admissions standards, too, and consciously so. “College is better than high school. You get to choose your own classes and get ownership over what you do,” was the general theme I had internalized. “Better than high school,” was the thought, and that meant, for me, “freedom.”
I found that this was largely not the case, and was just high school with more opportunities to engage in licentious behavior and pay your life savings for it. But I had been schooled, so I figured I’d deal with the system from the inside and get the most out of it. Until I couldn’t anymore. My tunnel-vision from trying to escape the standardized-testing world of high school had schooled me itself. Everything must be done to an end. I saw it in my classmates, too. “Oh, you’re doing X club? Yeah, that looks great for OCR (on campus recruiting)!” “I don’t particularly like Y activity, but I know it will help ingratiate me with the recruiters from Z firm.” And on and on, ad nauseum. The lack of freedom associated with public, standardized schooling had been replaced with a lack of freedom in the culture of what people pursue and why.
I had forgotten the joy and flow experienced when engaged in an activity for itself, as I had in middle school (and, unfortunately, many of these merely came to be seen as resume-builders for college as I got into high school, even if my original engagement was one of fulfilled exploration). I had started to become schooled, and the prospect of going down that path was not something I wanted.
Being schooled isn’t just being somebody who has spent 15 years in schools, working on exams (whether they be standardized exams given by the school or by the College Board). Being schooled is being in an anxious mindset, viewing each part of life as just one level before achieving objectives to level-up to the next stage (e.g., 9th into 10th grade, high school into college, college into graduate school). Being schooled is a mindset of “what assignment is next?”
Juxtapose this against a deschooled mindset, where there is no “next assignment” because life brings itself meaning out of the activities you do. You may be working towards projects, but you don’t artificially divide your life into due dates, graduation dates, certificates and awards. You can rest on the laurels of your achievement when it has a track-record of actually having created value somewhere, not merely because you checked off the requirements on a list.
Being deschooled may be a step to existential fulfillment — making it easier and less-anxious once again to engage with math, writing, and other subjects that were once spoiled for somebody by relentless schooling.
For me, deschooling myself is a constant process. Removing the imposed structure of schools from one’s mind, and questioning those where they are clear and obvious in the physical world, are key steps to this. More than anything else, it has been integral to reclaiming the flow and fulfillment I’ve felt doing those things I love.