The key to the development of human intelligence and learning is that it is an organic process, in which a myriad of elements – some seen but many unseen – engage in a dynamic interplay to produce results which are stubbornly unpredictable in both timing and ultimate outcome. If you change your fundamental metaphor for the education of children from a mechanical one to an organic one – in other words, from the manufacture of a product to the flowering and fruiting of a plant – then you begin to see that your role is not to rigidly control each step in the process – with age-graded standards and lists of objectives and scope-and-sequence outlines and percentile scores – but to create the conditions – the soil, the water, the light – under which human brilliance may unfold and flourish…

Aspects of learning in many (not all) traditional cultures include:

-Immersing young people in adult activity rather than segregating them by age.
-Immersing children in multi-age groups where they can learn from older children.
-Immersing young people in nature rather than confining them indoors for most of the day.
-A blurring of the boundaries between work and play.
-Allowing for physical movement and engagement with new tasks or knowledge rather than requiring a sedentary existence as the condition for learning.
-Allowing the time for freedom, experimentation, choice, fluidity, play.
-Learning through deeper personal relationships, mentorships, apprenticeships, rather than from teachers who are not known on a personal level.
-Control over the timing, form and content of learning which resides in the child and/or in adults who know the child as an individual, rather than control being located in distant “experts” and one-size-fits-all “standards.”
-Allowing for extended transformative experiences in which young people make independent choices to discover their unique gifts, rather than step-by-step controlled sequences which attempt to dictate the process as well as the outcome of learning.

These strategies can work for learning to identify medicinal plants in a rainforest, for learning to anticipate and respond to the moods and movements of wild caribou, for learning to build a sustainable house out of mud brick, and they can work for learning how to design software applications or conduct a biological field study or write an elegant and compelling essay.

-Carol Black, “The Future of Big Box Schooling”

Great thoughts from Carol Black, however, one takes umbrage with the naiveté of two assertions, the first is found earlier in the essay than the above quoted text. Ms. Black writes, “While of course we no longer think this way, and teachers working in contemporary schools no longer hold these goals for the children in their charge, the structural features of the system which are designed to perform these functions remain intact, and continue to do considerable harm to children.” What is meant by “this way” is a sort of thinking that propagates an elitist, classist ideal, fully supportive of such monstrous acts as eugenics. Such a worldview is still demonstrably at work in society today, and if we are not “past that” then the question is- how has our telos developed? Surely it isn’t exactly the same today, as yesterday, even if there is indeed continuity? We need to identify this before we simply launch off on some grandiose expedition to supplant an “old-fashioned” way of pedagogy.

The second proverbial bur-in-the-saddle comes when Ms. Black rhetorically inquires “…should traditional people consider skipping that step, and deciding for themselves how they may want to use, ignore, adapt, blend, or hybridize new technologies and information in an open-network self-regulating manner?” This smacks of being kin to the whole “unschooling” movement, and the modern god of “Choice” which is worshiped so pervasively today. The logic is, if regulations have done us harm, then deregulating things will solve our problems. But taking away a problem doesn’t add a solution, and taking away regulatory measures in order to give credence to self-regulation must assume that the individual is indeed capable of self-regulating. Since there exist any number of individuals who’s very lives demonstrate an inability to lead themselves healthily, we must question the wisdom of simply turning ignorant people loose to do with “information” as they please. We ought perhaps instead aspire to self-regulation/autonomy, with an understanding of what is necessary in order for one to posses such a quality.

Observationally, Ms. Black seems willing to admit that “open-source” education can have less-than-ideal results. She writes “Whether this is always good, of course, is another question. New technologies always change our lives, and not always for the better.” Nonetheless, she sees no real alternative to this, believing the options to merely be: A) leave everyone to their own devices or B)subjugate people to an outdated, tyrannical, and dehumanizing form of education.

A better observation might be that it is not one nation or culture’s prerogative to assert how other nations ought best to ensure the education of their own people. Whether nations in general ought to control their people’s education- that is, whether “public” school ought to exist at all or not, remains to be seen. The questions at the heart of all of these questions are: A) What is education for? B) Who is fit to educate? and C) Who is fit to be educated?

These are not easily answered questions, but if one were to posit in summation a possible response, one might offer that:

A) Education exists to train people to be good citizens. While some of what this means can be found in the training of skills and the acquisition of knowledge, what about a citizen is “good” relies upon our vision of what human beings are meant for- which guides what we DO with our skills and knowledge. You cannot, and should not, train power separately from purpose. This leaves us asking what the meaning of life is, which must ultimatley be answered religiously. If we think we can avoid this, ignoring spiritual telos, we add a telos implicitly, though (perhaps) inadvertently. Telos always exists, whether we are intentional about our intentions or not.

B) An educator must be versed in not only the raw skills and information of education, but also in the telos of such things. Simply put: they need to know what the purpose is of “all this stuff” kids ask why they need to learn. Is purpose something that we desire to be defined on a national level, as public education must certainly do? Who gets to decide the purpose of education? 1 person? 1 group? Multiple?

C) One who is fit to be educated is one who is silent. You cannot learn, if you yourself are busy teaching. This means that a student who from the very beginning has “decided” what they want to learn (and why), is not a student capable of being educated. Education requires trust and humility.

Regarding race, nationality, class, etc, and who can be educated on those terms, we can see that if education is about “good citizens” then education is hypothetically for everyone, regardless of such categories, for all such categories fall within citizenry. Everyone lives within the context of a group. Nonetheless, the question remains- what traits are universal to good citizenry? What traits are different? How can we identify and train the differences? That is to say, in what way should education allow for deviation within its own localized context?

As one can see, understanding how to address the needs of education is a long and complicated road. Those who seek to do it without addressing ultimate ends, do so with a sort of foolish bravery which invests itself in the myth of certainty in progress, and the ultimate goodness of the human condition. It is helpful to observe that learning is more organic than mechanical, and that examples of such organic education can be found in indigenous cultures. Nonetheless, leaving a plant entirely to its own devices will not guarantee that the plant will “choose” to grow. There are weeds and weather and other additional conditions that could be guarded against, in addition to fertilizers and techniques of nourishment that a master gardener can apply via intervention. We don’t want a mechanically controlled world, but we don’t want a “free” wilderness either. We want Eden, and we must learn to be educational gardeners, involved in purposes of this world, and yet also obedient to Ultimate Aims.