Schooling, as opposed to learning

There are lots of ways to learn things. School is but one of them.

You say learning and managers hear schooling. Training mimics school. Teach a class; give a test. Get the event over with.

Schools rarely validate non-school ways to learn. Learning that takes place outside their walls doesn’t rate grades or gold stars.

Jesuits say, “Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man.” Schools had their way with our brains for sixteen or more years. Little wonder top-down training is the default option for corporate learning.

Corporate learning professionals wring their hands when managers demand training when what they really want is performance. Experience is often a better teacher. Mentors have more impact than instructors. Optimal learning takes place on the job, not apart from it

Isn’t it our responsibility to point out that training is an expensive way to learn? That workers aren’t empty-headed novices? That learning’s a never-ending process? That’s there’s a better way?


It’s easier to see schooling objectively when it’s happening to somebody else.

I had that opportunity yesterday at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, a shrine of the culture and art of the Native Americans of the Southwest. The art inspires awe. How in heaven’s name did we white people justify the inhumane treatment we meted out on the “Indians?”

Heard Museum, Phoenix Heard Museum, Phoenix Heard Museum, Phoenix Heard Museum, Phoenix

The Heard is currently hosting a popular show entitled “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience.”

Heard Museum, Phoenix

Tame the Natives

The exhibits describe the boarding schools the Feds set up in a widespread effort to “Americanize” Native Americans, a well-intentioned but wrong-headed effort that started in the mid-nineteenth century.

When a brave entered boarding school, his long hair (a symbol of manhood) was shorn and his breechcloth was replaced with western trousers. He was not to think of becoming a doctor or pilot. How about working with your hands? Girls might aspire to be secretaries or seamstresses. School socialized children by beating their identities out of them.

Heard Museum, Phoenix

Our misguided attempts to “reform” other people make me cringe. What gives us the right?

Heard Museum, Phoenix

Americanizing Native Americans. What a concept. It still goes on, although the authorities no longer rip future students from their mothers’ arms and cart them off to boarding school in the middle of the night.

Heard Museum, Phoenix

Is our experience any different?

Some say that at the larger level, what we do to our own children is little different from what we did to Native Americans.

We don’t shave our kid’s heads, cart them off at night, and imply that the members of the PTA are savages. Nonetheless, we do stifle their creativity and make them obedient. Schools reward conformity and discourage critical thinking. This brutality drives the home schooling movement.

Before you recoil at the thought that schools dumb us down, remember that like all institutions, schools seek to perpetuate themselves. “This is the way it’s done” is the message. School teaches that SCHOOL IS GOOD.

That’s not the whole story. If you feel that school’s an unmitigated blessing, listen to Paulo FreireIvan Illich, and John Taylor Gatto. Read Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education to find out how American schooling descends directly from Prussian schools set up to make mercenaries obedient. Read Illich’s Deschooling Society for a prescient description of learning networks and how schools stifle freedom. Read one of the many collections of incendiary quotes from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to get fired up. Just browse this stuff and you’ll begin to question the insidious way school narrowed your perspective and shut down your options.

Denigrating schooling is not my point. I would not enjoy life anywhere near as much nor have been able to pull off the little I’ve done professionally in the last forty years without the privilege of having attended top-notch schools and learned from top-notch teachers. Socialization is not all bad, nor is discipline. I’m not entirely in the revolutionaries’ camp. But confusing schooling with learning is a costly mistake.

A Sampler


Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.


Socrates foresaw if teaching became a formal profession, something like this would happen. Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating the laity to the priesthood. School is too vital a jobs-project, contract giver and protector of the social order to allow itself to be “re-formed.” It has political allies to guard its marches, that’s why reforms come and go without changing much. Even reformers can’t imagine school much different.


Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.



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