Critics of modern schooling like John Taylor Gatto and Ivan Illich have recognized that the fundamental curriculum that schools teach us is school itself.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately since moving to South Africa, where school reform has become a nation-wide calling.
The initiatives that feel most promising to me are the ones that are digging under the layers a bit- looking at ways of transforming the experience of schooling, not only the observable structures and pedagogy that are generally associated with academic achievement.
We intuitively know, and 20 years of education research has confirmed, that the best way to learn something is to experience it. Since most subjects are still taught using passive ‘chalk-and-talk’ teaching methods, it is reasonable to conclude that, in the long haul, students learn more in school about organizational life- since they learn that experientially- than about the actual subject matters they are being taught.
It is easy to forget that although schools are explicitly designed to teach us things like reading, math, and science, they are also implicitly teaching us powerful lessons about how to collectively organize ourselves as human beings.
They inherently teach us to organize ourselves hierarchically rather than democratically, to compete rather than collaborate, to listen to authority over intuition and calling, and to be subjects rather than active citizens. They teach us experientially that intergenerational contact has little value, that we are not expected to make a meaningful contribution to our community, and that we are receivers rather than creators of knowledge.
School is often our first contact with formal organizational life, which means we absorb these lessons before we even know how to make sense of them. And the fact that we inhabit school almost every day of our young lives ensures that the patterns of relating, thinking and doing that it expresses becomes deeply embedded in how we navigate the world into adulthood.
Given how much of what happens in our world today is driven by organizations, it seems that the organizational lessons we absorb through schooling have a massive ripple effect on society. They influence how we run our government, our civil society, our social movements, our arts and culture, our economy, and (in full circle) our education system.
We desperately need examples of healthy, life-giving ways of organizing and governing ourselves. What better organization to be that example than school, which touches all of our lives so deeply.
What if schools strived to become living expressions of the kinds of organizations and communities we would like to see permeate society?