While there are growing global discussions about the role of education in people’s lives, most ongoing discussions focus on children and schools. In many cases, the role of adults and the family in education is neglected or marginalized in these discussions. Part of this problem, perhaps, stems from a general misunderstanding of education, which is most often equated with merely going to school. An important first step, therefore, is to make clearer distinctions between education and schooling.
Education can occur in many forms and at many times. It can be understood as the making of a whole person, which includes learning life skills, learning a vocation, learning cultural values, and learning to care for the self and others. Education occurs in many contexts—social and individual—and it can be a lifelong process of becoming that is closely related to family and community activities. Schooling is but a small part of education and is primarily an institutional experience with a set of standards and assumptions that are applied to the majority and in which families and communities usual play a lesser part. Schooling occurs indoors, according to set times and sequences, and is often geared toward narrow economic and political goals.
Education has been a human activity for millennia, while schooling was primarily developed over the past 150 years. Schooling is directed by others, while education is often self-directed. In terms of methods, schooling often relies on principles of psychology, rooted in behaviorism and, more recently, cognitive psychology; while education has a broader variety of methods, including experience and self-reflection. Education is organic, but schooling is mechanical. While there is clearly some overlap between schooling and education, to have a constructive conversation about parents as educators, it is important to recognize and maintain the above kinds of distinctions.
Schooling, as presently conceived and practiced in most places around the globe today, emerged in Europe during the 19th century and arose with the development of the nation state, industrialization, and the training of a modern army. America and Japan soon adopted this system, which, through colonialism, spread to the rest of the globe so that today we find a virtually uniform system of schooling anywhere we care to look, with only very superficial distinctions in different locations.
The prime function of modern schooling was to create a managed society under the eye of the national government, to provide workers for the industrial system and soldiers for the national army. The methods and assumptions of modern schooling are similar to those of factory labor and military service. All rely on ranking people according to some externally imposed standard, all involve inculcating obedience to a system of authority, and all involve subsuming the individual to an overarching institution, either the state or the corporation.
In other words, schooling emerged as a tool for social control: its intention was to create the national subject, which includes the national language, allegiance to the national flag, and developing some narrow, predetermined set of skills deemed useful for the national development. Parents and communities were not consulted at all in the development of modern schooling; indeed, in many cases they resisted sending their children to schools. In the end, modern schooling prevailed, so most parents and communities today comply.
This is not to say that there are no variants on this model and that there are no alternative perspectives, but to understand the variants and alternatives, one needs to see them, for the most part, as a response to the institution of modern schooling. Homeschooling is a good example, which largely arose as a movement in those places where schooling had begun and which was largely a response to the social experiences that children would have in schools. But home schooling is still schooling, with the parents playing the same sorts of roles that the state plays in schooling and in which the same values and standards are implied.
In many places, the state board of education requires that parents either utilize the state curriculum or periodically report to state officials. This is because in its ascendancy, schooling became compulsory, and in some times and places it could even be considered a crime or a form of child abuse to remove one’s children from school. Alternatives to schooling include the growing “walkout” movement, which is gaining in popularity, particularly in the Third World where schools are often bleak and abysmal places or where communities have taken education into their own hands after realizing that the benefits of schooling were accrued only to a select few in the society.
School officials have sometimes responded to these movements away from school by trying to dress up schools with the latest educational fads and fashions in order to keep children confined within their walls, voluntarily rather than by force. Part of this voluntary complicity also comes from the assumption that the best way to get ahead in society is through school, that the best way to ascend within the class structure is through school.
So where does this leave parents as educators? With many parents occupying themselves with economic activities, themselves trying to ascend within the class system of most modern societies, they have little or no time to spend with their children and they most often welcome those institutions that are willing to take children off their hands for several hours a day as they themselves try to get ahead. Some parents, women in particular, have gotten involved with schools as teachers, monitors, assistants, and babysitters. This volunteerism is often welcomed by schools, since it is a financially viable way to maintain the structure of schooling.
In general, then, we can say that modern schooling is a function of modern society, and that as long as the convolution between schooling and education remains, the structure of schooling will prevail and it will absorb most of these volunteer efforts. In a very few cases, with heavy parental and community involvement, some schools have become more akin to community centers that provide a range of services for both children and adults, which are open all year round, and which host a variety of social activities. This is a positive development within the system of modern schooling, since it puts parents and communities more in control of the vast public financial resources often relegated to schooling. However, such schools are only exceptions to the general rule of schools as places detached from community life.
But if for a moment we move our questions away from the issue of how to make schools better or more responsive places, we can begin to raise more fundamental questions that are often neglected in school-dominated discussions. The technocrats who designed and implemented modern schooling had their own fundamental questions, and they designed the system to serve their goals, mainly emanating from needs for social control. However, there are many other questions that can be asked about learning, and these can proceed from the basic realization that schooling and education are two distinctly different activities.
Accepting that distinction for a moment, and holding onto the meaning of education as outlined above, one can ask a variety of questions. What does it mean to be educated? What is the purpose of seeking knowledge? What kinds of knowledge do people need to lead meaningful lives? How do I know that I am intelligent or successful? What are my duties to my community and to the biosphere in which I reside? Schools don’t really ask these questions, since they assume the answers will be the same: schools are places where we learn skills necessary to survive in modern society, which most often translates into the singular goal of finding a job.
But the standardized goals of modern schooling should not prohibit us from asking these sorts of searching questions, since such questions are at the core of understanding the relationship between life and learning. A first step, then, toward preparing parents as educators is to take the time and make the effort to have these kinds of conversations and discussions, not only within the family, but also between families on the community level. Schooling survives on the inactivity or inability of parents and communities to imagine or conceive of anything other than what school has to offer. If parents and communities see things the same way as schools, then they will not see the reason for questioning the system, and they will simply accede to it.
Beyond asking questions and discussing the meaning and purpose of education, parents can take the time and make the effort to interact with other families in what may be called “learning gatherings.” Such gatherings can be a good opportunity for families to share what they may know with each other and to spend time together doing, singing, dancing, creating, cooking, playing, digging, hiking, building, exploring, telling stories, and any one of a number of activities that they find provide meaning in their lives.
Learning gatherings can also be places for discussing issues that are important to families and communities but which are often neglected by schools, governments, and businesses. Learning gatherings can be places to build solidarity for those who are questioning the system and to build support networks for those who choose to walk out of the institutionalized structure of modern society. They can provide a space for people to conceive of and enact their own stories about what is meaningful in life; to create their own directions for learning and living and to expand the many learning possibilities for children and adults alike.
Outside the confines of schooling, families and communities can share their stories and experiences about what has inspired them and what resources may be available for learning. Learning gatherings can be places to share and explore ways to self-create life experiences, rather than consuming the readymade experiences as offered by schools and other institutions such as hospitals or the food and entertainment industries.
What kinds of resources already exist in communities that can provide learning opportunities for families? How are families and communities creating their own learning experiences? How are families and communities finding and nurturing their own passions and strengths? Learning gatherings can foster communication and dialogue among families and between generations within immediate and extended families. They can also be places to share experiences and ideas with other families who are embarking on their own learning journeys. They can provide opportunities to share all of our anxieties and difficulties, especially those that may arise from taking the first steps away from schooling and toward deeper and more diverse forms of learning. Learning gatherings can be a way to find meaning in life, and are a necessary first step toward preparing parents as educators.