Deschooling Religious Education, in Six Claims

1. Compulsory schooling came to the United States in the 18th century, during the Whig “common school movement,” built on the Prussian model that was founded after the advent of the Prussian research university. The first compulsory schooling laws were passed in the late 1850′s, in New Hampshire and New York. A lot of that movement was motivated by a defensive belief that parents could not be trusted to raise their children. This is where the legal concept of in loco parentis came from.

2. Compulsory schooling is what we today refer to when we use the term ‘schooling’. Today’s school is an institution — along with the prison, hospital, and other facilities meant to house and (re)form humans — unique to modernity, the era we live in. In part, these secular places tried to replace the positive role of the Church and the family. Suffice it to say that when most say ‘school’ today, they are not referring to a generic school, they are referring to a compulsory one.

3. Many, many people have resisted this idea, since its earliest manifestations, although very few do today. In the early 1970′s perhaps the clearest opposition to schooling was published by Ivan Illich, in a short book titled, Deschooling Society. Unlike many of his trendy unschooling devotees, Illich understood that “deschooling” was not a reform aimed at present day schools, and certainly not an alternative homeschooling anti-curriculum. More ambitiously, deschooling was aimed at society at large. For Illich, deschooling was a critique of the modern institutionalization and objectification of the human person and human communities, through the lens of the compulsory school, extending into every facet of modern life.

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It stands to reason, then, that (1) compulsory schooling is a historically recent and modern invention, (2) the ordinary language of “schooling” today refers to the modern institution and its counterparts, not some generic family resemblance of that term, and (3) Illich’s idea of deschooling is a social critique, first and foremost, not a proposal for shutting down primary schools or starting an anarcho-libertarian homeschooler’s fad.

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4. The Catholic notion of education is classical. It builds on Plato’s noetic and holistic ideas in the Republic. It is inspired (Spirit-filled) and ensouled. It an ontological idea we find in Augustine that puts knowing under the authority of becoming and becoming under the primacy of love. The Ordo Amoris, the Order of Love: it leads toward God and, therefore, toward mystery. This is mystagogy. Unlike pedagogy, mystagogy is not reducible to head or intellect. It cannot be conveyed through a cognitive or behavioral psychology. This is why a truly Catholic education does not require a school and a truly Catholic school cannot submit itself to the norms of the modern compulsory school.

5. The modern logic of schooling is all about pedagogy, built on a notion of learning that operates from the head down. It was build to produce docile learners. This is where the language of “learning outcomes,” “mastery goals,” and other pedagogical jargon comes from. (This is the engine presently driving Common Core and all it’s predecessors.) All of these mechanisms were tailored to fit and justify the compulsory school. The theory of knowledge and mind that supports these ideas follow a model that sees the process of knowing as purely cognitive and behavioral and good for an industrial economy. This modern logic of schooling is, on a Catholic analysis, false.

6. You can find thriving Catholic communities, past and present, where there are no classes or classrooms. No schools. Usually, you will find this among the very poor. I’ve seen them in Mexico and visited others in Latin America. In these communities, the church itself (which may be quite bare and even ugly to look at) is the only common classroom, the liturgy, prayers, homily, music, community life and tradition and story — and the domestic churches in the homes of the faithful — are the catechesis. Families are not perfect, but they work at it. Literacy is not required. Only dwelling and being — living together in faith. It would be false to say that these communities lack “religious education.” It may even be true that these communities have a much deeper religious education than many schools, secular or Catholic, have. As Pope Francis teaches us, we have much to learn from the poor.

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There is fundamental gap between the secular idea of pedagogy, delivered through modern schooling, and the Catholic idea of mystagogy, delivered through a religious education that can exist where two or more are gathered. In a church, in a van, in a bar — even in a school!

There is no place where grace can be excluded. There is no despair; there is no presumption.

Deschooling religious education, then, is a fundamental reordering of education according to its essential religious principles, which opposes both the modern institution of schooling and its logic of pedagogy. In the former case, schools can certainly work but other forms of gathering are viable, too, the modern school has no monopoly over education. In the latter case, we must replace pedagogy with mystagogy if we are to educate religiously, and the poor can show us how to do this better than Matthew Kelly or I can.

 

For more on mystagogy, read Dr. Leroy Huizenga’s fine essay on the matter at The Catholic World Report or go to Mass. Read this post in French, here!

  • arty

    I’ve been arguing for years–to the three total people listening (sigh)–that the one of the best things we could do for education in this country would be to abolish the Department of Education. (I think Charles Murray has argued this, too). Every day, I observe unfolding practical results of what you are after here. A humorous recent example, since you mentioned “learning outcomes.” After a recent accreditation visit, we were told that our course objectives need to be rephrased as “learning outcomes,” not because will make any difference to what students actually know or are more prepared to learn. Rather, vocabulary like “objectives” is no longer “industry standard.” As long as “industry standard” rules the day, let us dispense with the facade of “education” too (which is also no longer industry standard), and implant chips in everyone’s head so that, to paraphrase Keaneau Reeves in “The Matrix”, we can all plug in, wake up, and say “I know Western Civilization.” Without the sense of telos you are after here, there is no education.” How do your colleagues in Education take this argument?

    • SamRocha

      I think we probably need a Dept. of Schooling, and schools too. There is no humane way to feed and keep safe so many children at this point. And there is something deeply educative about that, too. I am working on a paper with a colleague on school lunch as a place where serious education can happen.

      All this pedagogical jargon will only get worse in the “brain era” we are coming into. It’s going to be the new behaviorism and will last a while, I think.

      My colleagues and students think I am senile at the age of 31. This all sounds about as interesting and real and urgent as a cheap paperback romance novel to them. I’m a fool. That’s why I write here. Fools write blogs.

      There is some hope, though. There are broad and deep lines of solidarity across ideological frameworks amongst the handful of philosophers of education on this matter. If someone could help us turn up the volume, there are enough of us, with good enough skills, to perhaps do something. My little Primer is doing more work than I thought it would, which is also mildly encouraging.

      In the meantime, there is blogging.

      • arty

        Agreed. School lunch is where you learn essential life skills, such as how to wring grease out of cafeteria pizza, and how to unscrew the legs off the tables, using a dime.

        Seriously though, your “senility” (and mine) is what you might call a systemic inevitability. I’ve been neck-deep in “General Education” reform at my “Institution of More Education” for some time now. I recently made the argument that we are constitutionally incapable of justifying General Education’s existence, because we lack cultural will to say that there is anything “higher” towards which all students ought to be oriented. Therefore, I contended, we are stuck telling students that they should be so radically utilitarian about their college courses, when, we are philosophically unable to articulate any good reasons for them not to be so.

        Crickets.

        Save a space for me in the loony bin.

        • SamRocha

          What depresses me is how unwelcome this sort of thought is in Catholic institutions. I never would have dreamed that a Catholic philosophy dept. would routinely show disinterest in a Catholic philosopher of education. Being the fool that I am, I thought that this was what the Catholic University was interested in doing in the first and last place! Ha!

    • http://platytera.blogspot.com Christian LeBlanc

      US Dept.of Education: boo.

      • SamRocha

        It all depends on the particulars.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com Christian LeBlanc

    Re #6 Latin America’s Catholics continue to lose members to other Christian churches…not seeing that whatever they are doing is keeping Catholics Catholic whether the faithful are deschooled or not.

    • SamRocha

      I would be careful about making this claim writ large. Latin America is still, largely, Catholic. Mexico, for instance, has an internal Catholicism that has proven unassailable by fierce secularism and protestant evangelicals. But the claim I make in #6 is a claim about real particular communities that exist and have existed (outside of LA, too). Insofar as that is true, and I think it is, my claim would be applicable — all other cases notwithstanding.

      • http://platytera.blogspot.com Christian LeBlanc

        The Catholic Church is losing members to other Christian churches. Period. I don’t see anyone doing anything about it, schooled or deschooled. So I’m not persuaded that deschooling is an answer.

        • SamRocha

          You seem to still misunderstand deschooling. In this post I am very clear about what it is and is not. It is not a strategic initiative. But I think, as I noted above, that there are lots of people in and out of schools doing lots of things about it. Find me any vibrant community of Catholics and there, I would argue, you can find a natural resistance to the fundie and secular nonsense. Sadly, however, I think the fear you expressed has put many in the Church in a defensive position that is foreign to the Gospel.

        • SamRocha

          By the way: you may want to recall that Augustine ended his life and episcopate as Christendom in North Africa was on the verge of being lost. Did this somehow diminish his teaching, writings, and ideas? The Confessions, City of God? Obviously not.

          • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ kkollwitz

            You just got the last word.

        • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

          You’re right about the thinning of the Church in Latin America. As a Brazilian, it pains me to see the Catholic population shrink from over 90% to 65% in a generation. However, during this period the education shifted from quality to quantity. The military junta instituted an aggressive program to train a populace for the industrial leap forward that they wanted, including mandatory schooling. It could be mere coincidence, but the evasion from the Church happened alongside with a process similar to what Sam is saying here, the loss of mystagogy in favor of pedagogy, the shift from the craft of educating to an assembly line to create a docile and able populace.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com Christian LeBlanc

    Put another way, I don’t see that the poor, as they are described in your article, are any better than any other Catholic subset at enabling themselves or their kids to stay firm in the faith in the face of “well-schooled” opposition.

    • SamRocha

      This is, perhaps, one of the richest features of Illich’s idea of “deschooling.” I don’t have time to cover it here, but here is a representative sample: http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm

      My claim, following his, would be that the way the “well-schooled” opposition debilitates the poor is precisely by schooling them. Francis said similar things in EG. Compulsory schooling was, after all, built to invade the irish Catholic community that was wildly unskilled and illiterate, but deeply Catholic.

      • http://platytera.blogspot.com Christian LeBlanc

        Where is the deschooling example that shows the fortitude to keep kids Catholic in face of Fundiegelical evangelizing?

        • SamRocha

          That’s the point, really. BEING Catholic is, in and of itself, deschooling. I’ve lived many years in the midst of these poor and Catholic-to-the-bones communities. They are immune to protestants and secularists. I think people often underestimate the power of these places and communities and the fact that their immunity is evidence of an already working solution.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com Christian LeBlanc

    BTW, I agree that to the extent parents are able to see to their children’s education without recourse to any particular structures or methods, they should be free to do so.

    • SamRocha

      On this point, oddly enough, I think there is a grave danger of overextending the point from *primary* educators to *sole* educators. I favor the former, but detest the latter. I would be very lucky for my children to have as wonderful teachers and mentors and friends as I’ve had. This is why our approach to deschooling is not mutually exclusive with sending our kids to school. It is all a question of particular and degrees of quality.

      • http://platytera.blogspot.com Christian LeBlanc

        Indeed.

  • Matt Meyer

    Enjoyed the article up to point 6. A world where “the church itself (which may be quite bare and even ugly to look at) is the only common classroom…(and where) literacy is not required” has been tried. Public school was pretty bad, but it wasn’t pre-Gutenberg Europe bad.

    • SamRocha

      Did you attend the University of Paris?

    • SamRocha

      More seriously, though, I’m not a neo-feudalist. My claim there is a purely descriptive one, not a normative one. Insofar as X exists, X is not impossible to imagine. That’s all. What go on to say about the poor is axiomatic, but it applies regardless of the validity of the opening claim.

  • Steve Perkins

    I love this, especially points 4 and 5. Mystagogy vs. Pedagogy. Now THAT is a book title! As for the jargon derivative of pedagogy, preach, brother, preach! Douglas Hofstadter (of Godel, Escher, & Bach fame…also Metamagical Themas, Le Ton Beau De Marot, I Am a Strange Loop, etc.) is passionately anti-jargon.

    I admit, I was pleasantly surprised when I clicked the link in the word “classical” in point 4!


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