Opinion: We do not need schools, colleges or universities for education

As The Big Issue looks at the past, present and future of learning in the UK, expert in alternative approaches to education, Helen E Lees, says we must learn to separate the concept of education from institutions

Have you ever wondered if you are alone in quietly thinking ‘education’ has problems? Have you voiced a negative opinion about schooling, college or university? No one ‘in education’ is listening – they are lost in wonderland, having fallen down a rabbit hole of rhetoric about how much we all need school, college and university experience. That is, quite frankly, not what relevant research tells us. We do not need schools, colleges or universities for education.

You are not alone if you are dismayed. The majority of the world’s population seem to have a mixed opinion of schooling, college or university experience. Many people have opinions that are far from effusive. Education as salvation? Yes. Schooling, colleges and universities as salvation? Pull the other one.

Schooling is not education. College is not education. University is not education. Educating oneself and others is education.

The problem starts with conflating the word education for schooling, quickly followed by the idea its myriad institutions are compulsory or ‘must do’. We have to go to school…we need to go to college, we ought to go to university. What rubbish. We do not have to go to school by law in the UK and there are other ways to get ahead in life than produce a certificate. It’s important to develop oneself I agree. We can gain higher level knowledge through reading, researching, and conversations in relevant circles of practitioners.

To be clear: Education is a fantastic, interesting, developmental and hopefully fun situation. Schooling is not education. College is not education. University is not education. Educating oneself and others is education.

The biggest problem with the mainstream school (and further/higher) education system is it believes it is right and righteous and advertises itself as such. It is not morally safe. It is violent to the soul and the self; especially to one’s self esteem. We do violence to each other in such a system. The binaries of success and failure are one form of harm but there are many others, often depending on where you live in the world or the luck you have or lack. The system takes away our sense of self. It sets us in a lowly position where our power is devolved to the knowing ones, or the so-called clever ones, or the popular or the straight looking white ones. Since when is such a system a good idea? Whilst humility to learn something new is necessary, a system that demands you lose your power is suspect.

To believe in schools, colleges or universities as education is to do harm. These institutions exclude whilst not meaning to because systematised education is heteronormative, patriarchal, misogynistic, narrow minded, conservative, racist. It is a blunt machinery.

We need a new model of education that starts with the idea that education is human. The internet has become extremely useful in this regard. Community is helpful, apprenticing oneself, observing someone who knows, asking questions. Education does not have walls. Go online, pick up a book. Get into it. Meet people. The journey is yours to design. It takes effort, that’s all. You will own it.

Helen E. Lees is Visiting Research Fellow at York St John University

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