Education’s Present-Shock

One question that I’ve been trying to examine is: Why is the homeschooling movement growing now? What are the defining social conditions that shifted, beginning with a few inklings in the 1970s and picking up momentum in the 1990s, when homeschooling became legal in all 50 states? There are big and obvious changes that have taken place in my lifetime — like the internet and all of its cascading social / economic effects. But that answer falls short of speaking to the nuanced motivations of my own family’s choice to opt out of the school system in the 1980s.

This blog came out of an interest in reflecting on my family’s own experience in homeschooling / unschooling. But zooming out to contemplate the cultural and historical context seems both interesting and important to my understanding, now. Of course, looking critically at our own historical moment is difficult, since we’re still in it.

A place to begin is to look at the history of the current school model, which was conceived of by the Victorians. The relevance of that system today is a debate that has grown louder in the public discourse since the recession. The social anxiety about current and future jobs has added urgency to the criticism that our educational structures, which have remained relatively unchanged for generations, are outdated. Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra have articulated these issues well, reaching mainstream audiences through TED Talks, magazine and newspaper interviews, and other media attention. Sugata Mitra describes the outdated system here:

Victorians assembled an education system to mass-produce workers with identical skills. Plucked from the classroom and plugged instantly into the system, citizens were churned through an educational factory engineered for maximum productivity.

Like most things designed by the Victorians, it was a robust system. It worked. Schools, in a sense, manufactured generations of workers for an industrial age.

But what got us here, won’t get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness. —

The education system we have today came from a particular economic and technological historical paradigm—an industrial paradigm that has elsewhere been revolutionized by the digital / internet era. But the digital era has yet to give way to systemic change in education. Meanwhile, the annual growth rate of homeschooling is estimated at 7%, as compared to the public school growth of 1%.

So, there we have it. The shift from an industrial economy to a digital / information / global economy is the obvious and tremendous shift, the hallmark of our historical moment. But I think there’s more to it. Plus, I want to better understand the cascading ramifications of that core shift.

Over the holidays, I wrestled with a pretty incredible book called Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff.  I heard an interview with the author and knew it was what I needed to read. Somehow, Rushkoff’s expansive social-cultural critique of the digital era, which doesn’t address homeschooling at all, has in fact felt critical to the connections that I’m trying to draw…


Relating to the Mitra quote above about the storing of knowledge in students’ minds, Rushkoff describes systems that are biased towards either flow or storage. He describes systems of flow and storage as relating to information systems and technology, but I thought his point was most interesting when Rushkoff describes the emergence of local currencies based on grain in the Middle Ages, and how it shook the status quo of feudalism’s subsistence farming and even barter:

“[Barter] was a slow and inefficient form of trade. A person who had chickens but wanted shoes would have to find a shoemaker who wanted chickens. If only people had one thing of agreed-upon value they could use to trade, then everyone could get the things they wanted. Grain receipts provided people with just that form of early currency Farmers brought their seasonal harvests to grain-storage facilities, where they were given receipts for how much grain they had deposited. […] Even people who did not need grain could use the receipts, because the value was understood, and eventually someone would actually need grain and be able to claim the specified amount.

Now, while we may think of these grain receipts as a storage of value, they were, in fact, biased toward flow. Their purpose was less to store the value of the grain than to monetize and move it […] Pushing this de facto local currency even further to the flow side was the fact that these receipts lost value over time. […] some of the grain would inevitably be lost over time to rodents and spoilage. In order to compensate for this, the value of a grain receipt would be lowered at regular intervals. […] So it was to everyone’s advantage to spend the money rather than to hold it. […]

The beauty of a flow-based economy is that it favors those who actively create value. The problem is that it disfavors those who are used to reaping passive rewards. Aristocratic landowning families had stayed rich for centuries simply by being rich in the first place.”

Rushkoff tells us that local currencies were gradually outlawed and replaced by central currency that could be borrowed from the king’s treasury, at interest. This central currency was biased toward storage, of course. It privileged the already-wealthy and hoarding as the surest means to continued wealth.

This notion of flow- vs. storage-biased systems is interesting and relevant in our economic historical moment, of course, but I think the idea also translates well to systems of education. As Sugata Mitra points out, the primary objective of schooling has been one of storage — we are storing information and skills in the minds of students. Tests are intended to gauge the degree to which students are effectively storing what we teach. But storage-bias knowledge systems don’t make as much sense in the age of the internet, when most of the world’s knowledge is instantly available in a decentralized network, now the cloud. We live in an information age biased towards endless, almost unstoppable, flow. The most critical skills now are discernment, critical thinking, prioritization, analysis and synthesis.

I draw several parallels between the local and central currency systems, as Rushkoff describes, and systems of learning and education. I want to liken central currency systems to teacher-driven, standardized curricula. They are top-down systems, biased towards storage, and they are useful in situations where there is agreed-upon value of specific or static points of information. By comparison, local currency systems are more like student-driven, peer-to-peer, even interest-based learning, and information flows. These systems reward the active creation of value, creativity and innovation. They are not dictated or standardized. To me, there was a clear relationship to the “active value” bias in the local currency and the nature of unschooling and democratic (Sudbury-model) schools — where there is no bias towards passivity, but instead towards activity and agency.

Again I turn to Sugata Mitra:

Unlocking the power of new technologies for self-guided education is one of the 21st century superhighways that need to be paved. Profound changes to how children access vast information is yielding new forms of peer-to-peer and individual-guided learning. The cloud is already omnipresent and indestructible, democratizing and ever changing; now we need to use it to spark the imaginations and build the mental muscles of children worldwide.

All of the above resonates with me. I think these issues of technology changing our relationship to information, changing our jobs and economy, and therefore changing how we want educate our kids — these are real reasons for the growth of the homeschooling movement in my lifetime.

But the timing of the movement is also more complicated, more human and nuanced than this critique of outdated systems. In the next post, I’ll continue to consider connections that I see between the homeschooling movement today, and other cultural and social conditions that parallel homeschooling’s growth.