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Do we want school or education?

By Robert Burrowes - posted Thursday, 1 August 2013

As our world continues to unravel in response to the impact of our uneconomic activities on ecological systems, it is obviously worth asking searching questions about the nature of modern society. By doing this we can make intelligent decisions about the direction in which we should move as we thoughtfully respond to the interrelated crises we face.

For many people, the central question is this: Will tinkering with human society be enough to get us out of this mess? Many people think not and I am one of them. For the moment, however, rather than focus on the nature of the economy, political systems or other aspects of modern societies, I would like to discuss the issue of education.

For a long time, people in different parts of the world have struggled to expand access, including access for girls, to school. This struggle still takes place in many countries. But I want to add my name to the list of people who question whether school is the best way to get an education.


And there are many reasons why I believe it is not.

In essence, schools are designed to teach a disintegrated set of 'knowledge' and skills that are useful to those businesses and corporations which provide employment, however menial, in the mainstream economy. This schooling is taking place even now when there is little evidence to suggest that the mainstream economy is capable of providing full employment and, more importantly, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that this economy will need to be utterly transformed if we are to survive the interrelated ecological threats to our survival.

Let me briefly state some problems with school: it is highly damaging physically, sensorily, intellectually and emotionally. Schooling requires the child to spend six hours each day sitting in a school classroom, for up to 13 years. Physically, the classroom utterly destroys posture and movement patterns because the human body is designed to move regularly. If you have ever witnessed the grace of movement of a village African who has never been to school, then you know this too.

Sensorily, the best classroom is devoid of stimulus compared to nature and this exacts a heavy cost by dramatically curtailing the child's learning opportunities as well as stifling the development of its sensory capacities themselves. Have you ever been awestruck by what an indigenous person raised in a natural environment can learn from a smell, a touch or a breath of wind, or how they can track an animal?

Intellectually, the school classroom offers a mind-numbingly boring and incredibly limited range of topics all taught in lock-step as if each child was identical and had the same interests and learning rates.

Most importantly of all, however, the school classroom helps to destroy children emotionally because it requires the child to be submissively obedient to its teachers. This means it must consciously and unconsciously, all day, every day, fearfully suppress its awareness of the feelings that evolution intended would guide its behaviour at that time, including those that would guide its self-directed learning.


Do you remember being stuck in a classroom, feeling utterly bored while staring out of the window wishing you were running around free outside?

The problem is that as we grew older our fear made us learn to suppress our awareness of our feeling of boredom, which was telling us an important truth about how we were spending our time. But this feeling of boredom (as well as the fear that suppressed it and the anger that it 'acceptably' represented) still lives deep in our unconscious playing an unconscious part in shaping our behaviour even today (including by making us able to 'tolerate' a host of other boring activities, including those at work).

Many other suppressed feelings are similarly stored. If you had the power, what do you wish had been your childhood now? What do you want for our children?

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Do you think your street and neighbourhood could be a community? If you would like to consider one model for this type of future, which takes into account ecological imperatives, you are welcome to consider participating in 'The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth'.

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About the Author

Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach, State University of New York Press, 1996. His email address is and his personal website is at

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