Our Broken Compass: Unlearning Education as Schooling in a World Gone Awry
by Ijeoma Clement-Akomolafe
My name is Ijeoma (It’s funny how I still cringe when I say my name – still a long way to go) – this is an Igbo name from eastern Nigeria that means “safe journey”. Safe journey through life! In a way my name is indicative of departures, straying away from the familiar, blessings from the community that sees the traveller off, and new horizons. In Imo state, Nigeria, where my dad’s from, it’s customary to bid adieu to travellers by saying “Ijeoma”.
My mother, an Indian-Iranian-English woman, and my father, a Nigerian, met each other when my father was an engineering student in the Tamil-speaking city of Chennai in southern India. I did most of my growing up in this Indian city with my sister, Ifeoma – especially after our father passed away. We were strange kids everywhere we turned up. In Nigeria, we were glamorized because we looked different, because our hair was longer, and our faces foreign. In India, people also had difficulties identifying us: our hair was a different texture than their straight hair; our skins of a different hue; our heights unbecoming for the much shorter girls we studied with.
In school I was the odd one out. Most of my ‘friends’ laughed at me. I knew the only way I could eventually gain visibility was to be so good at what I did that no one would laugh anymore. So I studied hard. Really hard! And it worked. I graduated from College the very best student, went on to complete a Master’s and MPhil degree, and lecture in a prestigious university in Nigeria, conducting important ethno-pharmacological research into addressing the scourge of malaria on the African continent. I made my mother proud; I remember, she would mutter to her visitors that I was going to be someone great. That I was going to be big. I knew my achievements gave her a sense of deep satisfaction – the kind of inner completion only a mother can know, especially a mother who has fought hard, poured buckets of sweat and toiled for her children after my dad passed away. In Nigeria and in India, we say “education is the best legacy”. With that we affirm the same truth my mother already knew from her bones: that the only plausible way to care for one’s child was to guarantee that child a seat in school.
This is so dramatically evident from the large queues in front of most kindergarten admission offices in India, where you would find parents with large sums of monetary donations standing with their kids, born and unborn, to secure admission into prestigious play schools, so that their kids may gain automatic admission into their sister primary and secondary schools.
I still vividly remember my aunt bringing me an admission form to one such prestigious school for Alethea, saying she knows someone on the board and that if I submit early she would be able to secure admission for my daughter. Alethea’s age at the time? 7 months…in my belly.
So it might not surprise you to know that when I held my daughter for the first time…when I looked into her clear bright eyes, and touched her tiny curly locks, I knew I couldn’t send her to school.
Let me explain by telling you a story. A story my dad told us when we were kids. A story about cracks, splinters, failure and new beginnings.
In West Africa, the tortoise and the spider are favourite trickster figures. The story I tell you has to do with the tortoise. It is said that at one time, tortoise’s shell was smooth and glistening, not as it is today. What happened then?
One day, during a lengthy famine period, when all the animals were in danger of losing their lives because the ground wasn’t yielding food, the tortoise wandered about and happened upon an excited but secret gathering of birds in the middle of the forest. They were animatedly chattering about an upcoming party in the sky that was – you know – strictly for the birds. There was going to be food aplenty and drinks abundant. They were going to have fun. Tortoise eavesdropped on their conversations, hidden away by the tall grass. When the birds departed, he knew he had to find a way to get into the heavenly party. He hatched a plan: he would go to each bird and borrow a feather. A feather from the eagle. A feather from the sparrow. A feather from the starling. A feather from the crow. A feather from the blabbering parrot. And then he would attach all these feathers to his desperate little body and gain the power of flight.
It turns out his calculations were spot on. Each bird blushingly loaned him a feather, listening to his promise to return them back after he had finished studying what made them so beautiful. At home, tortoise glued the feathers to his arms while his wife and children watched him, stunned and bewildered. When the moon was brightest, tortoise joined the departing party and flew upwards towards a colourful cloud where the party was already in full swing. Knowing the traditions of the birds, and anticipating the proceedings, tortoise introduced himself at the pearly gates as “All of you”.
When the king of the birds declared the table open for eating, as tradition would have it, he took aside a portion to himself, saying “this is mine to eat”, adding that the rest was for “all of you”.
“That’s me!” Tortoise screamed, as he took large servings of the great food for himself, much to the annoyance of the birds. And this is how it went all through the evening: tortoise ate so much that his body swelled up in his shell, and he was three times as heavy as when he arrived. The angry birds made to leave when the party was done. Tortoise, on noticing he couldn’t quite lift himself, asked a fellow bird to go to his wife below, urging her to bring out all the pillows and soft things so he could fall into their soft embrace. The bird, realizing it was tortoise all along, flew swiftly to his wife, and urged her to bring out all the hard stuff in their home. His wife complied, gathering stones, rocks, sticks and sharp objects into a pile. Peering through the clouds, the tortoise looked down at the fuzzy pile, satisfied that his wife had followed his instructions, tortoise let himself fall.
No need to state what is by now obvious: tortoise’s shell splintered into a hundred pieces. It was only by the mercy of a few friends and the ingenuity of the village healer that those pieces were able to come together again, giving tortoise the figure he retains till this day.
Like tortoise, we are living in times when the familiar is losing shape, splintering into strange fragments. The old falling away. A perverse falling away from high heavens. A coming down to earth to meet our own skins.
In India, schooling came to us via colonial infractions. The desire was to civilize our savagery and save us from our own primitive backwardness. Charles Grant, a British parliamentarian, Christian evangelist and Chairman of the British East India Company, in his writings in 1792, stated that “What is offered, is no more than a proposal for the further civilization of a people.” With the British occupation came the need to tame the natives into submission and create an extension of empire. Thomas Babington Macaulay, a Whig politician essayist and secretary of war, would later insist that there was nothing in Indian indigenous educational spaces that were of any real value in an emerging modern world. In the now famous Macaulay Minute Upon Indian Education, dated February 2, 1835, Lord Macaulay wrote: “We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language…it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the West. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us…Whoever knows that language has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. It may safely be said that the literature now extant in that language is of greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together.”
He would vigorously implement programs that displaced indigenous languages and installed English as the medium of instruction – the shadows of which still plague our education system, where punishment and monetary fines are imposed on our children for speaking their mother tongue (or “vernacular”), not just within their classrooms but also in the playground. Our own logic, our ways of noticing the world, our histories, our imperatives, and specific desires were thus occluded in favour of a universalism we had to adhere to.
The metaphysics of schooling was that the world was outside, that we could create an apolitical space for the efficient approximation of this external world, and that schools presented the most disciplined approach to reaching knowledge as is.
As you might expect, our economies and politics changed shape in line with this adjustment to our new educational realities.
India today – as well as Nigeria – is entangled in the catch-up imperatives of seeking global accreditation, of trying to live up to the ideals of Macaulayism.
The rhetoric of education is that it will civilize and create happy citizens, give us good technology, grant us the best life possible…if we do the hard work of modelling our schools after factories and our children after the products factories belch out of their manufacturing lines. But our children are dying. Our languages are melting away. Our lands are being eaten up and the children who went to school are expelling their parents, their cultures and the wombs that nurtured them.
In short, we were given a compass, a direction, a path to follow studiously. But today, with climate change, income inequality, ecological devastation, the spectre of fascism, and the loss of biodiversity, many are slowly being given the capacity to question our commitments to those stubborn path-pointing devices. The maps we’ve been given are meeting a terrain they were not designed for.
You see, today the terrain of our lives is instigating new awarenesses. As the doomsday clock shifts closer to midnight (signalling that our efforts at mastery are failing), as jobs either fail to guarantee existential satisfaction or fail to meet the manifold demand for them, as income inequality rises (which means that more and more people are working harder for less), and as formal education loses its visage as an apolitical, neutral, non-gendered space of learning, we are slowly coming to grips with the contours of our impasses.
This is not a trivial matter; it seems we are in the middle of a spiritual crisis: we are asking what it means to be human now, why money feels so central to our lives, why work is the only metric of character and if character is even something we should aspire to.
The more cities rise to make room for the ‘educated’ the more we are losing our abilities to feel for each other, to touch each other, to know the world in different ways.
The impact on our children is also clear. With the urgency to rise to the occasion, to meet ‘global’ standards, has come a frantic tightening up of standards and regulations. And with increased standardization has come greater pressures to succeed, to carve out a workforce that could compete in the global workplace of the 21st century (as if today’s ‘deadlihoods’ were something inherently beautiful to aspire to). Because school was ‘invented’ on the ideal that humans can prepare for the world by creating a zone outside of the world, it is not widely appreciated that what most traditional schools actually do is to nurture a politics that works to brand people as failures who don’t comply with a very impoverished notion of learning and its fluidity. As Peter Gray says, schools are not for learning, they are for showing off grades.
In India, students climb walls to earn seats in examination halls in order to gain high-paying jobs. Their parents hold the whips that ensure they keep reading at all times, even after school hours. Universities are seen more as businesses that sell grades and pressurize teachers, well-intentioned as they are, into surviving a system that allocates merit in ways that do not honour the learners. It is no wonder that in India, one student commits suicide every hour – with over 26,000 student suicides since 2014, and about 10,000 in 2016 alone.
Could this all account for the changing face of education, and why, even traditional education is losing its gilded edges? Yes, today some universities are now offering free open learning courses – putting content online; home-schooling and alternative educational paradigms are going mainstream; and, Youtube now seems a more effective learning environment. But, seen from a large picture point of view, the ‘deeper’ lesson is that the world that was the condition for industrial schooling has slipped away: the world has never been and will never be faithful to any one ideology about it because the world is indeterminate, emergent, chaotic and complicated.
And so is learning. In the fever of transformations occasioned by environmental shifts, technological consequences, and dramatic social and political upheavals, we catch a glimpse of our own children – as if for the first time. We are learning to meet them – and ourselves anew: for instance, there is growing appreciation that our kids are not just ‘tabula rasas’ or passive recipients of instructions, and that children are not ‘stunted adults’ needing discipline. Not only are kids able to do well sometimes without regulation, they actually learn with keen curiosity and are desirous of meeting their worlds. Some studies even show that self-directed kids who are unschooled generate more varied responses in a test of creative imagination than students who were entered into the school system. In the celebrated ‘Hole in the Wall’ study in New Delhi, India, by Sugata Mitra, slum children taught themselves how to use a computer without supervision – a feat that surprised the researchers. It seems that as the very structure of society undergoes dramatic shifts – with Twitter becoming political battleground, with computerization destabilizing traditional notions of personhood, with swift travel and expedited migration making it difficult to identify people in neat ways, with jobs falling apart, with development and progress becoming contested concepts in the face of climate trouble – the very nature of childhood is changing. And what it means to leave a legacy of hope behind can therefore not be the same.
Deciding with my husband to unschool Alethea was a decision made difficult by the contexts we have lived in. For many in our community, it was a foolish thing to do. They raised all kinds of questions:
“What about jobs?
How would she learn?
Who will be her friends?
What about certificates and crucial life skills? Are you going to lock her indoors all day? How would you measure her achievements?
Your son too? No! Don’t say that you are going to subject your boy to this madness too? You really mean you are not sending him to school? I mean, we can understand the girl, but the boy as well?
Won’t they both grow up to be useless?
Shouldn’t you listen to the experts who know better? Don’t you think it is a bit unfair that you went to school but now deny your child the basic human right of education?
And if they don’t go to school, how will they fill American visa application forms that require you to show evidence of schooling?”
I have spent countless hours articulating responses to questions like these, noticing how truly powerful the concept of school is – so powerful in fact that it is difficult for people to imagine life without the organizing force of school. They cannot imagine what one would do with kids all day (sometimes even I get to a point of hair-splitting frustration with my kids that I begin to understand why outsourcing kids to schools seemed like a brilliant idea!).
Some of my responses – which I had to learn and investigate – have been that our work culture does not encourage creative expression and that I want my child to grow up in a different kind of world and encounter the world with a different mindset. To the accusation that we are stopping my daughter from learning, I often respond by sharing my own surprise that Alethea is learning things that we never could have anticipated – and that, with regards to stuff she doesn’t know how to do yet, it might even be healthier for her to discover it herself and in community. I’m sure in good time, she will pick up certain skills as and when she finds the need for them. I have seen it happen with her and other unschooled kids.
To the inquiry about her friends, I share that it is schools and its class structure that created the impression that children should speak mainly to their peer groups and look up to authority figures; we have been amazed watching Alethea navigate intergenerational groups with the kind of audacity that would make us blush. She has friends of all ages and is comfortable interacting with anyone she desires to. She constantly strays away from our table at restaurants to engage with other patrons, with an ease that almost embarrasses us. On a side note, at the airport in Burlington, she strolled up to some kids selling cookies, put her arms around one of them, prompting all of them to retreat. She walked back to me: “They probably had a lot of work to do”, she quipped. “They probably did,” I added.
To the query about sociability and the acquisition of ‘critical skills’, I also respond that the imperative of standardized measuring tests to ascertain performance is a function of states in their quests to create obedient citizens – and that we are learning to encourage Alethea to fail freely and generously, to embrace awkward moments and not shy away from them. To see herself not as an independent entity but as a part of a complex web of becoming, with radiating arms of support all through the Universe.
And to the culture-specific anxiety about not sending a boy to school, where one might be free to ‘experiment’ with girls, I rudely dress my son in pink clothes and tell those who care to listen that we didn’t decide to un-school Alethea because she is not a boy, we decided to because we love her – but mostly because we are immersed in times that are producing new attitudes and decolonial ways of approaching education.
If all I have said feels utopian, distant, far-fetched and implausible, I do not blame anyone. To most people I share our unschooling practices with, it feels like speaking butterfly language to caterpillars. This is not to disparage those who are still schooling their kids, or to create a false dichotomy of superiority.
In fact, I would like to say what mainly defines our practice is a clumsiness and a graceful awkwardness that often unsettles us, leaving us at the edges of our nails and our seats worrying if we are doing the ‘right thing’. Indeed, this is what it means to be in crisis: it means we can no longer hold on to something supposedly ‘universal’ and ‘fundamental’ anymore; it means we have to learn to live in the meantime. In this liminal place of failure, of experimentation, of departures, of tears, of shared grief, of play, we are coming to be part of new geometries of touch: unschooling is not a confident new tool – a new methodology, a new means to the same ends. It is a straying away from the usual algorithms. It is departure. It is asking new questions. It is reaching out to touch the sun, much like the way a little flower reaches for the sun. There is no hope for arrival, but maybe learning to make do in the middle is just as well. And maybe that is the kind of humility our troubled civilization needs to have – to be able to say we don’t know…we haven’t figured this out.
I want to say that I do not come here with a gospel of unschooling; this is not an invitation to shut down schools everywhere, to frantically force new paradigms where none want to emerge. Such confidence and universalism is surely what has gotten us into our many crises in the first place. What I come to you with is a “story of small”. A tale of little. A story of the insignificant. An idea of the multi-ethicality of the world. An account of radioactive possibilities emerging from forgotten soils.
Thankfully, we are not alone in our practice. In India, there is Swaraj University up north, in Udaipur – a project that looks nothing like any university you know. Without certificates, degrees, stabilized disciplines or grade point averages, Swaraj University is designed in the spirit of decolonization – with a heart for play, for mentorship, for dropping out and in, for storytelling circles where people are encouraged to share embarrassing feelings our modern world pathologizes. Swaraj is not the only one: there’s the Ecoversities project, networking irreverent new takes on education from Brazil to Costa Rica to Zimbabwe and Portugal.
And this May, I am initiating a project called Broken Compass – an unschooling project that will invite parents to share with kids, a place of play, a place of straying. No grades. No assignments. Just a community of seekers who are learning to hold each other as the world changes us. Who are learning to look into each other’s eyes as the lights go out. Who are learning to play with our children.
In conclusion, unschooling is really about meeting a world of material limits, learning to fade away in a culture that denies death or tries to look away from its mortality, and learning to find the magic in a world where the small is endangered by invitations to everyone to expand indefinitely.
The story here is that the compass bequeathed us by our once-lords fell on the hard road one day, and we lost our way. We were distraught for a while, for how else do we locate the wonderful place our former masters had told us about? We slumped in the wilderness – and then something unexpected happened. Our children noticed the forest around us. The dead stump of a tree suddenly seemed like a good place to sit for a while. Someone threw a pebble and it made music as it hit the walls of a cave and got lost in the shadows. The low-hanging branch of another tree inspired us to remove our shirts, spin them into ropes and contrive swings. Upon climbing the trees, the new strange terrain opened up even more to us – allowing us to see rivers with gleaming pebbles and proud mountains in the distance. How come we had never seen any of these before? How come our search for and commitments to the highway blinded us to this beauty around us?
Unschooling is really about us – those of us over-achievers who still have the wounds of our excellence. Those of us now opening our eyes to the otherwise in the edges, to a new regime of possibility.
I still have plenty questions. I do not know a lot. But that’s okay. There’s beauty in not knowing.
At least this is what I am learning from Alethea.
Riding through the city of Chennai on my scooter some time ago, we came to a stop where kids in uniforms were nearby. Alethea looked long and hard at them. Why are they dressed the same, mama? Because they go to school dear, I replied – careful not to paint this fact in bad light. I asked her: would you like to experience this? Would you like to go to school to study? She shook her head. “No thanks mama. I don’t want to study, I want to learn.” The audacity of that response still baffles me.
Even my mother is slowly coming round. Once the greatest defender of conventional education, she is becoming one of our midwives of new possibilities, as she herself begins to notice the miracle that is her grandchild. And for all its worth, once in a while, I catch a glint in her eye, a quick remark, a sparkle in her eye as she looks proudly at me, one mother to another, one legacy to another. She must be proud of me because I am living my name, ‘Ijeoma’: I am straying from the expected.