What is it that school does for us? What if we decided to take learning into our own hands?

Schools give us permission to learn. Formal institutions of education justify expenditures of time and money for the pursuit of one’s own interests. When you tell our partners, friends, or coworkers that you need to spend Saturday in the library because you’re taking a class for a degree, you earn support and respect. Tell the same people you are going to the library to explore a topic of passion, and you may be asked to do something else. Family functions, chores, commitments to work and friends all seem to take priority over our own learning and personal growth. When we go to school, we allow ourselves to commit to learning tasks with diligence, guilt-free passion, and with few interruptions.

But wait a minute . . . what happens if we go to school, but then don’t finish the degree? Are all our time and energy wasted? And what happens when we do finish the degree? Is all our learning, and the permission to devote our lives to learning, over? What if we created our own community of support for our learning? What if we claimed learning as a value? How might we create our own structures of support for this learning?

In school we honor commitments so we can get things done. We sign up for classes with deadlines and grades that provide feedback for doing what we said we were going to do. A promise made to ourselves for personal self growth never seems to hold the weight that an obligation to an instructor or advisor at an institution holds. Debt, transcripts, and the “permanent record” bear witness to how we hold up to our promises.

On the other hand . . . how often do we fulfill commitments to school that have nothing to do with learning? How much of our degree programs reflect our own lifelong goals?

The institution is held accountable to your success. Instructors, advisors, and administrators succeed only when we, the learners, achieve. The interdependence guarantees a community of support.

On the contrary . . . how often do students, as individuals, feel that faculty is accountable to them personally? Do contracts hold instructors to their word toward individual students?

We develop relationships with teachers, advisors, and others who know more, and who are better connected than we are. Experts, some of whom would otherwise have nothing to do with us, are willing to teach, advise, mentor, and publish with us in formal academic settings.

Is it possible that we could network with experts and practitioners in authentic settings other than school? Unless my goal is to establish a career as a lifelong academic, wouldn’t I be more fully engaged, raising deeper questions, building more authentic relationships with a broader network by learning outside of school?

Is it possible that these experts would take me more seriously if I approach them directly as in individual interested in learning rather than hire them indirectly through an institution like school?

We have much to do and little time. In life, learning is messy, hit-and-miss, and unpredictable. In school, part of the promise is that learning will be condensed, streamlined, and efficient. Much of the work of education, i.e. figuring out who we are, what to learn, how to learn, and what to do, is already done for us. Preprocessed curricula await our speedy consumption. No need to ask distracting questions, reflect on process, or risk self-doubt. We just have to gobble it up, swallow it down, and make sure somebody pays the bill.

But what if what we have to learn takes time? What if what we don’t mind getting messy? What if we’re naturally slow and don’t mind savoring challenges or taking risks?

Achievement is measurable. Well-defined timelines and sequences mark progress. As learners, we know we’re getting somewhere when we earn credits and reach other indicators of our success. We can measure and compare our rates of success on bar graphs easily communicated in bulleted formats such as resumes and Powerpoint presentations.

What if what you want to learn is not measurable? And so what if what you want to learn is measurable? What happens when you reach your goals? Do you then stop learning?

People smarter than you will read and critique your work. Teachers and others will read your work, offer feedback, and even help proofread your drafts. Reading work in process is their job. Besides, more than likely, your teachers aren’t your friends. You can pretty much trust that their feedback is honest and relatively unbiased.

So, why not contact smart people directly? Why not contact the leaders in your field of study and offer to pay them their going rate as a consultant?

Schools offer identity and social credibility. “He’s a student.” “She’s a grad assistant.” “I’m a Harvard PhD.” Our academic titles let others know that we’ve had to suffer for what we know. Even as children, schools defend us when we’re asked how we’ve been spending our time.

So why not just tell people you’ve suffered for your learning. For example, how does this sound “My name is Patricia Kambitsch, and I may not have my MFA but I’ve suffered even more than if I had one.”

Schools offer access to information. Knowledgeable people tell you their stories in classrooms. Research groups rework old information and uncover new knowledge.

Hold on. . . Thanks to technology, libraries, and open source courses and syllabi, information is plentiful and cheap. No longer can we use information as an excuse to go to school.

As students in school, we not only have a place to go, but a place to stay. Most campuses encourage loitering by design, Libraries furnished with carrels for the serious, include couches for the sleepy. Landscaped courtyards and quadrangles shade benches and maintain Wifi hotspots. Student unions and cafeterias don’t mind if you pack a lunch or bring your own tea bags. You’re allowed to be there.

8 thoughts on “Why Do It Yourself? A Manifesto

  1. John Verity

    Assume you have read Deschooling Society, by Illich. If not, run don’t walk. It’s available here and there on the Web, but probably best read as a book – slowly, for it is full of wisdom and radical insight that take some time to digest. Easily one of the most important books of the past century (he said with his usual pomposity.) Seriously, it is worth a look, or two.

  2. Kaia

    It would be interesting to get the perspective of some professors and teachers on these points. I am sure many, if not most, of them see serious problems with the institutions and structures they work within (and they’ve probably given these problems a great deal of thought too!).

  3. Patricia Kambitsch Post author

    “trust that the dots will connect”

    “being a beginner again”

    “you’ve got to find what you love”

    “don’t settle”

    “remembering that I’ll be dead soon”

    “stay hungry. stay foolish”

    Thank you for posting this!

  4. Patricia Kambitsch Post author

    How true. I come to slow learning, in part, as a reaction to my experiences as a high school and elementary teacher in US public schools. While I don’t think that the answer is to throw all the babies out with the bathwater, some of our babies are better off learning outside the institution.

  5. Kaia

    Ah…in your bio you mentioned “educator” but I did not realize you had been a teacher in schools. It is interesting that in your writings here you seem very strongly to be speaking from the perspective of a student — was that a conscious choice?

    I guess most teachers and professors tend to focus on how to fix the system (and probably despair of it even being possible) rather than considering what could occur outside the system.

  6. blancheellis

    Great blog.

    Point 1 here is one I’ve been wrestling with for a while – as a self -teaching artist, I’m encouraged to go to art schools to speed up the process, become employable for my trade asap. I’m also encouraged to do it for the paper degree I’ll need to get a job teaching anyone how to move a pencil or combine colour.

    I feel that with a slower approach this may take me five years, or ten from now and am ok with that, in fact the slowness of it makes me feel calm as i have always felt i ought to be moving faster however fast i go. The slow approach is like having my eye fixed on a mountain and knowing that however long i take, it will still be there, and that’s the important thing.

    I work on learning my trade more hours than most institutions would require and I seek out those around me whose work or approach i admire and observe, talk, ask. I’m aware that as with many things this may plateau at some point and taking a course can be one way to break through a barrier – to consistently address a problem/block or idea with a group and perhaps an experienced artist to guide…. but I find it ever so much more important that I know how to learn by myself, how to seek learning in the world, as i will do that for the rest of my life hopefully not a year or two.

    I find myself stunned and frustrated by how narrowly people think of learning. They want to know where i study – and when i say i am not they are surprised… those who care for me most quickly begin to point at institutions and list the points above. After a while though i am getting used to explaining that I am self-teaching – that this is valid, cheaper, and, yes, far more messy and interesting..

    sorry to rant – i like your blog very much !

  7. Patricia Kambitsch

    Good for you, Blanche! It’s good to have others to witness your learning journey too. Are you in communication with others who are also on a similar learning path? You can be a slow learner and have many teachers, too.

    Thanks for your kind words.I would love to hear more about what you’ve been learning.

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