Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.3) - Animated by Animus? Romance? Both?

Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.3) - Animated by Animus? Romance? Both?

The Free Learning Rules scenario and its advocates seem to be motivated by a kind of romantic anarchism - a blend of idealistic romance about freedom tinged with some hostility toward schooling. In its extreme, this is a losing strategy.

The previous post discussed another downside of the Free Learning Rules scenario: education is not the same as learning.

A third downside of the Free Learning Rules scenario is admittedly a more subjective one on my part. I can't help but feel that the whole Free Learning Rules initiative has a certain subtle but distinct subtext to it: Think “1970s” -- yes, in fact we have all been here before (as in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's 1970 classic "Deja Vu"). There seems to be two sides to this subtext -- a romantic one and a hostile one. The romantic side essentially proclaims that web and related technologies are revolutionizing learning to the point where education is really no longer necessary. Anyone can learn; everyone can become a teacher; learning is now so open. Hearing any CSNY in your head yet ("must be free...teach your believe and ...make a world...we can live in")?

Or maybe what you're hearing is more like Jefferson Starship (" drop your [expletive] bombs, burn your demon babies, I will be again!"...) before they went all commercially gooey ("..if only you believe in miracles, so would I..."). The hostile side seems to be directed most strongly at schooling and its attendant elements such as curriculum, as evidenced by the Ivan Illich mini-revival currently afoot. Best known for his 1970 book Deschooling Society, Illich is cited approvingly by books by Curt Bonk & Anya Kamenetz, and blogs from well-known practitioners such as Jay Cross and Stephen Downes among others. The hostility is usually indirect or subtle, but the intent is clear, as indicated by a commonly-quoted assertion from Illich: "...the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school...Universal education through schooling is not feasible." Translation: schooling and its related ills keep us from being free learners -- the operative and most-frequently used word of course being "free."

When I encountered this particular meme while reading Bonk's and Kamenetz's books, I found myself rifling through my bookshelves and pulling down yellowing paperback copies of old familiar chestnuts from the period -- Illich, Goodman, Rossman, Farber, Silberman (where is my Freire?), and others. After an initial rush of familiar outrage (because to some extent I may be projecting a lot of this), my feelings settled back to a familiar refrain -- "we have all been here before." Because in fact the issue now is the same issue as it was then: how does one define "free"? It's not nearly enough to proclaim the virtues of freedom -- that didn't work 30 years ago, and it won't work this time either, Internet or no Internet. Or more cynically: been there, done that, still have the T-shirt in my rag pile.

The label "romantic anarchists" comes to mind, as it combines the gauzy idealism with the hostility toward authority. Whether or not it fits, the idea behind it is that FLR advocates seem to lose perspective. For example, consider Bonk’s summary of The World Is Open as a “proclamation” that “anyone can now learn anything from anyone at anytime.” Taking this statement literally is not only unrealistic but highly problematic. Can I call up Donald Trump and have him teach me how to become a billionaire? Next week? How ‘bout now? Great. Uh oh - someone made a dirty bomb and launched a chemical attack on my city using knowledge “offered freely and openly for anyone to use” -- oops there goes my fortune and my life...

In the real world, we have to deal not so much with the issue of being "free" as with the boundaries between openness and closedness -- for example, the boundary cited in the previous post between Carnegie-Mellon's Open Learning Initiative resources as education vs. resources as learning. Simply proclaiming free learning as ascendent and educational structures as obstacles is a losing strategy. We don't need to make that mistake again. Some FLR advocates are trying to define what a "free(r)" educational system might look like. So far, I haven't been impressed -- the emphasis IMO seems to be largely on the "free" part and not much on the "structure" part. More castles in the air, and the lack of foundations was why Illich's ideas failed to gain much traction 40 years ago. The web by itself does not make the difference; to think otherwise is again to oversimplify education's complexity and its societal importance.

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