School’s out

In a world of Gustavo Esteva was an IBM executive and adviser to the president of Mexico before joining the guerrilla freedom fighters in Chiapas. Several years ago he had to bow out of a meeting with a group of us because the rebel leader Subcommandante Marcos was in town and needed Gustavo’s advice.

Reclaiming our freedom to learn

“We learn better when nobody is teaching us. We can observe this in every baby and in our own experience. Our vital competence comes from learning by doing, without any kind of teaching.”

The people in the villages know very well that school prevents their children from learning what they need to know to continue living in their communities, contributing to the common well-being and that of their soils, their places. And school does not prepare them for life or work outside the community.

After the exercise, a very practical question came to the table. We have learned, with the Zapatistas, that while changing the world is very difficult, perhaps impossible, it is possible to create a whole new world. That is exactly what the Zapatistas are doing in the south of Mexico. How can we create our own new world, at our own, small, human scale, in our little corner in Oaxaca? How can we deschool our lives and those of our children in this real world, where the school still dominates minds, hearts and institutions?

The most dramatic lesson we derived from the exercise was to discover what we were really missing in the urban setting: conditions for apprenticeship. When we all request education and institutions where our children and young people can stay and learn, we close our eyes to the tragic social desert in which we live. They have no access to real opportunities to learn in freedom. In many cases, they can no longer learn with parents, uncles, grandparents—just talking to them, listening to their stories or observing them in their daily trade. Everybody is busy, going from one place to another. No one seems to have the patience any more to share with the new generation the wisdom accumulated in a culture. Instead of education, what we really need is conditions for decent living, a community.

In Unitierra we have been fruitfully following a suggestion of Paul Goodman, a friend of, and source of inspiration for, Ivan Illich. Goodman once said: “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side won, and you had the kind of society you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now! Whatever you would do then, do it now. When you run up against obstacles, people, or things that won’t let you live that way, then begin to think about how to get over or around or under that obstacle, or how to push it out of the way, and your politics will be concrete and practical.”

cf John Taylor Gatto