The Dangerous Self-Delusions of Self-Directed Education

Half the work of abolition is dismantling existing structures and systems — slavery, prisons, schools, the state itself — while the other half is about building something to replace them. As a school abolitionist, I find common ground with all sorts of ideologues, from unschoolers to community educators to the keepers and preservers of indigenous knowledge.

Because I recognize the purpose of schools as engines of reproduction, my focus is less on institutions themselves than on a reorganization of society which prioritizes the needs of people over the accumulation of capital, which works with rather than extracting from the natural world, and which enables us to be in right relationship to each other.

This represents a critical divergence point between school abolition and the countless flavors of education reform, even those claiming a liberatory intent. One of these is “self-directed education“, which in spite of its recognition of the predations of schooling, offers little substance to replace the school models we agree should be abandoned. For the purposes of this essay, I will use “self-directed education” when discussing the practice, and “SDE” to refer to the so-called “movement” emerging from it.

I agree that young people should have choice and agency within their educational experience, but there is a simple truth that humans often take for granted, particularly those in Western societies in their preoccupation with individualism and “personal liberty”. Which is that we are meme machines, predisposed to copying, remixing, adapting what we learn from others. This means “self-direction” does not happen in a vacuum, that whatever young people choose, whatever their interests, these are each informed by their social and environmental contexts, and most often by their parents.

My primary point of contention with SDE has been my understanding that without explicit intervention by people (these need not always be adults) with more knowledge/experience of the world (and with that possibilities outside of existing systems), self-directed young people stand to inherit the ideologies, values, practices of the wider world. It is clear to me that they will not self-direct themselves to alternatives to capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism, because they have no frames of reference. Nor, for that matter, do most adults in our society. 

An additional issue has to do with the creation of the child as a discrete class of people, as sites of social reproduction, rather than as contributing members of the family and society. Black “emancipation” and child labor laws created an imperative amongst the ruling elite for everyone else’s children to be “schooled”, interpellated into a subordinate position in relationship to capital — that is the owners’ capital accumulation. 

In our “free” society, schooling became a replacement for the development of material and social skills young people once learned in community, through apprenticeship, through experience with the natural world. In order to maintain schooling as an institution, these young people’s needs are provided for by parents, by the state, other external agents, and further mediated by the mechanisms of production (i.e. the supply chain). This allows young people, especially the racially and/or economically privileged young people overrepresented in SDE spaces, to exist in a bubble wherein they can choose — or “self-direct” into — activities far removed from what’s essential to their survival. 

When I contemplate the ideal of children with agency, as equal members of families, communities, society, I recall the story of Binoojiinh, a Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg child, as told by Leanne Simpson in her book As We Have Always Done.

In the story, Binoojiinh is tasked with collecting firewood for the family. Along the way, their natural curiosity leads them to discover the technique for tapping maple syrup, not by “self-direction”, but by learning from an expert — in this case, a squirrel, who they recognize as a member of their family. When they struggle to reproduce the technique, it is the belief and support of their family which encourages them to persist. At no time during Binoojiinh’s story, do they learn in isolation, or in ways external to their relationship and responsibility to family, community, and the land. The skill they ultimately acquire is not merely a passing interest, but of immediate material benefit.

I am moved and inspired by the idea of learning taking place organically, as the experience of living, in right relationship to family, land, community, and the planet. However, within a capitalist society, the mechanisms of production — also the mechanisms of extraction and exploitation — mediate a young person’s ability to learn in such ways.

Just as capitalism obscures the means and modes of production that provide for young people’s needs, so too is their impact on, their power within, and their responsibility for people and the planet, hidden from sight. When presented with the “choice” of whether to merely continue to “play”, or to build the skills and capacities for being active participants and contributors to community, they will almost always choose the former, because of how their privilege insulates them from the necessity of the latter.

That is, until such a time as those external mechanisms break down — as in the case of global pandemics, climate change, warfare, mass immigration, political turmoil enough to destabilize the state altogether. For the socially and economically privileged, these possibilities seem distant, and indeed they may be amongst the last to feel the impacts. 

Meanwhile, poor, working class, Black, Brown, Indigenous — often operate purely in survival mode, because they don’t have the luxury of “self-direction”, a reality made clear to them by their proximity to collapse — due to manufactured scarcity, environmental racism, displacement, state violence. And yet these young people are no better prepared, because the precariousness of their daily lives forces them to hew closely to systems which barely and only intermittently provide for them, and because schools only prepare them to reproduce the same. 

While there is value in refusing to participate in such a coercive institution as the school, there’s an old saying that you can’t be neutral on a moving train. Abolition implies both destruction and creation. While SDE offers an alternative to schooling, it presents no legitimate challenge to the broader society and the systems which schools reproduce, nor does it offer young people any of the skills, tools, or knowledges required to create something better.

SDE advocates cloak themselves in the trappings of liberation, using vague language which, like the fictional currency on which their delicate world depends, has no foundation or basis in material reality. They cherry-pick terms without fully grappling with the implications, or the enormous amount of work required. From the website for the “Alliance for Self-Directed Education”:

The landscape of Self-Directed Education encompasses parenting, living, community-building, deschooling, decolonization, disruption – as practices toward youth liberation. When we say youth liberation, we are talking about the liberation of all young people. As young people take back their original freedom of self-direction, a commitment emerges not just to the abolition of coercive educational practices, but of all systems and ways of being that seek to demean, diminish, and oppress people.

Decolonization? Abolition? Liberation? These words are merely co-opted as symbolic gestures — made in the abstract — toward the overlapping crises these same people will be last to experience. At the same time, its proponents invoke the identities of those most impacted, in a rhetorical nod to solidarity backed by none of the actual labor. SDE advocates claim to be a “movement”, yet offer young people and their families none of the actual tools or resources required for movement work. This makes SDE, as a “movement”, little more than a vanity project, and a dangerous one at that, for how it leaves room for the reproduction of the existing order under the pretense of liberatory practice.

In reality, SDE is not so much a movement as an idle position occupied mostly by people contemplating and re-evaluating their relationship to school, while doing nothing to push back against the existing order — white supremacist, individualist, extractivist, exploitative, capitalist, imperialist —  five hundred years of sociopolitical inertia reinforced by a continuum of state violence. It is a fantasy, one that only certain people have the luxury of entertaining, and even then only temporarily, in the face of emergent and cascading crises.