Originally published in Life Learning Magazine
Many a time, when one enters a discussion with someone who opposes unschooling, or when you read a critique about life learning, the opposition takes up the queste of “The Things You Have to Know”. Because, they argue, formal schooling will need you all these things you cannot go through life without, which you wouldn’t learn if you were solely guided by interest.
They’ll offer a list of things like national anthems, historic facts, the complete work of this or that author, trigonometry... Writing them all in capitals and making them seem like Universal Knowledge You Cannot Live Without.
Let me tell you something about Universal Knowledge. It is true that there are things in life that one must know in order to survive. I guess we can call them universal knowledge. Things like fire is hot and rain is wet, if you stand in the cold barely clothed, you’ll get sick... but these are all things a child acquires long before he enters school and are not taught. The child learns these by experience (believe me, there are many children who have to experience the cold/barely dressed/sick cycle before they will believe it). Everything a child learns as he steps over the threshold of The Irreplaceable Institution That Is School is trivial and negotiable. It is also all very dependent on the specific institution the child will be attending, the teacher and the country in which the child is born.
Surely, there are some things all schools try to teach their pupils that are part of this Universal Knowledge, like colors and shapes, but these are things a child either already had a notion of, or would learn on his own when decently surrounded.
- National anthems are just that - national - and I can show you an entire nation where hardly anyone knows the national anthem, that nation is my own, that of the Belgians. The last time we had a prime minister, he even started singing another country’s anthem. Patriotism isn’t an Indispensable part of character, we all live well without it and aren’t lesser humans or ignorant wits without it.
- History again, is highly dependent on where you are. Indeed, history is in the eye of the beholder. (The same goes for Geography, another topic that is often described as Knowledge You Cannot live without) There are a great many things I know about history, but they are probably incomparable with what someone from another country knows about history - and often even the things we claim to know are deeply flawed and shaped by Eurocentrism or Western Imperialism (think about the discovery of the world - for instance). So is anyone who comes from another part of the world and knows another part of history well a nitwit? Or are they excused because they have a different nationality? What then with expats and travelers?
- Knowledge of this or that author is another concept that is highly dependent of culture. And whenever this topic is raised, I can’t but think of an anecdote a friend of mine told when returning from a year of schooling abroad in the States: one of the students asked her (a Belgian girl) if we too have famous authors like they have Shakespeare. Notably, the US formal school system isn’t that great at teaching children about this or that author either (nor are they about geography as another student asked her if Belgium was the capital of Brussels).
Now I am a big fan of knowledge and I find it neat to ‘know things’, but I have met many a person who went through university flawlessly who didn’t know what an antilope is or who thinks “Je te Flouff” is French for I love you. They are highly functioning, respected citizens now.
Aside from the very rudimentary, there is no Basic Knowledge All Must Know, so why not fill your head with things you actually need and things you are actually interested in, no matter if anyone thinks you are just a nitwit. Simply because of our different interests, there will always be someone who thinks your knowledge is less than theirs, mostly because they don’t understand or don’t care about what you’re interested in.