Principles that guide us in our effort to educate for “good life” in the “age of extinction”.
“The modern school sells the curriculum,” says Illich, and the result of the curriculum production process looks like any other modern staple product. The distributor/teacher delivers the finished product to the consumer/pupil, whose reactions are carefully studied and charted to provide research data for the preparation of the next model. Unlike this, our school has no curriculum. There are certain important topics (Autonomy in times of Extinction; Mutual Aid, Friendship & Love) that are being explored throughout the year at ISSA. But there is no certificate anyone will get, except for the experience of being part of the School, learning and sharing new skills, and being obliged to disseminate the knowledge throughout the world.
Deschooling doesn’t mean we don’t cherish education; on the contrary, it is precisely because we think education is so important that we need deschooling. One of the main lessons of deschooling is that formal educational institutions, through their reliance on a pre-planned curriculum, performance measurement, and certification, teach young people to recognize their position in a hierarchical society in which the only route to a successful life is to passively consume what is offered. Deschooling first and foremost means denouncing the monopoly that traditional educational institutions have on education and learning, while at the same time it means deconstructing the current social order and constructing a different one.
No Teachers, No Masters!
As critical pedagogy has shown, learning is the human activity that least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is in fact not the result of instruction but rather of unhindered participation in a meaningful setting. “A major illusion on which the school system rests is,” says Illich, “that most learning is the result of teaching.” Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.
Our whole society is based on quantification. With the current digitalization and automatization of everything, education has become even more dependent on the ultimate quantification, namely, the Algorithm. When everything – including our imagination and our desires – is being measured or even pre-programmed by the Algorithm, the only way to break out of this deadlock is by embracing a different model of relating to the world and work. Specifically, a model that is not based on quantification, a model that accepts failure as a necessary part of the learning process, and an attempt to create social structures that are outside of the logic of capitalism and the “time is money” dogma.
In a conversation on Jerry Brown’s old radio show, Illich observed that in classical society, hospitality was “a condition consequent on a good society in politics.” Today, however, he believed that it “might be the starting point of politics.” “But this is difficult,” he added, “because hospitality requires a threshold over which I can lead you, and TV, the internet, newspapers, the idea of communication, has abolished the walls and therefore also the walls of friendship, the possibility of leading somebody over the door. Hospitality requires a table around which you can sit, and if people get tired, they can sleep… I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied, it would be hospitality. A practice of hospitality involves recovering threshold, table, patience, and listening, and from there generating seedbeds for virtue and friendship on the one hand. On the other hand radiating out for possible community, for rebirth of community.” The School of ISSA will cherish hospitality as one of its fundamental values.
According to Peter Kropotkin, if we were to ask Nature, “Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” We would get the answer: “Those animals that acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.” It is precisely these animals that attain the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization; it is also these animals that have the highest chances for survival. There are plenty of examples in the animal kingdom, from the organization of ants and bees to the migration of birds. It is the poetry of Mutual Aid that we need today more than ever. If birds that have lived for months in small bands scattered across a large territory can gather in thousands and travel thousands of miles in peril, why is it so difficult for humans – and is it possible? – to put on a similar massive display of mutual aid in times of pandemic and climate crisis?
Recovery of Memory
Today, when historical revisionism (the process of rewriting history and turning fascism into a legitimate discourse and reality) and “presentism” (the deluge of instant and fake news) are captivating every short memory, the words of Walter Benjamin will be our guiding light: “The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.” We’re starting from the island of Vis with a recovery of memory, not in order to glorify the past but to shed light on its unfulfilled potentialities – from the ancient polis of Issa to the antifascist struggle and El Shatt, but we will also be learning about previous climate change events that created this Adriatic archipelago so that we can be better equipped for the ongoing climate collapse that we are facing today.
Henry David Thoreau said in Walden and it still holds true today, “Children who play life discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is, by failure.” There is no such thing as real education or real life without play. Even if the situation is dire, or precisely because it is dark, play shouldn’t be thought of as something that distracts our attention but should be encouraged, both in education and in life. It is a well-known fact that learning through play enhances both social and cognitive skills. In other words, education – both teaching and learning – if it wants to be successful, has to be fun. ISSA will be fun.
When you visit the island of Vis, it is impossible not to encounter the word “pomalo,” whether on the local market or when speaking to the fishermen; it is both a greeting meaning “take it slow” and an island philosophy of how things can get properly done or how to react in utter crisis. Instead of worrying about problems we cannot solve, we have to focus slowly on problems we can solve in the “here and now,” and perhaps, in the near future, even the big problems won’t be unsolvable anymore. The philosophy of “pomalo” is clearly connected to the original Greek meaning of the word “school,” namely skohle, meaning “leisure.” Also, Thoreau mentions it in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “Can there be any greater reproach than idle learning?” “Learn to split wood, at least.” Only in an environment that is not the victim of our current dictatorship of time might there be a chance for taking it slow, both in thinking, questioning, and learning. It is precisely during moments of “leisure,” as the ancient Greek philosophers and Thoreau well understood, that truly new thinking can be created. Or take the example of Newton, who caused a revolution in physics when an apple dropped from a tree while he was forced to move back to his childhood home during the outbreak of the bubonic plague.
Last but not least: even though the School of ISSA is placed on an island, we do not believe that islands still exist. Climate crisis, war, and the Algorithm are already affecting all places in the world, and their effects will only spread further. Yet, we believe that it is necessary to learn from various practices and experiences of autonomy and that it is possible – and crucial – to try to build and re-invent autonomy today. Why “social autonomy”? Because the “dissemination of self-organized knowledge,” as Franco “Bifo” Berardi says, “can create a social framework containing infinite autonomous and self-reliant worlds,” we cannot govern the entire force of the global mind, but we can master the singular process of producing a singular world of sociability.” “This is autonomy today.” In other words, our School is based on an island, but we’re already part of an archipelago of similar social re-inventions across the planet.