My high school football coach, a real salty old fellow, was a wellspring of quirky aphorisms. Of all the things he ever said, there was one phrase which still rings in my head to this day. Like most of his other pithy colloquialisms, you’d likely hear this one just before the team took the field for a game: He’d gather the team in a huddle, his eyes fixed in a steely gaze, and declare with a raspy twang, “Mens [sic], you know what you know.”
You know what you know.
Had the year been 2010 and not 1991, me and my fellow teammates might have wondered silently “wtf?” in our heads after hearing this strange, awkward phrase. Mens, you know what you know. Part of the amusement of it was hearing coach re-pluralize “men” into “mens,” as he often did, but the rest of it just left you wondering: “You know what you know?” Incidentally, it’s somewhat strange to be told you do, in fact, “know what you know,” which we did (and we knew it). And so that quirky saying became a kind of a team mantra, a reminder that we could take the field with confidence remembering all we had done during the previous week of practice, and simply let our bodies and minds react on the field reflexively like musicians playing music without thinking of the mechanics of their instruments.
You know what you know.
You probably see where I’m headed with this … So as I’m pondering Illich’s “Learning Webs,” I hear it again: You know what you know. Taken in another context, this could be a very bold statement about learning, the self-directed kind (and bear with me as I attempt to make a leap from my old football coach to Plato). I think what my coach said in five words was perhaps more eloquently summarized (or not?) by the dialogue that took place between Socrates and Glaucon in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:
[Socrates] But then, if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes.
[Glaucon] They undoubtedly say this, he replied.
[Socrates] Whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good.
[Glaucon] Very true.
One night I was layin’ down
and I heard mama and papa talkin’
I heard papa tell mama,
“Let that boy boogie woogie,
It’s in him, and it got to come out.”
And I felt so good,
Went on boogien’ just the same.
It’s in him, and it got to come out … You know what you know … the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already. Finishing up “Learning Webs,” I began to realize that Illich is not telling us something we don’t already know about our educational system (Gisele El Khoury’s post provides a good summary of Illich’s most salient points); and while I’m tempted to fixate on his condemnation of education and how we’ve gotten it wrong, I’m more distracted–and inspired–by the very optimistic assumptions that undergird that condemnation: That all of us have the potential to find our own way. We know what we know. It’s in us, and it got to come out. How meaningful and exciting self-directed learning can be.
If, like Plato, we accept that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already, then the job of the educator becomes strangely simple (and liberated, in my view): One moves from being a teacher, the “expert,” to facilitator. Educators can let go of that expectation to be sages on stages and simply turn “student’s minds toward what is real and important and allowing them to apprehend it for themselves.” As Illich writes, this is the only way for educators to maintain credibility anyway:
As masters of their art abandon the claim to be superior informants or skill models, their claim to superior wisdom will begin to ring true.
It’s hard not to agree with Illich’s concept of deschooling, but I will say that it misses a large point. Maybe I’m reading him wrong, but it seems the concept of deschooling assumes that the best learning should (or does) occur in schools to begin with. For the Christian, personal epiphanies are less likely to take place on Sunday morning than they are in, say, the produce section of H-E-B; likewise, our best learning epiphanies, those “a-ha” moments, are as likely to occur outside of school than inside, but maybe that’s precisely what Illich is getting at.
(Note: Just for the record, I never had a writing assignment in school that instructed me to find similarities between a football coach, Plato, John Lee Hooker, and Ivan Illich. That just happened on its own.)