Education & Philosophy

Jane Roland Martin: Learning Happens Everywhere

Jane Roland Martin is Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her books include Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman (Yale University Press, 1985), Cultural Miseducation: In Search of a Democratic Solution (Teachers College Press, 2002), and Education Reconfigured (Routledge, 2011). Dr. Martin composed this essay as an orginal contribution to the Ikeda Center website in 2010.

A century ago John Dewey repudiated the idea that education is reducible to schooling. School, he wrote in Democracy and Education, is “one important method of the transmission which forms the dispositions of the immature; but it is only one means, and compared with other agencies, a relatively superficial means.” (1)

A full fifty years have passed since the highly acclaimed historical studies of Bernard Bailyn and Lawrence Cremin underscored Dewey’s point that school does not have a monopoly over education. In Education in the Forming of American Society Bailyn showed that the major educational agencies in the U.S. colonial period were the family, the local community, and the church and that school played a relatively minor role. (2) In The Transformation of the School and The Genius of American Education Cremin made it clear that neither Thomas Jefferson nor Horace Mann — both enthusiastic supporters of schools — considered school to have a monopoly over education and he cited the newspapers, book publishers, television stations, and youth groups that had sprung up in the 19th and 20th centuries as agencies that educated the public. (3)

It is close to forty years since social critic and analyst Ivan Illich compared the reduction of education to schooling to the reduction of religion to church going. Both school and church divide social reality into two realms, Illich said in his iconoclastic Deschooling Society. As the one distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, the other separates out the educational from the noneducational. As the church names itself the sole guardian of the sacred, school appoints itself keeper of the educational. (4)

What has happened to the 20th century’s bit of wisdom that education is not to be equated with schooling? I cannot speak for other nations, but in the U.S. today headlines about the sorry state of education are inevitably about the sorry condition of school, debates over educational reform focus on how to change school, and it is taken for granted that the mission of departments and boards of education is to oversee school systems. Has school at long last become our one and only educational agency? Are home, local neighborhood, and religious institutions really no longer sources of learning? What about the workplace and the military, television and the Internet, talk radio and the mall?

When you stop to think about it, the reduction of education to schooling is absurd. It presupposes that children who arrive in school are blank slates yet anyone who has been either a parent or a child knows better. It implies that a person’s education is over once he or she graduates from high school or college. But once again, anyone who has looked for work, traveled abroad, been married, had children, gotten divorced, lost or gained religion, experienced the death of a loved one — or, for that matter, anyone who goes to the movies, watches television or is a member of Facebook — knows better.

That we think only about school, hold only school accountable for the next generation’s learning, and pour resources only into school instead of into the whole of education is also ironic. Admittedly, school takes up a goodly portion of most children’s time, (5) but childhood represents a comparatively short period of a human life and, at its end, children leave school behind. In contrast family, neighborhood, religion, government, corporations, the workplace, and the media are likely to influence an individual’s learning over the entire life span.

Historian Patricia Albjerg Graham has intimated that we embrace the false equation between education and schooling because it is easier than facing reality. “Certainly school can be influential,” she says, “but even more significant in youths’ development is the education they receive in their homes, their communities, and through the media. Those influences, while more important, are much more difficult for a society to regulate, and thus our attention remains upon the educational institutions, whose policies we can regulate but whose practices are vastly more difficult to change.” (6)

School is but one of the myriad educational agents in our midst.

Jane Roland Martin

School is but one of the myriad educational agents in our midst. Life would indeed be easier if “multiple educational agency,” as I call it, were not a fact of life. (7) We could then fix school and, voilà, our children would learn exactly what we want them to learn: no more and no less. Since, however, school is but one of the myriad educational agents in our midst, we ignore the existence of all the other educational agencies in our culture at our peril. In the first place it is self-defeating to focus solely on school when other educational agencies may well be hindering, if not actually subverting, the achievement of such widely accepted goals of schooling as literacy, numeracy, and knowledge of science and history. Furthermore, in turning our backs on the miseducation that is being transmitted in the “cultural surround” we place democracy at risk. (8)

Here are just a few examples of that miseducation. In the first decade of the 21st century the author of one best seller called liberals “ ‘the enemy within our country;’ ‘an enemy more dangerous than Hitler’; ‘traitors’ who are ‘dangerous to your survival’ and who ‘should be placed in a straightjacket’.” A talk radio host whose listeners numbered in the millions told a gay man, “You should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How’s that? Why don’t you see if you can sue me, you pig. You go nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage. You have got nothing to do today, go eat a sausage and choker on it. Get trichinosis.” An equally important radio personality reported that Muslims “don’t eat during the day during Ramadan. They fast during the day and eat at night. Sort of like cockroaches.” Yet another repeatedly called the National Organization of Women “the National Organization of Whores.” (9)

Reporting on this scene, television journalist Bill Moyers said plaintively, “God knows the price we pay when we turn political opponents to be debated, into mortal enemies to be eliminated.” It does not require omniscience to know that the price of repeatedly passing down to millions of people a worldview that equates Muslims with insects, gay men with garbage, and women who seek equality with whores, and turns those with whom you disagree into traitors is the democratic miseducation of a significant portion of a citizenry. (10)

One of the most heralded school reform movements of recent years in the U.S. has been to hold school accountable when it does not bring about the desired level of learning in the areas of reading and math. However, from an educational point of view every culture or society actually has not one but two obligations. One is to pass down to future generations the culture’s wealth or assets — the knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, worldviews, and patterns of behavior it considers beneficial and holds dear. The other is to refrain from passing down the culture’s liabilities — what it considers harmful and unworthy. In the spirit of accountability, should we not also then be holding our educational agencies accountable for the undesirable learning they bring about — be it hatred, greed, dishonesty, disrespect for the rights of others, a tendency to bully or, for that matter, a scorn for the very cultural wealth that school is trying to transmit?

The question of how to go about holding educational agencies other than school accountable for contributing to the miseducation of our children and ourselves is not easily answered and will certainly be hotly contested. Yet how can we even begin to do so if we do not acknowledge the existence of multiple educational agency; if we continue to deny that whatever else homes, religions institutions, neighborhoods, corporations, the media, and all the rest may be, they are also agencies of education? Of course the mere recognition that school is not our one and only educator — indeed, is not even the most powerful one of them all — will not solve our educational problems. But at least we as a culture can then begin to see the larger picture: namely, that education happens not just in school but everywhere, that it takes place not just in childhood but throughout our lives, and that it can be the making or the breaking of us both as individuals and as a culture.


1. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1961/1916), p. 4.

2. Bernard Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society (New York: Vintage, 1060), pp. 17-18.

3. Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School (New York: Vintage, 1961); The Genius of American Education (New York: Vintage, 1965).

4. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

5. I want to stress that I speak here of the U.S., not the world. In many places, initiatives to ensure that young people, especially girls, receive even a minimum of schooling are only just beginning. See Nicholas D. Kristof, “Dr. Greg and Afghanistan,” The New York Times, October 21, 2010, p. A31.

6. Patricia Graham, Schooling America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 6.

7. For extended discussions of multiple educational agency see Jane Roland Martin, Cultural Miseducation (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002) and Education Reconfigured (New York: Routledge, 2011).

8. I derive the phrase “the cultural surround” from John I. Goodlad, In Praise of Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997), p. 23 and John I. Goodlad, Corinne Mantle-Bromley and Stephen John Goodlad, Education for Everyone (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), pp. 33-4.

9. “Bill Moyers Journal,” Public Broadcasting System, July 24, 2009.

10. Historically, one of school’s assigned functions in the U.S. has been the education of democratic citizens. For an extended discussion of school as an “induction center” for democracy as a way of life and a place to learn how to combat this kind of miseducation see Education Reconfigured, Chapters 7 and 9.