Junk Yard Education

Reading: Chapter 7 (“Learning Webs”) of Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich, 1971.

This week we were challenged with the task of considering a “deschooled society.”  Illich writes,

We must conceive of new relational structures which are deliberately set up to facilitate access to [educational] resources for the use of anybody who is motivated to seek them for his education.

The first of these networks provides “reference services to educational objects.”  This section, specifically the notion of understanding machines by dismantling them, reminded me of one out-of-school childhood experience.  If an appliance broke in my house, my dad would give it to my sister and me instead of tossing it out.  Armed with a handy set of screwdrivers and pliers, we proceeded to destroy the thing, learning a bit about how the item worked in the process.  In particular, I remember doing this with a hair dryer (which, in fairness, is a pretty boring thing to tear apart).  With each new piece of junk, my sister and I began to understand “how stuff works,”  or at least “the pieces you needed to get stuff to work.”  We never bothered to put the appliances back together – destruction was much more fun.

Broken appliances that can be opened, prodded, and dissected with a screwdriver are potential teaching tools for elementary school aged kids.  To my knowledge, there is no classroom unit on “junk.”    Further, we would need to use “old junk.”  As Illich points out, modern junk tends to be impenetrable – would you rather take apart a rotary phone or an iphone?  A typewriter or a laptop?

And on the other end of the spectrum — putting things together — there are some great “build a bike” programs (including one in Providence, RI) where you learn how to assemble your own bike and get to take home the final product.  Maybe as a kid you learn how to take junk apart, and as an adult you learn how to put it back together?


2 thoughts on “Junk Yard Education

  1. So true about “new things” being much more difficult to take apart. iFixit’s teardowns are fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying because we learn that much of our fantastic modern world is put together with glue!


  2. Yes! Agree that disassembling is empowering and that creative destruction can be an imperative. And I love the recycle-build-a-bike program as a network of educational objects. One of the key resonances I return to in Illich is the idea of de-centering expertise and focusing on the practical — it’s an oddly rich way of appreciating the bootstrapping qualities that make the web so powerful — small pieces loosely joined (http://www.smallpieces.com/index.php).


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