Imagination versus memorization in education

The Triune God of the Bible has declared that His thoughts are not our thoughts, and that to be able to live in accord with the reality of the universe that He has created, we need to think His thoughts after Him.  This highlights a tension between memory and imagination.  God’s complaint is that “The Lord saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5) … “for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).

Rushdoony (2008), commenting on the Songs of Moses (Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 90), writes:

There is a contrast in our text between imagination and memory.  Men must not trust in the imagination, because it reflects their fallen history.  God’s appointed servants must discipline and teach, so that man’s memory is mindful of God’s works, covenant, law, grace and mercy.  The issue is between educational approaches stressing memory versus those stressing imagination.  To stress imagination means to believe in the child’s or person’s creative powers, whereas to emphasize memory is to maintain that the future must be built on the knowledge of the past under God.  Knowledge is not manufactured anew with every generation.  It is a growing structure based on biblical premises, whereas modern education is deliberately rootless and barren (Rushdoony, 2008, p. 491).

There are windows of opportunity in a child’s life, where memory and repetition are fun.  If you miss those windows, then it is harder to develop a discipline of memorization later in life.  Home-based education should include sessions of memorization, of things like: Books of the Bible, names of the Patriarchs and the Apostles, significant historical events, and their dates (Bishop Ussher’s (2003 [1658])  Annals of the World is helpful with this) — i.e Creation, Deluge, Tower of Babel, etc. — Creeds and Catechisms, countries around the world and their capitals, local mountain ranges and rivers, and many other things.

An education is much more than memorization, but at the same time must include memorization.


Rushdoony, R. J. (2008). Commentaries on the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy. Vallencito, California: Ross House Books.

Ussher, J. (2003 [1658]). The Annals of the World. U.S.A.: Master Books.


What about Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)?

The Bible does not teach rights.  There are no stated or implied rights anywhere in Scripture.  The Bible does teach, however, responsibility and privileges.  The Biblical argument is: “If you obey… then …; if you disobey … then …”  Privileges are withdrawn when responsibilities are not taken up.  It is possible, for a time, to claim privileges whilst shirking the corresponding responsibilities.  However, God is not mocked.  Sins committed in private will eventually be shouted from the rooftops, if not repented of.

The claim to rights, however, is to clamor for the privileges without reference to the corresponding responsibilities.  A rights orientation will always lead to conflict in the marketplace.  As one claims rights, then it will be at the denial of privileges to another.  For example, when a woman claims the right to control her body, and by exercising that right she has the baby in her womb murdered through the process called abortion; by exercising her right, she has denied the privilege of life to the baby.  None of us have a right to life, and the Bible indicates that there are instances where God will reclaim our privilege when we have neglected to fulfill our responsibilities (murdering – neglecting to show respect for another’s privilege to enjoy life – for example).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that … “parents will have the right to choose the type of education they want for their child” (article 26).  In a rights oriented society, this may be helpful, in the short term, to obtain liberty in home educating.  However, it is not a long-term solution to the problem of civil resistance to home-based education.  The long-term solution has to be through the conversion of the general population until there is a majority who upholds the sovereignty of God and accepts His sovereign will, as expressed through His Law.  Parents have a responsibility before God to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  This is accompanied with the privilege of choosing for themselves, under God, the method of fulfilling that responsibility – which may include home-based education; enrolment in a local, privately funded, Academy; or tapping into a network of experts throughout the community who assist with the God-given responsibility.  No one has a right to state-funded education.  The satisfying of that so-called right, is to deny others the privilege of stewarding the blessings that God has given them through labour (i.e. taxation to pay for state-funded education is stealing from parents the capacity to fund the education of their own children).

We have a lot of work to do, but we are to be encouraged by the promise that it is the “Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”.

deschooling, Discipleship, Education, Education Delivery Programs, Ivan Illich, Socialization, Teaching, Unschooling

Reflections on Illich 22: Unschooling and a flexible learning web: the dangers of age-segregation in schools

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 93  “The inverse of school would be an institution which increased the chances that persons who at a given moment shared the same specific interest could meet–no matter what else they had in common.”

One of the important defining characteristics of school and schooling is age-grade segregation.  Age-grade segregation is justified on grounds of socialization and child-development theory.  It is argued that children need to be exposed to peer-relationships so that they can learn how to relate to a cohort of children their own age.  It is also argued that all children pass through development stages at the same time, and therefore they need to be related to, in an age-appropriate manner.

These two presuppositions are fallacious at several points.  Firstly, God placed children into families.  In most cases, families grow at the rate of one child at a time, with significant age intervals between each child.  God is wisdom personified.  The only wise God, our Saviour, would not ordain a process that is fundamentally flawed.  Therefore, I argue that the best learning environment is not age-segregated, but multi-generational, with a broad range of ages represented in the learning environment.  I have worked in schools for 25 years.  I can speak with a measure of authority.  I have worked in Christian schools, state schools, private schools, schools for Aboriginal children, and the common factor between all these schooling contexts is that age-segregated children degenerate to the lowest common denominator.  Children crave attention.  If they cannot get it from the overworked teacher, they will look for it in their peers, and the peer that they usually crave attention from is the coolest dude–the naughtiest kid in the class.  Their socialization is downwards through the pressure of wanting to conform to be accepted–even in the case of a good family, good kids are dragged down, in the school context, and many good families have lost their children to the pressures of socialization in schools.  In an inter-generational, multi-age learning setting, the child will look for attention from the strongest role model–their socialization is upwards, into the lifestyle of the patriarch of the learning environment.

Secondly, children are not equal.  There may be general growth phases, but not all children reach the same milestones at the same time in all areas of growth.  To presuppose equality of development, will lead to holding back of those who are ready to move on in some areas, and forcing outcomes from those who are not ready in other areas, and generally trying to squeeze the cohort of children into a teacher-determined mediocrity.  In this context, none of the children are fully developed in any of their strong areas, many of the children are crushed because too much is expected of them in their weak areas (and as a result of the crushing they lose confidence to learn in their good areas) and every one has the desire to learn taught out of them.

Home-based education that is firmly grounded on unschooling principles, with a discipleship emphasis, is the best means of establishing individual learning needs in children.  If there were local Flexi-Learning Centres scattered around the country, then a register of learning opportunities could be kept so that children could be connected with an appropriate local custodian of specific knowledge sets, skills, and experiences.  Those who gather around this local expert will be there because they want to learn, not because they are of the same age.  Such learning contexts may include multi-generational learners, and a distribution of a wide range of ages.  No one should be excluded from learning simply on the basis of age.  Older learners will be there to help younger learners, and learners who teach other learners will enhance their own learning–a fresh look at peer tuition.


Certification, deschooling, Education, Education Delivery Programs, Ivan Illich, Schooling, Schools

Reflections on Illich 21: Schools militate against the reality that we are not all created equal

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 92  “At their worst, schools gather classmates into the same room and subject them to the same sequence of treatment in math, citizenship and spelling.  At their best, they permit each student to choose one of a limited number of courses.  In any case, groups of peers form around the goals of teachers.  A desirable educational system would let each person specify the activity for which they sought a peer.”

In his essay, ‘Human Variation and Individuality’, from the book, The Twelve Year Sentence, H. George Resch (1974) argues that there is no such thing as equality in the universe.  At every level, every human being, and every other created thing, has stamped upon it individuality.  The modern mantra of equality spits in the face of reality.  We are not created equal.  We should not be treated equally.  The expectation of equal outcome from equal opportunity is a hollow expectation.  It is demanding greater and greater resources for lesser and lesser result.

Those who espouse equality despise the Sovereignty of God; they despise the idea that God has fore-ordained and pre-determined all things–including our roles and functions in society.  It is true that some have used the idea of ordained roles and functions to suppress others and appoint them to positions of slavery.  This is a perversion of the doctrine of Sovereignty.  “For freedom Christ has set us free, … do be not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” Galatians 5:1 teaches us.  No, God is an infinite God, and He has created  an infinite variety in expression of the roles that He has ordained.  This means that individuality needs to be nurtured, encouraged, and allowed to become an expression of expertise.  This means that each person requires an intimately individualized education track.  Sure, there will be core skills that many will share.  However, not everyone will need all of those core skills to be the best that they can be in whatever it is that God has created them to be excellent in.  Mandating core skills will inhibit the growth and development of some for whom such skills are not appropriate.

The educational paths of individuals should touch and part, mingle and separate, and trace a learning dance across the community.  Some will learn some things from this person, but then learn different things from a range of other people, in totally different contexts.  This dance of learning will be encouraged and facilitated by parents, but be tempered with a consideration of the interests, gifts, passions, calling, abilities and other marks of individuality within the student.  It cannot be centrally predetermined.  It cannot be centrally administrated.  It cannot be centrally certificated, regulated, and controlled.  It is an expression of the creativity and providence of the Infinite Triune God.

Certification, Education, Ivan Illich, Teaching

Reflections on Illich 20: We need to consider the wealth to be gained from deregulated teaching in the marketplace

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 91  “To guarantee access to effective exchange of skills, we need legislation which generalizes academic freedom.  The right to teach any skill should come under the protection of freedom of speech.  Once restrictions on teaching are removed, they will quickly be removed from learning as well.”

Freedom can only be found in the Lord Jesus Christ: “For freedom Christ has set us free; …” (Galatians 5:1).  It is the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the Law of God which provide the constraints around freedom that prevents it from becoming license.  To legislate for freedom, without first ensuring there is a change in heart of the majority in the community, is only to entrench greater and greater measures of license.  So-called academic freedom in the west has morphed into an unchecked attack on truth.  Academic freedom has come to mean the proclamation of anything, without accountability.  Being that, as it may, laws concerning libel and slander and inciting riot do place a measured check around license, therefore political censorship of all speech is contrary to the freedom that Christ has offered those who believe in Him.

Furthermore, the notion of rights under girds all kinds of aberrant lifestyles and behaviours.  The Bible knows nothing of rights.  The Bible teaches privileges and responsibilities.  Those who bear their responsibilities enjoy the privileges that come with them.  Those who shirk their responsibilities lose their privileges.  Without such a balance, the claim for rights, without a corresponding check, leads once again to unrestrained license.

Having said all this, the point that Illich makes concerning the deregulation of teaching is a valid one.  Teaching should not be limited to those who hold a state-issued license.  The issue of false and dangerous teachers can be addressed with laws that prohibit the propagation of ideas that incite violence, riot, and promote degenerate and immoral lifestyles.  The free exchange of ideas is an important part of community growth and development.  New ideas, that are tested and weighed against old values, when they survive the debate, and blossom out of the trials, can lead to better conditions and enjoyment of life.  New ideas should not be feared, simply because they are new.  Untested, and unchallenged ideas cannot be embraced without due diligence.  A free education market is the best place to ensure that such ideas do get considered, debated, trialed and either embraced or rejected by the community.

It is the narrowing of curriculum, through the centralization of curriculum choice, that does the most damage to education.  Centralized curriculum is indoctrination, not education.  A free education market will guarantee a much broader  curriculum in the marketplace.  Local decisions will adjust curriculum to local need, and the sharing of educational content between communities will ensure that the best of ideas are generally accessed.  This will allow individuals to follow their gifting, their passion and their interests more fully, ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to become an expert in something.  This will result in a much wealthier community that is served by a plethora of experts in a hugely diverse range of knowledge sets, giftings and skills.

Education, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Teaching

Reflections on Illich 17: Don’t wait to be taught: have a go and learn.

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 48  “School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.  Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition.”

It has been very painful to watch someone I know struggle with the helplessness that they feel because their schooling has instilled in them that unless they are taught, they cannot learn.  Actually, this is the condition of a number of people that I know.  They have been schooled, and they have been schooled exceptionally well.  These people live less than satisfying lives because they are always blaming their lack of knowledge on not having been taught such and so.  It is a debilitating condition to be in.

I remember that I did not really start learning to drive until after I had been given my driver’s license.  I was taught the basics, but the real lessons came from repeated practice on the open road, and having to learn how to adjust to the unpredictable as it came in my ongoing driving experience.

A proper education is like this.  At the beginning we do need to be taught some basics, such as: moral precepts, decoding/encoding skills, mathematical tables, and some basic historical, geographical and scientific facts.  However, if we are spoon-fed beyond the basics, then we lose the capacity to self-learn, and as a consequence become dependent upon others to teach us.  Those who have been institutionalized by schooling and its spoon-fed learning model, are not able to cope with the learning opportunities that life throws up at them.

The best context for learning is to have a go, fail, consider the lessons that can be learned from the attempt, then have another go with better insight.  To wait until someone teaches you, before having a go, means that you are ever learning, but never arriving at the truth, or never learning at all.

Certification, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Teaching

Reflections on Illich 16: The best learning takes place when contextualed, not from instruction in a hot-house

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 40  “Most learning is not the result of instruction.  It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.”

This comment by Illich does not negate instruction.  Clearly, instruction is an important part of the learning process.  I am a teacher, and instruction is one of the things that I do.  I cannot help myself.  It is how I am wired.  However, it is the insistence that all instruction must be conducted by a state-trained, state-certified, state-registered and state-monitored teacher that is the issue in question.  Classroom teachers are not the best people to instruct children.  Parents are.  Second to parents are the experienced custodians of relevant knowledge.  And these are often not the state-trained teachers, they are the practitioners in the field who have years and years of practical experience.

Just recently I heard a story from a friend who is a qualified Engineer.  He holds a Masters degree in Engineering.  However, he has discovered that in his field, the best custodians of relevant knowledge are the long-term tradesmen.  He told me the following story:

A newly graduated Engineer (not the one telling the story) was put in charge of a project.  The Engineer instructed a tradesman to implement a course of action.  The tradesman said to the Engineer, “It will not work.”  The Engineer over-ruled the tradesman, because of his qualification.  The tradesman then did what the Engineer told him to do.  The project completely failed and wasted a large amount of money and resources.  The tradesman was asked, “Why did you think it would not work?”  The tradesman replied, “Because I have been working in this field for a very long time, and I just knew it would not work.”  The Engineer’s mathematics, calculations, book learning, examination passing, and credentialing was no match for the knowledge gained from practical experience gained by working in a field for an extended period.

Yes, there are things that we would like people to have theoretical knowledge about before they start practicing: vital organ surgery, for example.  However, simply being instructed in a field, and being exposed to a lot of theories, does not replace hard-earned, long-term practical experience.  Credentialing often creates a pride that blocks learning from those who have worked in the field, but who do not have the pieces of paper hanging on the wall.

Being exposed to a relevant environment, where real work is being conducted, is often the best context for receiving instruction, especially when that instruction is being delivered by someone who has mastered his field over a long period of time working in the industry.

Discipleship, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Unschooling

Reflections on Illich 09: Learning in life ensures that education is relevent and real

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 23  “A deschooled society implies a new approach to incidental or informal education.”

In a formal schooling situation, learning is standardized and presented as a curriculum.  However, much of the learning that takes place is learning for examinations, not learning for life.  Very little of what is learned for examinations is retained beyond the examination.  In fact, a whole lot of self-learning usually needs to take place, after schooling has finished, for young people to become useful in a vocation.

On the other hand, learning in life (expanding knowledge from the events, situations and opportunities that present themselves as you go about daily routines) ensures that learning is anchored in reality.  This incidental and oftentimes informal learning is usually the learning that remains.

At this time, society tends to give more value to formalized school learning.  However, those who have been unschooled, and especially those who have been unschooled with a discipleship emphasis, will prove to be the most useful and adaptive participants in the broader society, because their learning is relevant, and much more anchored in reality.

Ivan Illich, Literacy, Schooling, Teaching

Reflections on Illich 04: Why so long to do such simple stuff (and then get it wrong at the end of the process)

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

pp. 13-14  “There are very few skills that cannot be mastered by intensive drill over a relatively short time at a cost far less than the cost of 12 years of schooling.”

My initial training in schooling was as a Primary Teacher.  I have qualifications and experience at every level of schooling: Diploma of Teaching (Primary), Bachelor of Education, Master of Education (Leadership), Doctor of Philosophy (Education) and Certificate IV in Training and Assessment (Vocational Training of Adults).  I also have training in the teaching of reading and writing: a Certificate in the 4S Literacy Program, a Certificate in Spalding Phonics, and an Advanced Certificate in LEM Phonics.

I have taught at all age levels from Pre-school, through High School, vocational education for post secondary students, and have tutored a very large number of university students, helping them with their undergraduate studies.

I have taught in cross-cultural contexts people from a very large range of ethnic and language backgrounds: from China, Taiwan, Korea, Maldives, South Sudan, Singapore, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and other places.

I have worked with Australian Aboriginal students, particularly from the Warlpiri nation, both in and through English and in and through their native language, Warlpiri.

I think I know a little about what I am talking about when discussing education and schooling. 

Well, when I ran a small tutoring business, providing help to illiterate children and adults who had been going to school for many years, or who had left school after many years of attendance, it amazed me how very short a time it took to get the students to independently read and write using an Intensive Phonics method.  I had one student, who had been ascertained Level 7 Learning Disabled, who had an attention span of only 2-5 seconds in the classroom, who could not read and write by the end of primary (elementary) school. Over a four-week period he developed an attention span of up to 20 minutes a session, and wrote beautifully crafted words, correctly spelled, in properly formed sentences, and then was able to read them back to me accurately.

Why couldn’t seven years of primary schooling produce the result that I was able to produce in four weeks?  I have the dated befores and afters in my files, for anyone who wants evidence.  And yet, repeatedly, I have been persecuted, bullied, and forbidden to use in my school classrooms the techniques that I used successfully in my tutoring business.

Anyone can teach children to read and write.  It does not take a long time.  It does not require complex resources, and years of study and preparation.  I can teach anyone who wants to learn, how to teach their child to be an independent reader and writer in a matter of moths for a younger child, and in a few weeks for an older child.  It is not hard.  It is not a mystery, and it does not take four years teacher-training, and then 12 to 13 years of application in a school (and even then a very large number of school graduates cannot read and write) to produce the results.

There is something wrong with schools–no, there are lot of things wrong with schools–and one of those things is the length of time it takes to do badly what really only should take a short time to do well.

Ivan Illich, Teaching

Reflections on Illich 03: Teaching is not all there is to learning, and it is not restricted to schools and schooling

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 13  “A … major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching.  Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of leaning under certain circumstances.  But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, … has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.”

In my dissertation (pp. 122 – 136) I argue that the office/ministry of teacher has a place in a society.  However, teachers must function in their teaching roles as marketplace entrepreneurs, under the instruction of church officers, and engaging parents directly with free-market contracts.  There must be no compulsion in the contractual relationship, no age or time restrictions and no restrictions to location. 

Teaching has a valid role to play in the education of a student, but there must not be a prescription around who is to be the teacher at what particular stage in the student’s educational journey.  This must be determined by the parent, in consultation with the child (in the case of older children).  But there should be no impediment to others being involved in the teaching events.

When the compulsion is taken out of the equation, then teaching events also become learning events.  When young people are engaged in things that they have a passion about, then they will be much more receptive to the teaching that is taking place — if teaching is what is needed for learning to occur.

It is true, most of the real learning that takes place is after the teaching has ceased.  I think of driving a car, for instance.  When I wanted to learn to drive a car, I sourced a driving instructor (a specialist teacher of a specific skill).  This was a family friend who was willing for me to learn to drive in his car.  He was not government trained, not government certified, not government supervised.  He simply had a skill that he was willing to share with me, and my parents contracted with him to teach me what he knew.  When he finished teaching me the basics, then I obtained my driver’s license, and then commenced to learn how to drive.  It wasn’t until I was allowed to put the basics to unsupervised practice, that I then learned about driving in various conditions, at various speeds, with various loads, sizes of cars, etc.  I enhanced my learning by adding personal experience and research to what I was taught.

Why does this have to be restricted to learning how to drive a car?  Could it not equally apply to learning how to read, learning how to numerate and apply arithmetic to real world applications (such as shopping, trading, designing, etc.)?

Teaching does not have to take place in a school to be teaching.  Teaching is not all there is to acquiring an education, but it is a valid part of the process.  However, the validity of teaching is not realized by restricting it to the location of a school and the schooling process.