Taught Mother Tongue and the Rise of Compulsory Education

The colonizing effects of compulsory education have been understood for centuries. Ivan Illich often noted how, in 1492, when Antonio de Nebrija published the first grammar of the Spanish language, he also outlined the path for how the rich and powerful can dominate cultural change:


For him [PF: Illich], modern corporate culture begins when a people's vernacular speech, learned within the family and the community, is transformed into a standardized mother tongue taught in schools. The first person in Europe to begin this process was Antonio Nebrija. At the same time that Columbus sailed to America, Nebrija reduced the multiplicity of oral traditons on the Castillian peninsula into standard Spanish, first with a grammar and later a dicitonary.


It is also noted that Nebrija, “dedicated it [PF: his book on grammar] to Isabella I of Castille, the catholic queen. When the book was presented to her, she asked: "Why would I want a work like this, I already know the language?" he answered: "Majesty, the language is the instrument of the empire".


Ivan Illich taught that this lesson is emblematic for many issues modern society faces and it is one he and I often discussed regarding efforts to dismiss or regulate unschooling and other forms of vernacular learning. Manish Jain, a learning activist with Shikshantar Andolan and co-founder of Swaraj University, has written a stirring response to India’s attempt to implement systemic education reform through the Right to Education Act.

The sacred role of parents and community in the child’s learning process has been reduced to their becoming mere chowkidars of the school, as benevolent Big Brother aka the State aka India, Inc. takes monopoly control over the very meaning of education and development.

Thus, we as an extended family, have chosen unschooling as the best form of holistic education for our daughter, Kanku. There are many reasons behind this but after several years of research and experience, we have come to believe that schooling stifles creativity, curiousity, compassion, collaboration, self-initiative, activism, entrepreneurial spirit, wisdom, and self-discipline in children. It fills them with fear, stress, false inferiority/superiority, and vicious competition. Unschooling differs from homeschooling and other forms of alternative schooling in several ways. It does not follow any prescribed government curriculum, norms, or textbook. The topics of study come from life itself and from the naturally unfolding questions, interests and needs of each individual child. Exams are not limited to pieces of paper but rather come from everyday practical challenges that emerge in the community as well as one’s own honest self-assessment. The parents’ role is not as know-it-all teachers but as honest co-learners who are committed to continuously unlearning and uplearning with their children. There is a strong commitment to building healthy and sustainable communities and accessing diverse community knowledge systems. Rather than remaining wedded to an abstract notion of a unipolar, hyper-competitive ‘mainstream’ (driven by the values of the global industrial-military economy), unschooling seeks to validate the profound reality of many streams, many dreams and many alternatives.



When Sweden banned homeschooling earlier this summer, the government claimed homeschooling is unnecessary since the state provides a "comprehensive and objective" education. It isn’t hard to see how other governments seeking to outlaw diversity can implement this logic and India, the world’s largest democracy, now faces this challenge.

At the end of his article Jain outlines four policy concerns that any country could implement so a “dialog on widening the meaning of education and creating many more positive options for the diverse children around the country” can begin. I hope you will read Jain’s article by clicking on the quoted material above and consider his policy ideas.