When most of us try to picture education, things such as classrooms, teachers, blackboards, books and exams are the first to come to mind. And as we have got so used to formal education, the kind that takes place in schools and universities and leads to official certificates, we tend to forget that the concept of education has a far broader scope. Much like kids who have only seen apples stacked on supermarket shelves and never grabbed one which was still hanging from its tree, we mind the final stage and forget the development that led to it. But since educating is no more than passing on knowledge to the next generation, our earliest ancestors were already engaging in it, as they surely taught their children about the crafts they had mastered and about the habits, uses and dangers of all sorts of animals and plants. Thus we will not get too far in understanding education if we don’t venture beyond modern educational institutions, just as we will not grasp the pressing issues of food production in our time if we focus only on the look and taste of the groceries we buy and not on the animals, the plants, the soil, the cultivation and the climate from which they come.
A factory strives to impart uniformity, standardization, usefulness and value to the goods it produces. That means its products should ideally be identical to each other in certain aspects, should comply with certain standards and be classified in accordance to them, should serve some practical purpose and should be demanded by the market. A sheet of white paper is an example: it has the exact same look and feel as all other white paper – contrary to more natural products like wood, with its knots and imperfections –, the materials used to make it and the dimensions are all standardized, it is mainly made for the purposes of writing and printing and it is on constant demand by companies, schools, institutions and all other sorts of private and state customers. Most modern formal education shares those four aims with industry: all students should get a set number of courses passed and ideally acquire a certain degree of knowledge about their subjects, they then receive an internationally recognised and standardized certificate, and that enables them in turn to practise some profession and enter the job market.
On the other end of the balance stands informal education, the kind of learning we do while we are providing for our needs or communicating with others, without intending to learn or even realising we are doing it. Like all other arts in their primitive state, it works very much like nature, and even animals practise it to some extent as well, as they teach behaviours to their offspring and by experience they get better at interpreting the sounds, smells and sights of the world around them and at hunting, running, finding shelter and all other sorts of actions necessary to their survival. This kind of education is related to formal education as the roots of a tree are to its branches since, by the time children are old enough to start school, they have already informally acquired their native language, in which all formal instruction will be conducted, and mastered it to a level hardly attainable by an adult attending lessons for years and armed with language-learning books and recordings. This shows that informal education will never be fully superseded by formal education, and that the latter can still learn some valuable lessons from the former.
There is a third kind of education that lies between the two we have already discussed. Like formal education, there are teachers and pupils engaging in it consciously and with the shared aim of instructing the latter, but it often lacks, like informal education, examinations and marks, official recognition and an established curriculum. It has been given the name “non-formal” education in modern times, but it also predates formal education, since we have very ancient written accounts of it being practised all over the world. The brahmins of India, the Buddha, the Roman stoics, Jesus and his apostles and all sorts of other great figures of religion and philosophy taught by this method, hundreds or even thousands of years before the first universities were founded. But the most striking example is that of the Greek philosophers, who could discuss the deepest subjects in a detailed and elegant way while lying down after a banquet or out in the streets with other citizens they had randomly bumped into. In our time, we find non-formal learning in very diverse settings: private language classes, sports and music lessons, popular science talks, seminars imparted by an employer to its workers, voluntary services such as the European Solidarity Corps or the American Peace Corps and so on. This is also the way permaculture teaching works, though a bit more formally than usual since there is a curriculum and the permaculture design course leads to the obtention of a permaculture design certificate. However, anyone who has obtained the certificate can in turn teach permaculture to others and there are many different approaches to the permaculture design course within the community, so permaculture teaching is decentralised and flexible, unlike formal education.
All of us have experienced formal and informal education and know very well the drawbacks of each. What child has never complained about going to school after holidays? What parents have the time to devote half of each day to educating their children the way a school does? Non-formal education, alike to permaculture in that it is inspired by nature and equipped with the tools of modern science and pedagogy, tries to find a balance between the two.