Initiation, Learning, and the Failure of Regimented Education


The formalities of schooling can be traced back to initiation rituals in the early history of our cultures. Separation from the community into an age-group cohort, group instruction by a specialized adult, silence and obedience, progression through a sequence of levels sanctioned by solemn tests, "death" of the child and "rebirth" as a member of the community of initiates, all those components of school culture make sense when considered in this broad anthropological context. However, they do not support genuine learning, which is essentially self-generated, exploratory, continuous and unpredictable. This perspective could shed light on many of the current controversies and failures in the field of education.

What started my interest in this was noticing how little of what we have learned about learning in the past century justifies the conventional aspects of schooling. There is now a wide consensus that human beings are intensely curious and exploratory from infancy and that new knowledge and skills are constructed through interactions with the world. Yet the formal structures in which we train and socialize our young seem to defy this understanding. We insist that they learn only what we consider important, only in the ways we consider valid - through passive absorption and repetitive drilling, in silent, obedient groups following the directions of one adult. We obsessively check and evaluate their ability to replicate standardized behaviors. Despite the inroads made by alternative approaches, this is still found in all but a few schools. We now know that these practices are not supportive of successful learning. In fact, they often impede it, in the same way that forcing people to breathe according to a fixed rhythm determined by an outside authority would soon create dysfunctions in their natural ability to breathe. The starting point for this article was my curiosity about the cultural origins of these illogical practices.

The link between traditional initiation and schooling is a good example of a fact staring us in the face for so long that it becomes invisible. To notice it, I had to travel half a world away to Benin (West Africa). In 1995-96, I spent most of the school year observing elementary classrooms and meeting with teachers in a school district of the main city of Benin, Cotonou. As my role was to train the designated teacher trainers who had been promoted from inside the system, it was essential for me to understand the shared perceptions of Beninese educators about the nature of teaching. Benin is a former French colony and its school system was originally designed as a near duplicate of the French school system. Since I am French and a product of that system, I was in a privileged position to notice the effects of that transplantation and of the years of the country's independence on the content and culture of schooling.

From the beginning, I was struck by the formality, almost rigidity, of the interactions between teachers and students. It reminded me not so much of my own schooling, but of what French schools might have been like a hundred years ago. While schools in France kept evolving by incorporating new pedagogies, it seemed that the Beninese school system had frozen in time. Teachers and administrators were perpetuating the system as a sacred relic or museum artifact. I became curious about the difficulties I and other trainers were experiencing in trying to introduce "learner-centered" approaches. There seemed to be unspoken, but powerful cultural barriers between those newly imported ideas and traditional teacher-student relationships.

In Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, Margaret Mead introduces a distinction between "three different kinds of culture - postfigurative, in which children learn primarily from their forebears, cofigurative, in which both children and adults learn from their peers, and prefigurative, in which adults learn also from their children" (Mead, 1). She argues for the necessity to reinvent ourselves as a prefigurative culture to creatively respond to the crisis in our civilization. The cultural value of adults learning from their children is a recent one with powerful implications. Its reversal of the universal pattern of instruction seems to be the culmination of an alternative but robust current in Western thought, which includes Jesus of Nazareth and Christian mystics, Utopian writers, Rousseau, the literary and artistic romanticism of the 19th century and, closer to us, the Progressive Education movement and the counterculture of the 1960's (Mead published her essay in 1970). It would seem that we are in a transition between a postfigurative and a prefigurative culture. The upheaval of traditional values and the pervading sense of uncertainty perhaps qualify the early 21st century as a cofigurative culture.

This change is closely connected to the advent of the modern industrial era. As more and more children were being sent away from their homes to learn things or to work in industries that were unfamiliar to their parents, the traditional pattern in which boys and girls learned their roles and occupations from the same-sex parent was uprooted. In the context of a fast-changing society, the possibility of parents learning from their children had to become less shocking.

Robert LeVine's and Merry White's Human Conditions: The Cultural Basis of Educational Developments contrasts traditional agrarian societies with modern industrialized ones from the point of view of education and child-rearing. In their view, the main factor in the quality of life in traditional cultures as well as in our own agrarian past is what they call ligatures - the bonds of community: What distinguishes the Western ideology as a whole from that of many non-Western cultures is not so much the preference for freedom, even for children, as the definition of freedom as liberation from authority – a polarity that pits options against ligatures in the struggle for a better life. This struggle, this morality play on behalf of children, provided the basic terms in which the modern European conceptions of the child emerged during the nineteenth century. The new ideas were hostile to agrarian models of obedience and reciprocity. Focusing on childhood as a distinct and valuable phase of life, they emphasized autonomy, the child's development as a separate and equal human being, supported and protected by loving parents as he developed his capacities to make free and intelligent choices. In philosophy, literature and the arts, these ideas were advanced and elaborated. In psychology and child study they were justified on scientific grounds. In politics they inspired legislation to defend children against exploitation in factories and to restrict parental control. And in the family they inspired an emotional commitment that knew no precedent except in the rearing of royal princes (69-70).

Looking at this evolution helps me understand some of the difficulties of implementing Western models of education in the developing world. In a country like Benin, child-rearing, even among educated urbanites, mostly follows the traditional patterns of agrarian societies. It emphasizes obedience, continuity, replication of the elders' knowledge and the centrality of a wide network of links to family and community. More generally, in Sub-Saharan Africa and other "developing" parts of the world, the impact of formal schooling remains more superficial than can be told from statistics. Schooling there can challenge some aspects of traditional life by offering new economic and social opportunities but it has not grown local roots – it is still largely perceived as a foreign import. The foremost causes of this are the agrarian nature of the economic and social relations, as described by LeVine and White, the recent colonial history of those countries and the function of schools in their colonial systems.

On the other hand, many current educational practices in "developed" countries are built upon very different assumptions, which entail beliefs in autonomy and even self-invention, in forsaking the past and de-emphasizing ligatures as the main source of value in life. Of particular interest is the case of constructivism and other learner-centered pedagogies. When they are transferred to more traditional societies through development projects, those approaches that relocate the "construction of knowledge" in the individual student present schoolteachers with an intractable conundrum. They contradict not only the traditional patterns of child-rearing, but also the authoritarian design and purpose of the colonial schools which provided the basic template for current schools in these countries.

An interesting study by R. Tabulawa exemplifies this dynamic. The author examined the incongruences between the learner-centered approach that the government of Botswana was attempting to introduce and the teachers' own perceptions of the nature of teaching and learning. Overwhelmingly, teachers espoused an authoritarian paradigm in which their role was to impart already organized knowledge and the students' role was to acquire it passively. Students themselves brought to school attitudes of obedience and deference towards elders which conflicted with the inquiry-oriented approach of the government reform. This conflict of values was easily revealed by interviewing the concerned parties. Interestingly, after basic quantitative studies showed that the reform was not improving school results, the government's decision was to invest more resources into the same approach – a good example of the limitations of quantitative analysis in informing education policy.

As a trainer of teachers in Benin, I constantly engaged in conversations with schoolteachers about the learning process. I kept noticing a basic rigidity, a reluctance to identify with children, even if only for the sake of understanding a technical detail. In the United States, a typical contemporary educator routinely takes inner, virtual journeys through the cognitive processes of children in order to design precise teaching interventions. In more traditional societies where the divide between childhood and the earned condition of adult is still a fundamental feature of society, it is psychologically much more difficult for educators to cross that divide in imagination.

Another way to describe the basic dichotomy established by LeVine and White is through the observation that, in a country like Benin, virtually all adults have been formally initiated. In my experience and, I believe, that of most Northern visitors, it is extremely difficult to comprehend the implications of this basic cultural fact. Mircea Eliade, founder of the comparative study of religions, defines initiation as an essential manifestation of humankind's spiritual nature, the word "spiritual" being understood as englobing all of experience, not only religious life in the modern sense:

"In short, through initiation, the candidate passes beyond the natural mode – the mode of the child – and gains access to the cultural mode; that is, he is introduced to spiritual values. From a certain point of view, it could almost be said that, for the primitive world, it is through initiation that men attain the status of human beings..." (Eliade, 3)

[Note: In 1958, when this book was published, "men" was commonly used in writing to mean "people."]

The near-universality of initiation in human cultures is striking. In the West, initiation has become diluted and diffused through many micro-societies such as sports teams, clubs, trade unions, the military and schools. It is omnipresent as a cultural theme, but it no longer exists as a central unifying institution. The disappearance of clear rituals of passage, particularly for male adolescents, has often been associated with social and psychological difficulties. Pointing out the adolescent characteristics of American men has become a worn cliché. In recent years, various movements to reinvent male initiation have emerged in North America. Michael Meade, a contemporary author who has had a long experience of the therapeutic use of rituals with men's groups and marginalized communities, vividly describes this dynamic:

"When rites of passage disappear from conscious presentation, they nonetheless appear in unconscious and semi-conscious guises. They surface as misguided and mis-informed attempts to change one's own life. They become mis-carriages of meaning, tragic acts or empty forms and ghostly shapes. For, underlying the surface structures of schools, fraternities, sororities, maternity groups, military organizations, street gangs, rap bands, crack houses, meditation centers and prisons lie the bones and sinews of initiatory rites and symbols. Whenever life gets stuck or reaches a dead end, where people are caught in rites of addiction, possessed by destructive images, compelled to violent acts or pulled apart by grief and loss, the process of initiation presses to break through." (Foreword to Eliade, xx)

For Meade and others in that movement, the loss of the anchoring and meaning-creating function of rituals of passage accounts for the increasing emptiness and suffering in post-industrial societies. To address the disorientation that young people experience, psychologists and other advisors exhort us to restore the softening boundaries between adult and child and to rediscover clear-cut parental roles, but our humanistic, child-centered beliefs about education are inseparable from this breakdown of traditional roles. It is that breach in the wall between uninitiated and initiated that makes possible LeVine and White's "morality play on behalf of children."

The consideration of children as full-fledged "persons" and the attendant practices in child-rearing and education are very recent developments. Even Western Europe and Japan lag noticeably behind the United States in that evolution. Growing up in France in the 1950's, I cannot remember any instances of adults taking a serious interest in our games and our perspectives on life. A child was basically seen as a human being but not yet a person one can have a conversation with. The normal range of grown-up attitudes towards children was from amused to irritated condescension. This stands in contrast to much of North American culture in 2007. At the playground in my neighborhood, all adults make it a point to interact with children as if they were real persons. They may do so with varying degrees of sincerity - some of them do not seem to believe their own performance very much, but interacting with children on an equal level of "personhood" is the cultural standard. This does not imply that parents or guardians understand children any better. A lot of those performances feel artificial. A poorly assimilated psychological vocabulary often replaces the much harder to achieve empathetic understanding of the actual experiences of children. An example of that would be the frequently heard line: "You're just asking for attention." In this case, the child is behaving in a way that does not fit the adult's expectations. In the old days, the adult would have suppressed the behavior by scolding or punishing. A more "enlightened" adult might have created a tolerant space for the behavior, without trying any harder to understand it. At the playground, what happens instead is that the adult speaks to a psychological entity ("the toddler," "the preadolescent,") and to a pattern ("acting out to get attention") with which he or she has become familiar through popular psychology books and magazine articles. Such a remark is impossible for the child to assimilate in any usable form and may in fact lead to more difficulties in growing up than more traditional manifestations of disapproval. Yet the context is: "Children are persons whom we can understand and relate to with the help of psychology." Two generations ago in the U.S., the wall between childhood and adulthood would still have been opaque enough to make this kind of interaction inconceivable - and it is still significantly the case in most of Europe, where pop psychology is not as widespread.

In a sense, the field of developmental psychology ("child development") occults the disappearance of formal initiation as a significant cultural evolution by postulating a "normal" sequence of stages culminating in adult normalcy. It negates a crucial fact in the history of all cultures – that membership in the adult community, indeed full humanity or personhood, is a construct that is granted by those who have that identity and earned by those who aspire to it.

In this context, the chaotic state of the public debate on education can begin to make a little more sense. Our schools and teacher training programs are replete with the language and reasoning of child psychology. How much that practice reflects genuine insight into children's lives is another question. The point is that educators cross the above-mentioned wall so routinely that they sometimes need to be reminded of its existence. At the same time, some other features of schooling uphold the separation: the teacher and the principal's authority, classroom rules, testing, grading, discipline, curriculum and assignments. In my view, all these derive from the universal blueprint of initiation. They were originally designed to lead children through a ritualized transition across that wall. Thus two conflicting attitudes towards adult-child relations coexist in education. In some institutions, one or the other will dominate. Some teachers – and some cultures – tend to uphold the wall more than others. Some aggressively try to bring it down. I believe that most teachers uncomfortably embody both attitudes and that their mutually exclusive nature is a cause of stress in educators, particularly when it remains unexamined. "Traditionalists" wear themselves down trying to hold their students within a paradigm that reflects less and less the way the rest of society treats children. "Progressives" struggle to change a system the basic logic of which they do not recognize – they indeed bang their heads against the wall.

It seems clear that all formal education derives from the original template of initiation and that many aspects of schooling can be better understood through this lens, including some of the more puzzling ones. In Non-Western Educational Traditions, Timothy Reagan identifies the following features as specific to traditional initiation: physical separation of a group of children from the rest of the community under the guidance of a specially trained adult, creation of an age-based cohort that will go through a sequence of initiatory stages together, and instruction about the responsibilities of adult members of society. These very terms could be used to describe what a school is to someone who has never seen one.

Although I could not find any definite theory about the origin of the core patterns of schooling, most authors who speculate on "primitive education" seem to trace it back to religious training of some kind. For example, Monroe (9), from a Eurocentric perspective, names ancient Egyptian and Chaldean priesthood schools as the earliest ancestors of our own institutions. R. Freeman Butts's classic 1955 A Cultural History of Western Education makes a distinction between puberty or initiatory rites, which, according to him, did not entail specialized educational agencies or teaching roles, and training for the priesthood, which did. He mentions a third category, "vocational" schools, in which the secrets of a trade were transmitted through initiation to new members. He adds this qualification: "It may be that reliance upon formal schools and specialized teaching in prehistoric cultures was greater than we now believe; the absence of written records makes certainty impossible" (9). William A. Smith traces the earliest appearances of formal education to African secret societies (291).

The distinction between universal and specialized (priesthood, secret society, trade) initiation reappears when one does a library search on the word "initiation." Two very different kinds of items show up: anthropological studies on rites of passage in "primitive" cultures and texts on esoteric and mystical disciplines. One cannot fail to notice, however, that the same essential patterns appear in both contexts: separation from the community, instruction from an authority figure, ordeal, identity-changing knowledge, spiritual death and rebirth. I believe all specialized training, whether for priests, shamans or other occupations, was patterned after the identity-shaping universal initiations into adulthood and that school as we know it descends from the priesthood schools of early literate cultures.

A crucial aspect of initiation is the ordeal itself. Its function has been investigated by Eliade, Meade and many others. Attempting to fully understand it would take us beyond the confines of this essay. It is intricately linked to the creation of meaning and the essence of being human. In the initiatory ordeal, we acknowledge the basic truth of our woundedness and we circumscribe it within a pattern of symbolic death and rebirth. By being consciously experienced, the pain of the human condition generates meaning - specifically membership in the human community. In societies where traditional initiation is still practiced, uninitiated youth are not yet persons. They are made into persons through a process of death and rebirth. The term from mafia movies "a made man" is quite accurate in that respect. At the end of their four years of college, U.S. students go through a ceremony which confers upon them a new identity. Significantly, that ritual is called commencement, a word which, like initiation, means "beginning."

Searching for the traces of this basic pattern in the unexamined habits of formal education leads to interesting observations. The clues are everywhere. For example, in current educational parlance, tests and examinations are presented as ways to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. Historically, however, and up to this day, they have had a much broader function. They have focused on the student much more than on the instructor or the pedagogy. They have served as entrance gates, valves, so to speak between formal levels, as ordeals of endurance which challenge students to prove themselves, even as mild forms of punishments. More often than not, tests and exams receive more attention than the learning itself. In many educational systems, they are the overriding element that determines most of what happens in classes.

In more general terms, schooling seems to entail the assumption that some degree of duress, inflicted by the instructing authority, is necessary to learning. For example, one could make the argument that demanding of children that they sit silent and motionless for extended periods of time is in itself a form of mild torture. Interestingly, silence and stillness are central features or initiation rites in many cultures throughout the world. Everything we know about children, how they grow healthy and how they learn militates against this practice. Yet it remains a foundation of schooling. The rationale for it is based on notions of socialization - impulse control and self-discipline. In anthropological terms, children must surrender their free, natural, unsocialized mode of existence – they must "die" in order to be initiated into the meaning of full personhood. Yet from the point of view of maximizing learning, there is enough evidence that classroom discipline causes opposite effects: boredom, irritation, distraction, disconnection, resentment, unwanted behaviors and rebelliousness. In an article titled On Living in Trees, David Hawkins persuasively argues that the mere presence of the element of compulsion inhibits genuine learning:

"What I believe is true for the rat, and am sure of in the case of man, is that the most powerful learning mechanisms available to us are built in, biologically rooted mechanisms of search and exploration, relatively separate from the primary biological drives of hunger, sex and the like. These learning mechanisms have a lower priority in the short run than drives relating to hunger, sex, pain and fear, so that exploratory behavior dominates only in the absence of other more urgent need. The exploratory, map-building tendencies of rats and men are in the long run just as important for survival as hunger, sex and fear, but this value depends upon the fact that they are not exercised for the sake of survival." (185)

If Hawkins is right, this represents an indictment of schooling as a whole and a challenge to reconsider everything we have assumed about educating the young. In the same article, he contrasts the vertical, linear organization of knowledge in conventional education ("ladder") with the tree-like or network-like complex flows that more accurately represent the ways in which we really learn. The structuring of instruction into a vertical sequence of levels separated by exit and entrance tests doesn't help learning, but it makes sense as a remnant of archaic patterns of initiation.

Higher education provides striking examples of "education as ordeal." At the end of a long obstacle course, students face the doctoral dissertation, the greatest obstacle of them all. The nominal requirement is that it should be an original contribution to the field, but in practice that aspect is less important than making sure the candidate works on it for a long time and demonstrates the perseverance, patience and discipline that will make her/him worthy of the title. Except perhaps in pure mathematics, it would be inconceivable to grant a doctorate for a short, rapidly produced dissertation, even if it demonstrably were a work of genius that would revolutionize its field. Brilliance is not the point. On the other hand, many titles are awarded for work that everyone knows is insignificant in substance. What matters is that the author has demonstrated the required qualities of character by enduring the ordeal with patience and good spirit.

In general terms, titles, degrees and professional licenses can be traced back to ancient rituals in which the new initiate is finally welcomed by his peers into his new identity. From the strict point of view of learning, they contribute nothing. Instead, they introduce a context of strife towards objectives that are unrelated to the subject matter: status, acceptance and material gain. Likewise, the way schools combine the teaching of specific information and skills with socializing goals like obedience, conformity, work and competition can better be understood through their filiation with traditional initiation, an essential aspect of which is its messages about the responsibilities of adult members of society.

The distant parentage of schooling with traditional initiation can throw a new light on the educational problems of a post-colonial society like Benin. The school system, a replica of its French counterpart, is not only a tool for the acquisition of useful knowledge and skills. On a deeper level, it is perceived by its recipients as an initiation, albeit one that is diluted, despiritualized and laden with foreign values. Its function during the colonial era – indoctrination into the colonial project and training of pliable executants – cannot be forgotten. Its implicit intention to invalidate and erase all local traditional knowledge systems continues to elicit deep-seated resistance. This fundamental "strangeness" affects all those who are involved in education and distorts the implementation of even the best-intended and best-designed policies.

When development agencies and policy analysts approach education as a technical problem, hoping to finally make it work by improving funding, administrative efficiency, human resources management and so on, they overlook a central cause of its ineffectiveness – the cultural chasms and contradictions that make people in developing countries experience it as a foreign implant. In post-colonial societies, schools are like a bullet that has lodged itself in a part of a body where it cannot be surgically removed. The social body must protect itself against its potential harmful effects and reorganize itself to include and integrate the alien object into its normal functioning. In such countries, one cannot expect schooling to supplant traditional ways of training and socializing the young and make those obsolete. One cannot expect either that the school system will by itself work harmoniously as an ordinary part of the social machinery. In order to actualize the positive potential of the transfer of Western knowledge and technology and to minimize those cultural frictions, deep adaptive work may be required – the willingness to examine the complex layers of values that are embedded in schools and to begin a difficult public conversation about them.

One example of this adaptive work could be that in societies where schools are not truly relied upon for the transmission of everyday practical knowledge, important new technologies and skill sets should be introduced through apprenticeships, mentorships and other informal and traditional transmission modes that do not evoke the tensions implicit in the colonial school. People who design education development projects might consider the possibility that perpetuating the rituals of the standard classroom is in a sense like driving with the parking brake on.

Another area that has recently garnered attention is the integration of indigenous knowledge systems into curricula. In many developing countries, innovative educators are beginning to lift the labels academics have assigned to traditional knowledge - "primitive," "superstitious," "irrational" – and to incorporate them into more organic and relevant curricula. This epistemic dialogue between ways of knowing can only enrich both sides. It could help make development – a problematic concept when it is defined only by "developers" from abroad without input from the "developed" – an integrated and sustainable reality. Beyond the issue of development and modernization, by considering the connections between core features of traditional societies and our contemporary assumptions about learning, we may bring new light to the puzzling difficulties that educational systems encounter even in the richest countries. My hope has been to show the value of subjecting to scrutiny the habits of mind we most take for granted when we think about education.


Butts, R. F. (1955). A Cultural History of Western Education: Its Social and Intellectual Foundations. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

Eliade, M. (1958). Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. Dallas: Spring Publications.

Hawkins, D. (2002) "On Living in Trees." In The Informed Vision: Essays on Learning and Human Nature. New York: Algora Publishing, pp.171-193.

LeVine, R., & White, M. (1986). Human Conditions: The Cultural Basis of Educational Developments. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mead, M. (1970). Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Meade, M. Foreword to the new edition (xvii-xxiv). Eliade, M. (1958). Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. Dallas: Spring Publications.

Monroe, P. (1910). A Textbook in the History of Education. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Reagan, T (1996). Non-Western Educational Traditions: Alternative Approaches to Educational Thought and Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Smith, W. A. (1955). Ancient Education. New York: Philosophical Library.

Tabulawa, R. Teachers' Perspectives on Classroom Practice in Botswana: Implications for Pedagogical Change. In International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 1998, vol. 11, No. 2, 249-268.


Photo by didbygraham, courtesy Creative Commons License.