Reclaiming Our Freedom to Learn


A primary school in the Zapatista village of Oventic, the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. Photo by Aaron Cain.
A primary school in the Zapatista village of Oventic, the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo by Aaron Cain.

Years ago, we started to observe in villages and barrios, particularly among indigenous peoples, a radical reaction against education and schools. A few of them closed their schools and expelled their teachers. Most of them avoided this type of political confrontation and started instead to just bypass the school, while reclaiming and regenerating the conditions in which people traditionally learned in their own ways.

The people in the villages know very well that school prevents their children from learning what they need to know to continue living in their communities, contributing to the common well-being and that of their soils, their places. And school does not prepare them for life or work outside the community. In many communities in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico, parents no longer delegate their children's learning to school.

They know by experience what usually happens to those who abandon their communities to get “higher education.” They get lost in the cities, in degraded jobs. A recent official study found that only eight percent of graduates of Mexican universities will be able to work in the field they graduated in. Lawyers or engineers are driving taxis or tending stalls. In spite of such awareness, people still hold the illusion that higher education offers something to their children. They don't feel comfortable depriving their children of such an “opportunity.”


Life Without Teachers

We once did a thought experiment in which we took a suggestion of author John McKnight—imagining a world without dentists—and applied it to the teaching profession. For a few minutes many apocalyptic descriptions circulated around our table as we imagined a world without teachers or teaching. But then something radically different started to come into our conversation. We imagined a myriad of ways in which the people themselves would create a different kind of life.

One of the most important conclusions of our conversation was the explicit recognition that we learn better when nobody is teaching us. We can observe this in every baby and in our own experience. Our vital competence comes from learning by doing, without any kind of teaching.

Apprenticeships foster traditional skills at Unitierra. Photo courtesy of
Apprenticeships foster traditional skills at Unitierra.
Photo courtesy of

After the exercise, a very practical question came to the table. We have learned, with the Zapatistas, that while changing the world is very difficult, perhaps impossible, it is possible to create a whole new world. That is exactly what the Zapatistas are doing in the south of Mexico. How can we create our own new world, at our own, small, human scale, in our little corner in Oaxaca? How can we deschool our lives and those of our children in this real world, where the school still dominates minds, hearts and institutions?

The most dramatic lesson we derived from the exercise was to discover what we were really missing in the urban setting: conditions for apprenticeship. When we all request education and institutions where our children and young people can stay and learn, we close our eyes to the tragic social desert in which we live. They have no access to real opportunities to learn in freedom. In many cases, they can no longer learn with parents, uncles, grandparents—just talking to them, listening to their stories or observing them in their daily trade. Everybody is busy, going from one place to another. No one seems to have the patience any more to share with the new generation the wisdom accumulated in a culture. Instead of education, what we really need is conditions for decent living, a community.

Our challenge thus became to find ways to regenerate community in the city, to create a social fabric in which we all, at any age, would be able to learn and in which every kind of apprenticeship might flourish. In doing this radical research, we surprise ourselves, every day, when we discover how easy it can be to create alternatives and how many people are interested in the adventure.


We have learned, with the Zapatistas, that while changing the world is very difficult, perhaps impossible, it is possible to create a whole new world.


So we created our university, Unitierra. Young men and women without any diploma, and better yet no schooling, can come to us. They learn whatever they want to learn—practical trades, like urban agriculture, video production, or social research, or fields of study, like philosophy or communication. They learn the skills of the trade or field of study as apprentices of someone practicing those activities. They also learn how to learn with modern tools and practices not available in their communities.

As soon as the young people arrive at Unitierra, they start to work as apprentices. They discover that they need specific skills to do what they want to do. Most of the time, they get those skills by practicing the trade, with or without their mentors. They may choose to attend specific workshops, to shorten the time needed to get those skills.

A classroom at Unitierra. Photo courtesy of
A classroom at Unitierra.
Photo courtesy of

Our “students” have been learning faster than we expected. After a few months they are usually called to return to the living present of their communities to do there what they have learned. They seem to be very useful there. Some of them are combining different lines of learning in a creative way. One of them, for example, combined organic agriculture and soil regeneration (his original interest), with vernacular architecture. He is not offering professional services that allow him to move towards the middle class standard of living by selling services and commodities. He is learning how to share, like peasants, what it means to be a cherished member of his community and commons, as has been done through time immemorial—before the modern rupture.


Discipline and freedom

In Unitierra we are not producing professionals. We have created a convivial place, where we all are enjoying ourselves while learning together. At the same time, both the “students” and their communities soon discover that a stay at Unitierra is not a vacation. True, the students have no classes or projects. In fact, they don't have any kind of formal obligation. There are no compulsory activities. But they have discipline, and rigor, and commitment—with their group (other “students”), with us (participating in all kinds of activities for Unitierra), and with their communities.

Our “students” do not belong to communities. They are their communities. Of course, they can enjoy themselves and have very long nights of pachanga and many fiestas. But they have a responsibility to their communities, that is, to themselves. And hope. That is why they can have discipline, and rigor, and commitment.

Our “students” have the internal and social structure that is a fundamental condition for real freedom. If you don't have them, if you are an individual atom within a mass of a collective, you need someone in charge of the organization. The workers of a union, the members of a political party or church, the citizens of a country—all of them need organizers and external forces to keep them together. In the name of security and order, they sacrifice freedom. Real people, knots in nets of relationships, can remain together by themselves, in freedom.

“True learning,” Ivan Illich once said, “can only be the leisurely practice of free people.” In the consumer society, he also said, we are either prisoners of addiction or prisoners of envy. Only without addiction or envy, only without educational goals, in freedom, can we enjoy true learning.

An Immersion in Liberated Spaces

“Nations and Identities,” a new study abroad program, will explore how the people in Canada, India, and Mexico are reclaiming their commons or creating new ones. In dialogues with the Mohawk, in Quebec, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, and tribal India, and with non-indigenous groups in all three countries, participants will observe how each is affirming their respective identities and conceiving political horizons and convivial ways of life beyond the nation-state.

Interested? International Honors Program,

In Unitierra we have been fruitfully following a suggestion of Paul Goodman, a friend of, and source of inspiration for, Ivan Illich. Goodman once said: “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side won, and you had the kind of society you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now! Whatever you would do then, do it now. When you run up against obstacles, people, or things that won't let you live that way, then begin to think about how to get over or around or under that obstacle, or how to push it out of the way, and your politics will be concrete and practical.”

We call Unitierra a university to laugh at the official system and to play with its symbols. After one or two years of learning, once their peers think they have enough competence in a specific trade, we give the “students” a magnificent university diploma. We are thus offering them the social recognition denied to them by the educational system. Instead of certifying the number of ass-hours, as conventional diplomas do, we certify a specific competence, immediately appreciated by the communities, and protect our “students” against the usual discrimination. Most of our graduates are surprising us, however, by not asking for any diploma. They don't feel the need for it.

We are also celebrating our wise and our elders with modern symbols. We thus offer diplomas of Unitierra to people who perhaps never attended a school or our university. Their competence is certified by their peers and the community. The idea, again, is to use in our own way, with much merriment and humor, all the symbols of domination. Or rather, as Illich says, to misuse for our own purposes what the state or the market produces.

Our diplomas have no use for those who wish to show off or to ask for a job or any privilege. They are an expression of people's autonomy. As a symbol, they represent the commitment of our “students” to their own communities, not a right to demand anything. Nonetheless, 100 percent of our “graduates” are doing productive work in the area they studied.

But playing with the symbols of the system is not only an expression of humor. It is also a kind of protection. What we are doing is highly subversive. In a sense, we are subverting all the institutions of the modern, economic society. In packaging our activities as one of the most respected sacred cows of modernity—education—we protect our freedom from the attacks of the system.

In my place, every I is a we. And thus we live together, in our living present, rooted in our social and cultural soil, nourishing hopes at a time in which all of us, inspired by the Zapatistas, are creating a whole new world.

Gustavo Esteva wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Gustavo is a grassroots activist and deprofessionalized intellectual. Author of many books and essays, former advisor to the Zapatistas, and member of several independent organizations and networks, Mexican and international, he lives in an indigenous village in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Photo of Gustavo Esteva
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