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on reading deschooling society by ivan illich

Ivan Illich offers both a bleak view of contemporary institutionalized society and an inspiring vision of what Deschooling Society by Ivan Illichcould be in his 1970 treatise Deschooling Society. “Good radical stuff,” notes the Observer in its cover accolade. Indeed it is radical in the best and truest sense of the word as defined below:

Radical. adj. Arising from or going to a root or source; Departing markedly from the usual or customary; Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions; slang – Excellent; wonderful.

What’s fascinating about Deschooling Society is that Illich goes beyond criticism of all that is wrong with contemporary western society and culture (arguments put forth by many social critics and educational reformists) to actually propose detailed solutions and alternatives. The problem is, though, his alternatives are so radically (and wonderfully) different and depend so much upon the goodwill of men and women that they are borderline Utopian. Just the same, important changes start by affecting the mindsets of people by stating what might be possible even if ostensibly infeasible.

Before offering detailed–even if radical–solutions, Illich does layout in considerable detail the problem he sees with societal institutions–with institutionalized schooling in particular. He contends that school is the basis of widespread discrimination, is socially divisive, and profoundly inegalitarian. Illich points out how school serves to divide the world into very separate realms which are anything but equal:

The very existence of obligatory schools divides any society into two realms: some time spans and processes and treatments and professions are “academic” or “pedagogic,” and others are not. The power of schools thus to divide social reality has no boundaries: education becomes unworldly and the world becomes noneducational. (24)

Furthermore, Illich suggests that the school system and curriculum serves to assign social rank. Rather than doing as it purports to do–giving everybody an equal chance at achievement–school instead monopolizes the distribution of such chances (12). This is very true. Certainly it is school that tends to systematically separate the haves from the have-nots. We tell kids this all the time, after all, right? School pays off. You want to be diggin’ ditches your whole life? No? Then go to school. To many of us, this seems like pretty sound advice and we don’t for a moment question it. It’s true. The more schooling you have, the greater your employment, material, and fiscal opportunity in our society. Is this fundamentally fair? Only if one has subjected him- or herself to “the form of a ritual, of sequential sacred ordination” (12)–a treatment of years–can he or she be “certified” to gain access to the spoils of “achievement.” Note that this has nothing to do with intellectual Ivan Illich Scholar, writer, thinker.  Ivan Illichcompetency or demonstrable skills. It has everything to do with being “certified” that you have passed through a curriculum–that you have spent a predetermined amount of your time enduring sustained curricular treatment. What is the real purpose of this curriculum?

Illich’s commentary in his chapter on the “Institutional Spectrum” is particularly compelling regarding the differences between true public utilities and services and those “false utilities” that are designed to serve a product (and its related industries) at tax payer expense rather than the good of the public at large. An illustrative example he uses is the superhighway system, which he argues is an accessory of the automobile and serves only those privileged enough to own or have access to an automobile. “Genuine all-purpose roads are true public utilities. Superhighways are private preserves, the cost of which has been partially foisted upon the public” (57). Illich outlines a host of “false utilities” that orient themselves on the far right of our societal spectrum, and school he suggests is the worst of them.

“Modern” technology transferred to poor countries falls into three large categories: goods, factories which make them, and service institutions–principally schools–which make men into modern producers and consumers. Most countries spend by far the largest proportion of their budget on schools. The school-made graduates then create a demand for other conspicuous utilities, such as industrial power, paved highways, modern hospitals and airports, and these in turn create a market for the goods made for rich countries and, after a while, the tendency to import obsolescent factories to produce them.

Of all “false utilities,” school is the most insidious. Highway systems produce only a demand for cars. Schools create a demand for the entire set of modern institutions which crowd the right end of the spectrum. A man who questioned the need for highways would be written off as a romantic; the man who questions the need for school is immediately attacked as either heartless or imperialist. (59-60)

Consider the amount of money the average university graduate has spent on school (not to mention the amount tax payers have spent on him or her, whether those tax payers maximize their own schooling or not). According to Illich, at the time of his writing, “Each American college graduate had an education costing an amount five times greater than the median life income of half of humanity” (34). School is big business in America and most of the Western world. A lot of money moves through the schooling system; plus schooling in America is intricately interwoven with the economy; corporate interests in our schooling system run deep and wide, as the system works to breed workers and consumers. Learning itself has become a commodity–a consumer product. We’ve been for so long and so consistently told that the only learning that really matters happens in school–that in fact, we can’t learn in the absence of curriculum, teachers, and institutions. Our economy is built on this lie. This leaves me wondering about this industry of obligatory mass schooling. Is the phrase and purported principle of “lifelong learning” little more than a marketing tag line to keep the money flowing and to keep people addicted to a consumer product education? What does school prepare us for other than to be better consumers? School is good for the economy, but is it good for our humanity? We can engage in learning without teachers and without schools after all, and we can do it for free. There is learning without teachers!

Let’s be real. No one needs teachers, curriculum, delivery systems, or packaged learning of any kind to take a liberal education. If one can read, has access to books, people, and other such resources, and has a desire to learn, he or she will. That’s it. How much money do we need to spend to have our learning “certified”–with a certificate that, by the way, does not guarantee any learning but rather serves only as testimony that a person has gone through a state approved ritualized process of “education?”

Ok, so what does Illich suggest by way of solution? He writes at length about this, detailing his idea of “learning webs.” “The alternative to dependence on schools,” he writes, “is not the use of public resources for some new device which ‘makes’ people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment” (73).

An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite who earned their education by sharing it.

In order to de-institutionalize and decentralize learning as a consumer product, he suggests a radical new paradigm that puts education back in the hands of the learner and orients it in a real-world context. This new paradigm does not ask the question “What should students learn?” or anything of the kind; rather, it asks “What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?” (78). Illich describes in considerable detail how this new way of providing educational opportunity to citizens might be fairly distributed to everyone–rich and poor–as their birthright. He suggests four established approaches that would help any learner define and get at his or her educational goals. These four approaches or networks include 1) reference services to educational objects, 2) skill exchanges, 3) peer matching, and 4) reference services to educators-at-large. By participating in these networks of learning–these learning webs as he calls them, one would both get an education and participate in providing one to others. This is the part I love. Citizens could draw on these services using a “basic credit” that they could use to learn fundamental skills. “Beyond the minimum, further credits would go to those who earned them by teaching… An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite who earned their education by sharing it” (90). Now that would be nice.

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