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Deschooling society with Ivan Illich

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Radical ideas of learning relevant for anyone tired of the modern consumer society.

If there is one thing we all share in our modern world, it’s our schooling. From poorest to richest, we all spend at least a few years in classrooms, and the global difference between rich and poor is also the global difference between this amount of years. Schooling is therefore taken to be a good thing, a way to make society progress and develop, and to empower individuals to get out of poverty. It’s therefore very rare to come across theory that wholeheartedly disagrees with the phenomenon of the school.

In our modern imagination, the school is the only realistic site of equal opportunity and social mobility. This is what makes Ivan Illich’s work, Deschooling Society, all the more radical, as it opposes all forms of organized and institutionalized welfare in favor of an anarchistic1 network of interchanges. Only in this way, Illich argues, will we be able to go beyond the spiritual suicide of a modern consumer society.

deschooling societyIllich’ ideas are rooted in a deep disregard for institutions and a matching belief in personal power. He defines the school as an “age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum”2, which is designed with the assumption that there is “a secret to everything in life; that the equality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly succession; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets.”3 This, Illich argues, makes modern people consumers of schooling instead of actors of learning. Confusing process and substance, schools make certificates the equivalent of knowledge, and ritualize the idea of progression as the never-ending consumption of schooling, leading to the conclusion that “We cannot go beyond the consumer society unless we first understand that obligatory public schools invariably reproduce such a society.”4

Instead, Illich believes that learning is a personal experience that can never be truly guided by compulsion and curricula. He argues that deschooling society means creating frameworks that educate people to action, participation and self-help. A good educational system, he writes, should provide everyone with access to available resources, empower those who want to share their knowledge, and create opportunities for everyone to present their issues to the public.5 In what now, in the internet-era, seems a very quaint set of  propositions, Illich suggests four ways in which such a system could be established so as to provide “reference service to educational objects”, “skill exchanges”, “peer-matching” and “reference service to educators at large”. The basis of all these four suggestions is that learning is tied with the individual; it is up to the individual to seek the skills and learning he or she desires, and up to the individual to share the skills and knowledge that he or she may have. All knowledge is valuable, and no one needs to be a certified teacher to share it.

One could say that Illich’s ideas have been put to the test simply by the existence of the internet. Here, people readily share their guitar skills over You-tube tutorials, make their thoughts known to the public through blogging platforms and social media, and arrange meet up with each other to discuss everything from literature to sports. With this kind of hindsight, Illich’s educational utopia comes to look remarkable like the Bay Area evangelists’ idea of the internet as the ultimate liberator of man. Yet, as we have all come to realize, the internet only seems to reproduce the unequal structures of society rather than eliminate them. However, had Illich been alive today, he would most likely have argued that the failure of the internet to create an equal and open space for all is due to the failure of radically altering our school system. To Illich, the school is the basis for all societal reproduction, and a failure to deschool our society will inevitably and always lead to social and spiritual failure elsewhere – even on something as promising and open as the internet.

Though writing in 1970, Illich lucidly understand the problem of technology and power: “Technology provides … bureaucracies with increasing power on the right hand of society. The left hand of society seems to wither, not because technology is less capable of increasing the range of human action, and providing time for the play of individual imaginations and personal creativity, but because such use of technology does not increase the power of an elite with administers it.”6 This is also why he is sceptical of the, at the time, rolling wave of dissent coming from college campus, which he calls “hotbeds of heresy within the hierarchy.”7 To him, the university simply “confers the privilege of dissent on those who have been tested and classified as potential money-makers and power-holders.”8 Looking at where the hippie generation wound up, it does seem that established power has won over ideals.

ivan illich
Ivan Illich, 1926-2002. Pastor, founder of Centro Intercultural de Documentación, and visiting professor at Penn State.

I came across Illich work in a very appropriate place: A small, experimental art school whose anarchistic attitude to learning and organizing were inspired by his ideas. It tried, in its own small and communal way, to be a place of action rather than consumption. As someone who had previously been deeply immersed in a system of schooling dragging me gradually up the ladder of prestige and success, it was a radical breathing space I had not thought  could exist. Just like Illich’s ideas, it put mainstream society into a radical perspective that I could not ignore.

There are many points on which to critique Illich ideas, such as the universalizing assumptions about people that inform his very basic argument, or the idea that his educational system (like the internet) would not align with other problematic power structures of race, class and gender, or that his thesis is based on very unevidenced and anecdotal claims that people learn more outside school than inside. However, his ideas are a breath of fresh air in a world otherwise polluted by a constant need to consume more, be it of goods, knowledge or culture. If nothing else, I would recommend everyone to read the book’s final chapter “Rebirth of Epimethean Man”, in which Illich uses Greek myth to reveal the connection between the problems of alienation in modern Western society and the impending ecological disaster now known as climate change. If all social and scientific analysis were to attain this level of storytelling, we would have surely stopped burning carbon by now.

Since we haven’t, perhaps we should turn to the old radical ideas of the 70s to see what we could still use to move into a different world – one in which we can deliberately choose “a life of action over a life of consumption.”9


 

For reference, and to somehow prove a point, here are all the scholastic institutions this author has attended throughout her short life, pictured in chronological order.

 


 

  1. Illich never uses this word himself, but this is how I would describe his ideas, which align with eg. Chomsky’s notion of the ability and possibility of humans to be free to pursue their own lives within a social system where authority must always be questioned and justified.
  2. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (Marion Boyars, 1970), p 25-26
  3. Illich, p 76
  4. Illich, p 38
  5. Illich, p 75
  6. Illich, p 62, emphasis mine
  7. Illich, p 36
  8. Illich, p 34
  9. Illich, p 52

Aspiring writer and avid reader of fiction. Has an odd penchant for white, American male authors such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen. Likes to discuss the failings of neoliberalism and other systems of oppression. Has yet to find a way to do anything about them. Had her eyes opened by postcolonial and gender theory (which has yet to do anything to her love of aforementioned white American male authors). Prefers Nescafé over real coffee, which everyone in the bookshop finds strange.

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