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Ivan Illich “Deschooling Society”

December 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Illich, Ivan 2004 [1970]. Deschooling Society. London, New York: Boyars


Why We Must Disestablish School

The public is thereby „schooled“ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is „schooled“ to accept service in place of value. (1)

[…] the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery. […] this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities […] (1)

Poverty then refers to those who have fallen behind an advertised ideal of consumption in some important respect. […] The increasing reliance on institutional care adds a new dimension to their helplessness: psychological impotence, the inability to fend for themselves. […] Modernized poverty combines the lack of power over circumstances with a loss of personal potency. (3)

[…] poverty – once it has been modernized – has become resistant to treatment with dollars alone and requires an institutional revolution. […] no amount of dollars can remove the inherent destructiveness of welfare institutions, once the professional hierarchies of these institutions have convinced society that their ministrations are morally necessary. […] Only by channeling dollars away from the insitutions which now treat health, education, and welfare can the further impoverishment resulting from their disabling side effects be stopped. (4)

But in both places [North and South America] the mere existence of school discourages and disables the poor from taking control of their own learning. All over the world the school has an anti-educational effect on society: school is recognized as the institution which specializes in education. The failures of school are taken by most people as proof that education is very costly, very complex, and frequently almost impossible task. (8)

Work, leisure, politics, city living, and even family life depend on schools for the habits and knowledge they presuppose, instead of becoming themselves the means of education. (8)

Obligatory schooling inevitably polarizes a society; it also grades the nations of the world according to an international caste system. (9)

Rather than calling equal schooling temporarily unfeasible, we must recognize that it is, in principle, economically absurd […] The ideology of obligatory schooling admits of no logical limits. […] Equal educational opportunity is indeed both a desirable and a feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church. School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age. (10)

Only by protecting the citizen from being disqualified by anything in his career in school can a constitutional disestablishment of school become psychologically effective. (11)

To detach competence from curriculum, inquiries into a man’s learning history must be made a taboo, like inquiries into his political affiliation, church attendance, lineage, sex habits, or racial background. Laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of prior schooling must be enacted. Laws, of course, cannot stop prejudice against the unschooled […] but they can discourage unjustified discrimination. (12)

The deschooling of society implies a recognition of the two-faced nature of learning. An insistence on skill drill alone could be a disaster; equal emphasis must be placed on other kinds of learning. But if schools are the wrong places for learning a skill, they are even worse places for getting an education. School does both tasks badly, partly because it does not distinguish between them. School is inefficient in skill instruction especially because it is curricular. In most schools a program which is meant to improve one skill is chained always to another irrelevant task. (16-17)

Schools are even less efficient in the arrangement of the circumstances which encourage the open-ended, exploratory use of acquired skills, for which I reserve the term „liberal education“. The main reason for this is that school is obligatory and becomes schooling for schooling’s sake: an enforced stay in the company of teachers, which pays off in the doubtfull privilege of more such company. Just as skill instruction must be freed from curricular restraints, so must liberal education be dissociated from obligatory attendance. (17)

Matching partners for educational purposes initially seems more difficult to imagine than finding skill instructors and partners for a game. One reason is the deep fear which chool has implanted in us, a fear which makes us censorious. The unlicensed exchange of skills […] is more predictable and therefore seems less dangerous than the unlimited opportunity for meeting among people who share an issue which for them, at the moment, is socially, intellectually, and emotionally important. (18)

Both the exchange of skills and matching of partners are based on the assumption that education for all means education by all. Not the draft into a specialised institution but only the mobilization of the whole population can lead to popular culture. The equal right of each man to exercise his competence to learn and to instruct is now pre-empted by certified teachers. The teacher’s competence, in turn, is restricted to what may be done in school. (22)

Contemporary society is the result of conscious designs, and educational opportunities must be designed into them. Our reliance on specialized, full-time instruction through school will now decrease, and we must find more ways to learn and teach: the educational quality of all institutions must increase again. […] It could also mean that men will shield themselves less behind certificates acquired in school and thus gain in courage to „talk back“ and thereby control and instruct the institutions in which they participate. (22-23)

The very existence of 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 school thus to divide social reality has no boundaries: education becomes unworldly and the world becomes noneducational. (24)


Phenomenology of School

[…] I shall define „school“ as the age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum. (25-26)

1. Age. School groups people according to age. This grouping rests on three unquestioned premises. Children belong in school. Children learn in school. Children can be taught in school. (26)

Until the last century, „children“ of middle-class parents were made at home with the help of preceptors and private schools. Only with the advent of industrial society did the mass production of „childhood“ become feasible and come within the reach of the masses. The school system is a modern phenomenon, as is the childhood it produces. (27)

  1. Teachers and pupils. By definition, children are pupils. The demand for the milieu of childhood creates an unlimited market for accredited  teachers. School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching. And insitutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (28)
  2. Full-time attendance. School, by its very nature, tends to make a total claim on the time and the energies of its participants. This, in turn, makes the teacher into custodian, preacher, and therapist. […] Children are protected by neither the First nor the Fifth Amendment when they stand before that secular priest, the teacher. The child must confront a man who wears an invisible triple crown […] the symbol of triple authority in one person. (30-31)


Ritualization of Progress

The modern university confers the privilege of dissent on those whi have been tested and classified as potential money-makers or power-holders. (34)

The university thus has the effect of imposing consumer standards at work and at home, and it does so in every part of the world and under every political system. (35)

This transfer of responsibility from self to institution guarantees social regression, especially once it has been accepted as an obligation. So rebels against Alma Mater often „make it“ into her faculty instead of growing into the courage to infect others with their personal teaching and to assume responsibility for the results. This suggests the possibility of a new Oedipus story – Oedipus the teacher, who „makes“ his mother in order to engender children with her. The man addicted to being taught seeks his security in compulsive teaching. The woman who experiences her knowledge as the result of a process wants to reproduce it in others. (39)

In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates. (39)

But personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else’s achievement. In such learning one can emulate others only in imaginative endeavor, and follow in their footsteps rather than mimic their gait. The learning I prize is immeasurable re-creation. (40)

Once people have the idea schooled in them that values can be prouced and measured, they tend to accept all kinds of rankings. There is a scale for the development of nations, another for the intelligence of babies, and even progress toward peace can be calculated according to body count. In a schooled world the road to happiness is paved with a consumer’s index. (40)

Consumer-pupils are taught to make their desires conform to marketable values. Thus they are made to feel guilty if they do not behave according to the predictions of consumer research by getting the grades and certificates that will place them in the job category they have been led to expect. (41)

The Myth of Unending Consumption now takes the place of belief in life everlasting. (43)

But growth conceived as open-ended consumption – eternal progress – can never lead to maturity. Commitment to unlimited quantitative increase vitiates the possibility of organic development. (43)

But school enslaves more profoundly and more systematically, since only school is credited with the principal function of forming critical judgment, and, paradoxically, tries to do so by making learning about oneself, about others, and about nature depend on a prepackaged process. (47)

The discovery that most learning requires no teaching can be neither manipulated nor planned. Each of us is personally responsible for his or her own deschooling, and only we have the power to do it. (47)

If we do not challenge the assumption that valuable knowledge is a commodity whuch under certain circumstances may be forced into the consumer, society will be increasingly dominated by sinister pseudo schools and totalitarian managers of information. (50)

As long as we are not aware of the ritual through which school shapes the progressive consumer – the economy’s major resource – we cannot break the spell of this economy and shape a new one. (51)

Our present educational institutsions are at the service of the teacher’s goals. The relational structures we need are those which will enable each man to define himself by learning and by contrivuting to the learning of others. (71)


Learning webs

The educational institutions I will propose however, are meant to serve a society which does not now exist, although the current frustration with schools is itself potentially a major force to set in motion change toward new social arrangements. (73)

A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known. (75)

It must not start with the question, „What should someone learn?“ but with the question, „What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?“ (77-78)

I propose […] to label four different approaches which enable the student to gain access to any educational resource which may help him to define and achieve his own goals:

1. Reference Services to Educational Objects – which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. […]

2. Skill Exchanges – which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under whic they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.

3. Peer-Matching – a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.

4. Reference Services to Educators-at-Large – whi can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators […] could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients. (78-79)

Within school, when used in the form of tournaments, games are not only removed from the sphere of leisure; they often become tools used to translate playfulness into competition, a lack of abstract reasoning into a sign of inferiority. An exercise which is liberating for some character types becomes a strait jacket for others. (82)

A truly public kind of ownership might begin to emerge if private or corporate control over the educational aspect of „things“ were brought to the vanishing point. (87)

A much more radical approach would be to create a „bank“ for skill exchange. Each citizen would be given a basic credit with which to acquire fundamental skills. Beyond that minimum, further credits would go to those who earned them by teaching, whether they served as models in organized skill centers or did so privatelt at home or on the playground. Only those who had taught others for an equivalent amount of time would have a claim on the time of more advanced teachers. An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite of those who earned their education by sharing it. (90)

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity. (93)

The right of free assembly has been politically recognized and culturally accepted. We should now understand that this right is curtailed by laws that make some forms of assembly obligatory. (93)

Also, there is an important sense in which people who have never lived together in a physical community may occasionally have far more experiences to share than those who have known each other from childhood. […] Peer-matching could significantly help in making explicit the many potential but suppressed communities of the city. (95)

Today’s educational administrators are concerned with controlling teachers and students to the satisfaction of others – trustees, legislatures, and corporate executives. (98)

But this would require that the educational revolution be guided by certain goals:

  1. to liberate access to things by abolishing the control which persons and insitutions now exercise over their educational valuse.
  2. To liberate the sharing of skills by guaranteeing freedom to teach or exercise them on request.
  3. To liberate the critical and creative resources of people by returning to individual persons the ability to call and hold meetings – an ability now increasingly monopolized by insitutions which claim to speak for the people.
  4. To liverate the individual from the obligation to shape his expectations to the services offered by any established profession – by providing him with the opporutnity to draw on the experience of his peers and to entrust himself to the teacher, guide, adviser, or healer of his choice. Inevitably the dechooling of society will blur the distinctions between economics, education and politics on which the stability of the present world order and the stability of nations now rest.

The creature whom schools need as a client has neither the autonomy nor the motivation to grow on his own. (104)