Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil 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. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

Ivan Illich Deschooling Society (1973: 9)

After having read this interesting book over the christmas period I thought I’d write down a few thoughts and impressions from it.

Lots of Illich’s work is focused on critiquing the institutions which on first glance are taken for granted such as education, transport, health care and work. In this book Illich focuses on the education system, its impacts on children in the global North, its development in the global South and argues for an alternative which he labels learning webs. Illich argues that the education system confuses the process of a minimum of 10 – 12 years mandatory education with professional educators intermittently interrupted by standardised tests with the substance/aim of education, supporting people to acquire useful information and develop ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

The book is critical of the educational institution and it supporting experts – educational technicians, the role of teachers (however well meaning they wish to be) and the subjects the system is aimed at producing. This is still an important critique, many of the students involved in organising against cuts to education have an image of the ideal university with which to base their claims on. I’m sceptical as to whether the university was ever an institution which those of us seeking to develop the human potential to its greatest would ever be happy with. Competition, examination, time pressures, limited academic freedom were presumably present in previous forms of the university even before the current edu-crisis. Illich’s criticism of the educational system, which does not explicitly discuss the university as a specific structure,  is useful for those engaged with current struggles surrounding the university.

In its place Illich suggests educational webs, informal networks facilitated through public services and social networks   (and presumably the internet today) would seek to link co-learners together in voluntary encounters. Those with specific skills could also advertise their skills and help to spread them through the tuition of interested parties. Illich, it seems, is arguing for mainly informal learning aimed at matching those with needs (an interest in car mechanics, a desire to read and discuss a specific book or idea) with either those in possession of specific sets of knowledge and skills (e.g. musicians) or those interested in sharing the learning experience together (reading group partners). The important thing that many of us interested in education might be able to take from this is that the most important thing, obviously enough, is to match desires/needs with like-minded people or those with the knowledge to help satisfy these needs. There isn’t much point doing rocket stove workshops in inner-city Manchester, the only need this is probably staisfying is for the rocket stove enthusiast putting on the workshops…

How we get to be in a position to work out these needs is another question though… Needs that emerge from within our own networks, social groups and communities might be easy enough but “solidarity” (or whatever we’d like to call it) with other communities may be a harder process. How do we know what other groups would like and how can we seek to facilitate these learning encounters without being patronising or well meaning but useless…

The book is, obviously, very old, so for a more in depth analysis maybe look elsewhere. the point above are more a snap shot of a few of the thoughts I had whilst engaging with the book.


p.s.  just found the Pinky Show’s video interpretation of this. It’s lovely, if not a little bizarre.  Only just found out about the Pinky Show and I think they’re pretty great.

Posted on January 6, 2011, in Articles, Comments and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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