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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Ivan Illich: Deschooling Society

Craig and Phil suggested reading Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich as part of the Edupunk course I'm on. It took just three baths to read as the book is only 116 pages long. It has a big idea - viz: schools institutionalise learning and stultify creativity, they are good for teaching but not for learning; much better to close them down and have open access to learning networks, where learners can borrow resources and arrange to meet fellow citizens in possession of the skills they want to learn. It's radical!

For me it would involve dismantling one of society's greatest achievements - universal education - so that people can more easily learn basket weaving and car maintenance rather than the broad curriculum needed to participate in a modern economy. There are a lot of problems with our education system but Deschooling Society and its rhetoric is no solution. Of course, we were invited to read the book because Illich's ideas about learning networks resemble the open educational resources we are exploring and creating on our Edupunk course. But these resources are additional - an extension - to the teaching and learning found in schools, colleges and universities. It seems to me that most OERs are the product of an already educated elite sharing resources amongst itself. Surely a society wide version of Summerhill would only perpetuate inequalities, favouring those who have parents with cultural capital, money and power. It is schools - properly organised and with resources targetted at the early years - that offer the possibility of a more egalitarian society.


  1. Deschooling, in Illichean terms, was never a way to favor the rich. In fact, Illich was very concerned about the autonomy and natural resources within local communities. Neighbors learning from one another, particularly outside of the money economy, becomes a large part of the deschooling philosophy. Many poor families deschool/homeschool/unschool. Illich even spoke of dropouts in inner cities as one form of deschooling, pointing out that schools often cause more harm than good.

    To truly get at the heart of Illich's ideas, we have to see that he was critiquing all institutions, not just education. He wanted people to see how we let institutions dictate our lives. This included the church, health care, schooling, and even transportation. Illich was no model of deschooling; he went through formal schooling for many years, taught in formal schooling, and experimented with his own form of free education in Mexico (CIDOC). Perhaps we should not take from his work that he wanted to dictate or proscribe how we should live, but rather he wanted to point out to us some of the hidden "certainties" that we take for granted (and are often harmful to us without us knowing it).

  2. Thank you for your comment, it's thought provoking. I can see that Illich is on the side of the citizen, critical of organisations that limit freedom and create hegenomy by institutionalising values. I wasn't convinced by his alternative, which is supported by a lot of rhetoric but not much else.

  3. You write: "There are a lot of problems with our education system but Deschooling Society and its rhetoric is no solution."

    In fact, Illich had no interest in fixing the problems of the education system. He actually sought to dismantle it. He envisioned a world in which people would not need education as we currently understand it, a world in which knowledge is not kept artificially scarce by the schooling systems and self-interested corporations. Indeed, his critique was aimed at economics and scarcity in general.

    I highly recommend that you also read his book 'Tools for Conviviality,' written a couple of years later. It is one of the most insightful critiques of technology there is. It will show where Illich was going in his thoughts about schooling. It is available here and there on the Web as a no-charge download. My advice: run, don't walk.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to respond Winlsow, I will certainly read the book you recommend.

  5. I think that the key is to distinguish between "schooling" and "educating." To Ilich--and to me--schooling implies treatment. Many of the various waves of education reform over the decades involve some form of methodological refinement, i.e., better treatment. But there are two effects to this treatment - one relating to the stated endeavor to create equity, and one relating to the unstated mission of creating inequity (this duality most recently manifest in No Child Left Behind). I think that Illich was absolutely on target about institutionalized education a la schooling artifically making itself appear to be necessary, even indispensible, both to individual development and to the betterment of society. I would take his specific ideas with a grain of salt and rather find new ways to personalize, democratize, and de-institutionalize education because it creates as many problems as it solves, and probably more. I see it all the time in schools from K through university. I don't think that Summerhill is a good example or counter-example; it's a caricature. Illich didn't imply a system or even a non-system. That's up to us to figure out. I believe we can move toward an open, networked learning system that allows us to keep the best of social and face-to-face learning and includes mechanisms for feedback and accountability (but not top-down accountability), and a way of getting people out of their comfort zones while at the same time personalizing and democratizing education, and insulating it from politicization and economic ups and downs. It's hard for people to let go of the image of schooling as they know it, however, deeply embedded as it is in their own experience and that of their parents. It's the "I turned out okay so it can't be so bad, can it?" syndrome. Yes, it did turn out kinda bad, actually.