Ivan Illich

Deschooling Society

In Deschooling Society Ivan Illich proposes his ideas about how ‘schools have failed our individual needs, supporting false and misleading notions of progress and development, fostered by the belief that ever-increasing production, consumption and profit are proper yardsticks for measuring the quality of human life’. Illich has some strong opinions and radical ideas about the way school operates and why this is generally bad for society. He breaks down the flaws in the education system and proposes general ideas for reform. 

I picked this book up because in the past year or so I’ve been more interested in the ways school has shaped me and everyone around me. I sort of took it for granted that it did and didn’t really think about the negative impacts or its underlying influence. However, in The Elephant In The Brain there’s a short section about school being a ‘systematic exercise in human domestication’. There were a few things that resonated with me, for instance: ‘Whilst most fifth graders are strict egalitarian…, by late adolescence, most children have switched ethos, preferring to divide things up in proportion to individual achievements’. Also, ‘teachers systematically reward children for being docile and punish them for ‘acting out’, that is, for acting as their own masters’. This idea of domestication sort of stuck with me and the way in which this shapes the underlying roots of society, so this book felt like the perfect place to explore those ideas.

To give some context, the book was first published in 1971 so naturally a lot of things have changed about education in the past half century, mainly the internet. However, Illich’s arguments are still very relevant and go to show that maybe the underlying institution of school has not changed as much as it seems and that we’re still stuck in the same cycle, probably a more accelerated one. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the different ways in which education has changed and which beliefs of Illich’s have stood the test of time.

The book’s first chapter ‘Why We Must Disestablish School’ introduces Illich’s thoughts on the school system. He states that ‘the pupil is schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new’. He also talks about why education is vastly different for students in different social classes and wealth levels despite attending the same school. This is because opportunity differences and the ability to take advantage of those opportunities are vast between poor and middle-class children. In this first chapter he also presents one of the main themes of the book, which is the idea that learning happens casually and not in schools.

‘Most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in a few rich countries school has become a place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.’

Illich goes on to derail the curriculum, performance measurement and certification. He argues that schools teach young people to recognise their position in a hierarchical society, in which the only route to a successful life, is to passively consume what is offered.

The central body of the book goes on to focus on different aspects of school as he gives evidence for his main arguments. He views the teacher as a moralist substitute for parents, God, or the state by stating, ‘[they] indoctrinate the pupil about what is right or wrong, not only in school but society at large’. I take issue with this because I think he’s overstating the amount of moral power a teacher has. I guess this depends on where you are in the world, however I feel at points within the book he portrays pupils as mindless consumers, which I don’t think is true. There is definitely a critical nature to many pupils and at a minimum this is shown implicitly through their attitude towards school. However, I agree with the idea that the morals of right and wrong are sort of culturally imprinted in society, and school has a large influence on this. I do think this attitude has started to change in the past half-decade or so, or that more people are more aware of it.

Illich’s main argument is that school is a hindrance to learning in the way it is set up, which I believe is the most valuable argument of the book. He takes issue with the fact that learning is seen in society as something that is purely enabled by educational institutions, which is why many people associate learning with school and therefore hold an apathetic attitude towards it. He states ‘most learning is not the result of instruction, it is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting’. He views educational institutions as being at the service of the teacher’s goal and sees the solution as ‘enabling each man to define himself by learning and contributing to the learning of others’.

In the last two chapters Illich proposes some general directions in which he feels would reform issues presented by the schooling system. He proposes three purposes of a good educational institution:

  1. It should provide all those who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives
  2. Empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them
  3. Furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known

I think some of these ideas have been or are being realised with the internet. However, the school system has stayed rather stagnant whilst the internet has transformed the way in which a person can learn things, especially in regard to communities and resources. Resources are still an issue in academic communities with access to academic papers only being available to those within academic institutions and a lot being behind paywalls. There is still a large attitude of gate-keeping, especially within higher educational institutions given their influence on attitudes in society. Although I do think this will break down slightly in the next few decades with alternative educational institutions becoming more wide-spread. Illich addressed this stating that ‘the general physical environment must be made accessible, and those physical learning resources which have been reduced to teaching instruments become generally available for self-directed learning’.

Despite not agreeing with a few of the ideas presented in the book the main points were well addressed and interesting to view from this perspective. I did find some of his explanations to be poor and sometimes they were drawn out longer than they needed to be, which tended to take value away from the point he was arguing. However, it was good read as it sparked a lot of ideas about the way I view my own education and helped me to articulate and extend ideas that I’d thought about previously. I’d highly recommend the book if you’re interested in the ways your education has shaped you and society, and even if not it will add some value to your life.

I’ll finish with Illich’s goals of the educational revolution:

  1. To liberate access to things by abolishing the control which persons and institutions now exercise over their education values.
  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.
  4. To liberate the individual from the obligation to shape his expectations to the services offered by any established profession - by providing him with the opportunity to draw on the experience of his peers and to entrust himself to the teacher, guide, advisor, or healer of his choice.