Half a century ago, Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich published a little book called Deschooling Society. Illich’s principal aim in that book was to critique existing educational institutions from the elementary school to the university. His aim was clearly indicated in the title: he wants to “deschool” society—to get rid of them, and to replace them with educational practices of a very different kind. Illich was not much of a believer in institutions in general. We moderns tend to be, and so much so that the idea he was proposing immediately strikes us as preposterous. How, we might think, is any society to function without special institutions that are charged with educating the young? With many now opting for homeschooling and other alternatives to the public education system, it might profit us to have another look at Illich’s argument.

Why, Illich asked, do we presently have so much confidence in institutions? Are our institutions—educational and otherwise—getting such marvelous results that there’s simply no need to question or change them? Surely not. University marketers will often talk as if their graduates are all Einsteins with great jobs and high salaries, but this is not actually true. Even when we believe that our schools are getting bad results, the question is always how can we design better schools, not whether we should consider replacing them with a different educational model. One of the questions Illich wanted us to consider is, why do we have such faith in institutions, as we certainly do in modern times—ever more, ever larger institutions of a great many kinds and upon which we have become highly dependent. What justifies this faith? Illich’s answer is: nothing. Institutions of a great many kinds claim a monopoly over the value they’re charged with providing. When those institutions fail to produce the values over which they claim exclusive expertise, as they so often do, all of our thinking then goes into the matter of how to improve the institutions rather than whether the monopoly should be removed and a different model introduced.

Consider, he points out, the idea of self-education, or the idea that the state of your learning is your personal responsibility. Today the dominant view is that self-education is about as doomed to failure as self-doctoring. The very idea of self-reliance or even individual accomplishment, in many fields, is suspect. In education, it seems obvious that young people need schooling. They must not take their learning into their own hands, unless it’s at an advanced stage of the learning process or after they’ve had many years of formal schooling. Once you’ve been well schooled, maybe you can start to choose what books you are going to read in your free time, what courses to take, and so on. Even there, however, you need some guidance. The assumption is that learning isn’t something that the individual can take into their own hands. There is no learning without teaching—and teaching of the kind that happens in schools. You must be taught by others who have special qualifications, and who have been certified by other people with special qualifications. What becomes, Illich asked, of the auto-didact, the person who teaches him- or herself or who otherwise learns without a school teacher? The assumption today appears to be that such people don’t exist, or if they do exist they are rare or have some extraordinary intellectual capacities that the vast majority lack. Leave it to the professionals, we say, but what justifies our confidence in the professionals? As he went on to point out, the planning efforts of our institutions are not just occasionally counterproductive but normally so. It is a common phenomenon for governments to spend more and more money to bring about some value or other, or to solve a social problem, and to get counterproductive results while also making people more and more dependent on institutions. We make people dependent in this way by convincing them of their own incapacity. We’ve become an incapacitated society, he believed, and this especially applies to our attitudes toward education. The very idea of self-education is now completely discredited.

Illich’s response to this is that we need to be far more skeptical of our schools than we are and one aspect of this suspicion should take political form: our schooling practices create a system of social ranking that may be compared to the division between aristocrats and commoners of a couple of centuries ago. Think of the attitudes we tend to have toward high school dropouts, or even people who have pursued post-secondary education but at the wrong places. Think of the careers that are closed to us because of where we did or didn’t go to school. We constantly discriminate on this basis and think it perfectly justified to do so, even when we think that discrimination in any other form is immoral.

His argument continues this way: think of everything that you’ve learned which you consider to be important. Where did you learn it? Did someone teach it to you, someone like a teacher? Illich’s answer is, likely not. Most of what we learn, we learn informally, casually, without it having been planned, and outside institutions. It is not a consequence of deliberately planned instruction. One example is learning a language. This is surely one of the most difficult and important things we will ever learn, and where does it occur? It happens in the home, or otherwise outside of schools. It can also happen in schools, but notice how much more difficult it is to learn a second language in a classroom than outside it, in a place where the language is commonly spoken. For the most part, it’s very difficult to acquire skills in school. How would they be better acquired? How are people going to acquire skills if not in schools?

Illich’s answer is in what he called “skill centers.” In skill centers, teachers are not teachers in the regular sense but people who have mastered a particular skill of some kind, similar to how trades have traditionally been taught and learned. If you want to learn carpentry, you learn it best by apprenticing with a professional carpenter for a few years just as you can learn farming from a farmer and cabinet-making from a cabinet-maker rather than from a teacher in the institutional sense. We acquire a skill from someone who has mastered that skill. For the most part, schools are the wrong places to learn a skill and they are even worse places to get an education in a broader sense, for instance, in the arts and humanities. A liberal education, Illich thought, would be better acquired by people spontaneously forming informal groups based on a shared interest.

Schooling of any kind instills habits, and these habits can be remarkably resistant to change. Students, for instance, become completely accustomed to institutional planning, to the competition for grades, to thinking that learning is dependent on teaching, and that it can be quantified objectively with grades. When we grow up running through mazes, expecting some tangible reward at the end, we can only think of the university as a new kind of maze and this is exactly what the modern university has become, and much more so now than in 1971 when this book appeared. What has been completely lost, he argued, is the value of intellectual independence. Learning, we now believe, can only be an effect of a certain cause, which is attendance in class. It is something that requires elaborate planning by experts, and it conditions all of us to go out into the world expecting more of the same, to have our actions managed and governed by institutions and without noticing that we are being manipulated, without thinking that things could be any other way. They have been accustomed as well to believe that all values can be measured, that qualitative matters, such as the ability to think, can be quantified in the form of a grade while “unmeasured experience slips out of their hands.”

For Illich, we face a basic choice between two kinds of institution, which he called the “manipulative institution” and the “convivial” one. The first dominates the modern world. The second lives a precarious existence, but the future depends on the second type. Manipulative institutions focus on utilitarian planning, assigned roles and rules, quantified values, etc. and examples include schools, universities, police, military, corporations, government or public institutions generally. Convivial institutions are centered around actions rather than the consumption of utilities. We face a basic choice, then, between consuming and acting. Meaningful action should have a kind of moral priority over the production and consumption of utilities, he believed.

Illich outlined the kind of education that he favored in the last couple of chapters of the book, after spending most of it criticizing the institutions of his day. Importantly, he maintained that the kind of institutions he favored are suited to a society that doesn’t presently exist, so it is no simple reform project that he offered. His question was: is there a different way that learning can take place than in schools of the traditional kind? We need to encourage self-motivated learning, but how is this done? It may be accomplished, he argued, by a new set of educational practices and institutions, but convivial ones. What is required for learning are essentially four resources. These are what he called “things” (physical resources like books, libraries, labs, computers, etc.), “skill models” (individuals who possess certain skills and are willing to demonstrate them to others), “peers” (a communication network where students with similar interests can pursue their shared interests together), and “elders” (people who could advise students on which skills they may want to learn and from whom).

Illich gave us a somewhat sketchy but interestingly out-of-the-box model for how education might work, although he also indicated that for it to work a great deal about our modern world would need to change first. It may be pie in the sky, but thinking sometimes needs to be. The questions his argument leaves us with are many, but perhaps the most important are whether his criticisms of contemporary education are accurate—as it seems to me many of them are—and whether his alternative solves these problems without creating more in the process.

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