Book Review: Deschooling Society

Dear Reader,

In my recent post on deschooling, I mentioned “Deschooling Society” by Ivan Illich (read it online as a pdf here). I’m not sure if this article from the 1970s coined the term “deschooling” but it certainly seems to be the one to have popularized it. Because Illich is discussing society more than the individual, I didn’t delve too deeply into it in my earlier post. I did, however, read it and though I don’t agree entirely with Illich, he does have  a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things to say.

Illich’s basic thesis is that institutions are bad. They create poverty, not just in monetary terms but various kinds of poverty. They breed dependence and thus perpetuate themselves. He focuses on institutionalized education (i.e.the schools) as his prime example but it is by no means his sole target. Another example would be institutionalized medicine. As we have come to have licensed doctors and hospitals, we have come to think that we need them for every small illness. We no longer trust anyone else to treat us. Illich chooses to focus his attack on the schools because they are a relatively recent innovation and because the teachers themselves are dissatisfied. Both of these make it more likely that we would be able to do away with the schools. Though he speaks of “deschooling society” and though the changes he looks for are ultimately societal, Illich does acknowledge that they must come about one individual at a time.

“Deschooling Society” is full of wonderful quotes like “For most men the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school” (p. 2) and “School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching” (p. 22). I heartily agree with the sentiment and I can see Illich’s point that one the biggest things schooling has taught us is that we need trained teachers. How many homeschooling parents have been asked if they have a teaching degree? The common assumption is that one cannot teach without proper training. This is rubbish. Schools have taught us, more than anything else, that we need schools. Even when they fail, Illich says, we just throw more money at them and conclude that education must be very difficult indeed and that more specialists are necessary (p. 8).

Illich does not just outline a problem, he also presents a view of how education should work.  “Most learning happens casually,” (p. 12) he says. He sees the place for rote learning for what he calls skills but says that most learning results from “unhampered participation in a meaningful setting” (p. 29). He proposes a system in which people have access to the “educational tools” (p. 57) they need — both physical things such as equipment and books and other people, peers to learn with and mentors who can pass on knowledge. He envisions a sort of voucher system which allows people to gain access to what they need and desire.  This is not a system which asks or dictates what should be learned but which allows people to have access and assumes that they will make the most of it.

While there is a lot here I like, there is also a fair amount I disagree with. I think most of Illich’s critiques are on target. I am not so enamored of his proposed solutions. The system he proposes is not a simple one. It would require a fair amount of regulation and legislation in its own right. He admits that there would need to be a small class of educational specialists to operate it. It is basically a governmental solution and I would venture to say is institutional as well, though to a lesser degree as it does not require anyone to participate or dictate how they should participate (Illich actually spends a chapter talking about just such distinctions — the difference between convivial and manipulative institutions as he terms them).

But even if it were not for the bureaucracy it seems to require, I could still not get behind Illich’s scheme entirely. While I agree with him that the desire for knowledge is innate, the fact is that most of us have been damaged by the “school mindset” and have lost that desire. As I discussed in my article on deschooling, I don’t think we can assume that will be recovered simply by removing the institutional schools. All-in-all I think Illich, like the unschooling movement, relies too much on the individual to acquire that which he needs. I just don’t have that high a view of human nature 😉 People have natural tendencies as well to laziness and dishonesty. I can’t see a system such as he proposes working well.

Interestingly, we have in some measure adopted one of Illich’s proposals. Remember that his article was written in the 1970s, before the internet. He suggested that people should be given ways to connect with their peers with similar interests. He even envisioned a kind of computer-based matching service that would aid in this, alongside more old-fashioned approaches like community bulletin boards. Now, on a voluntary basis, we do have this ability in spades. Anyone can go online and find those with similar interests. And we have done this. Personally I have connected with other homeschoolers, based on both locality and philosophy, and with other parents of children with Type 1 Diabetes. The internet has been invaluable for this and I am very glad for it. But I think we can also see that people use the internet to rally around very frivolous topics as well, not to mention downright evil ones. My point is that we have inadvertently implemented one aspect of Illich’s idea and the results show us that, while there are benefits, there are also ways to misuse or trivialize the system.

Even if people were to seek out knowledge through systems such as Illich proposes, he leaves it entirely up to the individual what they will pursue. I prefer an education with a broad base. Like Charlotte Mason, I am wary of the specialist who may often become an eccentric. A broad base, which one is less likely to pursue on their own, allows greater stimulation and creativity.

Ideas matter. And what lies below the problems that I have with Illich’s view are really  very different views of humanity.  He says at one point that deschooling is “the root of human liberation” (p. 34). He ends his book by speaking of Promethean versus Epimethean man and of “the corruption of man’s self-image” (p. 80). Early on Illich calls schools a prison. If we are imprisoned by our institutions (and I think he would say all our institutions do this though he only here focuses on the schools), then our salvation comes through ridding ourselves of these institutions. And what are we saved to? Illich seems to say that the goal is a right view of man. This is clearly a humanistic view. There is a problem, yes, but we are able to get ourselves out of it (though we did get ourselves into it too) and our goal is no higher than ourselves.

There is a lot in this article to make one think and I am glad I stumbled across it. I think Illich has some interesting ideas. Some of what he says is especially intriguing in light of more recent developments, both the rise of the internet and Obamacare come to mind. In the end, I find his position humanistic and I can’t get behind a lot of what he says but I would recommend reading the article.



One response to this post.

  1. […] I shared with you my reactions after reading Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society.” While I didn’t agree with everything Illich had to say, I found his work intriguing […]


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