Illich and Mason — Two Proposals to Reform Education

Dear Reader,

Recently, 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 and thought-provoking. I was also rereading Charlotte Mason’s 6th volume Towards a Philosophy of Education for my local book discussion group and was surprised to find that she had ideas which sound a lot like Illich’s.

Illich, writing in the 1970s, proposes a system in which people have access to the “educational tools” (“Deschooling Society,” 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. Illich’s goal is to do away with all institutional education, but his proposals seem to envision what we would call adult or continuing education (though they were perhaps not limited to that).

Mason, writing soon after WWI, also has a proposal for what she calls “Continuation Classes.” In her day, it seems, there were new laws to extend education to the age of 16 or 18, but she fears that the kind of education that was being provided was not the most beneficial. Her vision is not of what we would call technical education. “All preparation for specialized industries should be taboo,” she says (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97). Skills can be learned by any “likely” lad. Rather, they should be academic; they should continue to feed minds upon ideas. She speaks of “their natural capacity to know and their natural desire for knowledge, that desire to know history, poetry, science, art which is natural to every man” (p. 97). Her goal is “thousands of Colleges up and down the land, each of them the Continuation School  . .  for some neighborhood” (p. 97).

In their goals and to a certain extent in their approach, Mason and Illich sound quite alike. They both address not just the education of youth but that of adults, those already out in the workforce. Both see local centers which serve the needs of the community. Illich includes education in skills as well as more academic subjects, a notion which Mason rejects, though perhaps this can be in some measure accounted for by the differences in their societies; we no longer have much in the way of apprenticeships to provide skill education. Both also assume some role for the government in establishing such things.

That similar ideas were proposed some 50 or more years apart makes one wonder whether we have made any progress in that direction, here almost another 50 years later again.  I don’t know the situation in the UK (where Charlotte Mason lived) but we certainly have not moved away from institutional education here in the US  nor is there any grand system for continuing education which seems to meet either Illich or Mason’s standards. To be sure there are community colleges and the like and ways to pursue education if one wishes, but they are by no means widely used, especially for purely academic interest as Mason envisages. Both seem to have an “if you build it, they will come” attitude so we may ask whether the fault lies in the system — that it is not promoted enough or simply is not good enough — or in the people themselves; perhaps they have no real interest.

The one thing we do have which neither could fully imagine (though Illich in the 70s did see a role for computers) is the internet. As I mentioned in my review of his article, Illich’s system sounds a lot like what we have in the internet — as way for people to find those of like interests and to form communities in which they can discuss and learn together. And certainly the web does provide a myriad of opportunities for just such intellectual stimulation. (Both Illich’s and Mason’s works can be read there free of charge.) But I think we also see that people are just as likely — more likely even — to use it for trivial, inane and even evil purposes.

It’s a wonderful world Illich and Mason see. Personally, I am skeptical of the government’s ability to institute a truly nourishing academic environment and of the people’s desire to actually seek it out and make use of it should it exist.




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