Posts Tagged ‘deschooling’

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.




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.



Deschooling -Yes? No? How??

Dear Reader,

Have you heard this term? Deschooling gets thrown around a lot on my local homeschool lists. Loosely put it seems to mean the downtime or recovery time one needs after having been in school. Popular wisdom is that one should deschool one month for every year of formal (i.e. traditional, institutional, in a school setting) schooling. It is just a vague perception on my part, but I sense that the way this term is being used has changed recently. I have even read it suggested that a parent whose child has never even in school needs to deschool. Something about this all rubs me the wrong way so I have set myself to find out what deschooling is and whether I am for it or against it.

Defining Deschooling

The first step is to find out what exactly deschooling is so I began by googling “deschooling” and “definition.”  Wikipedia tells me that the term has been used since at least the 1970s and can mean different things in different contexts.

The key, as far as I see it, is who is being deschooled. Ivan Illich, who is credited with popularizing if not inventing the term, spoke of deschooling society (in fact that is the title on his article on the subject). I have only begun to read this article (and hope to tell you more about it in the future), but it is clear that Illich is opposed to institutions in all facets of life.  He uses the schools as his example but his opposition is really much broader. He mentions, for instance, how institutionalizing medicine has made it so people no longer think they can treat themselves at home. For Illich institutions breed dependency and create poverty (not just in monetary terms) and basically ruin us. He has some interesting ideas about how to reform education to avoid the pitfalls of institutionalism, but I will save those for a future post. For our purposes today, the point is that deschooling, for Illich, means transforming society so that it is no longer controlled by school as an institution. It is a societal, and not an individual goal, though he does say that is must be accomplished one person at a time. Behind Illich’s definition of deschooling are two fundamental ideas: that institutions are bad and have damaged us and that we can and should try to undo this damage.

In homeschooling circles, when we speak of deschooling, we are talking about something that happens to the individual. Illich’s ideas are still there, however. Deschooling assumes that institutionalized education has negative effects, that it has damaged people, and that this damage can be repaired. These are the underpinnings of deschooling, but, as I hope to show, deschooling also has something to say about the kind of damage, which in turn depends upon a certain view of the individual, and about how this damage can be repaired.

Who, What and How?

When homeschoolers speak of deschooling, they often think first of the child, but in our society it is likely that the parent also has been affected by the institutional schools so that he or she also can, and many would say must, be deschooled.

Parent or child, the immediate goal of deschooling is to get out of the “school mindset”:

“In a practical context, it refers to the mental process a person goes through after being removed from a formal schooling environment, when the “school mindset” is eroded over time. Deschooling may refer to the time period it takes for children removed from school to adjust to learning in an unstructured environment.

Families who have taken their children out of school to homeschool often find their children (and often the parents too) need a period of adjustment – learning to live without the reinforcement of grading and regimented learning.” (“Deschooling,”

How is this done, practically speaking? AtoZ Homeschooling begins their article on deschooling with this advice: “Relax, enjoy your family, and let learning come to you naturally. Don’t force it” (“Deschooling” from  “Homeschool 101: What is Deschooling?” describes it as follows: “Simply put, [deschooling] is a period of time after institutionalized schooling where parents let kids be free to do whatever they want and relearn their love of learning” (“Homeschool 101: What is Deschooling?” from

In both of these we begin to see a little more about the why and how behind deschooling — learning should come naturally. The love of learning has been lost (it is assumed) and must be reacquired. The way to do this is to give freedom and not to force learning.

If you are completely at a loss as to what activities one might do during the deschooling period, Homeschool 101 (“Homeschool 101: What is Deschooling?” from offers a long list of options from gardening to reading to hanging out with friends. Jeanne Faulconer also gives a list of practical tings to do during this period (“How to Start Homeschooling: Tips for Deschooling” by Jeanne Faulconer at In case you think your child might not need deschooling, Jeanne Faulconer also cautions that the child may choose school-y activities out of habit even though this is not what is what they really want or need (“From School to Homeschool: What is Deschooling?” by Jeanne Faulconer at

What’s the parent’s role in all this?  AtoZ Homeschooling sums it up succinctly: “You are doing exactly right if you are just the wallet and the wheels!” (“Deschooling” from

Parents are not completely off the hook, however. They have their own deschooling to do. Since most adults today were themselves educated in institutional schools, parents’ notions of what education can and should look like are often much more deeply rooted than those of their children:

“You will also find that parents themselves need to ‘deschool’. We have to get past the idea that learning only happens in a classroom, in 40-minute periods, or with workbooks and pens. Education does not start at nine o’clock in the morning, nor does it necessarily stop in the middle of the afternoon.”(“Deschooling” from Home Education in the UK)

“Even if you have been dreaming of homeschooling for years or planning it for months, you have still been institutionalized by having been in school yourself and by experiencing school again through your children. It may be just as tough for you, if not even more challenging, to through off the shackles of scheduling every minute of the day, of grading on a letter scale, of assessing knowledge through standardized tests, and of feeling the pressure to race through topics the way a traditional school does.” (“Deschooling: Important Homeschooling Step or Useless Buzzword?” from

“Deschooling for Parents” from gives a very good, personal account of how one parent deschooled herself and why she needed to do so.

Benefits of Deschooling

Homeschool 101 offers a nice list of benefits to deschooling. These can be sorted into two categories, those that directly benefit the child and those that are for the parent’s benefit. In the former category we have getting control of their own education, getting over damage done by the schools, de-stressing, finding their own interests, and seeing that education can be fun. In the latter, we find allowing time to prepare for homeschooling and finding out how their children learn (“Homeschool 101: What is Deschooling?” from

There are also familial benefits. Home Education in the UK speaks of these as does Homeschooling-Ideas (“Deschooling” from The deschooling period allows parents and children to get to know one another again and also allows siblings to learn to be together:

“If you have more than one child, it also gives them a chance to get used to being in each others company again.” (“Deschooling” from

Deschooling and Unschooling

Because of the similarity in their names, and because the terms are not always used consistently, deschooling and unschooling may be confused. Unschooling refers to a particular approach to homeschooling, deschooling to a period of transition between traditional schooling and homeschooling.

Advocates of deschooling often make a point of saying that deschooling need not lead to unschooling and can (and should) be used before any approach to homeschooling:

Deschooling is important for all families who are starting homeschooling, even if they will ultimately use an ongoing approach or homeschooling style that is not unschooling. ” (“Deschooloing vs. Unschooling: What’s the Difference?” by Jeanne Faulconer from

Despite these assertions, there does seem to be a close connection between the two. Both Sandra Dodd and Pam Larrichia define deschooling as the transition period to unschooling (“Deschooling for Parents” by Sandra Dodd on, originally published in Home Education Magazine, Sept/Oct 2002; “Why Deschooling?” by Pam Larrichia at The whole concept of deschooling, as it is used within homeschooling circles, seems fairly new to me. At least I hadn’t heard of it 8 or 10 years ago. I’m not sure what the actual evolution of the term is, but Sandra Dodd’s article is from 2002. I rather suspect that deschooling started within the unschooling community and was, as she defines it, a way of transitioning to unschooling, and that since then its use has expanded so that now we speak of deschooling as a necessary transition period no matter what your educational philosophy.

Indeed, the movement from deschooling to unschooling seems like a very natural one. Larrichia describes such a gradual transition saying that deschooling should last “long enough that when you’re nearing the end, hopefully you’ve reached the point where you’re not even looking for the ‘end’ any more” (“Why Deschooling?” by Pam Larrichia at A letter on Sandra Dodd’s website (“Deschooling” on from a parent identified as Rachel Marie describes just such a process. She writes that though she committed to deschooling for 6 months with the intention of then moving on to more formal homeschooling, 6 months became a year and then 2 years before she knew it. Even those who do not define deschooling as the precursor to unschooling acknowledge that the former leads naturally into the latter:

“You may find that this period of deschooling gradually evolves into the kind of learning – autonomous education, or ‘unschooling’ that so many home educators do over many years.” (“Deschooling” from Home Education in the UK)

In truth, the ideas behind deschooling meld better with unschooling than with any other approach to homeschooling.

The Ideas behind Deschooling

Ideas matter. I have said many times that the ideas behind your homeschooling curriculum matter. Most advocates of deschooling claim to be neutral; they say that deschooling, as they define it, not only works with but should be used before any approach to homeschooling. But there are ideas behind deschooling and they may or may not fit with your intended approach to homeschooling.

I recently published a quiz to help you determine your best homeschooling approach. I tried to look particularly at the philosophy behind each approach (and I considered 16 of them). If I apply this quiz to deschooling, I find that its answers pretty much line up with those of homeschooling (you can find the nitty-gritty details here if you really care; deschooling’s answers are in bold). I should say this is true for those questions for which deschooling provides an answer; it does not address every issue. And, of course, deschooling is a temporary state.

Deschooling is essentially temporary unschooling. Like unschooling, it does not have an agenda, limits the role of the parent/teacher, says that learning happens through free play or at least free time. It is child-directed.  It says that the child will get what they need without adult involvement. Its goals — though they are intermediate goals — are to revive the love of learning and to allow the child to find interests, or possibly to find himself.

I think the core ideas behind deschooling are these:

  1. Institutional schooling has a negative effect and has likely damaged anyone who has been subject to it.
  2. Children have an innate love of learning which is essential to true education.
  3. The primary negative effect of institutional schooling is to kill this love of learning.
  4. This damage can and should be undone so that the love of learning is reclaimed.
  5. The way to undo the damage and to enable children to reclaim their love of learning is to allow them time and space to be as un-school-like as possible. Parents should not interfere or direct. They should not push any kind of learning or educational activities. Children should be given freedom to do what they want.

Evaluating Deschooling: Will it work for you?

So is deschooling a good fit for your family? The answer depends on what your personal philosophy of education is. If you have chosen to homeschool, odds are you are dissatisfied with the schools available to you in some way.  It is likely that you will consciously do something differently than the schools do (for some examples see “Deschooling: The School Rules You Need to Break” and “Deschooling: More School Rules You Need to Break” by Rebecca Capuano at But that doesn’t mean that you need to accept all that deschooling implies.

If you look again at the list above of ideas behind deshcooling, the later ones tend to depend upon the earlier ones, but they are not necessary results. You can go through this list and think about each one in turn. You may get to the end of the list and say, yes, I agree with all of that. If so, deschooling is for you. But if you find yourself disagreeing at any point, then deschooling, as it is usually defined, may not be the best for your family.

While many homeschooling families are consciously rejecting the system of institutional schools, some are not. You may homeschool because you have no native language schools near you, because you are in the military, or your child has a sport or business they pursue aggressively, or because your child misses the school cut-off age. In any of these cases, you might be perfectly okay with the school system we have or even want to keep on target to have your child re-enter it at some point. In such cases, you may not even agree with point 1 above and getting out of the school-mode probably doesn’t fit your needs.

Ideas 2 through 4 have to do with the love of learning. While I would hope that any parent would view such a love as a good thing, many homeschool approaches don’t depend upon it or view it is as something which is developed later rather than being innate. This may not rule deschooling out entirely but might at least affect how one goes about it.

Which brings us to idea 5. Personally I agree with ideas 1 through 4, but I differ when it comes to the last point. I don’t think complete freedom is the best way to rebuild the love of learning.  I take a Charlotte Mason (CM) approach to homeschooling so I will speak of how I think she would have addressed the problem. Other philosophies which also rely upon or seek to build the love of learning may have their own takes on the best ways to go about it.

I do think children are born with the desire for knowledge and that traditional schooling kills that but that it can be reclaimed. But I do not think complete freedom is the way to go about it. While Charlotte Mason saw the value of free time (“masterly inactivity”), she believed the way to keep the desire to learn foremost was: 1) to not subvert it by catering to other desires such as the desire for rewards (grades) and 2) to supply the mind with quality materials such as “living books,” fine art, and good music. She frequently uses the analogy of a meal. The mind, she says, needs to be fed on ideas in order to thrive. One does not force-feed intellectual foods; one presents them and the child-mind will take in what is right for it. But this is not complete freedom. The banquet is chosen by the parent/teacher and presented, but it is up to the child to “eat” what he will. To extend this analogy to the problem at hand, we would say that the child who has been damaged by schooling is like one whose appetite has been ruined by a diet of what basically amounts to intellectual sawdust, and that only fed on an arbitrary and artificial schedule. The solution is not to allow complete freedom but to place before the child good, nutritious food without forcing them to eat.

To my mind deschooling says let them eat whatever they want in an effort to restore their intellectual appetites. And I do think that could work for some children. Perhaps even many children. I suspect most still have a shred of their original appetites left and on their own they may seek out what will sustain them. But I also think that some will be so burnt out and damaged that they will fill themselves with what is essentially intellectual junk food, better perhaps than the school’s sawdust but still not what is healthiest for them. I also think many (most?) people are inherently lazy. Left to their own devices, many children will choose what amounts to intellectual junk food, what CM called “twaddle.” It’s better than the sawdust the schools provide, but it is not truly nourishing.


I think there are some good ideas behind deschooling. I do think its proponents have identified a problem and are trying to address it. In fact, I guess you could say I agree with 80% of what they have to say. Where I differ is in the how of it all. I do not think that complete freedom is the best way to rebuild the love of learning. I realize I have my own presuppositions which are informing my position. One of the key ones would be that there are better and worse things to be reading and studying. If you have other approaches to homeschooling, you may have your own ideas about what the best way to rebuild that love of learning is.

For the parent, I do recommend taking some time to evaluate how you want to do this thing called homeschooling. There are plenty of approaches to education out there to choose from (again you can take a quiz to get you started). Jeanne Faulconer also offers a similar list of questions to ask yourself as you begin your homeschooling journey (“Parental-Deschooling: Find Your Non-School Normal: Part 1” by Jeanne Faulconer at

Lastly, I heartily second a tip from  “Beyond School Daze: The Deschooling Process” at which is to always ask why you are doing what you are doing — “whether there is school reason or a good reason to do things with your homeschooling child.”


Books on Deschooling:

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. His original essay of that name is available as a free pdf here. I’m not honestly sure if the book adds more or not.

Deschooling Gently by Tammy Takahashi is recommended by AtoZ Homeschooling. I could not, however, find the Kindle book available anymore and was unwilling to pay $58 for the print version.

Deschooling for Parents by Sara McGrath — The Amazon blurb on this book calls deschooling a “cleansing, deprogramming process.”

Deschooling Our Lives by Matt Hern — This book seems to be aimed at reforming the educational system and is not a how-to guide for homeschoolers.