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28 July 2022

Against school

The 20th-century social critic Ivan Illich’s radical, egalitarian model of learning has never been more relevant to today’s hyper-commoditised education system.

By John Burnside

In early 1971, after years of desperate boredom, chronic frustration and random acts of rebellion, I was expelled from my working-class Catholic comprehensive school in Corby, Northants. I was 16. A few months later, Calder & Boyars published Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, a radical critique of how obligatory schooling perpetuates power elites all over the world. The book was both timely and prophetic, foreshadowing a for-profit corporatisation of schooling that has only increased in the intervening years, and highlighting inequities that are all the more obvious in the age of Betsy DeVos, the former US education secretary, Trump University and, closer to the UK, the A-Level downgrading fiasco of 2020. For a time, educators seriously debated Illich’s critique, and the “learning networks” that he proposed as a remedy for institutional failure. In the five decades since Deschooling Society first appeared, however, his vision has been effectively sidelined and, while he did become a regular on the academic circuit towards the end of his life, his proposals, not just for new ways of learning, but for more convivial ways of living, have been politely disregarded.

I read Deschooling Society a decade after it first appeared. I had initially enrolled on a teacher training course because I wanted to help change the system from within; now, assigned to a blatantly authoritarian inner-city school, where my teacher-mentor kept telling me that I would have to “squash” certain kids before they got “out of hand”, I went to see Tom, my university co-mentor. What I wanted was a transfer to some kinder, more liberal environment; what I got was yet another book – and, naturally, I was disappointed. I had come for practical help, not more theory. Nevertheless, I read that book, twice, in the following days. I have no idea, now, what Tom was thinking when he leant me Deschooling Society, but he didn’t seem surprised when, a fortnight later, I quit the course and headed off to Cambridge where I eventually found work as a college gardener.

Ivan Illich was born in Vienna in 1926 to a Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father. The family were quite well off and lived comfortably, until they were obliged to flee the Nazis in 1941, settling for a time in Florence, where Illich studied histology. After the war, he switched from science to theology and philosophy, pursuing his education in Rome, before returning to Austria for postgraduate research in historiography at the University of Salzburg. In 1951, as a newly ordained Catholic priest, he was sent to the mainly Hispanic Incarnation Parish in Washington Heights, New York, where he gained a reputation championing Puerto Rican rights. Five years later, he was appointed vice-rector at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, but was obliged to leave in 1960 after a political dispute with his bishop. Relocating to Mexico, he co-founded the Centre for Intercultural Documentation of Cuernavaca (CIDOC), a training station for North American missionaries aimed at raising their awareness around the potentially negative impacts of the Church’s educational agenda in the south (he would later call it his “centre for de-Yankeefication”). Here, he began working on a series of investigations into the Vatican’s role in South American politics that would precipitate his exit from the priesthood. At the same time, he was writing the essays that would make up 1970’s Celebration of Awareness, a series of exploratory observations and polemics on education, gender, the role of the clergy in society and the ways in which poverty is exacerbated by international development – which was still considered a positive force by many at that time.

“During the decade just past we have gotten used to seeing the world divided into two parts: the developed and the underdeveloped,” he wrote in the short manifesto “A Constitution for Cultural Revolution”. “People in the development business may prefer to speak of the developed nations and the less developed or developing nations. This terminology suggests that development is both good and inevitable.” Refuting this assumption, and drawing on his readings of AJ Toynbee, Marx and, later, the writings of “Gandhi’s economist”, JC Kumarappa, Illich began to focus on the role of institutional schooling in perpetuating class and racial divisions. This research led in turn to a detailed analysis of how “schooling” (that is, the passive consumption of packaged curricula on a mostly commercial, qualifications-driven basis) had displaced active learning throughout – not only the school system per se, but also society as a whole. This is the starting premise of Deschooling Society, in which he proposes a radical move towards lifelong, non-hierarchical, needs- and interest-based systems of sociable study.

[See also: Rachel de Souza: Make school days longer to boost mental health]

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Illich was always much more than a critic of education, however. Over the next three decades, via a series of critical analyses of male power, the political misuse of charity, the position of the clergy in society, and corporate-capitalist myths such as Progress and Development, Illich would create a holistic vision of a more egalitarian society based on “conviviality”. “I choose the term conviviality to designate the opposite of industrial productivity,” he writes in Tools for Conviviality. “I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.” This book, published in 1973, is perhaps the most visionary of his writings. However, it is for his work on education that he is best remembered now, when he is remembered at all.

Deschooling Society is one of the most cogent diagnoses of institutional failure that I have ever read, but it also offers a positive vision for the future of education. What Illich proposes is a practical alternative to the status quo, one that replaces compulsory schoolinga consumption-driven, highly monetised and increasingly corporate business – with voluntary, self- and peer-guided learning. This solution demands that we not only abandon a universal, one-size-fits-all curriculum, but also the daily roll-call. “Obligatory schooling inevitably polarises a society,” he argues, adding that a school system based on set tasks, with expected outcomes and centralised credentialing perpetuates inequity gaps both within countries and between them, since it “grades the nations of the world according to an international caste system… [in which] educational dignity is determined by the average years of schooling of its citizens, a rating which is closely related to per capita gross national product, and much more painful.”

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Similarly, just as “developed” nations are accounted superior to the “underdeveloped”, so individuals who obtain the most esteemed (and most expensive) accreditation are viewed as inherently superior to community college graduates or high school dropouts. This assessment is based on what Illich calls the “Myth of Unending Consumption”: that is, the belief that “process inevitably produces something of value and, therefore, production necessarily produces demand. School teaches us that instruction produces learning. The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling. Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialised institutions.” As schooling replaces learning, it displaces, or disqualifies, those whose credentials come as the result of autonomous study and experience: “Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all nonprofessional activity is rendered suspect.”

In short, school is about gaining credentials, not learning life skills. And just as schooling fosters the idea that personal growth can be taught, accurately measured and accredited, it also demonstrates that it can be bought. Attendance at a “good” school leads to acceptance at a “top” university, which in turn offers the highest-ranked performers “the power to define the level of expectations in their society”. To win this power, an American college graduate will readily shell out “an amount five times greater than the median life income of half of humanity.” As the American cultural critic, William Deresiewicz, recalls in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite (2014): “I went off to college like a sleepwalker… College was the ‘next thing.’ You went to college, you studied something, and afterward you went on to the next next thing, most probably some kind of graduate school. Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top… As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in. What it meant to actually get an education, and why you might want one – how it could help you acquire a self, or develop an independent mind, or find your way in the world – all this was off the table.”

As Deresiewicz notes, the what of schooling is significantly less important than the where: the main objective is status through elite accreditation based on prescribed metrics. “The institutionalised values school instils are quantified ones,” Illich says. “School initiates young people into a world where everything can be measured, including their imaginations… But personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else’s achievement.” The rich may pay dearly to send their children to the best schools, but as Illich and Deresiewicz observe, they are not buying them an education. They are purchasing a set of high-value blinkers that will allow them unashamedly to enjoy the privileges that membership of the social elite provides.

[See also: Chris Pilcher: An inspirational teacher]

For the poor, meanwhile, school is little more than a locus for cheap childcare and a standardised programme of preparation for work (or, increasingly, for chronic unemployment). Promises are made, and incentives offered, but for the lower echelons of society, schooling only furthers societal control. “Poor parents who want their children to go to school are less concerned about what they will learn than about the certificate and money they will earn,” Illich writes. “And middle-class parents commit their children to a teacher’s care to keep them from learning what the poor learn on the streets.”

At the same time, by contextualising education as a dynamic of supply and demand, Illich’s critique showed that schools prepare children for their allotted roles as docile workers and good consumers, instilling the habit of unreflective consumption. This recognition, that schooling is both a product and an instrument of consumerism, sits at the heart of Illich’s analysis – and it is what makes his proposed solutions to the problem so relevant today, at a time when the commodification of education has become a worldwide problem.

The model for a liberating shift from schooling to what Illich calls the “immeasurable re-creation” of lifelong learning already exists, in embryo (standing in its way, of course, is an entrenched system of institutionalised education for corporate profit). This model is based on two propositions. The first is that human beings enjoy learning – though it should be noted that most of the learning we value happens outside school. “Pupils do most of their learning without, and often despite, their teachers,” Illich says. “Increasingly educational research demonstrates that children learn most of what teachers pretend to teach them from peer groups, from comics, from chance observations, and above all from mere participation in the ritual of school. Teachers, more often than not, obstruct such learning.” Most of us actively want to learn, we just don’t want to be taught according to a rigid timetable, and what the official curriculum deems useful to a lopsided economy. Individually, we are incentivised by the freedom to pursue our own interests and to set our own goals. We enjoy and profit from constructive criticism, but we are dismayed by the prospect of being anonymously ranked and, in spite of the conditioning to which we are subjected, we are capable of distinguishing between competitive, self-limiting schooling and cooperative, open-ended learning.

The second proposition is that human beings enjoy sharing what they have learned. Where knowledge is not commoditised, we happily share it with others. Left to follow our own curiosity, we study a subject because we value it, and we want to see what we value survive and grow. With this in mind, Illich proposes a convivial exchange system that puts schooling behind us, and establishes fluid learning networks of citizen students and educators who would learn, or teach, whatever subject they wish. These networks would provide directories of educational resources that any student could use, from free libraries to equipment-sharing hubs to registries of professional educators, listing their specialist skills and interests as well as the conditions of service under which they operated.

In 1971, the establishment of such networks would no doubt have required a great deal of time and effort (though they would still have been less expensive, and less corruptible, than the established school system). However, even the limited successes of technology-based learning during the pandemic demonstrated that, where the will is there, Illich’s learning networks are fully within our grasp. Of course, we still have to free ourselves from the old model of obligatory schooling. We also have to discard the notion that education is only for the young and for those seeking status or work qualifications. We should all be able to learn whatever we want or need to study, whenever we choose, whether for practical reasons – such as obtaining work and career development – or from pure curiosity. Illich’s learning networks would not only facilitate such educational freedoms, they would also transform the very nature of society.

Ivan Illich died in 2002. In the years that followed the publication of Deschooling Society, he created a model of social exchange by which, with the liberation of education and the consequent obsolescence of consumer-driven schooling, citizen learners and educators would be empowered to create more open, convivial and less hierarchical communities. That change would necessarily call into question many of the institutions upon which developed societies are founded; however, as we established more convivial and equitable ways of living together, replacing outmoded concepts of metrics-based progress and never-ending economic “growth” with a more frugal and balanced way of life – what JC Kumarappa calls an “economy of permanence” – those moribund institutions could gradually be superseded by a new, more flexible social order, in which nobody was empowered to control the lives of others through a bogus, and most likely purchased, set of credentials.

[See also: Latin and Greek are not just for the elite]

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