book review: Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society”

Ivan Illich‘s “Deschooling Society” is a classic in the alternative education scene, so I had been meaning to read it for ages and finally did. The book has seven shortish chapters, and is a pretty quick read.

The first chapter, “Why We Must Disestablish School,” is very clearly the strongest one. Illich argues that institutionalized schooling teaches students “to confuse process and substance” – “the pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” Illich objects to the dependence on the state which the institutionalization of valuable things, like education, creates. He essentially rejects the ideal that justice requires equality of educational opportunity. Rather, “the poor need funds to enable them to learn, not to get certified for the treatment of their alleged disproportionate deficiencies.”

Illich also eloquently makes the possibly familiar claim that formal public education crowds out private formal or informal education from the market:

“School appropriates the money, men, and good will available for education and in addition discourages other institutions from assuming educational tasks. Work, leisure, politics, city living, and even family life depend on schools for the habits and knowledge they presuppose, instead of becoming themselves the means of education. Simultaneously both schools and the other institutions which depend on them are priced out of the market.”

Then, Illich offers what is somehow at once both a brilliant and ridiculous proposal:

“To make this disestablishment effective, we need a law forbidding discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum. This guarantee would not exclude performance tests of competence for a function or role, but would remove the present absurd discrimination in favor of the person who learns a given skill with the largest expenditure of public funds or – what is equally likely – has been able to obtain a diploma which has no relation to any useful skill or job. Only by protecting the citizen from being disqualified by anything in his career in school can a constitutional disestablishment of school become psychologically effective.”

Obviously, this is highly impractical and difficult to impossible to enforce. Many skills are not assessable using any kind of competence test (e.g., professor-ing). To choose amongst applicants for these jobs, employers rely in part on letters of recommendation, the value of which depends on who wrote them, the value of whom is inferred by their institution. Even in cases where educational nondiscrimination is desirable and possible (e.g., not requiring a high school diploma for janitorial jobs), it will be quite socially costly to try to detect and remedy violations. So, while we can appreciate the spirit of Illich’s education non-discrimination proposal, it probably wouldn’t be a good thing to try to enact. Much better to allow the market to sort out when educational credentials are a reliable signal and when they are not. Illich would at least agree that the state should get out of the way of this process, such as by discontinuing automatic raises for teachers when they earn master’s degrees that don’t help them to become better teachers.

There are really a million things going on in the first chapter. Illich also argues that:

  • One major problem with education is that “educators insist on packaging instruction with certification,” but that these purposes are fundamentally at odds with each other.
  • Our education system is dependent on the assumption that most learning is the result of teaching, but that is false.
  • The licensing of educators has made artificially low the supply of those willing and able to teach genuine skills.

He finishes out the chapter with a proposal that citizens receive their educational due in the form of edu-credits, which could be spent on various educational materials and experiences, outside of any institutionalized school. The state’s role would basically be limited to funding this endeavor and to helping to match learners with other learners and with materials.

Chapter 2, “Phenomenology of School,” discusses the artificiality of modern childhood, and the extreme power of the teacher’s social position (which makes him or her out to be a kind of custodian, moralist, and therapist, all in one). Chapter 3, “Ritualization of Progress,” analyzes the role of the university as a place where dissenters can go to criticize power relations in society while simultaneously and maybe unintentionally enforcing them. Chapter 4, “Institutional Spectrum,” establishes a distinction between “left” institutions (open, network-like, bottom-up, spontaneous order-esque) and “right” institutions (closed, top-down, involve psychological or other coercion). Schools are paradigmatically rightish institutions, which is bad. Chapter 5, “Irrational Consistencies,” is unmemorable, and I didn’t even write any notes down for it. Chapter 6, “Learning Webs,” discusses the relationship between political change and educational change. Chapter 7, “Rebirth of Epimethean Man,” is a mildly to moderately unintelligible piece of social criticism that hates on technology, or something.

Honestly, I was somewhat disappointed with the book. I had read the first chapter for an IHS event, and because it is the best and most important chapter, the book was all downhill from there. However, it is still creative stuff, and important in the history of radical educational thought. If you’re interested in education, you should at very least read the first chapter.

One Comment

  • Robert Bacon wrote:

    In the decade since he died, Illich’s message about revising institutions so that conviviality and humanity (in the sense of its possibility for creative autonomy) are their guiding principles, is as much in need of promulgation as it ever was.

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