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I have a love/hate relationship with Ivan Illich's book "Deschooling Society" (and several other of his works). At the same time, and maybe for that reason, it is also one of the most read books in my collection. Before explaining my ambivalence, a brief summary of the book is due:
The first two chapters attempt to outline the problem(s). Schooling, Illich writes, is failing to do what it promised - to educate in any broad sense, to bring up the poor and better their condition, to do any of this without ever-growing bureaucracies and ballooning budgets. In fact, formal schooling has become a largely self-perpetuating juggernaut that seems more content with perpetuating a belief in its necessity than actually facilitating learning (learning, of course, being defined as something a bit broader than just absorbing the teachings of credentialed teachers).
The next few chapters discuss schooling and its relation to what Illich sees as a culture that ritualizes progress, materialism, and consumption/production. Schooling, he argues, is a coercive institution whose job is largely to create people who are told their place (whether as worker or consumer) and can handle/are okay with leaving authority to others (in schooling, the teaching is always up to the designated teacher; students are there to listen).
The last three chapters outline Illich's attempts at a solution. Here he draws on his ideal of convivial institutions that will be the full subject of his subsequent book Tools for Conviviality. Instead of compulsory schooling, where students are alienated from their educations by leaving determination of what they should know to state-credentialed teachers and administrators (bureacurats, actually), Illich suggests that schooling relations should be convivial - where, like parks, roads, and libraries, individuals produce and consume them in ways that do not force anyone to submit to anyone else's purpose. First, these would not be compulsory. Second, they would allow students and teachers (who are not limited to those the state certifies as teachers, because there isn't reason to suppose the state knows what makes a teacher better than individuals do) to come together for mutual benefit. The second to last chapter details four types of convivial 'learning webs' that could accomplish this goal (such as allowing teachers, students, and peers to advertise on community bulletin boards in order to come together for shared purposes).
Like I said, I have a love/hate relationship with this book. First, the good. It is very obvious that Illich is concerned first and foremost about human liberty, which he thinks is constantly violated when we compel students and families to consume one, and only one, state-approved type of education. Second, Illich is very astute in his identification of schooling as a self-perpetuating thing: a large reason people consume 12 and more years of education is the simple fact that others find value in it. Employers require schooling, even when it is a questionable assumption that many of the things learned there actually contribute to work success. And as more people get more schooling, everyone else feels like they have to as well, just to stay afloat. Reading this book will make you appreciate exactly how ultimately vacuous this whole process is.
Now, for the hate. I can only describe Illich as an anti-industrialist in the Rousseauean vain. Many passages in this and other works romanticize the pre-industrial age, quite wrongly, as an age where largely self-sufficient man was able to provide for his needs quite well, where all his needs could be satisfied within a short radius, where humans did productive work (as opposed to unproductive work, like building cars and advertising campaigns), etc. Part of his criticism of schooling is that it fosters a division of labor that leaves folks alienated from real, purposive labor while encouraging unnecessary consumption. Now, I for one would point out that while the division of labor comes with downsides, it also comes with amazing upsides, such as allowing people to do what they have a talent for and focusing, rather than each doing that which they have to for brute survival, regardless of their interest or talent. (For someone who is so libertarian, it is strange that the increase in choice for individuals of career paths is an advantage of division of labor lost on Illich). And as for romanticizing the days where satisfying survival needs were enough to fill human life with purpose? I will take our age over the pre-industrial age anyway (and am quite glad I live past 30, and most of my money is spent making my life more comfortable rather than on brute survival. I suspect most of Illich's readers do too, at least secretly).
Also, I just am not convinced that Illich isn't ignoring or not seeing some of the positives of organized schools. First, while authoritarianism is not a good thing, sometimes authority is, because we can rightly question whether if left to their own, those without 'cultural capital' are necessarily the best judges of exactly what education their children should receive. Second, while it would be interesting to have everyone choose exactly what they learn and how (as in the bulletin-board idea, where people learn by signing up to teach or learn with like-minded others), that is an extraordinary amount of leg work. Isn't there something to be said for an organized place where there are proscribed curricula, such that individuals can leave the minutiae of educational planning up to others? (By analogy, I can pick out all the parts of my computer - mouse, keyboard, CPU, speakers, etc) separately, but might it just be more efficient for me to buy a 'package' so that those who know best what goes with what can do the coordinating?) Lastly, while it is possible that the family will know better than any expert how to educate their children, there is something to be said the other way: the expert may be neutral where the parent is biased, the expert may have the benefit of seeing more possibilities than the parent sees, etc. (By the way, in subsequent works, Illich said he never meant to imply that schools be abolished or had no place, but if this is true, then 'Deschooling Society' was a most unfortunate title.)
Anyway, for all that, I still HIGHLY recommend this book, if only because it makes us think about things we often take for granted. I myself am a libertarian whose chief concern is education's compulsory aspects, and the virtual government monopoly on schooling. I see no necessary problem with schooling, as Illich does, and suspect that even if education were not compulsory, a great many families would still choose some form of (so-called) traditional schooling, largely because there may be more to be said for it than Illich thinks. But read and decide for yourself. Is Illich an architect of the golden path, or a utopian (it is doubtful you'll find him 'middle of the road')? He's been called all of it. What do you think?