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by Ivan Illich
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Deschooling Society (1971) is a book that brought Ivan Illich to public attention. It is a critical discourse on education as practised in “modern” economies. Full of detail on programs and concerns, the book’s assertions remain as radical today as they were at the time. Giving examples of the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education, Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations in fluid informal arrangements:

Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education–and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.

The last sentence makes clear what the title suggests — that the institutionalization of education is considered to institutionalize society and conversely that ideas for de-institutionalizing education may be a starting point for a de-institutionalized society.

The book is more than a critique — it contains suggestions for changes to learning in society and individual lifetimes. Particularly striking is his call (in 1971) for the use of advanced technology to support “learning webs.”

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

Illich argued that the use of technology to create decentralized webs could support the goal of creating a ‘good educational system’:

A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

Preventing formal institutions from holding a monopoly over school and other information flows could have more effect on society. Schools are not (as commonly perceived) a ‘dependent variable’ within society. They are “the reproductive organ of a consumer society”. As such, school has potential to change oppressive systems from within.

Source: Wikipedia

I owe my interest in public education to Everett Reimer. Until we first met in Puerto Rico in 1958, I had never questioned the value of extending obligatory schooling to all people. Together we have come to realize that for most men the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school. The essays given at CIDOC and gathered in this book grew out of memoranda which I submitted to him, and which we discussed during 1970, the thirteenth year of our dialogue. The last chapter contains [...]

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Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. 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. His imagination is "schooled" to acc [...]

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Some words become so flexible that they cease to be useful "School" and "teaching" are such terms. Like an amoeba they fit into almost any interstice of the language. ABM will teach the Russians, IBM will teach Negro children, and the army can become the school of a nation. The search for alternatives in education must therefore start with an agreement on what it is we mean by "school." This might be done in several ways. We could begin by listing the latent functions performed by modern scho [...]

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The university graduate has been schooled for selective service among the rich of the world. Whatever his or her claims of solidarity with the Third World, each American college graduate has had an education costing an amount five times greater than the median life income of half of humanity. A Latin American student is introduced to this exclusive fraternity by having at least 350 times as much public money spent on his education as on that of his fellow citizens of median income. With very rar [...]

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Most utopian schemes and futuristic scenarios call for new and costly technologies, which would have to be sold to rich and poor nations alike. Herman Kahn has found pupils in Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia. The pipe dreams of Sergio Bernardes for his Brazil of the year 2000 sparkle with more new machinery than is now possessed by the United States, which by then will be weighted down with the antiquated missile sites, jetports, and cities of the sixties and seventies. Futurists inspired by [...]

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( This chapter was presented originally at a meeting of the American Educational Research Association, in New York City, February 6, 1971.) I believe that the contemporary crisis of education demands that we review the very idea of publicly prescribed learning, rather than the methods used in its enforcement. The dropout rate--especially of junior-high-school students and elementary-school teachers--points to a grass-roots demand for a completely fresh look. The "classroom practitioner" who c [...]

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In a previous chapter I discussed what is becoming a common complaint about schools, one that is reflected, for example, in the recent report of the Carnegie Commission: In school registered students submit to certified teachers in order to obtain certificates of their own; both are frustrated and both blame insufficient resources--money, time, or buildings--for their mutual frustration. Such criticism leads many people to ask whether it is possible to conceive of a different style of learnin [...]

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Our society resembles the ultimate machine which I once saw in a New York toy shop. It was a metal casket which, when you touched a switch, snapped open to reveal a mechanical hand. Chromed fingers reached out for the lid, pulled it down, and locked it from the inside. It was a box; you expected to be able to take something out of it; yet all it contained was a mechanism for closing the cover. This contraption is the opposite of Pandora's "box." The original Pandora, the All-Giver, was an Ear [...]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Ivan Illich was born in Vienna in 1926. He studied theology and philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome and obtained a Ph.D. in history at the University of Salzburg. He came to the United States in 1951, where he served as assistant pastor in an Irish-Puerto Rican parish in New York City. From 1956 to 1960 he was assigned as vice-rector to the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where he organized an intensive training center for American priests in Latin American cultu [...]

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