This course will become read-only in the near future. Tell us at if that is a problem.

Discussion: Aggregate social changes Illych predicted

"Deschooling society" is very interesting because some of the social changes Illych called for actually happened.

Which of the things the book calls for are now implemented somewhat widely?

Anyone who likes old science fiction knows that some projections are proved systemically wrong by the actual progress.

Which of the book's ideas are antiquated by the developments in the last forty years?

Task Discussion

  • EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 4:21 p.m.

    I've been thinking about this site, Illich's book, and how I envision online learning in general.

    One of the main disadvantages of traditional, formal education is that there is a set time frame, after which the class ends, you graduate, and the same knowledge "product" is then sold to a new crop of students. This discussion of Illich's book started a long time ago, and seems to have entered a period of dormancy. So it is with many online endeavors. The truth is, I'm not really that interested in Illich's book anymore. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed reading it, and thought that the comments posted were interesting and insightful, but I'm just not motivated to revisit the text in detail. I read a lot of things, and then move on, pursuing a path of research that winds through a lot of different subjects, interests, and writing projects. And yet in my inbox I get notifications that more people are "following" this discussion...

    One of the reasons I created an account here was to form networks, and to try to find those bright points of intersection where my path of self-directed inquiry crosses that of others. I don't want my learning to necessarily be divided up into "courses" and "tasks" and set blocks of time, since I see no reason why a peer-to-peer university should mimic for-profit universities in "production" schedules tied to the requirements and rythms of fiscal quarters. Digital scholarship has the capacity to be more organic.

    The main advantage online scholarship has, in my view,  is that it can be cumulative, slowly building up an archive of observations, links between texts, enthusiasms, and areas of research, and "experts" who other learners can approach if they have a question about a particular area or specialization.

    In other words, if I am working on something a year from now, and I am reminded of Illich, I would like to be able to return to this page, and send Winslow or someone else a message. In the same way, I've studied 19th century U.S. literature extensively, and would always be willing to direct people to relevant primary or secondary sources, whatever their research topic may be. The life cycle of an online discussion group can be much longer than if it were in person or in a class, and this, potentially, could allow for new times of evolution in how knowledge is generated, shared, and reviewed.

    I'm not making any recriminations at all--I joined this group mostly to observe and see how things worked, but now I find myself wondering about the future, and how my ideal learning group, or book discussion, would be structured. My intellectual anarchism prompts me to think that the best structure is none at all--a diffuse and interlinked connection of blogs, comments, and research profiles, but at the same time I would like some way to carry over the thoughts, energies, and relationships from one group to the next...  

    So Deschooling society predicts peer-to-peer or online learning, and makes some points relevant to a critique of the current system of the creativity-killing education industry, but it was written a long time ago, and I am opposed to investing too much authority in ANY book, let alone one like this which is a poor fit for my own belief system...I guess what I'm getting at is the best way to honor the spirit of this book would be to actually CREATE learning webs, and MAKE the critique of contemporary education, letting the discussion of Deschooling society morph into something else...If nothing else, some kind of closure for this stage of the discussion seems appropriate...

    What do you think?

  • Jennifer Claro   March 14, 2012, 4:39 p.m.
    In Reply To:   EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 4:21 p.m.

    Hi EcologicalHumanist,

    You've made some excellent points here. Online peer-to-peer learning does not have to be contrained by the same lack of affordances that univerities are:

    Lack of time (univeristy courses must be finished by the time grades are assigned)

    Linear development (in university, topics are "covered" and then finished and then everyone moves on to the next topic)

    Inflexible curriculum (we can learn online in a very organic way, weaving in and out of topics of interest. This type of learning is very limited in university online courses.)

    So I think Bravo! To your intellectual anarchy, and I think it's a very healthy, productive, and natural way to learn. But I didn't really understand what you want to do with this course now, keep it open for future discussion (as we are doing now, months after the last post!) or aim for "some kind of closure". What kind of morphing did you have in mind?

    Great post, thanks


  • Dave Menninger   March 14, 2012, 4:50 p.m.
    In Reply To:   EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 4:21 p.m.

    I agree with the idea of leaving the group lingering indefinitely.  I think it could be useful to future learners interested in studying Deschooling Society.

    I've also moved on from the book personally, but I would also want to come back here if I ever did pick it back up again.

    Are there any other places on the web that you've moved onto from here?  I've started looking at things like local Meetup groups for self-directed learning.  But those are a bit hard to attend sometimes.  Some friends and I tried to create a web-based book club a while back but it also fizzled out.

    I'd be interested in other places people are finding to do online / DIY / p2p / self-paced learning.

    Not that there's anything wrong with either; it's great!

  • Winslow   March 14, 2012, 4:51 p.m.
    In Reply To:   EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 4:21 p.m.

    I think you've missed the point of Illich's book. He was not, as so many people now take him to be, an advocate of online learning per se. Not at all. He merely suggested, in a single passage of his book, that it might be helpful to use a computer to help people connect, those who want to discuss some topic or other over a cup of coffee. (The same function could be, and has been, accomplished with a box of file cards or a bulletin board at the laundromat.) He was not saying people should stare at screens all day and never look each other in the face. Quite the opposite. Yet, now, the Web is full of people declaring that the Web itself is a glorious fulfillment of Illich's dream of a deschooled society. It's not, not by any stretch.

    In any case, Illich did not predict peer-to-peer learning, except perhaps as a quite possible aftermath of industrial society's having collapsed under it own weight and contradictions. Perhaps we already are seeing this collapse in the form of the calls for "school reform," many of which tacitly confirm Illich's point that society cannot afford to pay for all of the schooling that people start to demand once they are hooked on the schooling system, or paradigm. Demand quickly outstrips supply; hence the calls for so much testing (to weed out "slow" children and "bad" teachers) and for privatization of the public schools (paging Rick Santorum!) and more. Online schools and online degrees can be understood as a desparate measure by the schooling industry to create new, lower-cost products and to thereby expand its available market and keep growing as the profit-making business it is. 

    What Illich was calling for was the disestablishment of schooling and all the credentialing that goes with it, a radical rethinking of society such that compulsory schooling was no longer the norm and not even necessary. (Think how the church used to rule people's lives and then, thanks to the founding fathers of the USA, it was firmly diseastablished; nobody can force anyone to participate in any kind of religion - except for schooling itself, which Illich understood and identified as the first world religion, with the same rites and rituals practiced everywhere.)

    Illich's vision was of a society in which people learned from each other as friends, in a regime of abundance, a society in which the tools of production, as Marx would say, were strictly and democratically limited so that knowledge about how to master them was no longer scarce. This is in stark contrast to the world we now live in, with knowledge constantly made obsolete through the steady, never-ending introduction of new tools and technologies. An extreme case of this can be seen in computer programming and digital engineering, where practitioners have to engage in pretty much constant education, often at great cost, to keep up with the pace of "advancement." Miss a beat and you are out of work.

    Illich's is a most radical vision, one that probably means we would do without the computer revolution we all admire so. It substitutes a world in which people live peacefully with each other, more or less, for the current one where everyone is fighting for the ability to sit in a classroom and listen to some credentialed expert tell them what they should learn and when, regardless of the anyone's actual interests or curiousity. 

    The key concept is the contrast between abundance (of knowledge and learning, for instance) and scarcity (a fundamental assumption of modern economics.)

    Before you dismiss Deschooling Society as a long-ago book ready for discarding, find a copy of his Tools for Conviviality, available as a free download from many websites, and see how Illich's vision of how society might better use and think about technology progressed and developed in the following years. I really believe these two books should be read together. I happened to start with the second one, which appealed to me as someone who made his living thinking about technology, and then learned of Deschooling, which still surprises me with its insights and relevance.

    That's what I think.

  • Wombat-Charles-hates-labels   March 14, 2012, 5 p.m.
    In Reply To:   EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 4:21 p.m.

    Learning is a continuous process as you noted.

    I think as time goes on the learning methods will

    keep evolving. especially the online element.

  • EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 5:33 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jennifer Claro   March 14, 2012, 4:39 p.m.


    Yes, you succinctly stated the main points I wanted to make regarding online vs. university education, although really there isn't any reason that offline education, seperate from formal pedagogy, couldn't also have the same positive qualities. To just invert your three limits of Universities, we could rephrase the benefits of a peer learning system to be:

    1. long term

    2. non-linear (integrated or porous)

    and 3. flexible (able to evolve and produce new off-shoots and endeavors)

    I would also add that a good learning network would be horizontal, or non-heirarchical.

    As for morphing, maybe we could just talk about what we are moving on to, reading next, thinking about, etc., especially if it has some relationship to Illich or what we now know to be common interests in participants.

    For example, I just heard about a book called Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and would be interested in reading it with others. I'm also a big fan of Lawrence Lessig, if anyone knows him...

    We could also, in the spirit of flexibility, talk about other things we are reading NOT related to Deschooling Society. For example, I'm a huge Science Fiction fan and the next novel I am going to read is probably going to be VALIS by Phillip K. Dick.

    I don't really need "closure," I just had ideas to post about here floating in my mind, but held back because I wasn't sure if they were really relevant. Thanks for your encouraging response!


  • EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 5:39 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Dave Menninger   March 14, 2012, 4:50 p.m.



    Yes, that is exactly another thing I was thinking about. As great as is, there is no reason why we shouldn't share other internet sites we have found useful. I've actually found some of the sub-reddits on, for example r/politics, r/history, and r/philosophy, host some really intelligent discussions, centered on links to recent articles...There is also a lot of junk, though. Other than that I tend to just get pointed to things from contacts in social networking sites. The main thing I try to avoid is sites with advertising, or where I feel like I am just adding content to increase the value of their site...

  • EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 5:52 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Winslow   March 14, 2012, 4:51 p.m.


    As usual, this is a well-written and quite fascinating exegesis of Illich's work and world-view. I'm not dismissing him at all, I'm just saying that as brilliant as he was, libraries are FILLED with books by brilliant and interesting writers. At some point the game of "what would Illich say about this" or "what was the real idea behind his writings" loses its appeal, because like any great thinker, Illich is significant because his ideas grew beyond their original context and instantiation. Unless you are interested in Illich as a historical figure, or interested in the history or educational theory, building an accurate picture of one man's intellectual output is less satisfying than just scavenging for usable parts, and moving on. Deschooling Society is great, but if one figure determines the paramaters of a discussion, then the group runs the risk of becoming an "Ivan Illich fan club" which is a turn-off for most independent thinkers who want to borrow from a wide range of books and traditions.

    That said, your enthusiasm is infectious, and you have concinved me to give "Tools for Conviviality" a shot. Do you think discussion of it should take place here, or in a seperate group devoted to that book in itself?

    I'm for speaking plainly, and if we are going to critique "the world we now live in, with knowledge constantly made obsolete through the steady, never-ending introduction of new tools and technologies," as you eloquently put it, then why not just make that critique flat out, using all of the tools at our disposal, not only Illich's vision, as enticing as it is. Not that we should discard anything, just add to it!

  • Winslow   March 14, 2012, 7:03 p.m.
    In Reply To:   EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 5:52 p.m.

    Thanks for the gracious reply. I don't really deserve it.

    Obviously, I find Illich's thinking quite enlightening. It constantly surprises me, and I continue, years later, to find new connections and new insights. I'd  be glad if I got even one other person to share some of my enthusiasm. 

    The main point I have tried to make on these message boards is simply that Deschooling Society is just the tip of a very large and very profound iceberg. Illich questioned modern society in a way that nobody else has; I take that from others more smarter than me. He fell out of fashion in the US because he didn't fit into traditional categories of left and right, but overseas, he remains v. well regarded and still as relevant and penetrating as ever. Tools for Conviviality, it turns out, was a major inspiration for the early PC industry and it continues to inform those who write software. Yet, Illich mentions neither in the book; he just calls for a radically different approach to technology, one that is largely concerned with setting and abiding by limits - an idea that is pretty much unthinkable these days.

    I also have tried to point out that Deschooling often gets misunderstood. It is more radical than most people want to deal with. For instance, the book has long inspired the home schooling and unschooling movements, but Illich in fact never called for or favored either of those options. He really questioned the idea that people need schooling at all.

    Where did this assumption (that we need school) come from, he wondered? Schooling as we know it is historically a very recent invention. As Illich discovered, it has its roots in alchemy; one early and highly influential schooling advocate, named John Comenius (1592-1670), was deeply involved in alchemy and he saw the child as a sort of base metal that could, through rigorous instruction, be transmuted to a higher plane of existence, much as lead could, in theory, be turned into gold. (And from this we get No Child Left Behind!!)

    It's these kinds of discoveries, I find, that make Illich such a thrilling read. 

  • EcologicalHumanist   March 14, 2012, 7:31 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Winslow   March 14, 2012, 7:03 p.m.

    Winslow, don't be silly! I really appreciate your posts, and to be honest find your knowledge of Illich rather intimidating. And just so you know, I used a chapter from Deschooling Society in one of my composition classes, so indirectly you are bringing Illich's ideas to more people than you realize. I recognize genuine intellectual passion when I see it, and have the utmost respect for it. I'm looking forward to discussing Tools for Conviviality with you...

  • Maria Droujkova   April 17, 2011, 10:19 a.m.

    The book became a powerful social object for family educators. Homeschooling and unschooling grew "a bit" since the book came out: for example, about 7% of US kids with college educated parents are now educated by families.

    However, Illich did not know of the internet back then. Peer groups, communities and networks form a separate phenomenon - not quite "do it yourself." As many of my colleagues in homeschooling explain, "It's not at home, and it's not schooling" - it's not by yourself and not in an institution.

    My friend and I reviewed some of these emerging educator commons here:

    They happen much more peacefully, more evolutionary and less revolutionary than Illich describes, as well - because of the social changes brought on by the Internet.

  • Dan Diebolt   April 17, 2011, 10:27 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Maria Droujkova   April 17, 2011, 10:19 a.m.

    >Illich did not know of the internet back

    Illich was a Luddite - he would have abhored the internet.

  • Maria Droujkova   April 17, 2011, 10:44 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Dan Diebolt   April 17, 2011, 10:27 a.m.

    I went to two Future of Education events with other critics of schooling who came across as living in the world largely without network community effects: John Taylor Gatto (who attended his webinar by phone) and Alphie Kohn.

  • Michael McCarthy   April 17, 2011, 2:56 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Dan Diebolt   April 17, 2011, 10:27 a.m.

    Does Illich's aversion to technology derive from the a fear of a technocracy, or a computer-assisted meritocracy of some kind?

    It would seem like many folks developing ideas in his era would have seen only the corporations and colleges wielding technology. Illich didn't get to see this new era where (to some extent) people are use computers as an individual and collaborative change-agent. We now have a greater and greater freedom to communicate. Its no longer a research-only baud modem in a library in Stanford, for example...

    I'm also reading "Cognitive Surplus" by Clay Shirky. Puts our free time and its use for change into perspective. It just seems like Illich couldn't have guessed that "regular people" could ever have been handed the keys to such a strong medium for connection and creation. Now that it exists, I wonder if he would have been more kind to technology.

  • Alex Halavais   April 19, 2011, 11:33 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Dan Diebolt   April 17, 2011, 10:27 a.m.

    I think there is an important difference between being a Luddite and being critical of technology. Consider this passage from Tools for Conviviality:

    "The crisis can be solved only if we learn to invert the present deep structure of tools; if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves."

    I have a feeling he might find spaces in the internet (it's silly to consider the internet more broadly, because that's kind of meaningless) as fulfilling this aim.Tell me the above is not a call for peer-to-peer systems...

  • Dan Diebolt   April 20, 2011, 4:23 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   April 19, 2011, 11:33 a.m.


    >Tell me the above is not a call for peer-to-peer systems...

    A number of authors have observed that Illich may have forseen the internet. This is the most lengthy and direct example I could find online:


    Illich foresees the Internet

    But I think this gives Illich way too much credit based on peer ideas he referenced like the interest matching service he wrote of using postal delivery or the telephone as communication. This cartoon in the Illichville series (which is not meant to be a criticism of Illich) is more representative of how Illich would have viewed the internet.

  • Winslow   July 11, 2011, 8:30 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Dan Diebolt   April 20, 2011, 4:23 a.m.

    Illich was not a Luddite, in that he did not rail against all technology because it was technology. He did understand, however, ahead of many people and in contradiction to many of the louder voices we hear today, that technologies tend to make people re-conceive themselves and their relationships with others. This extends from as powerful a technology as the alphabet, which Illich wrote about at some length, to the car, which he nailed in one of his most famous essays, called 'Energy & Equity.' Each tool, as he liked to call everything from a hammer to an airplane to a school, needs evaluating on its own; there's no use in declaring technology as a whole either good or bad, etc. Clearly, the kinds of convivial tools that Illich described in a book by that name were those that were severely limited in power and scope relative to many that we take for granted, such as high-tech medicine and the car. 

       It's interesting to note that towards the end of his life, Illich had come to see the world of tools eclipsed by a world of systems, and this saddened him. Tools remain separate from their user, who can pick them up, use them, and put them down again. Systems are different, in that they inscribe people into their workings. This idea was heavily popularized by theorists such as Gregory Bateson, who saw systems everywhere. He saw a man walking a dog as a system, with the man, leash, and dog forming a unit that managed, through the processing of informational signals, to make its way down the sidewalk as a whole. Likewise, someone chopping down a tree with an ax: person, ax and tree form a system, with eye detecting the swing of the ax to its target and using what it detects to send signals to arm muscles and ear detecting solid chop, and so forth. 

        Until not so long ago, even people in the West could take medical care or leave it; they could opt out with ease, in other words. They could go to the doctor and that person would listen to them describe their pains and ills and perhaps prescribe some pills. Today, as Illich sees it, the medical system actually tells people what their bodies are and how they work and how those bodies ought to feel. This starts at an early age through our favorite tool/system, the school, where first we learn about the body's various sub-systems - endocrine, reproductive, respiratory, etc. - and later, as we learn to carefully gauge our intake of this mineral and that, to be aware of something called cholesterol, to be on guard against various threats, and so forth. Increasingly, we learn about our bodies in terms that in fact, only highly trained specialists actually understand. We're encouraged to get with the program and start thinking of ourselves this way, too - to trust the professional with the white gown, who has highly scarce knowledge and can tell us more about ourselves than we might know directly. 

       The disembodying effects of this kind of systemization reach a terrible level when a pregnant woman consults with the doctor who suggests a test for genetic defects in the fetus. The results will come back in the form of "your baby has an X% chance of Downs syndrome, and Y% chance of this or that other defect." At this moment, the woman is no longer pregnant with child, she has become a statistic, a member of some anonymous population that's affected by various highly technical test results and related risk factors and genetic mumbo-jumbo and ... and there is no way to feel in her flesh this fetus she carries, for it has suddenly been replaced by a set of probabilities. In a way, the woman is virtualized, incorporated (see the root corpus in that  word!) by the medical system. 

    The TV displays a continuous stream of news stories and features about how medical engineers can transplant body parts like so many mufflers and hubcaps, create artificial limbs, and even extract many  living parts from patients who've been kept alive a bit longer just for that purpose. It's pretty grim, if you think about it, but we're all encouraged to look at the bright side and while we're at it, sign that donor card so we, too, can be recycled when our time comes. 

    Illich contrasts this modern body, defined by and in a sense given to us by medical professionals and scientists, with the suffering flesh of past bodies. Then, there were no X-rays or CAT scans or see-through plastic model of the bodies for kids to build or study in classrooms. Instead, people felt their actual bodies, which they inhabited in a very different way than we do ours today. Then, people walked under their own energy; now, people get their bodies moved by cars, preferably as plush and fast and smooth-riding as possible. And people suffered in their bodies in culturally-defined ways that did not depend on professionals. 

    Of course, much of Illich's thinking about all this - about what he called body history - is rooted in and shaped by his belief and understanding of the suffering body of Jesus Christ. As I understand it, and I am no expert in church matters, Illich argued that no matter if you believe it or not, the Jesus story has profoundly shaped the West's understanding of and reverence forthe body, but now that that story has been more or less pushed off stage, a void has opened up in our psyche that leaves us vulnerable to accepting the kind of virtual reality, or virtual body, that the medical system has given us. Of course, it's not only the medical system, it's the whole modern project and industrialization, including schools and the car and the rise of cybernetics and systems theory and information theory as the latest set of concepts that promise to explain the world.


    Alas, I am trying to summarize too much in too little space. If I have provided even a small hint of how far-ranging and, well, how deep Illich's analysis of the West actually runs, I may have accomplished something.

  • Winslow   July 17, 2011, 1:37 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   April 19, 2011, 11:33 a.m.

    From what I have read, Illich was a regular user of the Internet. Sitting in his home in Mexico, he could browse the catalog of the Library of Congress, for instance. He owned a laptop computer. 

       He did have some critical things to say about the computer, but they are not the usual, typical, predictable dismissals one might expect. His main concern was how the "cybernetic mind," as fostered by the pervasiveness of the computer, had taken over, even for people not glued to their screens. He was referring to the idea that increasingly, people understood both themselves - their own bodies - and their relationships with others, and their place in the world, in terms of systems theory. For instance, people today often talk about "communicating" with each other, about "getting their message across," about "interfacing" with others, and so forth. They talk about themselves and about groups of people having "needs" and "goals," which are still more cybernetic concepts. 

      A relevant paper of his, "Computer Literacy and the Cybernetic Dream," is available here.

       Illich wrote some very interesting and challenging things about bookish culture giving way to the screen, about how the alphabet ushered in a new "mental topology" - and it did this centuries before the Gutenberg printing press, which is the technology most often cited as the main agent of literacy - and about the computer being mis-categorized as a "machine."