At the heart of Illich’s thinking and analysis of society is a profound faith in people’s ability to live with each other in loving, fully human relationships that are, in essence, homegrown, or vernacular. People live richer, deeper lives, he believed, when they are not subjected to the ministrations of anonymous professionals and the institutions that give those professionals their authority. People teaching each other, taking care of each other during illness and at the time of death, and working and living together “convivially,” without over-producing and over-consuming either goods or services - these people are living at their best.
As I mentioned in a previous post, he wrote Deschooling Society mainly with the “Third World” in mind but clearly, this book and his others also give those of us rooted in the industrial way of life lots to think about. But it’s important, I believe, to understand that in his call for deschooling society, Illich was not simply trying to find ways of improving schooling as we know it. He really did want to rid society of that kind of schooling - by professionals who claim to know more than students themselves about what the students want to learn and when.
Illich would rather people be able to learn from each other, without compulsory schooling. Read Deschooling carefully and you’ll see that he seeks a radical inversion of society, a sharp turn away from industrialization and the assumptions of scarcity that underpin economics. This turn was more fully expressed in a follow-on book, called ‘Tools for Conviviality,’ that I think is a must for anyone trying to make sense of Deschooling. Illich’s analysis of Western, industrialized society was evolving very rapidly in the early 1970s, and no single book - or pamphlet, as he called them - offers a complete summary of his thought.
As the first of these, Deschooling happens to be the most practical, with its idea of creating learning webs and other new arrangements to bring would-be teachers and learners together outside of the traditional age-specific classroom. But very soon after, Illich was broadening his analysis to produce a radical vision of how industrial society would soon collapse under the weight of its own contradictions - including the skyrocketing cost of “education,” which seemed destined to make it eventually impossible for society to reproduce itself - and what could be done in the aftermath. This mainly concerned putting strict limits on tools, a category in which he included everything from hammers to bulldozers to supersonic jets to red-brick schoolhouses and hospitals. Beyond a certain size and intensity, he argued, all tools tend to start frustrating people’s ability to use them as originally intended. (Example: If everyone tries to drive everywhere in a car, nobody gets anywhere. It’s impossible to build sufficient roads for all the vehicles involved.)
And all this starts with the school which, as he explains in his book, gets in the way of people’s ability to learn for themselves and maintains artificial hierarchies.
Not that schools are, in and of themselves, wrong. It’s the institution of schooling that is wrong, the insistence that everyone pass through this 8- or 12-year ritual involving age-specific classes sitting day by day in front of a teacher who claims that learning is an additive process and also claims to know what students should learn today in preparation for tomorrow.
Illich called for the disestablishment of schooling, much like the disestablishment of religion. No employer can ask you what church you attend or what god you believe in. Likewise, he or she ought not to be able to ask you what degrees you have, or where you obtained them.
Especially egregious is that the ritual of schooling - the nearest we’ve come to a world religion, Illich once noted, following essentially the same format worldwide - is generally promoted to the masses as helping to “level the playing field,” to fix social ills of all kinds, and to get a “backwards” society moving down the road to modernity and all of its supposed riches, such as opportunity for all.
In fact, Illich argued, school does quite the opposite. It serves as an enforcer of inequality, for it provides a seemingly scientifically and morally acceptable justification for the observable fact that, economically speaking, a few do well while most people do much less so. In short, it’s your fault - not that of society - if you end up in poverty or simply lose your job. The best way to avoid that, we’re told, is to keep yourself trained, to consume more education and get more degrees and more certificates. (If society, aka the economy, were less subject to the destructive effects of constant innovation - if, in other words, society agreed to politically-defined limits on the “tools” it used, as Illich called for in his ‘Tools for Conviviality’ - then constant training and re-training would not be so necessary.)
Moreover, while teaching the three Rs and other subjects, school also teaches a hidden curriculum of endless, ever-escalating consumption: There is always more education to be obtained, another credential to earn, another class to take, another level to attain. This subtle lesson serves consumer society and its corporations well, no doubt, but it also prepares people to give up their autonomy and assume that professionals always know best and that institutions are the only source of satisfaction for the needs that they define and impute to society’s members.
Modern institutions - the educational system, the medical system and yes, that earliest institution of them all, the one that all the others indirectly take as their model, the church - view people mainly as clients with needs. People living with and taking care of each other are transformed into clients who strive to consume services that those institutions tell them they need and then deliver anonymously in mass-produced quantities.
In other words, what was a gift gets turned into a commodity that is governed by the laws of economics, of supply and demand. The assumption of scarcity take over: People teaching and learning from each other because that is simply good gives way to people “getting an education.” The active verb is turned into a noun, the activity into a stuff that is, by definition, scarce - whose supply is outstripped by demand. (Simple example: Many more people, today, want and try to get a college degree than there are people who actually can afford the required schooling. And this says nothing about whether or not the actual learning that takes place in getting a college degree has anything to do with or is of any help with the actual jobs that these degrees will supposedly help people get.)
And what’s more, to maintain the economic growth that assures their existence, these modern institutions tend to continually invent new needs that people never knew they had and new services that will, in theory, anyway, satisfy those needs. Indeed, because they are driven by the need to continue their own economic growth and gain political and social power, these institutions have a major incentive to monopolize services that will satisfy the needs that they also define.
Illich saw that just as the over-production and over-consumption of material goods leads to destruction of the physical environment, the over-consumption of institutionally-provided services leads to a fraying of the social fabric and a diminishment of people’s ability to live fully in their own bodies and minds.
Beyond a certain size and intensity, Illich showed, all institutions end up stimulating greater demand for their services than they actually are able to deliver. And worse, in his eyes, they frustrate people’s ability to do for themselves - to learn outside of school, to take care of each other when they are ill or dying, to move themselves with their own two feet. The result, in effect, is more scarcity, not less, as advertised, which leads to a new, modernized form of poverty.
In the past, no doubt, people surely suffered ailments that doctors today identify as unique illnesses requiring specialized, high-tech treatments available only in hospitals. But in the past, people suffered these ailments in a much different way than is possible today. Local cultures and traditions enabled everyone, rich and poor, to practice a well-developed, tradition-based art of suffering and dying. Death, Illich shows in his book Medical Nemesis, was a performance. And this art - and yes, part of this was religious belief, which today is largely dismissed as unscientific, irrational, etc. - enabled people to make sense of their pains and death without the aid of scarce professional services. (To look at it another way, everyone was a professional, not only those who’d managed to earn a certain high-priced credential.)
And so, as Illich points out, people died without having to deal, as we moderns do, with the knowledge and extra pain of knowing, at the end, that they could not afford the latest miracle cure that the medical system had advertised to them on TV, via a pseudo-news story. (Think how many newspaper articles and TV stories get published about this or that new, almost miraculous cure for cancer or loss of limb. Even faces are now getting transplanted.) Or that they couldn’t get the best doctor, or have the nicest room in the hospital, or afford health insurance at all.
But this modern delivery of medical services requires that people are convinced that they need these services, that it is better to die in a hospital plugged into machines than it is to die at home surrounded by loved ones. These images are, by now, cliches, but it is largely Illich, in Medical Nemesis, who is responsible for bringing attention this aspect of modern medicine and how it convinces people to reconceive themselves less as suffering flesh and blood and more as immune systems that need tuning by professionals using arcane equipment, techniques, and jargon. And again, the contrast between not-so-distant past and today is much starker in, say Mexico, where Illich lived much of his life, than in New York City.
So, Illich’s main argument in his early books, starting with Deschooling, is that beyond a certain size and level of intensity, all social institutions become counter-productive. They actually thwart people’s ability to do for themselves and they diminish or get in the way of the very thing, or service, that they promise to generate in abundance. For example, compulsory schooling promotes itself and is widely understood as helping to make more people more knowledgable, but in fact, overall, it makes knowledge scarcer. Schools do this by persuading people that what they know from daily life has no value, that only what’s learned in the formal process of schooling is worth anything or legitimate, that only professional, credentialed teachers know what to teach and how to teach it, and that credentials speak louder than actual know-how. As the very first paragraph of ‘Deschooling’ states, the system encourages us to “confuse process and substance,” to replace active learning with “getting” an education - or, more correct, with getting a credential, or degree.
Just look at how those two phrases differ, how a noun replaces the active verb. The car, Illich later pointed out, does something quite similar: we “get transportation” vs. we walk. Medicine: We live fully and suffer the human condition and take care of each other, vs. we get and are entitled to health care.