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Task Discussion

  • EcologicalHumanist   Sept. 11, 2011, 7:19 p.m.

    I realize this thread has been inactive for a month or two, but I wanted to post a brief comment for each of the chapters, starting here. Since this is my first comment I also wanted to say I am pleased to "meet" you all and join in this discusion. 

    If I am understanding Illich correctly, the answer to "why we must disestablish school" is that institutions, after they reach a certain size, lose their effectiveness. Education when it becomes transformed into a commodity by modern industrial society ceases to focus on meaningful skills, instead creating an insatiable desire for more instruction, or fancier and more expensive educational apparatuses. 

    After reading most of the other chapters, I don't think the first puts illich in the best light, since it emphasizes those aspects of his argument that may evoke, to the modern reader, defunding and privitizing of basic social services, including "schools" of some sort. The critique becomes more convincing, in my view, as more specific details emerge.

    His anticipation of online, topic-centered meetings is uncanny. As is probably inevitable, it felt like Illich was using a fairly broad brush for categories, essentially using "schooled society" as a stand-in for anything wrong-headed or destructive. 

    This is a wonderful book, and a great thing for me to read at the moment, when I am wrestling with questions like how an educational system can cultivate creativity, when so much of its obligatory structure does seem punitive, homogenizing, and centered around marketability...

  • Winslow   July 20, 2011, 7:10 p.m.

    I thought others here might be interested to read some of Illich's thoughts on how he came to the arguments put forth in Deschooling. His thinking is rooted in his understanding of church history, and he sees schooling as a ritual that makes people blind to its own contradictions.

    Illich was interviewed in 1988 by David Cayley of Canadian Broadcasting, who used the interview to create a 5-hr. radio program about Illich and also to publish a book called Ivan Illich in Conversation. I will summarize a bit here and there:



    Q: ... you imply that schooling has in effect become a new form of compulsory religion.

    Illich: Perhaps I have to explain how I got to my analysis of schooling. ... I actually treated the school system as a continuation of the Christian church system in Western culture.

       When I studied theology, my preferred subject was ecclesiology, which is the scientific study of that particular community which the Church conceives as its ideal, and has since the 4th century. It is the first attempt to study a social phenomenon which is not the state, nor the law, as such. Ecclesiology, therefore, can be taken, in a funny but very real way, as the predecessor of sociology but with a tradition about twenty times as long as sociology since Durkheim [considered the first modern sociologist]. Now I was very much interested in the traditions and the disputes about this phenomenon, which really exists only in Western culture, of a community which claims to be as all-embracing as catholic, as the state - or what civil law governs - and yet claims to be independent from it.

       I was interested in this phenomenon from a very special point of view. Within ecclesiology there is a special branch .. called liturgy. Now liturgy can be the study of how people sing in church, but it can also be studied as an intellectual discipline which against has a history going back to the Greek and Roman Church fathers. In the later second and third centuries, this branch of intellectual analysis was concerned with the way in which rituals create that community which then calls itself church and is studied in ecclesiology.

       ... I first asked myself, What am I studying? Quite definitely, I was not studying what other people told me this was, namely, the most practical arrangement for imparting education, or for creating equality, because I saw that most of the people were stupefied by this procedure, were actually told that they couldn't learn on their own and became disabled and crippled. Secondly, I had the evidence that it promoted a new kind of self-inflicted injustice. So I said to myself, Let me define as schooling the compulsory attendance in groups of no more than fifty and no less than fifteen, of age-specific cohorts of young people around on person called a teacher, who has more schooling than they. And I asked myself, What kind of a liturgy is used there to generate the belief that this is a social enterprise that has some kind of autonomy from the law?


       I came to the conclusion that this was a myth-making, a mythopoetic ritual. [Max] Gluckman, who was my hero at that time, says that rituals are forms of behavior that make those who participate in them blind to the discrepancy which exists between the purpose for which you perform the rain dance, and the actual social consequences the rain dance has. If the rain dance doesn't work, you can blame yourself for having danced it wrongly. Schooling, I increasingly came to see, is the ritual of a society committed to progress and development. It creates certain myths which are a requirement for a consumer society. For instance, it makes you believe that learning can be sliced up into pieces and quantified, or that learning is something for which you need a process within which you acquire it. And in this process, you are the consumer and somebody else the organizer, and you collaborate in producing the thing which you consume and interiorize. 


       I therefore came to analyze schooling as a myth-mnaking ritual, a ritual creating a myth on which contemporary society then builds itself. For instance, this builds a society which believes in knowledge and in the packaging of knowledge, which believes in the obsolescence of knowledge and in the necessity of adding knowledge to knowledge, which believes in knowledge as a value - not as the good, but as a value - and which conceives of it therefore in commercial terms. This is all basic for being a modern man and living in the absurdities of the modern world.


    The idea that competence in the world derives from being instructed about it, taught about it, is an idea which from the 17th century on slowly takes over. In fact, the social effects of schooling ... became possible ... only with the idea of universal compulsory schooling. I've nothing against schools! I'm against compulsory schooling. I'm not in the same way against schools. I know that schools always compound native privilege with new privilege. But only when they become compulsory can they compound lack of native privilege with added self-inflicted discrimination. Schools that are freely accessible allow the organization of certain specific learning tasks which a person might propose to himself. Schools, when they are compulsory - as we see at this moment in the U.S. - created a dazed population, a "learned" population, a mentally pretentious population, such as we have never seen before. The last 50 years of intensive improvement of schooling - here, or in Germany, or in France - have created television consumers.


    That's all for now. If anyone would like, I'd be glad post more of this interview with Illich, which is quite lengthy. Among other things, Illich explains how the schooling establishment responded to attack and found other venues to ply its trade, thus turning the world into a global classroom. 

  • Winslow   Sept. 23, 2011, 8:47 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Winslow   July 20, 2011, 7:10 p.m.

    A marvelous and quite possibly unique opportunity to see Illich speaking in public has been discovered recently. It's all explained right here:



    Of course, one also can find audio recordings of him speaking about education and deschooling here (see very bottom of page):

  • Pippa Buchanan   Sept. 25, 2011, 5:45 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Winslow   Sept. 23, 2011, 8:47 p.m.

    Thanks Winslow!

  • Winslow   Nov. 21, 2011, 1:51 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Pippa Buchanan   Sept. 25, 2011, 5:45 a.m.

    I am making available for downloading a recording of Illich speaking about education, from 1970. It is in two parts, in MP3 format, and about an hour long. It is well worth a listen.


    Parts one and two are here:



  • Winslow   July 11, 2011, 4:40 p.m.


       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.

  • Winslow   June 27, 2011, 1:44 p.m.

    One thing to keep in mind while reading 'Deschooling Society' is that Illich wrote this at a time when not only was the "educational crisis" boiling over in the industrialized nations of the West (U.S., U.K. and Europe) but also when those nations were aggressively trying to foist their way of life onto the rest of the world, aka the "Third World" or "under-developed nations." They were doing this via organizations like the Peace Corps and, particularly visible to Illich, as a churchman, the Roman Catholic church's Alliance for Progress, which sent many missionaries from the U.S. into Latin America. 

       Illich's main intent was not to help the industrialized nations be more efficient or effective in their educating their own people, but rather it was to warn those nations that still seemed to have a chance of avoiding industrialization and taking a different route of the dangers that compulsory education posed. This may sound naive and wishful from our vantage point, 40 years later and immersed in the supposed glories of globalization, but at the time, there was sincere belief that "development" might be avoided - that many nations of the world could see and learn from the mistakes being made in the West and find another way. (And Illich was equally dismissive of capitalist and so-called socialist programs, of both the U.S. and Castro, for instance. This stance eventually turned off many on the left in the U.S., who originally had greeted his criticisms with much enthusiasm.)

      Clearly, Illich's book found an avid audience in the U.S. and U.K. (and other European nations, too, I imagine) and it was - and still is - inspiring to the free school and alternative schooling and home-schooling movements. But Illich was not at all interested in making industrialism "work better." His vision was much more radical than that, indeed more radical than most readers are willing to consider.  

      to be continued ....

  • Jennifer Claro   June 27, 2011, 4:49 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Winslow   June 27, 2011, 1:44 p.m.


    Thank you, this is illuminating. One of the questions I'd like to ask Illich is "If equal obligatory schooling was economically feasible, would you support it?" I think the answer is no, tho it is a bit confusing, because Illich writes that "the educational quality of all institutions must increase again” (p. 33) which implies keeping the institutions. And on p. 25 he writes, “Both skill-learning and education for inventive and creative behavior can be aided by institutional arrangement.” So while Illich is calling for the abolishing/disestablishing of schools (and other institutions), he seems to be also calling for their improvement and recognizing that they are good for something.

    The question that has been raised by several posts on the first chapter of the book, as well as possibly by Illich himself is, “Is change for the better possible within the system? Or is it the system itself which must go?” For Illich, the focus was on institutions, which he saw as dehumanizing and replacing our normal human processes such as educating our children, health care, community involvement, etc., but all of these are connected to a wider social vision of change. Change within the system? Or change of the system?

    I find this last line of Winslow’s intriguing, “His vision was much more radical than that, indeed more radical than most readers are willing to consider” and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it, perhaps in the “to be continued” part? :)

  • Winslow   July 11, 2011, 5:48 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jennifer Claro   June 27, 2011, 4:49 p.m.

    By "more radical," I mean that Illich is calling for a profound re-organization of society, one that essentially has no need of schooling as we understand it. He is not just trying to fix the school system, as so many reformers (Bennett, Ravitch, you name 'em) and Congressional committees (No Child Left Behind) and corporate executives (Bill Gates) seek to do.

        This new society would be a society of people who worked together, directly, in local communities, and who chose to work on projects and tools and technologies that were meaningful and significant to them in ways that economics cannot describe. Illich was about as anti-market as is conceivable. The market, he saw, replaces any notion of "the good," as in a good fit, with a scheme based on interchangeable values. Much of his thinking centered on the idea of proportionality, as seen in the traditional, pre-modern, pre-economic cosmos in which things were judged according to how well they fit with and defined each other. Man and woman, heaven and earth, me and you, etc. Economics erases that relationship and creates a world of scarcity. A marvelous essay by Illich on all this is here.

      How to get there? Illich didn't really say. His is almost a theological argument: This is how to think about the world and humanity and existence and why we're here and how to make sense of it. 

     Illich is famous for having started out as a priest working in NYC, then for running afoul of the Vatican and leaving its fold. He did, however, continue to be a Christian believer, and that is there if you look carefully to his writing. Few of his books actually mention the Church or cite scripture, except to be critical; he was aware that that would be a turn-off for many people. But his thinking is informed by his faith and his somewhat radical reading of the New Testament. Indeed, it is quite possible to read 'Deschooling Society' as a thinly-veiled critique of the Church itself, as a call for believers to celebrate their faith independent of priests and decrees from on high, for those are part of a power structure that is antithetical to how Illich understands Christ's teachings. 

    This is radical stuff, in more ways than one, and difficult for me to write about. I am not a believer, as such, so I feel uncomfortable even writing the word Jesus, for instance, much less trying to make an argument that relies on that guy's name or teachings. I know how many people automatically run away from that kind of thing. But if one follows Illich far enough, to the last couple of years of his life, one will find him articulating the main conclusion of his life's thought: that Western society - with its environmental crisis, its extreme polarization of income and wealth and poverty, with its overgrowth of technology, its scarcity of schooling, its frightful medical system, etc. - is best understood as a deeply corrupted version of what's described in the New Testament. "The corruption of the best is the worst," Illich often said. As soon as the Church, in the first few hundred years after Christ, began to mis-interpret and legislate the quite revolutionary idea of "love thy neighbor," all sorts of things started to wrong, Illich says, and here we are, suffering the consequences. 

    Still, one can read, and many have read, 'Deschooling' without much thought of religion, the Church, or Illich's own beliefs in that regard. But it's all there, shining through the text if you are prepared to see it.

    As I once told a friend, the more you read Illich, the more you see and the more you understand and the more connections get made and the more gets revealed. His thought and analysis of society changed a good deal over time, too, and he declined to be pinned down today in defending what he'd written the year before. Each book was written during a certain moment in history, as a unique intervention.

    If anyone's interested, you can see how his thoughts on education had evolved more than a decade after 'Deschooling.' An essay called "Education in the Light of the Gospel" is available here. In it, Illich compares teachers working with poor students in busted, inner-city schools to Oskar Schindler trying his best to save Jews deep in the belly of the Nazi beast.

  • Michael McCarthy   May 6, 2011, 12:20 a.m.

    I am looking forward to what is said about the following two chapters as we move forward.

    A great deal of what is said later makes me think of "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" by Louis Athusser. Boiled down as far as I can take it, I feel that Illych is not wrong with regards to how society is structured to remain lulled in a particular quasi-active state... how lulled should it be? Crazy statement... read further...

    I deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. It was bleak. Afghans were extraordinarily caring, active, collectively concerned, and engaged. That's why, as a result of a certain foreign invasion stimulus, they set about trying to kill their occupiers. Hard to blame them... they also, as a result of numerous historical/cultural factors, treat their women worse than anywhere else in the world, along with a few disturbingly backwards practices I am unwilling to describe here [look up, "Bacha Bazi"]

    Returning home, I found a rather slow-to-act, pretentious but ultimately unengaged American world. Not much was different from before I left (a huge recession and big election). The juxtaposition was intense as I made my adjustment back to the "regular" world. TVs everywhere, and no one TRULY cares about anything. As much as I dislike the mind-numbing stability caused by "Ideological State Apparatuses" like schooling... it definitely has a beneficial effect if you dislike Molotov cocktails and a certain type of extremism.

    I was home schooled for two years in 7th/8th grade... by my parents who fall easily into conservative evangelical extremists described earlier. I was only allowed to watch wholesome family programming... most things a young man should enjoy at that age were "demonic." Thankfully, their lunacy has been corrected naturally over time, but ever since those years I've been afraid of dubious ideology on all spectrums.

    Its a tough call for me. As we move forward I would like to see us discuss exactly what the role is that the individual plays versus the collective [to narrow, with regards to education]. I feel like all politics and social disorder is the friction of this relationship, between the rights of the individual and the whole. In schooling, these battles are fought over "what should everyone know", and "what should everyone be allowed to experience." And of course "who decides?"

    I think ultimately the conversation will turn to the best stuff: the fact that this new technology allows us all to break with millenia-old social mores. My concern is that age-old tendencies will ruin even this amazing opportunity, unless we prepare for that fight in every way imaginable.

  • Pippa Buchanan   May 5, 2011, 1:32 p.m.




    As an Australian living in Europe, (and admittedly with fairly pathetic non-English language skills) I always end up feeling frustrated that the bulk of education news that I receive is US or UK centric. And sadly Deschooling Society continues this trend, with relatively limited insights into non-US contexts even though Illych was born in Austria etc etc.

    Anyway, along with a couple of other posters, I wonder what Illych would have made of hypertext, both as a tool which allows for self-expression, access to information, and as an element of a text that allows branching thoughts. There were ideas that I wanted to explore more deeply but which felt as if Illych was conversationally assuming prior knowledge. I think that's both a charm and a frustration with this text - you can sense the conversations and feedback that fed into it.

    Frustrations aside - I think that it's very important to remember that Illych chooses "school as paradigm" to discuss reduction / removal of institutions with roles beyond that of formal education. Prior to reading this I'd thought this text was only about "school", as a result it feels much stronger when these thoughts are considered more broadly across society.

    Two non-educational examples that keep on occurring to me are that of childbirth and food security. Increased "yields" were the immediate benefits that came from initial institutionalising of neo-natal healthcare and non-subsistence farming.  Healthier babies and mothers and more food! Hooray! No wonder it seems like a great idea to continue to expand the reach of these institutions so that it's no longer the individual's responsibility. cheeky

    Over time we end up with a situation where home-birthing is seen as an exception and growing your own food a trend. Along with non-formal education (homeschooling, "DIY" Masters), these acts end up as acts of rebellion or "alternative" lifestyles, where the word alternative doesn't represent a valid choice, but something far more suspicious, all tie-dyed and hairy. No longer the default option, these acts which were once normal become, at least in the 'North' the domain of the privileged or radically committed.

    I grow my own food where possible, will plan for home-births and the very best ways to give my future children as much of a non-school / broader education. So I'm not particularly surprised that those are the immediate themes that I'm responding to.  But for all of those grand plans I want and appreciate supermarkets and year round food, want to be no-more than 20 minutes from a good public hospital when I give birth and despite "the system's" obvious flaws, I really want schools to be a part of my children's upbringing.

    I could bang on and on about this - but ultimately how we approach society and schooling has to be about choice and balance. Damn straight this is about individuals' rights to choose, but along with all of those rights come tremendous responsibilities related to maintaining viable and respectable choices for everyone.  And perhaps that's what we should be schooling society in.

  • Jessy Kate Schingler   May 5, 2011, 2:03 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Pippa Buchanan   May 5, 2011, 1:32 p.m.

    right on sista! :) great post. 

  • Alex Halavais   May 5, 2011, 3:14 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Pippa Buchanan   May 5, 2011, 1:32 p.m.

    I'm at least partially with you there. (Though there would have been a very good chance I would have lost my son or wife had they not been in a hospital for their birth.) But I think that what Illich might be missing, though he hints toward it, is a third way.

    Home schooling, etc. remains an "alternative" for now because it is somehow on the periphery. Yes, of course people talk to one another, but not at scale. There are only about four people who do all the home births in New York City (this according to a friend who has one scheduled for the summer), and so of course they know one another, and perhaps by extension the families who have worked with them may know each other, but that communication thins out as you get out of NYC.

    Likewise, if you talk to most people in the US (sorry Pippa, I'm going to continue the UK/US centrism only because it is by far the most familiar for me--along with Japan, where I taught in public schools, but is a whole other kettle of fish). their most palpable experience with homeschooling is the weird kid who lives down the street with fundamental Christian (or other cultish) parents. That is, it is marked by isolation and setting apart. It is alternative because it is peripheral.

    But the change is toward "connected learning." I'm hesitant to use this phrase since it is becoming the keyword among the DML crowd, but I do think it is apt. Illich required someone to coordinate those connections--the idea of people going and finding Spanish-speaking teens on their own would have introduced so much transactional friction that it just would never have happened. Now, the situation is beginning to be reversed for many types of learning. It is far *easier* to get connected by going online and finding--say--some Spanish speaking areas of Second Life than it would be to hang out and find Spanish speaking teens or find someone to set up meetings.

    Aside: I live in a neighborhood that has been mainly Dominican with some Puerto Rican for several decades. If I go to the local park and try to pick up teens to teach me Spanish, it would likely... um... not end well :).

    I'm not a technological determinist, but it seems to me that this is key. It used to be you went to university to find a group of people who wanted to talk about big ideas: that is, it was a place to get connected. I think, if you are lucky and go to the right place, that remains a possiblity--but it is not the norm, and not the average experience for a college student or someone in secondary or primary school. Now, you go to school to get talked at. 

    So, in the 70s and 80s, you could stay home, sit on the couch, and get talked at through the TV, and probably learn something, but if you wanted to interact with a community and engage in a much richer learning experience, you probably had to go to a school. Now, if you want to get talked at, and probably learn something,  you go to school, but if you want to interact with a community and engage in a much richer learning experience, you sit at home on the couch in front of a computer. It's a dramatic switch.

  • Maria Droujkova   May 5, 2011, 3:31 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   May 5, 2011, 3:14 p.m.

    Alex, I love what you say here: "So, in the 70s and 80s, you could stay home, sit on the couch, and get talked at through the TV, and probably learn something, but if you wanted to interact with a community and engage in a much richer learning experience, you probably had to go to a school. Now, if you want to get talked at, and probably learn something,  you go to school, but if you want to interact with a community and engage in a much richer learning experience, you sit at home on the couch in front of a computer. It's a dramatic switch."

    My kid says her number one reason for homeschooling is socialization. And another number one reason is to choose her own learning paths.

    However, what you say about homeschoolers being perceived as isolated/weird is becoming an increasingly rare reaction. I should say the majority of responses right now, among parents, are "Oh, this is so cool, I wish I could do this too!" People who see homeschooling as weird tend to be far from the world of kids, basically, so they still did not get the memo. This is an especially strong trend among better educated people. In the US, 4% of kids overall are homeschooled, but 7% among kids with college-educated parents.

  • Espen Stranger-Johannessen   April 26, 2011, 5:11 p.m.

    One thing that strikes me is that he seems to be talking about grown-ups, such as the idea that people could meet to discuss a book (which we are doing!). Yet "schooling" makes me think of K-12, and I wonder to what extent a 12-year-old will pick a book (how would she know about it?) and look for people to discuss it with? Another concern is that some children (or people), probably from the middle class, might very well go out there, connect with people and learn. But what about those who don't, for whatever reason? Sure, school is not exactly known for it's ability to take care of children who struggle in one way or another, but I can't see how these kids would do better left alone (some might, I admit, though)...

  • Maria Droujkova   April 26, 2011, 5:18 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Espen Stranger-Johannessen   April 26, 2011, 5:11 p.m.

    I have a 12yo daughter, who did not join this group only because she has a lot of other book-related projects going at a time. She uses her PLN (personal learning network) in much the same way I do, except she has more book-specific communities such as Shellfari.

    What I consider equally important, "kids these days" (nice phrase) have strong networks for critiquing, fanfiction, and original writing - in other words, authoring of texts.

    However, kids who don't read books have PLNs around other interests. The danger, if anything, is specializing too early.

  • Michael McCarthy   April 27, 2011, 10:20 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Maria Droujkova   April 26, 2011, 5:18 p.m.

    I'm incredibly inspired by your observations. I really believe that our needs are properly met, and our society appropriately open and ready, people of any age can "climb up Bloom's taxonomy" and really do amazing things.

    We are all born creators.Without sounding too idealistic, I feel that its entirely possible for people to meet these kinds of expectations if only their "heirarchy of needs" are met first.

  • Jennifer Claro   June 26, 2011, 7:33 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Maria Droujkova   April 26, 2011, 5:18 p.m.

    Hi Maria (and everyone),

    Sorry for joining this discussion so late. I was very happy to read about your daughter using her PLN for book-related projects. My son is 10 years old and loves books. He has no online PLN and I am thinking that he might like one. I'm sure he'll get into social networking someday anyway and it would be good to have others to discuss his hobbies and books with. 

    I think it's true that kids wouldn't be likely to just go find someone to discuss a book with offline. It doesn't seem practical. But online, finding others with similar interests is easy. Deschooling Society was written in 1971. I wonder what Illich would have thought about social networks and their potential for learning. With these quotes, "organizing their own lives around their own experiences and resources within their own communities" (p. 6) and "most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school" (p. 18), and especially, "The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern" (p. 28), I suspect that he would have found their potential encouraging. I do! :) At P2PU we meet to discuss topics of common interest, and I find this kind of informal learning network very intriguing. I just finished the Intro to CSCL course at P2PU and it was great to see informed dialogue taking place with no grades as external motivation. Just a great interest in the topic.

    Again, sorry for posting so late. I've been reading the posts here often and just needed some free time to get started myself.

    On a closing note, I agree with Maria's note on specializing too early. I think it's my job as a parent to help my sons to get exposure to many interesting topics, hobbies, and sports, and to encourage them to dabble in lots of different things. 

    Thanks for reading,


  • Maria Droujkova   June 26, 2011, 8:17 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jennifer Claro   June 26, 2011, 7:33 p.m.

    We need to get out kids to host an alternate reality game where Illich has Facebook and Twitter accounts and answers comments on his blog :-)

  • Jennifer Claro   June 26, 2011, 11:36 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Maria Droujkova   June 26, 2011, 8:17 p.m.

    Great idea! I have a few questions for him too... :)

  • Maria Droujkova   June 27, 2011, 4:48 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jennifer Claro   June 26, 2011, 11:36 p.m.

    Maybe people in this group can take turns being Illich for one another?

  • Jennifer Claro   June 28, 2011, 4:40 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Maria Droujkova   June 27, 2011, 4:48 p.m.


    Great idea! Are you volunteering to go first? :)
  • Dan Diebolt   April 23, 2011, 3:15 a.m.

    A good way to deconstruct Illich (or any other deceased public personality) is to search for their obituary. Obituary writers make some very interesting observations about the life, impact and nuances of their subjects. Here is one:

    Ivan Illich Obituary

    And a hundred more:

    Google: "Ivan Illich" obituary

  • Winslow   July 11, 2011, 12:36 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Dan Diebolt   April 23, 2011, 3:15 a.m.

    The Times' obit for Illich was quite dismissive and condescending. It prompted this reply from Jerry Brown, a longtime friend and now, again, the governor of California: 


    To the Editor:

    Your Dec. 4 obituary of Ivan Illich, the priest, philosopher and historian, failed to capture the essence of this extraordinary man's life -- his profound critique of modern assumptions of scarcity and the dehumanizing effects of technological dependency.

    Mr. Illich was a deeply spiritual man who embodied in his way of life a radical Christian simplicity. His understanding of the past and his cheerful embrace of suffering set him apart. He called for asceticism and the art of friendship, not ''watered-down Marxism'' or ''anarchist panache.''

    In a world obsessed with longevity and freedom from pain, Mr. Illich studied and practiced the art of suffering. He was a man of rare genius and classic erudition. He was also a wonderful friend.


    Oakland, Calif.

    Dec. 4, 2002


    In my opinion, the best short-form obit of Illich is the one published in The Guardian, which is available here:


    It gives a good summary of the breadth and energy of Illich's thought. 

  • Michael McCarthy   April 21, 2011, 10:33 p.m.

    Although it doesn't seem to reveal anything to striking about the chapter, I've made a Wordle of Chapter One for all those who are interested in taking a gander:

  • Maria Droujkova   April 21, 2011, 10:52 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Michael McCarthy   April 21, 2011, 10:33 p.m.

    Good idea! I love Wordle. I removed "school" and "learning" and "education" and their forms - then something I found interesting was revealed:

    Namely, #1 is "poor" and #2 is "even" - which shows where Illich is coming from...

  • Michael McCarthy   April 21, 2011, 11:47 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Maria Droujkova   April 21, 2011, 10:52 p.m.

    Doesn't look like Ayn Rand and Ivan would have gotten along. =)

  • Michael McCarthy   April 21, 2011, 11:55 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Maria Droujkova   April 21, 2011, 10:52 p.m.

    I really do like the look of this now. Definitely reveals the underlying theme (not that it wasn't obvious hmm?)

    I'm going to do some more reading now... I don't think I will ever stop being sad at how many books there are, and how little time...

  • Michael McCarthy   April 21, 2011, 10:24 p.m.

    I work directly with Dennis Littky, as a student in his College Unbound program (we're accredited through NEASC, and VERY different, thanks a great deal to co-director Jamie Scurry). Dennis has received lots of attention on and off over the years, for his work at Thayer High School in Winchester, NH., for the Met School and Big Picture Learning, and now for a college program. He worked a great deal with Ted Sizer and CES, and he was the first to turn me onto Deschooling Society...

    As I read this stuff, I consider how radical schooling, and radical new takes on information (remix culture, copyleft) are all mixing together. This is very different, but only we realize that.

    We all know that higher ed (post-secondary, what have you) is all sitting overtop the fault line in these new changes in the delivery of ideas and information. We are well over 20 years into the internet and the WWW, and finally with the first major economic downturn, starting to see cracks in the foundation of the institutions that rely upon information exchange as their livelihood. Journalism is in ruins, and education is coming. Ivan didn't live to see it, but of course, those radical educators that are still here and among us are scrambling for answers like everyone else.

    Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, with only a few exceptions, new ICT is focused almost entirely on "banking" education, as Friere would call it. I feel that the "Web2.0" route, or more importantly, and emphasis on peer/mentor/community online learning is the obvious answer. As the more seasoned educators here probably know first hand, and much better than I, that there simply isn't any easy industrial access for companies and corporations to profit from "peer/mentor/community" learning. Its effective and meaningful, but not profitable/sustainable for those who only care about their investments and bottom-lines. Can we change that, safely?

    Until this website is, and I know it can be... or until we remix the Carnegie credit-hour, and the meaning of the credential... can we ever take Deschooling seriously?


  • Jeff Weber   April 20, 2011, 5:28 p.m.


    you're right, who is making the 'investment in the future' - is it the student or Sallie Mae (the government student-loan lending body)?  And, where, in fact does Sallie Mae get their funding, the Government, of course.  I'm interested in finding out what the default rate on student loans is - probably high.

    There are many reasons that higher education is a bubble to burst soon.  Here's another position, which I had posted in another P2PU forum,  The bubble could burst without any ramifications to the public school system (K-12).  

    We are on the edge of this event, and providers like Kaplan, Phoenix, and even P2PU are entering the market as lower-cost providers. A recent analogy - look at what Netflix did to Blockbuster in very short order, with a better delivery system and lower cost.  That bubble did not result in any diminishing of quality, and the jury is still out as to whether a bust of bricks-n-mortar universities would diminish educational quality.

  • Alex Halavais   April 20, 2011, 5:52 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jeff Weber   April 20, 2011, 5:28 p.m.

    I agree that the bubble is going to burst, either spectacularly or less so. However, that doesn't change my critique of the reading. Right now there is a feeling that those of us in higher ed (who are not, generally, benefitting from that bubble!) feel a certain obligation to provide this "liberal education." He thinks that those on their own will seek out such an education, and find it much more readily.

    My concern is that he is wrong, and that they instead will go (say) to School of Webcraft and acquire a great set of skills without ever having expanded beyond this in their studies. Frankly a college education today doesn't teach skills, or at least rarely does. It's designed to teach patterns of thought. We can argue about whether it does this (not usually), but it doesn't remove the question of whether self-determined topics end up dividing us into people who don't know and don't care about broader social issues.

    I guess, ultimately, what I'm wondering is whether there is some space between Dewey and Illich that makes sense. It seems very difficult to embrace each equally. And if we ditch Dewey entirely, what does that mean for democracy.

  • Jeff Weber   April 23, 2011, 12:54 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   April 20, 2011, 5:52 p.m.
  • Maria Droujkova   April 23, 2011, 1:49 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jeff Weber   April 23, 2011, 12:54 p.m.

    It's a good write-up, but this phrase reminded me of something: "Schumpeter is fiendishly clever and Mr Thiel is both clever and rich, so there's plainly something to this bubble theory."

    Namely, of a song from "Fiddler on the Roof":

    And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong

    When you're rich, they think you really know!

  • Pippa Buchanan   May 5, 2011, 12:37 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   April 20, 2011, 5:52 p.m.

    I'd feel much better about the current university system if it was truly focused on teaching patterns of thought and really enhanced people's ability to learn. However, limiting access to that learning and maintaining it within a closed system is not particularly good either. Yes, it should be the responsibility of those in higher education to provide a liberal education - but the formal system should not be the only environment to do that.

    For me, one of the the most important points of this chapter is that most people in society end up 'schooled' into believing that the establishment provides the only way to do something effectively.  Whether that be giving birth, dying, learning or accessing the food we eat, I'm very grateful for the formalised option for all of these things, but I also need / desire that I can consciously live these activities independently.

  • Alex Halavais   April 19, 2011, 12:40 p.m.

    Six initial reactions to the first chapter:

    1. It seems like Michele Bachman and the Tea Partiers would love this chapter. It suggests that the US population is unwilling to spend more than it does on education, and what it spends isn't very effective. Overall, it feels like a familiar indictment of the modern public school. She would probably be a big fan of the "an 'edu-credit card' provided to each citizen at birth." (Assuming only "real" citizens got them...) And on page nine he explicitly backs vouchers.

    I think where it goes a bit astray is in assuming that everyone is unhappy with their schools. The Finnish seem not to be as down on public schools, and they spend a lot on their schools, especially on teacher education.

    2. I'm also curious if his claim that per pupil spending is roughly equivalent from school to school. That can't be true today, can it? And I was under the impression that there was a pretty direct correlation between the funding of US public schools and their standards-based achievements. I'm happy to use some other metric, of course, but Illich isn't really providing one.

    3. Love this:

    "To detach competence from curriculum, inquiries into a man's learning history must be made taboo, like inquiries into his political af?liation, church attendance, lineage, sex habits, or racial background. Laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of prior schooling must be enacted."

    If for nothing other than its audacity. But I'm curious about the phrase "learning history." It seems like he is using this as synonymous with "schooling history," which rather misses the point. An employment history is really--at least in part--a learning history. If I know what kinds of work you've done, it not only shows competence, it shows learning. Schooling histories are a part of that--why should they be excluded and not employment history? In other words, this seems really fuzzy to me. I have no problem ditching the "butts-in-seats" record of "learning," but it needs something to replace it.

    4. "Skill teachers are made scarce by the belief in the value of licenses. Certi?cation constitutes a form of market manipulation and is plausible only to a schooled mind." Nonsense: certification is the result of a market-oriented mind. Brands emerge as a way of differentiating the quality of goods and services offered. Certification is merely a way of branding such products.

    5. Love the description of a computer-based site where people could find others to learn with, based on a topic, a theme, or a book they want to read together :) (p. 10). And, broadly, the idea that schools should provide the space and infrastructure for them to meet (p.11).

    6. I remain concerned that there is room in modern society for the educated mind, and that it is necessary for an effective democracy. That is, there is a role for indoctrination. Freire is great, but context is everything. If you are teaching people who already have some inkling of political consciousness, and what they are learning can help them to realize this, great.

    But in the modern US context, people learn in order to make money. Why do you go to university? Because you know it's the only way you are going to get a decent paying job. Why would you learn a particular skill set? In most cases, for the same reason. I recognize (fully!) that there are other reasons to learn, but I think it would be a mistake to ignore that this is the major driver of both obligatory k-12 and "bubble" tertiary education.

    People pay ridiculous sums (well over $200K for a four-year degree at my own institution) largely because they think (correctly) that it is an investment in their future earning potential. Yes, there are a lot of other factors involved--including curiousity, identity-formation, and the desire to change the world. But the minute you de-school society (assuming he means mainly the dismantling of public schools), you have a million Kaplans and Universties of Phoenix willing to take your money with the promise--reasonable or not--that you will see significant ROI on your tuition.

  • Maria Droujkova   April 19, 2011, 4:15 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   April 19, 2011, 12:40 p.m.

    "I'm also curious if his claim that per pupil spending is roughly equivalent from school to school. That can't be true today, can it?" - From what I read in Kozol's "Savage Inequalities" it's not true at all.

    Also, schools don't operate in a vacuum. If you measured by spending on classes, a lot of homeschool classes would be labeled "free" - which misses the point of how much work and effort goes into them and surrounds them. Other economic measures are needed.

  • Dan Diebolt   April 20, 2011, 4:42 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   April 19, 2011, 12:40 p.m.


    >People pay ridiculous sums (well over $200K for a four-year degree at my own institution) largely because they think (correctly) that it is an investment in their future earning potential. 
    I have to disagree on the point of the investment in the future. Outstanding student loans in the US are approaching a trillion dollars and have for the first time in histroy already passed credit card debt. These two resources I think paint a more accurate picture of the inflated cost of a degree and the coming of the "eduction bubble" bursting:
    Gerald Celente of Trends @ 52 - 57 minutes