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Task Discussion

  • Alex Halavais   May 20, 2011, 3:20 p.m.


    On a different note... I think the key takeaway here has less to do with what a school is, and more to do with how it relates to authority and autonomy. 

    I'm sympathetic to his view of school as a "magic womb" away from the reality of everyday existence. And yes, that can sometimes be a bad thing, but not always.

    I'll take Pippa's lead, and personalize this. I got kicked out of a private school early in the eighth grade for non-payment. This was after getting kicked out of other schools for that or for any number of other things. Our family went through a lot of financial swings. The school had kept me on longer than they ought to have because I and my sibs helped their showing on standardized tests. But I had a problem with authority--or more exactly authority had a problem with me. I didn't fit.

    Soon after I was... well, "home-schooled" is probably the wrong word, and "unschooled" suggests that there was some thought involved in the process. When I was 14 my mother encouraged me to return to school, and given that we were homeless at the time, I picked the best public high school in the region. Why not?

    It was a disaster. I didn't make the week. I jumped in in the middle of the semester. New students were given a "buddy" to help them adjust. Mine suggested paying up to the local bully and going shopping for clothes that would make me stand out less--neither of which were possibilities. I was accused of cheating in the first couple of days because my homework was "too good." (And because I had accidentally ended up in two senior level classes and still found the work facile.) I literally was spat on by other students twice during my first day, and figuratively spat on by the teachers. It was about as hellish an experience as I could imagine, and so I walked out at lunch of my fifth day, and never looked back.

    Now, I really could have used a womb. A place apart from my everyday life, which involved caring for my siblings, staying a step ahead of the law, and trying to figure out where food was going to come from. This isn't a pity party--I had a fine childhood, and there are others far worse off. When I see kids--especially girls--in places like Afghanistan (as well as closer to home) who are provided with schooling, it is really hard for me to think "stop treating this young people like children, get them out into society." Because, frankly, sometimes society sucks more than schools.

    I think the ideal school is a kind of utopia (even if schools play a remarkably minimal role in More's Utopia), a place where learning can occur without the distractions of everyday survival. I think that ideal of school is found in the Harry Potter books. Yes, there is trepidation, but for Harry, it's a space where he can become more autonomous and adult-like. Though there are hierarchies, they are largely of merit (though I suppose hereditary as well) and not of age. So he has to play the child in the muggle world only to escape it at school.

    I think Illich misses this somewhat. Yes, the social construct of childhood tends to be extended much longer in the wealthiest countries, but for many, schools represent the way out of backward, structured, traditional societies in which the only way to exercise power is to grow old. The idea that age is directly related to role, task, or power is not unique to the school. And the best schools can provide a respite from such hierarchies and prejudices.

  • Alex Halavais   May 20, 2011, 2:43 p.m.


    I don't want to get all "back in my day," but...

    Back in my day, I think it would be fair to agree with Illich that people didn't want to be treated like children. Is that still true today? The popular press is rife with stories of people--especially men--who want to be treated like children at later and later ages. Folks point to the man-child archetype (Will Farrell, et al) on the cultural side, the economic conditions requiring many students graduating from college to return home, and the like. 

    Just this week I got a note from a graduate student--probably in her mid- or late- thirties. She was upset because my graduate seminar didn't "teach." That is, I didn't have easily consumed lectures in which material was conveyed and then tested. She didn't pay to go to school in order to be in charge of her own learning.

    Some of this has to do with the nature of our program and our student body, but it also seems to be an ongoing sort of thing. Certainly among our undergraduates that is the feeling. They pay to go to school, teachers are paid to lecture and give grades. 

    Of course, many of them also equate that payment for freedom. If they have paid for classes, they should choose whether they can attend, and whether they need to pay attention. (See this in the commentary on the recent InsideEd piece on the use of laptops for extracurricular activities during class.) It's an interesting idea, perhaps encouraged by mandatory schooling. By recreating school as a form of consumption, you move beyond childhood. Being adult means having money to spend (or at least be spent on your behalf).

    If that's the case, then the disestablishment of compulsory schooling would not end childhood, it would just redefine it (or reify the definition) in economic terms.

  • Maria Droujkova   May 20, 2011, 6:40 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   May 20, 2011, 2:43 p.m.

    Alex, I object to stereotyping children as helpless and desiring dependency. Young children do not mind receiving appropriate help and nurturing from parents and other - it's biological. However, this is different from "learned helplessness" children currently exhibit, which is not an inherent quality of childhood.

    98% of five year old test at genius level at divergent thinking, which is one measure of independence of thought. This number drops with age, to where only 2% of adults are at that level.

  • Alex Halavais   May 20, 2011, 7:33 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Maria Droujkova   May 20, 2011, 6:40 p.m.

    When you say "children" do you merely mean people of a certain age? It seems to me that Illich is defining children--as a socially constructed category--explicitly as being dependant...

  • Maria Droujkova   May 20, 2011, 7:42 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   May 20, 2011, 7:33 p.m.

    Good point, Alex! I meant "people of certain age" - I guess I will need to specify the meaning.

  • Winslow   July 17, 2011, 1:42 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   May 20, 2011, 7:33 p.m.

    Here is Illich on children as a modern construct, as quoted on this page; Illich, here, talks at some length about his own education and about his thoughts on deschooling (from 1988): 



    CAYLEY: In your book, Gender, you say that you could not have written either that book or Deschooling Society without the work of Philippe Aries.

    ILLICH: It is through Aries that I was introduced to the historicity of the notion of "the child," and that in this sense it is a modern construct. I probably fell for Aries because I had always disliked it when the children of my friends would take the attitude "I'm a child and you must pay attention to me." Since I was fifteen, I had refused to notice or to enter into any kind of intercourse with such a person. Some of my friends, better friends, family friends, have considered me all my life a brute. But an interesting thing has happened a number of times. When these kids had difficulties with their parents, they suddenly appeared on my doorstep - at age fourteen or fifteen. In two cases, they came to another continent, seeking refuge. My intuition is that one of the most evil things our modern society does is produce children in this specifically modern sense. As a young man, I decided that I wouldn't do that. That was the reason I decided at age twelve not to marry.

    CAYLEY: To stay with childhood for a moment - does identifying it as a specifically modern idea invalidate it? Is it not also in some sense an advance?

    ILLICH: It's just that with all advances, the greater they are, the more they are an extreme form of privilege. We are sitting here and having this conversation together because I was, at one glance, so impressed by the feeling between you and your children, whom you have kept out of school. Now for them, the fact that you have abandoned the idea of childhood in order to take these kids who live in a world of childhood fully seriously as kids is an extraordinary advantage. But this is not a model. This is something to be emulated, not imitated. It's the spark of uniqueness that must be cherished.

  • EcologicalHumanist   Sept. 25, 2011, 1:15 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Alex Halavais   May 20, 2011, 2:43 p.m.

    "Just as inevitably, this hidden curriculum serves as a ritual of initiation into a growth-oriented consumer society for rich and poor alike..." (the end of the chapter).

    I'm interested in the question of whether commodifying knowledge (turning it into something that a credentialed expert can be paid to teach) increases or decreases individual freedom. Reading through the comments, it seems like everyone has their own experiences about how institutionalized education initiated them into what Illich interestingly defines as "rituals" of a consumer-oriented bureaucratic society, for better or ill. As other comments seem to ask, though, what is the alternative? Society as it stands, it seems to me, would simply "school" children more thoroughly in liberal capitalism than schools themselves could ever manage, sacrificing them at an earlier age to the machinations of corporate culture and industry...

    For me, I am definitely aware of the relatively hidden dynamics of pedagogy, how it tends to translate self-sufficiency and self-directed learning into a kind of one-size-fits all ritual of mandatory attendence and obedience. The most dangerous part of the "hidden curriculum," for me, is the tendency of institutionalized education to condition students to the idea that they can be quantified, evaluated, and graded according to universal criteria, and that the goal of school is to score well rather than learn. Sometimes I feel like as a teacher I am no more than a kind of glorified baby-sitter, who occasionally grades homework, reporting on students to their parent/state according to standardized metrics of progress.

    Having just begun a job teaching at a University, I struggle with an awareness that were my students to have the option of simply receiving a grade, a diploma, etc, without actually going to class (by simply paying for it, for example), they would probably accept without hesitation. Education is eclipsed by marketing, and I fear, with Illich, that school initiates children and adults alike into a life of consumption-based dependency, sorted by institutionally assigned ranks. Teachers and students are both fixated on competitve rankings, and are taught to adjust their self-image accordingly.

    Sorry if this is rambling, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts out here, as a prelude hopefully to later discussions. Here is, probably, my favorite quote from the chapter: "The claim that a liberal society can be founded on the modern school is paradoxical. The safeguards of individual freedom are all cancelled in the dealings of a teacher with his pupil" (31).

    Here is a blog entry where I talk about some of the same ideas, relating them to Neal Stephenson's SF novel "The Diamond Age," among other things.

  • Michael McCarthy   Sept. 26, 2011, 3:15 p.m.
    In Reply To:   EcologicalHumanist   Sept. 25, 2011, 1:15 p.m.

    I appreciate all this Eco... its certainly not a rant or rambling.

    I have a friend who is an adjunct professor of English. I sat in on a 200's level class and listened to a few Juniors make some decisions about their lives:

    "I'm going to switch majors from BioMed to Marine Biology. I don't want to take any more labs. BioMed has 3 more labs, and Marine Biology only has 2."

    "Yeah, labs are awful. I think I am going to switch to... blah blah."

    Also, was served by a waitress a few weeks ago that said she got a Bachelor's of Science in Forensics. Now that she graduated, she realized she liked waitressing, and said she wanted to go back and learn more about hospitality.

    I know its quaint to have a diversely educated liberal arts culture... but we don't need waitresses to be packing degrees they don't need, or kids burdened by debt at 22 because they did the expensive version of early adult daycare.

    I'm going to read your blog next. Keep 'em coming!

  • Winslow   Sept. 26, 2011, 4:05 p.m.
    In Reply To:   EcologicalHumanist   Sept. 25, 2011, 1:15 p.m.

    Illich's take on schooling as we know it - compulsory schooling, that is - is that it is justified by the assumption, usually unquestioned, that what's valuable is scarce. And as an institution, schooling makes knowledge scarce. Schooling dismisses homegrown, vernacular knowledge and credits the student only with what he or she has consumed under the aegis of school. Obviously, schools teach people and make knowledge that much more available, but their ability to, in essence, sell credentials helps them reinforce scarcity. 


      Thus, beyond a certain intensity, compulsory schooling reduces freedom. It teaches and enforces dependence on professionals who are said to have more and better knowledge than we have ourselves. 

      Obviously, modern, highly-technological society depends on experts who have scarce knowledge, and the schooling system is deeply shaped by this. But Illich envisions the dismantling of this society and creating what he calls a convivial society, where people are beset by scarcity. In essence, his life's work was a very intense critique of the industrial society we now have. 

        One can contrast today's schooling-intensive society, with all its discussions of how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of schools and so forth, with traditional socities, where the knowledge needed to get along and have a decent life was not scarce. Everyone had more or less the same knowledge about how to produce food, create shelter, etc. People grew up, then, learning what needed to be known by actively living in society. Learning had not been extracted from daily life, treated as a therapy or must-have treatment. It was woven into daily activity, there for the taking, no credentials required, no fee charged, no scarcity. 

       Today, virtually everything valuable and worthwhile is considered to be scarce, from energy to fresh air and good water to living space. And so, knowledge about what's important is inevitably scarce, too - knowledge about how and what to buy in the vast marketplace. Economics is fundamentally about scarcity, and as long as economics rule, we'll be stuck with the idea that schooling is absolutely necessary.

       Illich's thinking stems from his understanding, somewhat radical, of Christianity. As I understand him, he sees the glory, the truth, the whatever of Jesus and the Gospel as freely available to everyone, but somehow, that self-serving, power-hungry institution known as the Church has managed to make it scarce - to lock it up and make it available only through the ministrations of the hierarchy of priests. In one famous essay, Illich argued for the fading away of the Church, for lay priests to take over and for ordinary people to meet together around a table and find Christian truth (or whatever it's called; I am no expert on these things) themselves. The Spirit, as I recall him saying, moves among people without the church involved. And this is the model for his entire critique of Western instititions - which, he argued, all have modeled themselves on the Church.

  • EcologicalHumanist   Sept. 26, 2011, 8:41 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Michael McCarthy   Sept. 26, 2011, 3:15 p.m.

    Thanks Michael!  Yeah, I'm an adjunct in an English dept., teaching 100 level classes. It's weird, trying to restrict myself to teaching them marketable skills, like how to write application letters, use standard english, etc., when I really just want to instill poetic revolt and unprofitable skepticism in larger systems...

    I don't know, as for your waitress, I'm all for unneccesary knowledge and overqualification--I have a PhD and will probably end up as a farmer...but the trick of course is to not become an indendured servant in the process, buying superflous skills/certification at too high a price.

    What it comes down to, for me, is that real learning can't be done in an environment of anxiety and foreboding; scholarship suffers when it is done under the constant threat of penury. A society where potential poverty overshadows everything can produce academics, but not intellectuals...

  • EcologicalHumanist   Sept. 26, 2011, 8:50 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Winslow   Sept. 26, 2011, 4:05 p.m.

    Wow, yes, that is an excellent summary.

    I wonder if Illich would find a parallels in the open source movement--if what he has in mind for education is essentially adapting the ideas of free, transparent blueprints for technology and coding and applying them to scholarship and information. Value then can be built and maintained outside of market forces of suppy and demand that require scarcity.

    Not being religious, I can't say I'm that taken with the connection Illich makes with Christianity--but isn't the critique of the Church as a heirarchical system of priestly intercession between believers and God just the standard Protestant critique of Catholocism? In other words, isn't Illich just trying to be the Luther of the educational priesthood, claiming that we need an individual relationship with learning/divinity, without going through a clergy?

    "Beyond a certain intensity, compulsory schooling reduces freedom." ...I like that....

  • Michael McCarthy   May 20, 2011, 1:58 p.m.

    I've been tooling a message on Chapter 2 for a while. Pippa, you knocked me out of my snooze!

    Illich uses Chapter Two I think, to separate the wheat from the chaff in his readership, and see who is ready for the rest of the book. He directly attacks three things: our conceptions of age and its value, the job/role of teacher as necessitated by the relatioship to the needy pupil, and full-time attendance (which results in divorcing students from their environment).

    Chapter Two is broken up tidily. I want to note what Illich DOESN'T bother to talk about credentials. I think many people feel that the diploma is a weak foundation for intellectual achievement and/or physical craftsmanship. I grew up being told how important my diploma (and, the degree that I still haven't received) would be. Even in early adolescence, I remember being pretty confused as to how the world could seem so unfairly arranged as to make me sit there all damn day and learn stuff I didnt want to learn. I learned just fine on my own, talking to adults I liked. It never ceased to feel like anything short of a conspiracy when I was 10. I was sitting at this desk being told to learn something a certain way. I hated it. Illich also affirms my experience  that, by letting people know I hated school, I was (and I remember this clearly) told often that I was undermining my future. I might as well been killing myself.

    Illich doesn't address the credential at all, which is something even my working-class parents made fun of their entire life (stepfather said it was useless, mother got a GED, etc.). Instead, he picks apart the very societal mechanism that teachers unwittingly endorse through conducting "schooling." He begins by attacking the fact that we decide to compartmentalize our students by age. Its interesting to remember that society hasn't always done this, and that it also usually exploited young people at the same time. Tough to strike a balance with this in our historical narrative...

    Then he attacks the teacher/pupil paradigm. He does this weakly in this chapter, but I feel he does better in the next. I love this part, because my worse teachers (never the good ones) would directly use this relationship as a weapon against me and peers. WIth head on my desk, lost and confused, I would be frequently told "You are a bright boy, don't throw your life away." He doesn't talk about this directly until Chapter Three, but this is a very real dynamic. Parents, friends, politicians, no one assualts the important relationship -> young adults to their future credentials. People will attack the means, but no one will attack the ends. Parents will say "I know it sucks, but get the diploma." Its slightly like attacking war veterans (as a veteran, believe me, nothing is more sacred than the diploma, except maybe veteranhood, in the U.S.) By not being allowed to assault the veteran, we cannot assault the war without great debate and difficulty. So in the act of honoring the diploma, we cannot entirely dishonor the handful of methods and principles that are potentially toxic.

    Finally, he attacks full-time attendance, the mechanism by which children are separated from society at large and then thrust into a dynamic which creates teachers who are much more than teachers. Instead they become watchmen, confidants, and moralists. This is serious business. By the time I was in High School, I had a friend that was frequently kicked-out for wearing a bandana, which was against the rules. We would skip school and go smoke cigarettes, and enjoy the nice weather. The attractive young women, those who held the key to our fragile pubescent sense of self, would say, often and loudly "I just don't understand why he(you) would throw his(your) future away." This would often be instantly validated by teachers, who were usually seeking a way to prevent further disruption of class. "Yes indeed. Great way to throw away your future." Instead, it seemed, it was better to play sports and and get A's and B's, and to postpone the end of our adolescence until long after college. We wanted to go talk about life, philosophize, push the limits, and build shit. Go figure.

    I have one final statement that I always say in policy meetings that sums this all up for me. I say it to the hardworking, serious folks in the room "Don't forget, education is an institution run by people for whom the system has already worked."

  • Winslow   Sept. 26, 2011, 3:33 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Michael McCarthy   May 20, 2011, 1:58 p.m.

    Michael: "Don't forget, education is an institution run by people for whom the system has already worked."

    Illich: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.” 

  • Pippa Buchanan   May 20, 2011, 12:10 p.m.

    Chapter Two of Deschooling Society is much shorter and Illich uses it to present a phenomenology of schools. I have to admit - I had to look up phenomenology.

    phenomenology (noun)

    the science of phenomena as distinct from that of the nature of being. (

    Recognising that schools can have many forms, Illich limits his definition to the "age specific, teacher related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum."

    Which is fine - but within the rest of the chapter Illich expands on the idea of schools and also elaborate on the roles that teachers take within the school. In general I understand the point that he's trying to make (teachers are not just teachers, they're also therapists, role models etc etc.) but it feels somehow restrictive and negative. 

    It's difficult to read about schools and to not reflect on our own experiences. I was incredibly lucky with school, both the types of schools that I went to, but also because I was one of those kids who school "works out" for.  If nothing else, my main primary school was amazing and a far sight different from the strict Catholic schools I imagine Illich attending, or the struggling schools he experienced in South America.

    When I began school I was the 25th student attending, across all 8 grades (including reception).  In general, parents were strong participants in the school and there were strong overlaps between the school community and other local residents and organisations. There'd be "working bees" on weekends to improve the school facilities, parents would join together to prepare healthy lunches for everyone once a week etc etc. Basket Range is up in the hills of Adelaide so we had access to a huge garden where we'd build cubby houses out of sticks and pine needles, "mine" clay rocks and trade with each other using an economy based around gumnuts. And in general (though one exception springs to mind), the teachers were caring people who not only taught us to read, write and do our sums, but they taught us to learn and play and respect each other .

    So even though I found my more formal high school to be huge and far more formal, at the back of my mind its my primary school that I'd like to believe is what a "school" is like.

    Anyway, I'm getting distracted and reminiscent and am seriously thinking of telling my fiance that we have to move across the world, back to the hills of Adelaide - just so I don't have to face the reality that any children we have probably won't go to Basket Range. Seriously though - they've got a musical playground.


  • Pippa Buchanan   May 7, 2011, 6:50 a.m.

    Thank you for creating the next task! :-)