Deschooling society? Revisiting Ivan Illich after lockdown

All over the world, the school has an anti-educational effect on society.’ Fifty years ago, Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling Society offered a radical challenge to the very institution of the school. How far might it be relevant to the world after lockdown?

Over the past few weeks, as the pandemic in Britain has faded and children have been returning to school, I’ve been revisiting a book published exactly fifty years ago: Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society. Of course, schools have not been completely closed: children of key workers have attended throughout, and schooling has continued online. However, the experience of the past year has raised some interesting – and indeed disturbing – questions about what a ‘deschooled society’ might be like.

Deschooling Society is a slim volume, but it’s not an easy read. The book is full of quotable quotes (you can find a good selection of them, and a useful biography of Illich (1926-2002), here; and all of Illich’s main works are available online here). Yet although its basic argument is fairly simple, it is presented in such sweeping and abstract terms – and with so little in the way of empirical examples – that you begin to wonder how long he can keep it going.

The book was a best-seller at the time, and has been very widely cited ever since. Yet I would hesitate to describe it as ‘influential’. Illich was not arguing for the reform of schools, but for their abolition. Fifty years on, this is something that shows hardly any sign of occurring, for a whole range of reasons; although one of these must surely be that Illich himself provides little indication of how it might actually be achieved.

Nevertheless, Illich’s argument is perhaps the most extreme instance of a broader critique of schooling that continues to gain support, as much from the libertarian Right as the radical Left. There is a grand tradition of schools being blamed for all the problems of society – illiteracy, violence, drugs, inequality, you name it – and yet simultaneously proposed as the solution to them. Announcements of the imminent demise of the school can be traced back to the early twentieth century; although most anti-school campaigners tend to stop short of abolition and propose instead a reconfiguration, in the form of networks, community-based learning centres, and home schooling.

The challenge to the ‘factory system’ of schooling, and the ‘industrial era’ institution of the school, has had a particular appeal to enthusiasts for educational technology. In the early days of the cinema, the inventor Thomas Edison proposed that the cinema would be the school of the future; while in the 1980s, Seymour Papert was declaring that the computer would ‘blow up the school’. Although Illich’s book pre-dates the internet, there is a remarkable affinity between his account of a deschooled society and the wilder predictions of contemporary ‘cyber-utopians’, with their rhetoric about empowerment and participation.

So how far does Illich’s book speak to our current situation – or does it merely reflect the passing concerns of the time in which it was written? Is it just a utopian fantasy, or does it provide a realistic programme for change? And what, in particular, might it have to say about the role of technology in all this?

Politics

It’s important to locate Deschooling Society in the context of Illich’s work as a whole. It is part of a broader argument that runs through a sequence of other books he published in the early 1970s, of which the most famous are probably Tools for Conviviality and Medical Nemesis. His criticisms of the school are part of a wider critique of the institutionalisation of modern industrial society, whose effects he also traces in medicine, in transportation and city planning, and in the church. Illich argues that institutions often create the needs and problems they purport to address; and in doing so, they generate patterns of dependency, requiring us to defer to the authority of self-sustaining coteries of experts (such as teachers and doctors). Services like education and health care come to be seen as things that can only be delivered by professionals.

Although he doesn’t use the term, it’s probably fair to describe Illich as an anarchist (albeit not of the stereotypical black-clad, bomb-throwing variety). In place of institutions, he favours informal, decentralised networks. While institutions inevitably reserve power for the professional elite, networks are non-hierarchical: they foster autonomy, freedom and self-worth. Nobody, he argues, should have the right to dictate to anybody else what and when they should learn.

Illich’s arguments here also reflect his concern with ecological issues. Institutionalisation, he argues, creates forms of consumerism and excessive energy use that are leading to the destruction of the natural environment. It reflects a broader ‘mania’ for economic growth, and a harmful faith in scientific ‘progress’, that has to be resisted. His target here, however, is primarily industrialism rather than capitalism: although he is somewhat ambivalent about Mao’s China, he regards Soviet communism as just as culpable in this respect as Western capitalism.

Alongside all this, it’s vital to recall that Illich was also an ordained Catholic priest; and although he fell out with the papacy and renounced his priesthood in the 1970s, he remained a devout Catholic all his life. Underneath his apparent radicalism, Illich is arguably motivated by a critique of modern, secular society as a whole. One of his problems with institutions like schooling and medicine is that they have become rival ‘secular religions’. Returning to a simpler, pre-industrial life – or moving ahead towards a similar post-industrial one – will enable people to reclaim their essential humanity.

Towards the end of his life, Illich appeared to recover some of his original theological impetus. He dismissed Deschooling Society as ‘naïve’, and his critique of schooling widened to become a critique of education more generally. I’m probably exaggerating, but it seems that by this point, education itself had come to seem like a perversion of faith, and a symptom of spiritual decline.

Schooling

Deschooling Society offers a throughgoing condemnation of the school as an institution. Most learning, Illich argues, occurs outside school, and many people can effectively teach us things. But schools – and the education system more widely – are constantly attempting to assert their monopoly over teaching and learning. Privileging school learning renders children helpless: they become dependent on teacherly authority, which further disables their autonomy. This, Illich argues, is like confusing medical treatment with health care, police protection with safety, or the church with salvation. People’s non-material needs are redefined as needs for commodities and services provided by others.

This institutionalisation of learning entails a kind of confidence trick, which is achieved through a series of rituals. Teachers take on the role of clerics, prying into the private affairs of students, while preaching to a captive audience. In fact, Illich argues, schools are not very good at teaching skills, or achieving the broader aims of ‘liberal education’. They attempt to measure learning in ways that are quite ill-suited to the task. Large numbers of students simply drop out, and some of the most troublesome are forced and encouraged to do so. Schooling, Illich argues, is entirely inimical to social equality. (Barely any evidence is provided to support these claims, of course: Illich’s business is polemic, not social science.)

It’s important to emphasise that Illich was not an education reformer. He opposes libertarian ‘free schools’ (of the kind that were emerging in the late 1960s, rather than the ‘free market’ schools of today); he isn’t interested in ‘progressive’ pedagogy or radical approaches to the curriculum; and he rejects those he calls ‘educational technologists’. He sees all of this as merely a continuation of the basic problem of the ‘schooled society’, the view of education as ‘the result of an institutional process managed by the educator’.

Technology

This hasn’t prevented Illich’s ideas – and especially his emphasis on networks – being taken up by enthusiasts for educational technology. Almost twenty years before the World Wide Web was being hatched, he seems to be imagining the internet. Notably, he identifies four different kinds of ‘learning webs’, that might make up an alternative educational infrastructure: reference services for educational objects, giving access to museums and libraries; skill exchanges, where people could offer specific expertise; peer matching, where learners could contact partners for collaborative learning; and finally, reference services for educators-at-large, offering means of contacting ‘teachers’ who might or might not be paid professionals.

These webs make use of existing resources – libraries, museums, even textbooks and forms of programmed instruction – but in radically decentralised ways. Learners are imagined posting their interests on a computerised database in a community ‘skills centre’, and then meeting other learners (or potential teachers) in coffee shops. (It’s perhaps surprising that Starbucks doesn’t have quotes from Illich emblazoned on its walls…) In these proposals, there’s not much sense of the computer as a repository of information or knowledge in itself: it’s primarily seen as a device for educational match-making.

Illich’s deschooled utopia seems to operate primarily on reciprocity, fairness and good will. At some points, he suggests that people might use educational ‘vouchers’ (and even an ‘edu-credit card’), an idea later favoured by advocates of the educational ‘free market’. Yet this is a world in which the profit motive is somehow magically absent. Questions about how people might earn a living, or about how we might know which services or individuals to trust, are somehow irrelevant.

Illich’s analysis of technology is not deterministic: he argues that computers (like other tools) might have positive or negative consequences for learning, depending on how they are used. Nevertheless, this notion of conviviality has been widely taken up by enthusiasts for digital creativity, for example in the so-called ‘maker movement’. Here, networked tools are often seen in precisely deterministic ways, as a kind of guarantee of free expression, community and empowerment.

Another key idea that has been taken up by techno-enthusiasts is Illich’s notion of ‘tools’, developed in his subsequent book Tools for Conviviality – although it should be noted that tools are by no means confined to ‘technologies’. Illich’s key distinction is between ‘convivial’ tools and industrial tools. Convivial tools allow ‘autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment’; they are about enhancing autonomy and control of one’s own work, and about community and social justice. By contrast, industrial tools can only be used in pre-defined and pre-programmed ways, as means of manipulation or domination.

In the age of ‘surveillance capitalism’, the contrast between this utopian imagining and the reality of the contemporary internet hardly needs to be stated. Ultimately, the internet isn’t a convivial technology in the way Illich defines it. Convivial tools are, crucially, limited: they are simple to use and subject to individual control. The internet inclines to what Illich calls ‘radical monopoly’ (that is, it becomes inescapable), especially as it comes to be governed by large commercial companies; and its infrastructure is by no means amenable to control (or indeed necessarily understood) by its users. It is perhaps hardly surprising that, far from ‘blowing up the school’, digital technology has been pressed into service by existing institutions, used as means of delivering pre-programmed content and of increasingly pervasive surveillance and assessment.

Finally, it’s not at all clear how Illich imagines his deschooled utopia might actually come about. At times, he implies that young people will spontaneously rise up against institutionalisation, perhaps led by the school drop-outs. The system will fail, and they will somehow realise that they have to take responsibility for their own learning and growth. And yet he seems to recognise that his alternative institutions (the learning webs) are ‘meant to serve a society which does not yet exist’. So how do we get there from here?

Lockdown

Of course, the lockdowns of the past year didn’t result in deschooling, even though many students didn’t physically attend. Yet they have raised some fundamental questions about the purpose of education, and in quite intense and troubling ways. For all the current talk about ‘learning loss’ and the need for children to ‘catch up’, it’s clear that schools have functions that go beyond education itself. They have a custodial function – which is to say that they exist to contain children, and keep them off the streets. In debates about whether schools should or should not be ‘re-opened’, it has become very clear that this is also an economic function: children need to go to school so that adults can go to work, and thereby keep the economy functioning. As Illich correctly implies, these and other more ‘educational’ functions are often conflated together.

Meanwhile, there are several other functions of schools that were lost during lockdown, and could not easily be replaced by technology. Most children have been keen to get back to school, not so they can hone their retrieval practice skills or ingest some more powerful knowledge, but so they can meet up with their friends. The ability to escape from adult surveillance – whether of home-schooling parents or of Zoom screens – has come as a great relief. As this implies, schooling serves important functions in terms of sociability and socialization, to some extent aside from what happens in the classroom – although this is not to suggest those functions could not be served in other ways.

Tony Breslin’s book Lessons from Lockdown provides a good overview of some of the issues at stake here, although it was written before the most recent, and much the longest, period of lockdown (you can listen to a podcast interview here). Drawing on detailed research, it points to the tensions and complexities of the experience for students, parents and teachers, and the need to carry through its ‘lessons’ into future practice. Many of the key issues relate to the mental health of all three groups. For young people in particular, the experience of isolation was particularly stressful; while for teachers and parents, remote learning added a whole new workload, with additional pressures and tensions.

The initial reality of technology use during lockdown was a matter of emergency response: questions about access to equipment and to connectivity, about data security and privacy, and about effective methods of online learning, were barely thought through. Very little training was provided for teachers, and yet they were frequently derided for their failure to cope.

Yet these difficulties have also reflected existing patterns of inequality, which have in turn been further accentuated by the use of technology. For a variety of reasons, some parents have been much less able to support home learning than others – not least in using technology itself. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children with disabilities, children in abusive or problematic (or simply more overcrowded) home environments have been particularly badly hit. While the British government eventually got around to distributing laptop computers, its initial efforts were a complete debacle; and internet connectivity has remained a significant problem for many.

Beyond this, one could well argue that, rather than promoting new forms of student-centred learning (as technology enthusiasts frequently propose), online schooling actually promoted a more teacher-centric approach – not least by undermining students’ ability to engage in dialogue and collaborate with each other. Technology arguably removed learning – and the labour of teachers – from human contact and face-to-face interaction: teachers effectively became managers of technology. Technology also became a powerful means of surveillance, not just of students (who have resisted in various ways), but also of teachers and parents. Governments that have recently proposed instituting limits on ‘screen time’ suddenly fell silent about the issue.

Meanwhile, the reliance on technology provided a further alibi for the continuing privatisation of the education system, in higher education as well as in schools. As in many other areas (most notably health care itself), the pandemic provided a great market opportunity; and in several cases, there has been clear evidence of corruption. Of course, this is a much longer-term project, which is driven through powerful networks of state actors, global economic policy bodies, consultancy companies, so-called philanthropists, and the financial services sector. But the large technology companies are now coming to play a critical role in this outsourcing of public education to private providers – not least as the logics of ‘datafication’ are coming to dominate education. While smaller for-profit providers may be creating much of the content, it is Microsoft, Google and Amazon who are generating massive profits from providing the hardware and the infrastructure. And for such companies, schools are merely the gateway to the much larger and more lucrative home market.

To say the least, this is a very long way from the decentralised anarchy of Illich’s ‘deschooled society’, or the cyber-utopian imagining of the ed-tech pioneers. Yet here, as in many other areas, the pandemic may have provided a salutary and chastening dose of reality.

So… should you read Deschooling Society?

I’m afraid my answer to this is just a ‘maybe’. Personally, I have very little patience with generalised rhetoric about ‘freedom’ and ‘the consumer society’ and so forth. I don’t think it gets us very far to talk about schooling as a ‘religion’, or indeed as ‘spiritual suicide’, as Illich does. Yet despite my criticisms, I’d say that Deschooling Society has a value as a kind of thought experiment. By taking a much longer and broader historical and global view, it helps to question categories and concepts we tend to take for granted. What is a child, what is a teacher, what is education? Why, in particular, do we tend to think of learning primarily in the context of the school – a particular kind of institution, with a very specific form and organisational structure? What, indeed, are schools actually for? It’s possible that the experience of the pandemic has sharpened these debates. Yet as I look at contemporary writing about education – and especially the shelves of books about the so-called ‘science of learning’ – discussion of these bigger questions seems to be in sadly short supply.