“The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is ‘schooled’ to accept service in place of value.”
Who is Ivan Illich
Ivan Illich (1926 – 2002) was an influential philosopher who wrote extensively about the problems of institutionalizing education.
In 1971, Illich published Deschooling Society, a critical look at the troubles of modern schooling. His controversial book advocated for radical changes in the education system, including the disestablishment of traditional schools and the development of more informal “learning webs.”
Deschooling Society continues to be a popular with self-educators and unschooling families. It is obviously less so with teachers and credentialing boards.
Ivan Illich’s Educational Philosophy
Ivan Illich didn’t believe that school problems could be solved by increasing funding or setting higher standards. He believed that educational problems originated with government-run schools themselves and were worsened by the way schools made people think about learning.
- Most learning happens informally.
- Institutionalized schooling hinders true learning.
- The ideal education “system” allows people to choose what they learn and when they learn.
Illich is quick to point out that people learn more from their day-to-day experiences than they learn from sitting inside a classroom.
“A…major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.
Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction. Normal children learn their first language casually, although faster if their parents pay attention to them. Most people who learn a second language well do so as a result of odd circumstances and not of sequential teaching. They go to live with their grandparents, they travel, or they fall in love with a foreigner. Fluency in reading is also more often than not a result of such extracurricular activities. Most people who read widely, and with pleasure, merely believe that they learned to do so in school; when challenged, they easily discard this illusion.”
Students may learn something from spending eight hours a day inside a classroom. But, how much more could they learn by spending their time reading, having natural discussions, or working towards actual accomplishments?
The Problem with the Institution of Schooling
The problem with schools, according to Illich, is that they force ownership over the very idea of learning. They make people believe that learning is the domain of schools alone. “Don’t attempt this at home,” they seem to say. “Your learning must be supervised by a credentialed professional.”
When schools fail, people see it as a further indication that learning itself is an insurmountable challenge:
“All over the world the school has an anti-educational effect on society: school is recognized as the institution which specializes in education. The failures of school are taken by most people as a proof that education is a very costly, very complex, always arcane, and frequently almost impossible task.”
Not only do traditional schools diminish students’ ability to learn on their own, they take students away from the situations where learning readily occurs: the workplace, the political arena, the home, and the community.
A Better System
Ivan Illich envisions a better way to encourage learning. Instead of traditional schooling, he believes that people of all ages should be able to choose what they learn and when they learn it.
Illich proposes that informal education can be supported through four services: libraries that store the materials needed for learning, skills-based exchanges where people can develop specific abilities, peer-matching that allows learners to meet others interested in studying the same subject, and a database of educators available for assistance.
The government could support informal learning by replacing mandatory schooling with options:
“Right now educational credit good at any skill center could be provided in limited amounts for people of all ages, and not just to the poor. I envisage such credit in the form of an educational passport or an “edu-credit card” provided to each citizen at birth…Such credits would permit most people to acquire the skills most in demand, at their convenience, better, faster, cheaper, and with fewer undesirable side effects than in school.”
In an impressive bit of foresight, llich imagined a “learning web” that connected people with the resources they need. Now that we have the internet, this network of resources is more possible than ever.
How Ivan Illich Has Made a Difference
The ideas presented by Ivan Illich continue to be debated, decades after Deschooling Society was published. His ideas created the foundation for the unschooling movement that thrives today.
Advocates for school choice often rely on Illich’s words when advocating for charter schools and alternative programs.
If you haven’t read Deschooling Society, you’ll find that the book is definitely worth your time. You can read it online for free.
Ivan Illich – A biography of Illich’s life and writings.
Scary School Nightmare – A rather unusual animated video focusing on the ideas of Deschooling Society.
An Interview with Ivan Illich – Excerpts about Illich’s views on learning from the Journal of Alternative Education.
Ivan Illich Resources – Links to Illich’s books online, audio recordings, and more.
Photo Credit: tonyhall