Great Thinkers on Self-Education: Ivan Illich

Written by on May 19, 2009 in Great Thinkers on Self-Ed - 7 Comments

illich“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.

Illich claimed:

  • Most learning happens informally.
  • Institutionalized schooling hinders true learning.
  • The ideal education “system” allows people to choose what they learn and when they learn.

Informal Learning

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.

Further Reading

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

7 Comments on "Great Thinkers on Self-Education: Ivan Illich"

  1. Emilie May 20, 2009 at 4:21 am · Reply

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  2. savant May 20, 2009 at 7:57 pm · Reply

    Hey Jamie I see that we are nominated for best educational blog. Keep up the good work am trying to get as much of my friends to check it out. I hope your inspirational flame don’t die out.

  3. Jamie May 20, 2009 at 10:04 pm · Reply

    Thanks Savant and Emilie!

  4. Derek Rasmussen May 21, 2009 at 6:35 am · Reply

    This is a good summary of Illich’s work.
    Sometimes Illich’s writing is thick and difficult to wade through; this post does the spadework, picking out and directing readers to helpful excerpts from Illich’s writings.

    May i add another reference?
    Another accessible source on Illich are radio interviews done by David Cayley for CBC radio. Cayley turned some of that material into a book that provides a really good overview of Illich’s thinking in all sorts of areas from gender to theology to hospitals and schooling :
    “Ivan Illich in Conversation” (Anansi, Toronto, 1992)
    It is probably available used on

    Thanks again for this post.

  5. kirsten olson August 4, 2009 at 11:11 am · Reply

    Hi Jamie, I am at this moment writing a review for the just-starting Ivan Illich journal and happened on your blog. Thanks so much for writing it. Illich can be difficult, especially if one is new to deschooling ideas and the effects of institutions on human life. Your blog does a great job of unpacking him.


    Kirsten, author of Wounded By School (2009)

  6. Fathima April 11, 2010 at 10:08 am · Reply

    Thanks Jamie It was really helpful to further understand Ivan Illich deschooling

  7. SCat November 5, 2010 at 4:19 pm · Reply

    Terrific capsule summary of Illich’s thinking regarding De-Schooling. I’ve been involved in the charter school/cyber charter school movement for nearly a decade now. Illich was certainly prophetic in his envisioning of “learning webs,” and while I know people often categorize his work and ideas as “radical” I would classify them as “intuitive.” Cyber/virtual schools, digital learning, remix culture, mashups, etc. are all resulting in the creation of the “opportunity webs” that Illich imagined. As people become more and more accustomed to this, and as economic realities exert further pressure on the current educational bureaucracy (which is unsustainable), I think a new approach to education will naturally evolve — and it will be a striking resemblance to what Illich outlined.

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