“Deschooling Society:” An Alternate Approach to Education, Institution, and Consumption

Hello, dear reader. Winter’s in full swing here in Ontario, and I have to be completely honest: gathering the motivation to write has been a challenge. Amplifying the difficulty of that challenge is the next book I’ve chosen to tackle from my list: Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich. This little treatise is a deceptively simple read, but in the weeks since I finished the book itself, Deschooling Society has kept my mind racing. The claim on the cover doesn’t deceive. It’s “Good radical stuff.”

With soaring tuition costs and few entry-level jobs for new graduates, (even fewer that pay,) one can’t help but wonder if the ivory tower as we know it is beginning to crumble.

The premise of the work is relatively simple. It suggests that institutional and systematic education, primarily that of the United States in the 1970s when the work was published, are inherently ineffectual at what they aim to do and serve primarily to kindle the individual appetites that feed the machine of consumerism. I don’t think the expertise concentrated in our universities should be underestimated, but with soaring tuition costs and few entry-level jobs for new graduates, (even fewer that pay,) one can’t help but wonder if the ivory tower as we know it is beginning to crumble.

Illich lays out four “networks” that could cover all of humanity’s educational needs without requiring institutionalized education: reference services to educational objects, skills exchanges, peer matching, and reference services to educators at large.

In his explanation of the first of these networks, Illich suggests that especially in cities,

Industry has surrounded people with artifacts whose inner workings only specialists are allowed to understand. The nonspecialist is discouraged from figuring out what makes a watch tick.. by being warned that it will break if he tries… This type of design tends to reinforce a noninventive society in which the experts find it progressively easier to hide behind their expertise and beyond evaluation (80).

To combat this, he says that individuals should have free access to “educational objects,” from books to lab equipment, to be able to follow their curiosity. He suggests that renewal of educational exploration would cause a shift away from black-box technology marketed to consumers with the assumption that they will never need to understand the inner workings of the device, reducing the demand for devices that need to be frequently replaced rather than repaired.

The second network, skills exchanges, goes hand-in-hand with the first, but describes methods to ensure access to “skill teachers:” individuals who possess high-level skills in a given discipline, from playing the guitar to computer programming. Access to these skilled individuals could be in person, or even be a repository of tapes (Yes, VHS—this work is filled with interesting little relics of a bygone era), which individuals looking to learn a new skill could easily and freely access. In the age of the internet, this could be even more easily achieved. Illich also makes an important distinction between a skill teacher, who has demonstrated mastery of the skill in question, and peers, who although may have varying levels of experience in the given skill are still in the process of learning.

Illich’s third network, peer matching, most strongly piqued my interest, especially given the nature of my current personal educational goals. This network would simply match individuals based on their interest in particular books and arrange coffee-shop meetups for them to discuss and gain a better understanding of subjects through open conversation and debate. I’m enjoying sharing my progress through my reading list on A Quill of Conservation, but having the opportunity to discuss each work with another person as I’m making my way through would undoubtedly deepen my understanding of each book and open new paths for future exploration.

On the internet as we know it today, many avenues exist for discussing certain subjects, but Illich’s particular plan for peer-matching is unique in that it limits the discussion to one specific work rather than a subject, so that all participants, having read the same book, would be able to come to the conversation on equal terms. Each would have their own perspective, and each would be challenged to develop their own thoughts on the work, instead of being hand-fed an explanation by someone with a previously solidified opinion.

Self-guided study has value, but there comes a point in the study of any field where one must begin to consider these individual works in conversation with each other; this is where the extensive expertise of people who have devoted their lives to the study of a particular field is so very valuable—not necessarily because of the diplomas framed on their walls, but because of the knowledge gained over a lifetime of focus in one subject. This leads to Illich’s fourth and final network: access to professional educators.

Through independent study, Illich says that “We may expect that [individuals] will experience more deeply both their own independence and their need for guidance” (97). Illich goes on to describe a sort of Socrates and Plato relationship between educators and pupils, more like master and disciple than student and teacher. Individuals lucky and determined enough to make it to the higher levels of graduate education in our current institutions sometimes find mentor-mentee relationships like those Illich describes. Those who have experienced them will definitely tell you that these relationships have been instrumental in their academic and professional development, but for most of us, this type of guidance is inaccessible. In a deschooled society, these relationships would be the cornerstone of “difficult intellectual exploratory journeys” (98), instead of a possible byproduct.

Illich takes his argument a little farther than I’m willing to follow, positing that everything from cars to childhood leisure can be detrimental to human intellectual development. However, he paints a very imaginative and admittedly appealing picture of what a world without the worlds major institutions—both educational and professional—might look like. This picture begins by deschooling education, the effects of which trickle into other societal institutions, eventually creating a new world economy no longer based on manufacturing and consumption. Much like the shift to a post-consumerist society described in The Responsible Company, Illich suggests that this type of change is absolutely necessary to ensure that human society doesn’t overreach the planet’s capacity to support us.

Nearly 50 years after Deschooling Society was published, it’s clearer than ever that human habits are going to have to drastically change if we expect the Earth to remain inhabitable. For those of us whose news is monopolized by stories coming out of Washington D.C., it’s hard to stay positive. However, I don’t believe all is lost. France has announced plans to eliminate their use of fossil fuels in coming years (as have Germany and Denmark), Marine Protected Areas are growing across the globe, and entire cities are banning the use of single-use plastics in order to reduce plastic waste entering our oceans. We’re a long way from a deschooled society, but I still believe we have reason to remain optimistic and keep doing whatever we can to stay the course toward a better future.

Next time on A Quill of Conservation, I’ll be steering my readings away from societal discussions and back toward the natural world, exploring the works of the father of modern taxonomy and the birth-mother of the environmental movement. Stay tuned!

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