Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society
by Graeme Hunter
A friend notices a slim volume lying on my desk: Deschooling Society. “Ivan Illich!” he chuckles, as if remembering some amusing old scallywag. “You don’t hear much about him anymore.” My friend speaks in the tone of friendly bemusement he would use if he had caught me listening to old Chubby Checker records.
I decide to play along. “I’m writing a review of Deschooling Society for Touchstone,” I tell him. “Bit behind the wave, aren’t you?” he flips back. Perhaps he’s right on both counts. You really don’t hear much about Illich these days, and social criticism of even the most trenchant kind may lose its kick three and a half decades on.
The fashionable pose to strike, if you remember Illich at all, would be the one taken by Douglas Martin in the New York Times obituary (he died on December 2, 2002): call it smug superiority. Martin remembers him only for having “preached counterintuitive sociology to a disquieted baby-boom generation.”
So generous of Martin to have noticed Illich’s passing at all, we are meant to think, especially in so prestigious a publication! But Illich did not seem so counterintuitive or irrelevant in the years following the publication of Deschooling Society in 1970. In that book he put forth a radical critique of public education that has yet to be wholly assimilated except by the most countercultural of homeschoolers.
Illich may not have changed everyone’s habits in education, but he certainly got their attention. He taught thousands of readers to see public education, for the first time in their lives, as a problem rather than a solution: as a system that consumes billions of dollars to yoke unwilling and often unteachable pre-adults to licensed, but frequently unaccomplished, instructors, who practice their dubious craft in glum, prison-like institutions.
Public schools are not merely defective; they are incorrigible. The very fact that they are large, bureaucratic institutions makes them inimical to education as Illich understood it.
What should we be doing instead? Education ought to become a system of “intellectual matchmaking,” whereby anyone who wants to learn can be connected with someone able to teach. The computer, Illich prophetically saw, is the ideal tool for creating such a democratic and freewheeling—or in Illich’s preferred vocabulary “convivial”—possibility.
Even some of the more daring educational initiatives under discussion today are clumsy and timid in comparison. The “voucher system,” for example, in which education taxes are returned to parents in the form of credits to be redeemed in the school of their choice, is considered by many to be a progressive idea. Indeed, many of its critics find it altogether too progressive.
Yet 35 years ago Illich had already diagnosed its weakness, dismissively comparing it to “giving a lame man a pair of crutches and stipulating that he use them only if the ends are tied together.” Illich meant that though it may be an improvement to be able to choose which school your child will attend, the real calamity is that he is obliged to attend any school at all.
The “learning networks” Illich advocated would procure education differently, putting it beyond the reach of government control. Such networks would make a truly liberal education possible, an education that measured its success by the ideas that were explored, rather than by the length of “an enforced stay in the company of teachers.”
The aim of a student ought to be to achieve competence, Illich thought, not necessarily to be awarded a diploma. His “radical alternative” to school would be “a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.”
Because I failed to appreciate the degree of his hostility to institutions, my one and only conversation with Ivan Illich was a short one. I phoned to invite him to be the keynote speaker at a conference to be entitled “The Future of the University.” “The university has no future,” Illich told me. And hung up.
I don’t know if I was the only admirer of Deschooling Society to miss the importance of the wider critique of institutions at its core. It wouldn’t surprise me because, looking back, I find it hard to see how I could have overlooked it. At one point Illich said, for example, “Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all non-professional activity is rendered suspect.”
Careless readers like me only gradually came to appreciate Illich’s wider concerns as he fleshed them out in attacks on other kinds of institutions. Medicare comes in for scrutiny in Medical Nemesis (1975), and the institutionalization of work in such books as Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Shadow Work (1981).
He had the right kind of credentials to get a hearing in the early seventies, credentials that might easily count against him today. He had come from exotic beginnings in Vienna, studied and been ordained a priest in Rome, gone from a poor parish in New York in the 1950s to being the vice-rector of the Catholic University at Ponce (Puerto Rico), yet without ever losing his interest in the poor.
He would later found the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernevaca, Mexico, to offer effective crash courses in Spanish to Catholic missionaries to Latin America. That, at least, was its official business, but like every school (and ironically CIDOC was nothing less), it taught important extracurricular lessons as well. Missionaries learned not to identify with the culture they came from, but to open themselves to the one to which they were going. Illich wanted them to see real possibilities in lower-tech, more people-oriented societies.
Illich’s church superiors did not like the direction of his school, which seemed to them to savor of “liberation theology.” The tension created by that disagreement was one source of the alienation Illich began to feel from the church.
Another was the issue of contraception that arose in the late 1960s. Illich felt that the Catholic teaching was unsuited to the poor families of Puerto Rico, with whom he was at that time still concerned. At first he tried to purchase the right to dissent from Catholic teaching by declining to take any salary from the church.
But such an arrangement could not last. After all, he was not challenging some mainline Protestant denomination like the United Church of Canada, where doctrine is always temporary and negotiable. When Illich recognized that neither he nor the church was likely to change its position, he abandoned the priesthood altogether in 1969.
But he did not abandon the church. He never stopped considering himself a Catholic and even a Catholic theologian. But he made free to criticize the church with the unrestricted scope of an outsider. His fascinating conversations with Canadian journalist David Cayley, ultimately published under the title Corruption of Christianity, make it clear that he assigned to Roman Catholicism the blame for the original sin of institutionalization, out of which, he believed, our fallen modern world arose.
In reading those conversations in preparation for writing this article, I (an Anglican) was struck by how little Illich was temperamentally a son of the Roman Catholic Church. He was Catholic only by the accident of birth. By nature, he inclined to the anti-authoritarian outlook of the Reformation.
It is no surprise, therefore, that some of his sternest critics are Roman Catholics. An Opus Dei publication of the seventies refers to him as “that strange, devious and slippery personage, crawling with indefinable nationalities, who is called, or claims to be called, Ivan Illich.”
One need not look to religion to find grounds for criticizing Illich. He had the misfortune to be an intellectual in silly times, the turbulent and asinine sixties, and some of the silliness rubbed off on him. The lofty opinion he professed to have of those years was less than prophetic. Illich regarded the student movement of the 1960s as a good thing in itself. He saw it as an authentic movement of dissent founded on ideas, instead of, as was really the case, on a flight from ideas.
He was also wrong in thinking that it would resist being drawn back to the corporate and consumerist norm. In the consumer university of this new millennium, over which aged hippies continue to preside, it is difficult to suppress a smile when we read that “fewer and fewer can be reconverted by patience or co-opted by subtlety—for instance by appointing them to teach their heresy.”
When weighed in the balance, however, Illich is not, in my opinion, found wanting. His critique of the institutionalized life that increasingly we are all expected to lead, was an apt one. And Deschooling Society, in particular, made a difference, because it was a foundational document for the movement of homeschooling, surely the most promising educational development of the twentieth century.
School, Illich rightly saw, was “the reproductive organ of the consumer society.” Early homeschoolers knew he was talking about them when he looked forward to a generation that would grow up without obligatory schools and so be able to forge a new and convivial alternative to the consumer society.
It would be good to give Illich the last word in this belated obituary and review. Let him answer himself the charge of my friend who assumed that his words would have no power after 35 years. I quote the opening of Deschooling Society, and as I do, I try to imagine how many of today’s social critics, how many of our “public intellectuals,” would be capable of similar cogency and power:
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