In 1971, the radical Catholic priest Ivan Illich upended the conversation around education reform by arguing that instead of trying to optimize the lamentable systems of compulsory schooling with new technology or innovative teaching strategies, we ought to dismantle the system altogether and build learning webs, peer-matching systems, skill exchanges, and other resources for liberated learning and free inquiry. Sadly, over forty years later, Illich is gone and the same old education reform discussion persists. But Illich’s vision is on its way to being realized in the 21st century, not by education professionals within the education reform movement (of course), but by innovative startups seeking to disrupt the traditional models entirely. Illich’s vision of future learning can be seen in practice in the activities facilitated by companies like Meetup (a good model of Illich’s proposed “peer-matching” system built on a “communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry”) and Skillshare (a supercharged version of both Illich’s ideas for “Skill Exchanges—which permit persons to list their skills [and] the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills” and for “Reference Services to Educators-at-Large—who can be listed in a directory giving the…self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services…[and who] could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients”). Illich was so prescient he even presaged the power that the internet would play in the learning revolution, though he spoke of it in terms of computers with typewriter terminals, return mail, bulletin boards, and newspaper classified ads–the technology of his time.
“A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.”
As great as Meetup and Skillshare are, these models currently exist entirely outside of and apart from our systems of public education and training–they are a niche market, an extracurricular activity, a recreational pastime, not, as Illich advocated, the core approaches of our educational systems, freely available and open to the public, particularly to the young people in society. As long as the centuries-old Prussian model of compulsory, graded, hierarchical systems of schooling maintains its monopoly on the center of the public educational experience, these powerful models will be confined to the periphery. The “crisis” of schools, which was as loudly proclaimed in 1971 as it is today, might provide the catalyst for a complete reevaluation and redesign of the structure and function of schools, but–as Illich counseled–it requires that we avoid the easy temptation of superficial solutions and truly examine the system radically, which is to say, at its roots. “This crisis is epochal,” Illich wrote, as “the crisis in schooling is symptomatic of a deeper crisis in modern industrial society,” the structure of which modern schools serve to reproduce. “School is the initiation ritual to a society oriented toward the progressive consumption of increasingly less tangible and more expensive services, a society that relies on worldwide standards, large-scale and long-term planning, constant obsolescence through the built-in ethos of never-ending improvement: the constant translation of new needs into specific demands for the consumption of new satisfactions. This society is proving itself unworkable.” The hope for Illich, still unrealized forty years later, was that “the growing awareness on the part of governments, as well as of employers, taxpayers, enlightened pedagogues, and school administrators, that graded curricular teaching for certification has become harmful could offer large masses of people an extraordinary opportunity: that of preserving the right of equal access to the tools both of learning and of sharing with others what they know or believe.” But he advised that “this would require that the educational revolution be guided by certain goals”:
1. To liberate access to things by abolishing the control which persons and institutions now exercise over their educational values.
2. To liberate the sharing of skills by guaranteeing freedom to teach or exercise them on request.
3. To liberate the critical and creative resources of people by returning to individual persons the ability to call and hold meetings—an ability now increasingly monopolized by institutions which claim to speak for the people.
4. To liberate the individual from the obligation to shape his expectations to the services offered by any established profession—by providing him with the opportunity to draw on the experience of his peers and to entrust himself to the teacher, guide, adviser, or healer of his choice. Inevitably the deschooling of society will blur the distinctions between economics, education, and politics on which the stability of the present world order and the stability of nations now rest.
You can read Deschooling Society in its entirety, along with notes and discussion, at Wikiversity, something which Illich would surely have appreciated. The book prompted a subsequent debate in essay form with other educational thinkers of the time, including Neil Postman, published as After Deschooling, What?
A strange cartoon of a cat with recurring dreams of school buildings and Ivan Illich.
Ivan Illich, predicting Meetup and the internet:
“Tapes, retrieval systems, programmed instruction, and reproduction of shapes and sounds tend to reduce the need for recourse to human teachers of many skills; they increase the efficiency of teachers and the number of skills one can pick up in a lifetime. Parallel to this runs an increased need to meet people interested in enjoying the newly acquired skill. A student who has picked up Greek before her vacation would like to discuss in Greek Cretan politics when she returns. A Mexican in New York wants to find other readers of the paper Siempre — or of “Los Agachados,” the most popular comic book. Somebody else wants to meet peers who, like himself, would like to increase their interest in the work of James Baldwin or of Bolivar.
The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.
In its most rudimentary form, communication between client and computer could be established by return mail. In big cities typewriter terminals could provide instantaneous responses. The only way to retrieve a name and address from the computer would be to list an activity for which a peer was sought. People using the system would become known only to their potential peers.
A complement to the computer could be a network of bulletin boards and classified newspaper ads, listing the activities for which the computer could not produce a match. No names would have to be given. Interested readers would then introduce their names into the system. A publicly supported peer-match network might be the only way to guarantee the right of free assembly and to train people in the exercise of this most fundamental civic activity.”