The case for ‘deschooling’ society

Forty years ago, a radical philosopher by the name of Ivan Illich rocked the world of education by suggesting that children’s learning needs would be better served if they were not made to go through the institutional “funnels” of regimented formal education. He advocated, as an alternative, the formation of “educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”  The book that made him famous was aptly titled “Deschooling Society” (1971).

Illich’s emancipatory ideas in education became the template for a critique of other sectors that have taken the route of modern service industries; for example, medicine. The concept of “de-institutionalization,” developed in works like “Limits to Medicine” and “Disabling Professions,” became influential because it resonated with the anti-establishment temper unleashed by the student-led uprisings of the late ’60s.

While no government adopted Illich’s bold prescriptions, his ideas nevertheless compelled educators everywhere to take a hard look at the educational system and to ask if the system itself has not become the principal impediment to learning. The same question has been asked of medicine as an industry: Might it be that it has become the obstacle to healthful living? And of the legal system: Could it be that the legal institutions of society have become the leading causes of injustice? Illich’s ideas prompted a broad reflective review of the whole modern social order.

His impact on education was however the most enduring. Teachers became conscious of the distinction between schooling and learning, and between education as information banking (deposit/withdraw) and education as a creative process involving teachers and students as mutually active agents. They became aware of the danger that calcified curricula posed to the imagination of restless seekers of knowledge.

But, in the ’70s, Illich’s ideas were considered impractical when viewed in the light of the total educational requirements of complex societies. His critics wondered if, by zeroing in on the defects of public education, he was not unwittingly paving the way for the delivery of educational services via the free market.

These objections goaded Illich to publish a sequel to his first book. Titled “After Deschooling, What?” the second volume sought to clarify his position on the commodification of education; he called the proponents of free-market education “the most dangerous category of educational reformers.” Clearly, his idea of “dis-establishing” education was aimed at freeing education not just from the narrow agenda of the state but also from the unbridled commercialism of profit-oriented private schools.  What he had in mind seemed closer to the concept of a community of learners bound by self-chosen common interests. Curiously, for someone who often sounded like an enemy of modern technology, Illich believed that modern communications technology would be crucial to the self-formation of decentralized learning webs.

“The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple,” he wrote. “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 today’s language, Illich was actually talking of e-groups formed by individual users who are linked by specific interests on which they inform and collaborate with one another. The topics could be anything: a dying language, a dreaded condition affecting children like biliary atresia, a rare bird like the Celestial Monarch, a type of motorcycle like the Norton 500cc (Che Guevara’s legendary bike), a mode of growing plants like hydroponics, a period in world history like the Greek times, a type of cuisine, movies made by a particular director, etc.

Alternatively, one can teach one’s self to become an educated person by following a structured program like the one developed and offered free by the Khan Academy (, whose declared mission is to provide “a high quality education to anyone, anywhere.” Needless to say, one needs a computer and an Internet connection to access this school. But the point is: at no other time has it become possible to concretely frame the distinction between education as the sheer pursuit and love of learning, and schooling as a process of qualification and certification. The latter is what politicians, academics, and businessmen fight over. The former is what Illich imagines real education to be.

Education as learning can begin at any age, and it should never end. It is education as certification that is ordained to start at kindergarten and follow a 12-year program of schooling to meet the competencies set for basic education. We can’t blame governments for emphasizing the acquisition of competencies because their principal aim is to bring out productive citizens. But it would be a mistake to believe this is the sum total of education.  The crucial battle is in the curriculum.

Education as a lifelong pursuit means learning how to think for oneself and how to reason, how to find meaning and beauty in life, how to live with others and contribute to society, how to take care of the earth and be of service to other people. Alas, as Illich reminds us, much of this is forgotten in the narrow quest for diplomas and certificates.