Deschooling Society

At a moment when there is much discussion of “defunding” police organizations in the United States, I thought it would be appropriate to finally read the most radical educational book to emerge from the 1960s, the book that fifty years ago called for us to defund public schools.  That book is Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich.  

While many of the educational critics of the 1960s and 70s called for apparently radical changes to public schools, according to Illich, none of them went far enough.  For Illich, public school — compulsory school — is beyond repair and most be destroyed in order to promote both social equality and humane freedom that facilitates true learning and meaning.  I think it’s especially important during a time when so many civic and social attitudes and goals are being reevaluated for educators to read trenchant critiques of our work.  This is easily one of the most interesting critiques of schools that I have ever read.  Because Illich calls for such a fundamental — and, clearly — untenable — shift, I found this book less valuable as a practical signpost than as a guide for rethinking how to improve our existing system.

Actually, the first thing that stood out to me was that a lot of what Illich is saying actually became central to the debate about American schools.  In fact, it still is — just not in the way he expected.  What do I mean?  Well, as I began reading the first chapter, certain details started to jump out at me, creating an oddly familiar picture.  I’d seen this before, in the year since . . . but where?

Ilich is basically making three arguments for abolishing compulsory school systems:

The Passivity Argument:  Illich believes that compulsory education creates a passivity among its students, along the lines of the passivity engendered by a doctor toward patients.  Because we define education as a treatment for deficiencies or ills, students — especially poor ones — do not take control of their own learning and become dependent on the educational system, which only furthers their poverty.

Dependence on government services robs people of initiative and keeps them mired in poverty . . .  Where had I heard this?

The Freedom Argument:  Essentially, Illich believes that the government has no place adjudicating the question of what knowledge is of most value, who counts as educated or credentialed, or what counts as meritorious achievement.  Students need freedom from the social control of educational bureaucracies whose hidden curricula insists that the only learning worth its salt happens during regulation hours in sight of a licensed pedagogue.  Illich believes that schools are what he calls “manipulative institutions” which indoctrinate, coerce, and act as a “false” public utilities.  He contrasts schools with true public utilities such as the phone company or mail service which allow autonomous use for personal motives.  Illich believes that such services permit more freedom, which is a goal in itself, and permit more authentic learning.  Illich very much has this Romantic streak in him: true learning does not necessarily happen in the classroom — though Illich does strongly support old-school drill activities, which he believes have a place.  Schools restrict what students can learn, when, where, and from whom — which is both unjust and ineffective.

So the government should not define our children’s values or judge the worth of their accomplishments or goals? Hmm, I know I’ve heard this somewhere before in education . . .

The Cost Argument:  Finally, Illich actually spends a lot of time making some of the most penetrating economic arguments against public schools that I have ever read.  He attacks the tremendous expense of public education on the grounds that it does not provide meaningful opportunity for economic advancement.  He writes, “Only by channeling dollars away from the institutions which now treat health, education and welfare can the further impoverishment resulting from their disabling side effects be stopped.” For one thing, he writes, the three billion dollars spend in the last three years on Title One was a waste of money because it produced no meaningful educational gains, much of it was spent on non-poor students in those same schools, and because it often funded inherently discriminatory practices such as “special curricula, separate classes, or longer hours [for students]” — which Illich calls “more discrimination at a higher cost.”

Instead, Illich believes in a system of “tuition grants” proposed by economist Milton Friedman, channeled directly to students themselves for spending as they wished — but he is strongly against the requirement that such funds be spent on services offered by schools.  Instead, students should be able to select from a free market of educational service providers (he calls them “learning webs”) to pick and choose what to learn about.  Illich suggests issuing every citizen an “edu credit card” at birth allowing each person to “acquire the skills most in demand, at their convenience, better, fast, cheaper, and with fewer undesirable side effects than in school.”

All this would be done much more cheaply, would allow far more effective and natural learning environments, and would facilitate far greater social equality because the state would no longer be allowed to diagnose certain students as uneducated or behind their peers.  He writes, “The poor need funds to enable them to learn, not to get certified for the treatment of their alleged disproportionate deficiencies.”

Wait a second . . . 

Illich goes on to write that schools have a “monopoly,” that unions are impediments to open sharing of knowledge, that teacher licensing represents “market manipulation” and what is needed is to “open the market,” and writes of the need to “return . . .  initiative and accountability for learning to the learner.” 

Okay, by the end of the first chapter, I was definitely shaking my head and smiling.  Milton Friedman?  Edu credit cards?  Government monopolies?  Could it be . . .  ?  Yes, I think it could:  Ivan Illich, radical Romantic critic the turbulent 1960s, was actually a libertarian.

That’s right.  That was really interesting when I made the connection.  Sure, this book seemed wild in 1970 and seems wild now, but . . .  didn’t a lot of this stuff actually become really, really discussed?  Didn’t some of it actually happen?  For one thing, Illich was early to critique the ed spending coming out of the equality movements of the 1960s, the expansion of compulsory schooling, and the increase of federal funding programs.  The guy was critiquing Title One back in 1969!  Isn’t the idea of a credit card for students basically the same idea as school vouchers.  Illich’s talk about breaking up the monopoly for public schools is also very much in the same vein as the school choice movement, his anti-union and anti-licensing talk, his clear interest in the market as a determinant of educational access and opportunity a clear precursor to the charter school movement.  It’s all there.

Sure, Illich is clearly coming at this from the political left, but isn’t that what the choice advocates of the 1990s and 2000s did, too?  They coopted the equality arguments by arguing that only by putting individual families in charge of their education would achievement or wage gaps finally close . . .  just what Illich says.  

It’s quite striking, really, how conservative this book felt to me.  It was odd, in a way, to hear so much talk in this book about freedom and so little talk about equality.  It really did strike me that Illich is much more concerned with keeping the government from telling people what to do than he is for using government to ensure a more equal future for all citizens.  Illich’s book seems to me to be mostly focused on attaining freedom from, while most modern leftist reformers wish to achieve freedom to.

Given the era we’re in, that was jarring to read, given that most of the discussion about reform right now takes it for granted that both earmarking more money for the schooling of poor or disadvantaged students, and reforming public schools in order to be less discriminatory are the most important goals for promoting equality.  Modern reformers — again, I am thinking of the Left here, who I believe have become far more ascendant or influential now — take for granted that public schools are an important lever in promoting both social advancement and in social equality.  It’s hard to imagine anyone calling — as Illich clearly is — to “defund” schools entirely.  If you were to start talking about removing the federal mandate to receive an education in schools, you’d surely be accused of removing a fundamental right.  In leaving it up to individual families, many of whom lack resources, to make crucial decisions about their children’s education, you’d surely open yourself up to charges of trying to recreate the farcical system of “choice” that governs our American healthcare system.  After all, most people would say, having a “single provider” system in education (if not in healthcare) is an important equalizer and safety net.

After all, the market is inherently unfair.  Reading Illich’s proposal for pay-as-you-go education, it’s hard not to imagine his system creating a level of inequality that is far, far greater than what we have now.  His dream that employers would be legally barred from inquiring into a person’s educational background before hiring is clearly utopian and perhaps undesirable.  It seems pretty clear to me that the rich would work the open market system to exclude the poor even further, this time with no government watching over them. Gone too would be the common school benefits of diverse students sharing a classroom together; although Illich dreams of a world of like-minded students coming together to discuss mutually-engaging topics together (just like in the classrooms of his friend Friere, which he cites), this too seems unlikely. 

What does seem likely though is that by being left to their devices, poor students will pursue only the most practical or survival-based purposes for their education, putting them at even greater disadvantages for civic participation and economic advancement than now.  This was always the Achilles heel of child-centered Progressive education: leave a kid to his own devices, and there’s no guarantee he ever makes it from World of Warcraft to Calculus and physics, let alone to Silicon Valley.  Dewey felt it was a teacher’s duty to gently guide that journey from personal interests to traditional subject matter and on to a career, but it’s hard to see that sense of mission and purpose in Illich’s wide-open system of guns-for-hire.

I also think that behind the whole thing lurks a disdain for what teachers do.  When you talk to people who want to break the monopoly of the schools, generally you realize that deep down they don’t really think kids learn much of value in school, or that teachers really do all that much, or that professionalization of teaching is important (in fact, it’s an impediment).  I think this applies to Illich, unfortunately.  Deep down, in his desire to break free of the confinements of the school by opening the marketplace to independent artisan instructors, he is a Huck Finn-style Romantic who never wishes to let his schooling get in the way of his education.  I had always thought of this as the kind of thing conservatives say (and today, it usually is) but, when you think about it, it’s actually a liberal one sometimes, too: the classic child-centered Progressive model is a liberal idea . . .  it’s just that liberals want freedom in pedagogy (mandated for all by the government), while conservatives want traditional teacher-centered pedagogy (without a government mandate about how and where to get it).

And really, isn’t the modern call for culturally-responsive pedagogy — the kind of system that honors a broad pluralism — very similar to the Romantic calls for child-centered pedagogy based on a child’s interests?  It’s not a big step from allowing student interest to be the center of the curriculum to allowing students’ cultural identities or backgrounds to be the center of the curriculum.  Traditional Romantics — like Illich — seem to hold a child’s innate, natural desire for learning self-chosen topics to be sacred, while modern “equity” reformers seem to hold a child’s innate cultural, social, or ethnic identities to be sacred — and an important basis for recognizing and supporting values of inclusion in the school system.  

Here finally, is the last stop for Illich.  While modern, neo-Marxist reformers write impactfully of the damaging effects of the hidden curriculum on minority or poor students — the lack of cultural recognition in the curriculum, the subtle displays of bias from teachers or from textbooks, the goals of assimilation into white, middle class values — at the same time these modern reformers seek to reform the existing system by “rooting out” bias in the hidden curriculum and in unequal funding practices.  But Illich simply doesn’t believe the school system is worth reforming.  The hidden messages of any school system, anywhere in the world, are so strong, that attempting to fixing existing schools or to increase their funding is simply a futile exercise.  

In the end, the impulse to simply back away from a compulsory system in favor of creating what Illich calls a more true “public utility,” to me represents both a greater faith in humanity that I possess (to make their own choices), and a very Emersonian, a very American impulse to simply leave one’s fate in one’s hands, not in the government’s.  It’s fascinating to read about Romantic thinkers who believe that children are inherently good and will innately be interested in learning.  I don’t believe that’s always the case.  It’s also very hopeful to believe that, given freedom, people will make wise choices about education.  Again, I don’t think I agree.  The notion of backing away from compulsion to allow citizens to guide their own path and accept the consequences, good or bad, is very much based in the American doctrine of self-reliance.  I very much appreciate this vision, and appreciate how much it already governs our world, even with compulsory schooling: one can choose to do or not to do his school work now.  That said, I am wary of it for the same reasons I am wary of our current healthcare system.  I’d like to think that people can always make the best choices themselves, but that’s a vision of human beings a little bit too utopian for me.  I feel the same way about Ivan Illich: really interesting thinker, but ultimately too optimistic and not measured enough for me.