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    Build Native Altars

    “Having connections is not the same as being connected” – John Vervaeke

    Illich does more than describe why deschooling society is a valuable endeavour: he offers clear, and simple alternatives to the problems we looked at in the previous essay. Each of these alternatives has to do with something already native to all of us; capacities with which each human is born. His suggestions couple such native capacity to our intrinsic yearning to move higher (the meaning of ‘altar’) along the spectrum of consciousness; that is, closer to the good, the beautiful, and the true.

    In this essay, we will try to draw out some of his ideas so that we can think about them in the context of Kernel and what open educational webs might become if we do our work well. Essentially, we are looking for ways in which to make conscious the knowledge and wisdom already indigenous within each one of us; that which we are born knowing, rather than that which is imposed upon us by well-meaning people who still suffer under the illusion that they can manipulate us for our own good.

    The simplest and most effective means of doing this has been known since time immemorial: it is dialogue. We reason best - we exercise our innate rationality most effectively - when in conversation with other people. Relationships help us realise the rational aspect of our nature. When entered into with honesty, courage, sincerity and love, these same relationships can move us to the supra-rational: that ‘peace which passes all understanding’ so firmly grounded is it in the whole, personal, and deeply intimate experience of reality as it truly is.

    Simple Peers

    “Education [...] relies on the relationship between partners who already have some of the keys which give access to memories stored in and by the community. It relies on the critical intent of all those who use memories creatively. It relies on the surprise of the unexpected question which opens new doors for the inquirer and his partner.”

    Upon seeing how the institutionalisation of value leads to physical pollution, social polarisation, and psychological impotence of the kind that strips us of our abilities to learn, heal, or create ourselves, it can seem daunting to look for solutions. However, as we said above, good thinkers start with why; wise thinkers start with simple truths:

    “Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. [As such,] the most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each human the same opportunity to share their current concern with others motivated by the same concern.”

    The simplicity of the scheme is remarkable in that it genuinely attends to the confusion about resource escalation and certification indicated above.

    “Matching people according to their interest in a particular title is radically simple. It permits identification only on the basis of mutual desire to discuss a statement recorded by a third person, and it leaves the initiative of arranging the meeting to the individual.”

    Take note: it does not matter who you are. Personal information is only necessary insofar as it reveals your current interests, not your background, class, race, gender, creed, colour or any other defining feature. It does not do away with complex certification and identity schemes: there is simply no need for them in the first place. It affects the divorce between prejudice and discrimination without a legal battle.

    There is one further constraint which Illich is very specific about. Matching must happen by something clearly objective rather than subjective ideas or themes. This may seem arbitrary at first, but there is a good reason for it. Remember, we are trying to


    match the right teacher with the right student


    when they are highly motivated,


    in an intelligent program,


    without the constraint of a curriculum.

    “Matching by the title of a book, film, etc. in its pure form leaves it to the author to define the special language, the terms, and the framework within which a given problem or fact is stated; and it enables those who accept this starting point to identify themselves to one another. For instance, matching people around the idea of ‘cultural revolution’ usually leads to either confusion or demagoguery. On the other hand, matching those interested in helping each other understand a specific article by Mao, Marcuse, Freud, or Goodman stands in the great tradition of liberal learning from Plato’s Dialogues.”

    Illich outlines the general characteristics of an alternative approach to education, in addition to the specific qualities listed above, identifying three key purposes:


    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


    Furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

    Having defined the three positive purposes, Illich is careful to include one negative: “new institutions should be channels to which the learner would have access without credentials or pedigree–public spaces in which peers and elders outside his immediate horizon would become available.”

    “Unquestionably, the educational process will gain from the deschooling of society even though this demand sounds to many schoolmen like treason to the enlightenment. But it is enlightenment itself which is now being snuffed out in the schools.”

    Convivial Uses

    Having outlined both why we should deschool society, and how we might do so with a radically simple approach, Illich then makes explicit the goal:

    “As long as we are not aware of the ritual through which school shapes the progressive consumer–the economy’s major resource–we cannot break the spell of this economy and shape a new one [...] A desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume.”

    As an extension of the radically simple matching service based on objective seeds which allow for conversations to take place within the author or creator’s own language and framework, Illich describes the difference between “treatment-institutions” and what he calls “convivial institutions”. The first produce, and they produce in such a way which inculcates dependence by virtue of manipulation. Such institutions include schools, militaries, jails, mental hospitals, nursing homes.

    There is a clear pattern here: schools produce children, militaries produce violence, jails produce criminals, mental hospitals produce psychiatric disease, and nursing homes produce the aged. Hence their manipulative structure: curricula, war, incarceration, diagnosis and dependence are always coercive, irrespective of how ‘free’, ‘noble’, ‘necessary’, ‘well-treated’ or ‘caring’ the actual institutional ‘treatment’ may be.

    Convivial institutions, on the other hand, are distinguished by “spontaneous use” rather than coercion. Such institutions include telephone networks, subway lines, mail routes, public markets, exchanges, sewage systems, drinking water, parks and sidewalks. The key difference here is that regulation of convivial institutions sets limits to their use, rather than establishing rules which call for unwilling consumption or participation (as in schools, militaries, jails, asylums, nursing homes etc.). The service provided by convivial institutions is “amplified opportunity with formally defined limits, while the client remains a free agent [...] They tend to be networks which facilitate client-initiated communication or cooperation.”

    This primary focus on relationships and their importance within convivial, networked institutions is critical to understanding Illich’s thought.

    “The alternative to dependence on schools is not the use of public resources for some new device which ‘makes’ people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationships between humans and their environment.”

    Opportunity Webs

    “Technology is available to develop either independence and learning, or bureaucracy and teaching.”

    Having defined the specific qualities and general characteristics of alternative education, and emphasised the network facilitating communication and cooperation which they both imply, Illich turns to the particular objects within such a network: things, models, peers, and elders. Of course, he is not satisfied with the word ‘network’ for such “reticular structures for mutual access” because it doesn’t signify fully the legal, organisational, and technical requirements he deems necessary.

    His claim is that the planning of opportunity webs (the words he substitutes for ‘networks’) must not begin with the question, “What should someone learn?”, but rather, “What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?” This is because learning requires both information and critical response to its use from someone else.

    “We must conceive of new relational structures which are deliberately set up to facilitate access to these resources for the use of anybody who is motivated to seek them for their education.”


    Reference Services to Educational Objects–which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some reserved for this purpose and stored in libraries, labs, museums etc., some in daily use in factories, airports, farms etc.


    Skill Exchanges–which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and how to contact them.


    Peer-Matching–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.


    Reference Services to Educators-at-Large–who can be listed in a directory with contact details and self-descriptions, along with conditions of access to their services.

    Each of these aspects of the opportunity webs we can create together speaks to various shortcomings of a schooled society. For instance, “Schools shut the learner out of the world of things in their meaningful setting [...] Even the great classics become part of ‘sophomore year’ instead of marking a new turn in a person’s life. School removes things from everyday use by labelling them educational tools.” A reference service for educational objects solves this, but is also goes much further:

    “In a world which is controlled and owned by nations and corporations, only limited access to educational objects will ever be possible. But increased access to those objects which can be shared for educational purposes may enlighten us enough to help us break through these ultimate political barriers [...] A truly public kind of ownership might begin to emerge if private or corporate control over the educational aspects of ‘things’ were brought to the vanishing point.”

    The claim that schools produce children is equivalent to saying that they also produce a shortage of skilled people. The example Illich gives is nurses: requiring ‘qualified’ nurses to go through a four year B.S. program dramatically decreased the number of nurses, though presumably the amount of people interested in and capable of caring for others did not in any way decrease. Skill exchanges solve this, without decreasing the quality of skills taught. Indeed, insisting on the certification of teachers is yet another way of ensuring a skills shortage, and Illich suggests the same idea hit upon years later by game developers we study in Kernel: “only those who have taught others for an equivalent amount of time have a claim on the time of more advanced teachers.”

    Peer-matching has already been covered in some detail, so here we’ll just emphasise again that this is the institutional inverse of school in that it increases the chances that people who at a given moment share the same specific interest can meet–no matter what else they have in common. As Illich so eloquently says:

    “People who recover their initiative to call their fellows into meaningful conversation may cease to settle for being separated from them by office protocol or suburban etiquette.”

    The reference service for educators-at-large speaks to the archetypal master-disciple relationship, an exchange which is relevant to fields as diverse as art, physics, religion, psychoanalysis, pedagogy, silverworking, mountain-climbing, politics, cabinetmaking and personnel administration. Here, again, the reference service–which is not a paid tutelage system, but allows the educators to specify entirely their own conditions for service–is intended to remind us what is common to all master-disciple relationships, irrespective of field:

    “The awareness both share that their relationship is literally priceless and in very different ways a privilege for both [...] Aristotle speaks of it as a ‘moral type of friendship, which is not on fixed terms: it makes a gift, or does whatever it does, as to a friend.’ Thomas Aquinas says of this kind of teaching that inevitably it is an act of love and mercy. This kind of teaching is always a luxury and a form of leisure (in Greek, ‘schole’) for him and his pupil: an activity meaningful to both, having no ulterior purpose.”

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