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    • School Sucks
    School Sucks

    “Education for all means education by all.” – Ivan Illich

    As with most good thinkers, Ivan Illich begins by discussing why; in this case why deschooling society is necessary. As with all wise thinkers, he is able to do so simply. Schools “confuse process with substance,” which means that they lead us to confuse “teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, the rat race for productive work.”

    Illich is not against teaching, social work, police, or productivity per se; he simply sees how often we confuse the means with the end and how, once we have done so, we easily fall under the illusion that “escalation leads to success”.

    “Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies.”

    We think that we need only spend more money, or scale our methods further in order to cultivate societies in which learning, community life, safety and purposeful, valuable work flourish. Kernel has already shown how each modern individual operates within a paradigm named “the reward-oriented hierarchy”, and Illich is pointing to the shared paradigm we all participate in collectively: “schooled society”. He is clear on the implications of this paradigmatic view of how we live together:

    “Not only education but social reality itself has been schooled [...] Rich and poor alike depend on schools and hospitals which guide their lives, form their world view, and define for them what is legitimate and what is not. Both view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, learning on one’s own as unreliable, and community organisation, when not paid for by those in authority, as a form of aggression or subversion.”

    If you learn nothing else from Illich’s insights, let it be this. Deschooling society is not an end: it is an ongoing process we can each undertake personally because “the institutionalisation of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarisation, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernised misery.”

    Such institutionalisation leads us to expect that what we need–and therefore what we value most–will be served to us in a way we can consume it, rather than being able to create it ourselves, or allowing for the surprise that other people we know may be capable of helping us. The movement toward expectation and away from surprise; towards professionals and away from the personal is what Illich warns us against.

    “School prepares for the alienating institutionalisation of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive and close themselves off to the surprises life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition.”

    Disciplined Consumer

    When we define health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing as the result of institutionalised services or “treatments” we accelerate this degradation, to the extent that even birth and death have become thoroughly institutionalised and dying at home–once commonplace–is now a sign of deep poverty or privilege. Social reality is totally schooled.

    In fact, so schooled are we that–instead of fostering our own health, learning, dignity, independence and creativity–we demand ever more resources for the further curtailment of our ability to think and act for ourselves and the people we care for personally. Illich refers to the $3 billion spent between 1965 and 1968 on a US school program called Title One, which was a “total failure”. This can be explained in three ways, according to Illich:

    1. Three billion dollars are insufficient to improve the performance of six million children by a measurable amount; or
    2. The money was incompetently spent: different curricula, better administration, further concentration of funds on the poor child, and more research are needed and would do the trick; or
    3. Educational disadvantage cannot be cured by relying on education within the school.

    While all three hold some truth, Illich demonstrates how the final point is most accurate and urgent. He shows that “the poorer student will generally fall behind so long as he depends on school for advancement or learning. The poor need funds to enable them to learn, not to get certified for the treatment of their alleged disproportionate deficiencies.”

    When you reflect on the humanistic root from which such a vision emanates, what Illich calls the “paradox of schools” becomes evident: “increased expenditure escalates their destructiveness at home and abroad. The paradox must be made a public issue.” This is because schools reproduce a childish, consumerist society that propagates various myths which hamper the sorts of meaning we can encounter and learn from in any given social environment.

    “Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher [...] If society were to outgrow its age of childhood, it would have to become livable for the young [...] If there were no age-specific and obligatory learning institution, ‘childhood’ would go out of production.”

    Institutional wisdom claims that children can only learn in school, though this selfsame wisdom was itself established in school. If we accept without critical thought such ideas, we infantilize each aspect of our society, rendering it childish in ways which increase our dependence on the institutions we have been taught are the only places in which we can learn anything of value.

    “The school system today performs the threefold function common to powerful churches throughout history. It is simultaneously the repository of a society’s myth, the institutionalisation of that myth’s contradictions, and the locus of the ritual which reproduces and veils the disparities between myth and reality.”

    The Myth of School

    Just like the powerful churches of old, Illich shows how school has attained a status not unlike that of religion. In fact, he literally calls it a “New World Religion” such is its impact on how we perceive our world and shared realities. This religion both justifies and makes possible the “engineering of consumers [such that] there is an increasing concentration of equipping man for disciplined consumption.”

    Once we are disciplined into accepting the teaching that we need to be taught, we begin to expect products we consume, rather than to create personal relationships which nourish us reciprocally. Illich calls this universalisation of expectations the “Coming Kingdom”, which is the harbinger of a “New Alienation” that deprives education of reality and work of creativity.

    The core myths Illich outlines are as follows:


    The Myth of Institutionalised Values


    The Myth of Measurement of Values


    The Myth of Packaging Values


    The Myth of Self-Perpetuating Progress

    We’ve covered the institutionalisation of values already: it is the myth that unlicensed, non-professional learning is suspicious or subversive; that valuable learning is the result of attendance; and that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates. This myth is debunked when we realise that learning is not often the result of teaching, and that value is a profoundly personal phenomenon.

    Packaging values is a myth propagated by educational engineering, which presupposes a “teacher-distributor who delivers the final product (the curriculum the school sells) to the consumer-pupil, whose reactions are carefully studied to provide research data for the preparation of the next model.” This is debunked when we realise that the resistance such methods encounter

    “is due not to the authoritarian style of a public school or the seductive style of some free schools, but to the fundamental approach common to all schools–the idea that one person’s judgement should determine what and when another person must learn.”

    The myth of self-perpetuating progress is based on the same logic as war or modern economics. It is the idea that success can be measured in “body count” or “gross profit” (without accounting for externalities). These are ideas we will explore in much greater detail when we begin thinking small with E.F. Schumacher, but the myth can be debunked easily enough by following Illich’s insights:

    “By economic standards the country gets richer and richer. By death-accounting standards the nation goes on winning its war forever. And by school standards the population becomes increasingly educated [...] But growth conceived as open-ended consumption–eternal progress–can never lead to maturity.”

    Finally, we have the myth that we can measure value by reducing it with some representation. This seems most urgent in our own context given the attempts to issue on-chain credentials. This is perhaps one of the most damaging ideas we could pursue collectively, as Illich demonstrates:

    “Once people have the idea schooled into them that values can be produced and measured, they tend to accept all kinds of rankings. There is a scale for the development of nations, another for the intelligence of babies, and even progress toward peace can be calculated by body count. In a schooled world the road to happiness is paved with a consumer’s index.”

    Certified Confusion

    It is not true that only institutions and their indices can serve up the things we value most: learning, care, security, purpose. We can do this for one another: an idea Illich will later call “conviviality”. In order to get there, we need to constitute society without obligatory schools because otherwise we still operate within a paradigm that “legally combines prejudice with discrimination”: who gets into which school is largely a socioeconomic question, while who gets what job is largely determined by the school you attended.

    Schooling cultivates the habit of institutional dependence, and the self-defeating consumption of services and alienated production. What Illich goes on to show is how it also creates in each of us the habit of accepting institutional rankings, for at the root of this legal marriage between prejudice and discrimination is certification:

    “Neither learning nor justice is promoted by schooling because educators insist on packaging instruction with certification. Learning and the assignment of social roles are melted into schooling. Yet to learn means to acquire a new skill or insight, while promotion depends on an opinion which others have formed.”

    This insistence by educators on packaging instruction with certification is not the only illusion which constitutes the paradigm of a schooled society. We also believe that most learning is the result of teaching, which is patently untrue when you reflect on your own experience. How did you learn to speak your native tongue? Was it through certified instructors, and do you have a piece of paper which allows you to practise that language?

    “Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.”

    This does not mean that certain complex skills do not benefit from planned instruction: simply that its occurrence within an institutionally recognised form is not a necessary part of its full and valid transmission. Nor is this to devalue the role and cultural importance of skilled teachers who really care. Some of us are born to teach, and Illich’s argument is that it is actually easier for such people to do so if the institution of school is not the only valid arena in which such exchange can take place. As he says,

    “Opportunities for skill learning can be vastly multiplied if we ‘open the market.’ This depends on matching the right teacher with the right student when he is highly motivated, in an intelligent program, without the constraint of a curriculum [...] Equal educational opportunity is both a desirable and feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church.”

    Illich is presenting here a vision of “free and competing drill instruction [that] is a subversive blasphemy to the orthodox educator [because] it dissociates the acquisition of skills from ‘humane’ education, which schools package together, and thus it promotes unlicensed learning no less than unlicensed teaching for unpredictable purposes.”

    All this may feel strange, but upending paradigms always is. Unlicensed learning, from unlicensed teachers, for unpredictable purposes is what our world most needs right now. As Illich points out repeatedly, “almost all education is complex, lifelong, and unplanned” anyway. Critical to the idea of unlicensed learning and teaching is the agency it engenders. Such open approaches might mean that we “shield ourselves less behind certificates acquired in school and thus gain in courage to talk back and thereby control and instruct the institutions in which we participate”.

    This is a point of vital importance: institutions ought not to instruct us, we instruct our institutions. Moreover, when we exercise such agency, then participation itself becomes the measure, rather than the perceived quality of specific certificates:

    Effective participation in the politics of a street, a workplace, the library, a news program, or a hospital is therefore the best measuring stick to evaluate their level as educational institutions [...] Our attempt to withdraw from the concept of school will reveal the resistance we find in ourselves when we try to renounce limitless consumption and the pervasive idea that others can be manipulated for their own good; our belief that man can do what God cannot, namely, manipulate others for their own salvation.”

    We also recommend that you read this article to get an another, slightly less flattering but very realistic, portrait of Illich and the applicability of his ideas:

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