Primary text: Ivan Illich (1971) (Chapter 1).
Ivan Illich was a social critic, a philosopher and a theologian. In his 1971 classical text, Deschooling Society, Illich offers a critical view of the institutionalization of education and how this approach is leading to a general degradation of society. Chapter one of this text addresses why we must disestablish schools if society is to get any better. In this chapter, Illich presents what the deschooling of a schooled society might mean. According to Illich, a schooled society is where values are institutionalized by an education system that places more emphasis on the performance of institutions. The human social reality has become schooled due to the dominance of institutions in our lives. It is the established institutions that determine acceptable societal values. The institutionalization of values is responsible for the degradation of society, as seen in increasing levels of poverty, discrimination, and a lack of the most important life skills (Haralambos and Holborn, 2008, pp.598-661). Schooling of society has led to a situation where critical human needs such as creative endeavor, independence, dignity, and learning are now defined by the performance of intuitions that serve these needs. As a result, resources are allocated to the management of institutions rather than these important human needs.
To demonstrate how modern institutions are leading to societal degradation, Illich focuses on the modern institutionalized school. He argues that disestablishing schools is the most practical way of eliminating the negative consequences that schooling is having on society. Schools have become powerful institutions in society as they serve as the preferred medium of passing on knowledge. Almost every pupil is now schooled through established formal schools. A person is only considered to be schooled when they have gone through the educational institutions and have attained the required threshold of qualification that is evidenced by a certificate. Schools have become intuitions that indoctrinate pupils and limit their range of skills. The institutionalization of education has given more power to schools instead of providing learners with the appropriate environments and opportunities to learn diverse skills. This institutionalization is limiting to the human pursuit of self-actualization.
In support of his key idea about the need to disestablish schools, Illich presents several arguments to demonstrate how the institutionalization of education is causing harm and, at the same time, failing to address the key issues that learners face. First, Illich describes the general impact of institutionalized schooling on society. According to Illich, institutionalization schools pupils to ‘confuse process and substance, teaching with learning, grade advancement and education’ (Illich, p. 1). The result is that pupils learn to focus on the process rather than the substance of education. The measure of success in education is no longer the substance but the process, i.e., the performance of the institutions. This manner of schooling is not only impacting pupils but has a negative impact on the general society. This is because schooling is replicated across all aspects of human life. Schooling is not only happening in education, but human social reality has become schooled. Our social realities are now defined by institutions such that autonomy and independence are not valued anymore. Acquiring knowledge independently is now seen as being irresponsible, same as community organization initiatives that are not supported by mainstream institutions (Illich, p. 2). The belief that institutions are the solution to every conceivable human problem is causing a general decline in the quality of human life.
After describing the negative impacts of schooling on society, Illich focuses on demonstrating why institutionalized schools are unnecessary and counterproductive. Institutionalization is responsible for the ever-rising costs of education. According to Illich, the fact that education can only be accessed through institutions means that schools are priced out of the market for many. The focus on institutional performance means schools are increasing costs every year to cater for matters that are not connected directly to the betterment of learners (Dorling, 2011, pp. 33-90). The high cost of education means education has become a major driver of inequality. Institutionalized schools are responsible for the worsening socioeconomic inequality where the wealthy can afford private schools with better facilities while the low-income and poor parents can only afford to take their children to public schools (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, pp.103-118). These public schools are of lower standards with achievement levels that are significantly worse than that of private schools. Institutionalization has failed to solve the inequalities in education and the best way to guarantee equality is to do away with the institutionalized schools.
Institutionalized schools are leading to a decline in results even as the costs increase. In the education sector, the preferred result is a better achievement for students in terms of acquiring important life skills and knowledge. According to Illich, an increase in costs of education has been accompanied by a steady decline in results. Despite the increased spending by the government on education, there has not been a corresponding impact on the results in terms of improved student performance or wellbeing (Matheson, 2014). Illich draws a parallel with healthcare institutions where the cost of education has been increasing just as fast as the costs of healthcare. However, “increased treatment by doctors and teachers have shown steady decline in results” (Illich, p. 8). In addition to the high cost disadvantaging students from low-income families, there is no value for the large sums of money that the government spends on these institutions. The reason for this is the lack of focus on the results as schools have become more obsessed with processes and the performance of the institutions themselves. The implication is that institutionalized schools have no real benefit or value for the billions spent by the government. A practical example of Illich’s argument is the increased costs of college education over the years as colleges spend more resources building facilities like stadiums and advanced structures without any meaningful benefit to students.
Deestablishing schools mean eliminating prejudice and discrimination. These are evils that still exist in the modern education system with far-reaching impacts on students and society in general. Prejudice and discrimination are still rife in education because schools have a monopoly of what is taught, how it is taught and the standards of success. Institutionalized schools encourage competition among students and define the criteria for success that favors students from particular racial groups. Institutionalized schools condone prejudice and discrimination, thus, creating a toxic learning environment for racial minorities and students from poor backgrounds. According to Illich, it is necessary to disestablish the monopoly of the school. The system of institutionalized schools ‘legally combines prejudice with discrimination (Illich, p. 11).
Lastly, Illich presents some of the solutions and approaches that can help address the negative impacts that institutionalized schools are having on society. Schools need to be modeled with the needs of learners right from a young age. As it is, institutionalized schools are not helping students explore their skills and abilities. A system of schooling that is not based on institutions will enable learners to acquire the most important skills. These schools will align their curriculums with the modern needs of society (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, pp.103-118). There is a need to detach competence from the curriculum such that learners’ competence is not judged based on the curriculum content but their skill levels. In addition, Illich suggests the elimination of discrimination and prejudice using laws. Illich suggests that inquiries on learners’ racial backgrounds, sex habits, lineage, church attendance and political affiliations should be made illegal. This will create a balanced and favorable environment for all learners irrespective of their racial, cultural, or economic backgrounds.
Recent journal article
Ivan Illich’s idea of why we must disestablish schools has attracted attention over the years. One of the most recent journal articles discussing Illich’s text is titled ‘Deschooling society 50 years later: Revisiting Ivan Illich in the era of covid-19,” authored by Bartlett and Schugurensky (2020). In this article, the authors place Illich’s idea in the context of the current happenings in the education sector. The emergence of the Covid virus in early 2020 caused unprecedented disruption to all aspects of human life. Education is among the areas hardest hit by disruption. The measures put in place to limit the spread of the virus led to the closure of schools as countries suspended whole academic years. According to Bartlett and Schugurensky (2020), over 60% of the global student population topped attending schools and universities. In the United States, in-person classes were canceled, and schooling took a new dimension. In the midst of this crisis, alternative forms of schooling have emerged. The article revisits Illich’s groundbreaking idea in the context of the shifts and transformations that have taken place with the Covid-19 restrictions.
Five education models have emerged and continue to take root as most countries still limit in-person schooling. These models are remote learning, homeschooling, microschooling (pandemic pods), and unschooling. Remote learning takes place when students are connected to their teachers and peers through the internet. This learning does not take place in the traditional classroom, neither does it require the traditional institutional structures. Homeschooling is when parents take charge of their children’s learning. Parents take over the role of the teachers and the entire schooling institution. Parents teach, guide and help students in research while still being guided by the prescribed curriculum, textbooks and grade assignment. Micro schooling is a hybrid between private and homeschooling where learners organize into small groups into single-room schools. Lastly, unschooling is homeschooling, where parents discard the official curriculum and allow their children to explore their skills and interests (Bartlett and Schugurensky, 2020). These are models that do not rely on institutions to deliver education. These models have ensured that students proceed with their education even without the traditional institutionalized teaching.
The five models have become popular and the most important enabler is information and communication technology. The availability of digital devices and the internet means students can connect with peers and teachers and engage in productive learning without the traditional in-person kind of instruction. Information and communication technology has replaced the institutions of schooling such that learners can now derive the same benefits even without having to abide by the limitations that have been placed on them by the institutionalized schooling system. In order to connect Illich’s idea with the current happenings, the authors analyze the three main themes in Illich’s text which are the value of schooling, schools as tools for social control, and learning webs as convivial institutions. Regarding the value of schooling, the important role that school plays in society has allowed schools to monopolize the education system over the years. The implication is an institutionalized schooling system that is not aligned with students’ needs.
The authors recognize that the shift has, in some ways, made Illich’s idea a reality. In their analysis of current trends, the authors note that Illich’s ideas may have come to materialize finally. Looking at the reduced value of the traditional school setting, it is safe to say that the process of disestablishing schools is finally happening or at least has the potential of being realized in the near future. This is a reasonable conclusion taking into account the fact that most learners have gotten used to the alternative models of schooling. However, Bartlett and Schugurensky (2020) conclude that the new models, despite their potential, have not “fulfilled Illich’s outline of Deschooling” (p. 80). According to the authors, these models (except deschooling) have eliminated the need for classrooms, but they do not change the core of institutionalized schooling, which are standardized curricula and technology and emphasis on certification. Despite learning outside the institutions, the learning content and the need for certification still limit learners’ ability to be independent, as envisaged by Illich. Nevertheless, the authors recognize that the combination of the pandemic and the spread of information communication technology has the potential of fulfilling Illich’s idea of disestablishing schools.
Understanding education and schooling today in the context of the ideas presented By Illich and Bartlett & Schugurensky
The ideas in Illich’s text and the journal article reveal some of the key aspects of education and schooling today. First, Illich’s text illustrates that institutionalized schooling is not aligned with the modern needs of society. While this system is the most preferred globally, it has inherent weaknesses that have long-term implications for learners and society in general. From Illich’s text, it is evident that institutions do not focus on substance but the process. This is a problem that is replicated in other spheres of life, such as healthcare institutions. Institutions are not the best avenues to deliver education in society since they tend to focus on the institution’s interests rather than the needs and welfare of their learners. This system not only makes inequalities worse but also fosters discrimination and prejudice. Institutions do not address challenges in society due to bureaucracy and vested interests. A case study is the rising costs of a college education. The main driver of increased costs is not students’ needs but the fact that colleges are investing in facilities that do not serve the core purpose of schooling. A number of colleges are more concerned with revenue-generating enterprises such as sports stadia and investment in hedge funds for returns.
Illich’s text and the ideas in the contemporary article also reveal the need to explore alternatives to institutionalized schooling. The current developments in terms of the new models of learning are showing that there are viable alternatives to institutionalized schooling. These new models have the potential of solving all the problems that Illich highlights in his text. The models such as homeschooling and remote learning can lower the cost of education, eliminate prejudice and discrimination and shift learners’ attention from competition towards gaining important life skills. Instead of the traditional learning environment that relies heavily on public funding without corresponding results, these new models are less costly but with similar or better levels of student achievement. From the texts, it is clear that institutionalized schooling is not the only way to learn. The obligatory schooling has no measurable value. Illich argues against the obligatory curriculum, noting that it is responsible for the widening achievement gaps between students from different socioeconomic classes. There is a need to eliminate obligatory schooling and curriculums to enable students to explore their skills instead.
Lastly, the texts highlight the importance of new technologies and societal shifts in changing practices and customs that have been used in education for years. Before the Covid related restrictions, it was inconceivable that institutionalized schooling could be replaced. When Illich first published his idea of disestablishing schooling, critics argued that there were no alternative models and that there was no need to do away with a system that was working well (Reay, 2017). However, the disruption caused by Covid has now convinced many observers that there is a need to look for alternatives. In addition, the increased availability of information and communication technology now offers alternatives. It is foreseeable that the transformation that has begun will lead to a full shift to these new alternatives. In the future, the core aspects of institutionalized schooling (the emphasis on certification and the reliance on standardized curricula) will also be eliminated. Schooling has the potential of moving beyond institutionalized schooling.
Ainley, P. 2016 Betraying a Generation: How education is failing young people. Bristol: Policy Press.
Bartlett, T. and Schugurensky, D., 2020. Deschooling Society 50 Years Later: Revisiting Ivan Illich in the Era of COVID-19. Sisyphus—Journal of Education, 8(3), pp.65-84.
Bartlett, T. and Schugurensky, D., 2020. Deschooling Society 50 Years Later.
Dorling, D. 2011. Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. Chapter 3. Elitism is Efficient: New Educational Divisions (pp.33-90)
Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M. (2008) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives (7th edition).
Chapter 10. Education (pp.598-661).
Matheson, D. (2014) ‘What is Education?’ in D. Matheson, (ed) An Introduction to the Study of Education.
Illich, I. 1971. Deschooling society. London, Marion Boyars.
Reay, D. 2017. Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes. Bristol: Policy Press.
Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. 2009. The Spirit Level. Chapter 8. Educational performance (pp.103-118)