March 1, 2024

#3quotes from Illich

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This is a continuation of my short blog series on 3 quotes from seminal education writers. Today, I feature the anarchist education theorist Ivan Illich.

For many, Ivan Illich remains one of the sternest critics of compulsory mass education. His controversial volume Deschooling Society (1970) was a radical, neo-Marxist perspective on the control exerted upon society by oppressive education systems. It was also a progressive manifesto for change, where he espoused ‘Learning Webs’ (the title of Chapter 6) as a viable alternative to ‘educational funnels’. Learning should not be contained, but should transgress the boundaries of the traditional classroom, he believed, utilising new technologies to provide people everywhere with access to personal, democratised learning pathways.

“What are needed are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching. {..} Technology is available to develop either independence and learning or bureaucracy and teaching.” (p 77)

Illich proposed several kinds of learning network that included learning resource services, peer-matching and skill exchanges. Ostensibly, he wasn’t calling for the demise of schools, nor did he oppose education. He was instead bemoaning the long-lasting detrimental effects traditional schooling exerts on individuals in society, suggesting that dependence on authority led to social regression. He opposed the notion that teachers and experts had the monopoly on knowledge. He argued that the elite manner in which knowledge was presented was a constraint on freedom of expression, and that schooling was the edifice from which this lie emanated:

“Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” (p 76)  

For Illich, schooling produced generations of people who were unable to progress without the prerequisite accreditation. They were constrained in their thinking and were ill-equipped, often unwilling to fulfil their own educational needs once they had entered into the world of work.

Similar to other progressive education theorists, Illich saw the centrist role of teachers as a root of the problems of society. Learning, he believed was a natural expression of being human, and this was being stifled in transmissive and teacher controlled environments such as formal classrooms. On the nature of human learning he wrote:

“….learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation from others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being ‘with it,’ yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.” (p 39)

Illich was also a champion of personalised learning. Throughout Deschooling Society there are numerous claims about the effectiveness of self-determined learning, and eulogising over personal learning pathways. What we needed, he argued was life-long learning, instead of life-long institutionalisation. Illich continues to be controversial half a century later, but there is no doubt that his vision of a world wide, democratically organised learning web was prescient.

Reference
Illich, I. (1970) Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyers Publishers.

Previous posts in the #3quotes series
Paulo Freire

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#3quotes from Illich by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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