Deschooling Society: why Ivan Illich matters now

Ivan Illich, an Austrian Catholic priest and original social thinker, may not have identified as an anarchist, but his willingness to challenge received ideas and think outside the box about different aspects of society, certainly means that he shares the kind of radical questioning spirit characteristic of much Anarchist thought.

Although nearly fifty years have passed since the publication of his 1971 book, Deschooling Society, it still seems timely at a moment when the current crisis and its aftershocks have caused even established politicians to reach for new ideas and approaches. With laissez-faire economics temporarily abandoned, the homeless temporarily housed and serious talk of a universal basic income, thinking outside the box has almost become the new normal. In addition, the pandemic has confirmed the willingness of huge numbers of people to make a significant contribution to the welfare of others, even if it`s to their own detriment, whether by staying at home or by volunteering. The idea of community has never been stronger.

In this context, established institutions are being compelled to adapt. I want to start with the institution that is at the centre of Deschooling Society – education – before considering Illich`s other interests, of which there are several. For schools, the necessity to go virtual has inevitably meant a shift in the power dynamic between teacher and student and a loosening of conventional structures and boundaries – maybe Lily or John are not online or completing their worksheets at the correct time or perhaps they are doing something entirely different.

Such a trend towards de-institutionalisation connects with Illich`s hostility towards compulsory schooling and his proposed alternative. He argues that formal educational institutions, through their reliance on a pre-planned curriculum, performance measurement and certification, teach young people to recognise their position in a hierarchical society, in which the only route to a successful life, is to passively consume what is offered. A significant number of students may refuse to conform but their alienation is viewed by those in authority as a collateral cost.

Instead of formal schooling, Illich favours informal or even incidental learning – in other words, learning that takes place when we talk to a neighbour or pursue a hobby. There is no necessity, he says, for the physical space of the classroom or the associated requirement that every child or young person must attend school for education to happen. If they, or we, wish to develop a skill or knowledge of a topic, we can do so through finding someone who is able to help us achieve what we want – maybe a librarian will suggest a book or a mentor guide us in the right direction to develop our expertise in a specific field.

Of course, Illich’s ideas are more complex than this but his argument that there is something fundamentally wrong with the traditional idea of the school leads him and us to ask fundamental questions about other aspects of our society. Writing, as he does, at a very different time to our own, he may not have any direct answers for today’s issues but his ideas can make a distinctive contribution.

Coming from a religious background – he was a free-thinking and controversial priest for many years, first in Puerto Rica and then in Mexico where he founded a centre for intellectual enquiry that was not a traditional university – he possesses a deep sense that western capitalist society is based on values that pervert our humanity. As such, he makes a powerful case for forms of social organisation that help liberate and empower people rather than undermine their independence – a case that certainly has similarities with key strands of Anarchist thinking.

One good way to continue an analysis of his ideas is to focus on the distinction he makes between manipulative and convivial institutions. Although, Illich doesn’t offer a straight-forward definition of the former, his examples – gaols or nursing homes, to name just two – are related by the way they diminish people`s sense of themselves as free individuals. The professionals who manage and work in such institutions clearly believe they are helping those in their charge to rehabilitate or provide health care. Nevertheless, the effect of their provision is to persuade individuals to internalise the image of themselves that suits the institution – as almost entirely a prisoner or a patient.

In addition, institutions such as medicine and social care, can create relations of dependence that have the potential to undermine our sense of autonomy and control and create demands that are not to our real benefit. If we are a welfare recipient or patient, then we have, to some degree at least, surrendered the right to act independently – whether that`s the right to decide how we spend our time or to choose to die if the quality of our lives has radically diminished.

On the other hand, there are institutions – ones that Illich wishes to encourage because he views them as enabling – that allow us to be mobile or to connect with others or to take exercise. These convivial institutions – train lines, phone companies, parks to name just three – are ones we make use of rather than ones that seek to shape our identities. They encourage us to lead a life of action instead of a life of consumption and as they don`t depend on professionals, whether these be teachers, doctors or social workers etc, we are not expected to simply accept the authority such roles represent.

Allied to these convivial institutions are people and groups in our neighbourhoods – people and groups that have certainly demonstrated their capacity to step up to the plate in recent times. We may be wary of making use of amateurs and, of course, we will still require doctors and hospitals to fix our broken leg or in the event of a serious illness. Nevertheless, for certain needs – for example, to treat minor ailments and the educational ones referred to earlier – individuals in the community can provide the service we need as well as meaningful and more equal relationships – something that many manipulative institutions struggle to achieve.

To access such individuals, Illich looks to networks that enable the matching of people seeking a service with those offering one or simply the matching of those who wish to collaborate on a project. Such networks, facilitated by technology – far more advanced today than in the late Sixties and early Seventies – have the potential to empower people through recognising their skills and knowledge as well as contributing to a society in which personal connections are valued more highly than those fostered by corporations.

A further implication of the kind of change Illich wants to see is the dissolution of certain commonly accepted values – values that Illich terms myths. School, in his view, is not the only institution with a hidden curriculum that transmits key values which contribute to the maintenance of a hierarchical and alienating society – values such as the prioritising of measurement and continuing progress and growth.

Medicine, for example, encourages the expectation that the quality of health care should be judged by statistical outcomes and the State fosters the belief that everyone has an equal stake in the countrys fortunes. But if the recent crisis has taught us anything, it is that statistics tell only a partial story and that the ideawe are all in this togetheris a patent lie. You only have to think of the exclusion of care-home deaths from the official figures for many weeks during the coronavirus pandemic and of the gross negligence of those living in such homes, to recognise the ways in whichmanipulative` institutions, including the State, mostly lack the kind of transparency and commitment to the truth critical for a properly democratic society.

Large companies and corporations also, according to Illich, promote harmful myths, including the idea that the consumption of goods is the route to a happy life – in other words, they create the demand that they seek to fulfil. For Illich then, we should not only be moving in the direction of more convivial institutions and informal networks but also encouraging the development of local providers of services and goods – providers that don`t rely on large-scale advertising to produce unnecessary demand but rather rely on personal recommendation and personal relations to flourish.

Our neighbourhood hairdresser or greengrocer, for example, doesn’t routinely seek to persuade us to have more haircuts or more fruit and vegetable than we really need. Nor do such institutions have an elaborate hierarchical structure that contributes to unequal power-relations and the kind of hidden curriculum referred to previously.

Of course, it is easy to criticise Illich`s vision of a more humane society as too idealistic. Yet, increasingly sophisticated computers, plus a growing unease about the ways in which our current society is organised -an unease further provoked by the recent pandemic, suggest that his ideas have just as much, if not more credibility and relevance nowadays than in the late 1960s, when he was writing Deschooling Society.

With the advance of robot technology to the point of it threatening to take over many peoples jobs, Illichs notion that society resembles a box locked from the inside, in which almost everything is planned and organised, increasingly resonates. Arguing along lines that are not a million miles from Anarchist ideas, he warns of the danger of letting our tools – and computers and institutions may be both thought of as types of tools – dominate our lives and severely limit the spaces in society for spontaneity and freedom. This is how he puts the matter towards the end of Deschooling Society:

“Man has developed the frustrating power to demand anything because he cannot visualise anything which an institution cannot do for him. Surrounded by all-powerful tools, man is reduced to a tool of his tools. Each of the institutions meant to exorcise one of the primaeval evils has become a fail-safe, self-sealing coffin for man.”

The phrase, a self-sealing coffin here, vivid as it is, may seem overly dramatic but given the argument that ever-increasing progress inevitably depends on the creation of ever-increasing demands, whether for more schooling, health-care or consumer goods, this is hardly the case.

Illichs thinking is disruptive but at a time when so much of normal life has been up-ended, thinking disruptively about how we organise social life better, seems to fit the new times in which we are living. Whilst, neither <em>Deschooling Society</em>, or any of Illichs other writings, provide a detailed blueprint for the shape of the economy and society he wants to see, there are a number of signposts. It will certainly be much more locally based – a trend that certain experts in the field think will grow as people steer clear of large shopping malls. And there will be much more reliance for services and goods on providers in the community – preferably goods that can be self-assembled, reused and repaired in order to maximise individuals` inter-action with the physical world around them.

Current manipulative institutions will morph into what Illich calls institutional frameworks that will enable all of us to participate on an equal footing and in different ways at different times. Meaningful activity for everyone, enabled by convivial institutions, whether it be gardening or learning French, would become the norm, so that the distinction between work and unemployment would be a thing of the past.

Although such ideas may be thought of as utopian by some, they are certainly not fantastical or unrealizable at a time when there`s a sense that some basic institutional plates may be shifting. Neither a socialist or a supporter of western liberal democracies in their present form, Illich challenges us to re-think some of our taken-for-granted views about the way society can be organised and imagine alternative possibilities. Anarchists could do worse than embrace him as one of their own.

Mike Peters