Don’t Set Your Wit Against a Child

Salvador Dali's The Power of Thought

Salvador Dali's The Power of Thought

Ivan Illich was a man ahead of his time, over 30 years ago he wrote a small book to advocate the unthinkable, ridding the world of schools. His arguments were so persuasive that the book caused many people to question the assumptions on which we base our ideas of education, primarily schooling. Illich advocated the replacement of institutionalised schooling by community-driven “educational matchmaking” (p.533) that would enable learners to be in control of their own learning, while teachers would offer their services in an entrepreneurial fashion.  As influential as his ideas were, they were not really practical during the 1970s without a proper methodology or advanced technology to bring his ideas to a global scale.  Given the technology of the 21st Century the World Wide Web has created opportunities for both learners and teachers to do exactly what he described.  Since this is not my first encounter with Illich’s work I will be using the entirety of his work, Deschooling Society, in this commentary.  Schooling has long been recognized as a powerful instrument of social control, an idea that has underpinned the aims of many totalitarian regimes from Hitler to Kim Jong-il.  Illich understood that schooling was an institution that perpetuated class strata with an inability to provide neither “learning nor justice” (p.530).  Illich began Deschooling Society with a paragraph that radically reassessed the role of schools, the responsibilities of teachers, and schooling’s effect on societal standards:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance . . . The pupil is “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.  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 and more resources. (Illich, 1971, p.1)

Ivan Illich's book Deschooling Society - A Very Good Read

Ivan Illich's book Deschooling Society - A Very Good Read

Illich argues that schools are no longer content with the mission of teaching literacy and numeracy, history and language, and other standard subjects; today’s schools are used to replicate the consumer society that had been established after World War II, with hidden agendas aimed at consolidating the wealth and power of the status quo by developing “standard responses” (p.533) from students instead of dynamic, informal thinking. The oppression that occurs from this reinforcement is not simply the case in poor states; schools are fundamentally alike in all countries, whether fascist, democratic, socialist, rich or poor.  If we genuinely wish for social change, equality and the redistribution of wealth, argued Illich, the very idea of schooling must be destroyed in order to rebuild a just society.

These goals are not enough in the 21st Century, today educators must respond to issues of educational ideology including the cultivation of individual differences, constructivist, collaborative and student-centred teaching, and the recognition of educational inequalities suffered by women, racial minorities, and those with exceptionalities.  Schools struggle to resolve these issues, which is why it is important to look at the alternatives that Illich is proposing with networks aimed at establishing a new prototype of what education means for society and what it can do to transform our ability to communicate, collaborate, and create.  Today, the fact still remains that schools, colleges and universities are not uniformly popular places in which the learning experience is a comfortable one for everyone. Many learners of all ages simply do not want to go to school. Perhaps part of the explanation for this is that the coupling of learning and certification is inherently problematic as institutions often “insist on packaging instruction with certification” (p.530). Some learners are uncomfortable with the idea that the teacher or tutor who supports their learning will also judge their achievement which Illich states is neither “reasonable nor liberating” (p.530). It seems logical to observe that certification by educational institutions tends to intensify the power relation between learner and teacher.  Illich’s analysis is an important contribution to the debate on the institutionalisation of education.  He discusses how education can be limited to an individual due to the discrimination of applicants due to their “previous attendance at some curriculum” (p.530). However, even if we accept that the roles performed by traditional educational institutions is uncomfortable, it could be debated that these tensions are inevitable no matter the alternatives, so it is important to look at what has come of the alternatives that Illich proposed over 30 years ago. The four networks that Illich proposed in Deschooling Society called for research on the possible use of technology to create new educational organisations which serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction. These networks suggested an alternative approach to learning; what are needed are new networks that are readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning. These new networks would be more informal and amiable than the schools, colleges and universities which dominate education today, hence the term deschooling.  Interestingly enough, the label of Learning Webs that Illich used to define an entire section of his book would be reflective of what we see today as the services and connections the Internet has provided for education, schooling and society as a whole.

Ivan Illich - 1926 to 2002

Ivan Illich - 1926 to 2002

Writing more than 30 years ago, Illich makes specific reference to the use of computer technology, although his details are slim. The Internet offers a freedom of access to databases which he could not anticipate.  As I stated previously, the fact that he called one of the sections of his book Learning Webs is almost prophetic. For those who grew up with the Internet, this title highlights the suitability of the Internet for providing free public access to the information databases Illich proposed.  His assumption was that skill exchanges, peer matching to identify fellow learners and reference services to elders would lead to face to face meetings which “permits identification only on the basis of a mutual desire to discuss a statement” (p.534) without the discrimination of age, sex, and other characteristics. Illich proposed that “matching the right teacher with the right student” (p.532) through these networks would provide for a highly rewarding relationship that would motivate the learner and be centred on their goals and challenges. As we have seen over the past decade, online technology offers more than what Illich thought was necessary for this type of authentic learning, notably its ability to support dialogue online through video conferencing, which makes face to face dialogue no longer a boundary for those in poorer countries.   We can see that the human relationships Illich wanted to build to create informal learning, for example the meetings in coffee shops to discuss a book, can easily be matched and even conducted through technology used in online social communities such as Facebook or Elluminate Live.  However, despite technology’s ability to surpass Illich’s proposals that would allow for a deschooling of society, these types of programs are few and far between, and those that do exist have been developed for profit, mainly at the university and college level with “all the inefficiency characterizing large bureaucracies” (p.534).

These types of online learning programs and peer matching have not been able to serve the poor, and nor has it supported informal learning, both a central focus of Illich’s work. That is why it can be argued that educators have a responsibility to resist the wholesale commercialisation of currently emerging online learning, just as it happened to educational institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Informal learning today can benefit from the availability of learning resources, video conferencing, course outlines, limitless databases, visual instructions, online discussion groups of various sorts and online experts if they are easy to find on the Web and free to users. Just as public libraries in the 19th and 20th centuries made books available to people who could not afford to buy them, online facilities that are freely available need to become better and more diverse.  Technology has the ability to allow learners to choose the timing, location and content often in response to a specific problem. Therefore, learning can be prompted by real world challenges or problems rather that taken up for its own sake through a mandate.  Faced with immediate challenges or problems, people are instead motivated to find time to acquire the new knowledge, skills or attitudes they need due to necessity and interest.  Illich stated that this happens most often already as “learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction” (p.530) which allows for “skill learning and education for inventive and creative behaviour” (p.532).  Online learning technology is developing rapidly in response to the technological opportunity offered by the Internet.  The relationship between the increased popularity of online learning as an activity and the technical development of the technologies which support it seems symbiotic and it is reasonable to anticipate accelerated growth.  These changes will not happen in isolation; it will be a substantial challenge to formal educational institutions to help the emergence of more global and pluralistic educational opportunities for it to truly succeed. While Illich’s desire to tear down schooling has yet to be a reality, it can be debated that a less radical vision of the future seems to be emerging, in which increasing demand for informal and dynamic education will be met by new institutions, many of which will exploit new learning technologies to better meet the demands of learners than they do today.  The video below is a TED lecture by Gever Tulley who opened a “tinkering” school that allows students to educate themselves through problem solving.  The school provides students with various materials and tools, but leaves the rest to them.


~ by thecosmosreader on July 11, 2009.

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