Understanding Deschooling Society in Today’s Higher Ed Environment
What can a 1970s priest reveal to us about 21st-century education, massive open online courses, credit for prior learning, bureaucracy and technology?
Years ago, I found a magazine from the mid to late ’70s at the thrift store. In it was an article about Ivan Illich and his recent work, Deschooling Society. The piece focused on his alternatives to conventional schooling, which were presented as futuristic. The accompanying illustrations showed people in a sleek city dialing up educational lessons on something that resembled a cross between a phone booth and automat. The magazine disappeared, but those ideas and images stuck with me.
Eventually after finding my calling in education, I sought out Deschooling Society. Illich’s analysis affirmed my frustration with schools as both a learner and educator: Despite the opportunities they provide, they can be Byzantine and inflexible. Further, his solutions reminded me of the programs and policies designed for adult learners—similar to those from which I benefitted myself as a returning adult student.
Revisiting Illich’s work provides a necessary jolt to those that have been dulled by bureaucracy’s homogenizing effects. It is a reminder of what it means to learn and what it means to be schooled. I encourage you to revisit this work as well. The following provides a remembrance of Illich, recapitulates Deschooling Societ, and relocates Illich’s analyses and counsel to 21st-century postsecondary education.
Ivan Illich was born in Austria in 1926. His family later fled to Italy to escape Nazi persecution. Illich earned a Ph.D. in history and became an ordained priest in 1951, which brought him to New York to serve at a Puerto Rican parish where he encouraged the community to retain their cultural practices (“Ivan Illich,” 2004, p. 112).
At the age of 30, Illich moved into a significant role at the Catholic University in Puerto Rico, which provided him with an intimate view of the education system. He continued this missionary work around Latin America, eventually establishing the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in the 1960s. CIDOC was a school for missionaries and volunteers that incorporated social, economic and political discussion.
Illich’s increasing antiestablishment and progressive views (such as advocating for birth control) brought him in conflict with the Catholic Church and eventually led Illich to informally resign from the priesthood (“Ivan Illich,” 2004, p. 113). It was during this time at CIDOC that Illich began the intellectual and philosophical inquiry that would develop into Deschooling Society and the subsequent Tools for Conviviality.
Illich later wrote treatises on medicine and the healthcare system, called for human-focused urban planning and warned about overpopulation and diminishing resources. However, Illich’s critique, counsel and prescience surrounding education are what I revisit here.
In Deschooling Society, first published in 1971, Illich addresses the distinction between schooling and learning, the effects of institutionalization and most importantly provides a prescription of alternatives to traditional schooling that are self-directed and avoid unnecessary administration. According to Illich (2002), before schools and obligatory schooling, “education was complex, lifelong, and unplanned” (p. 24).
However, formal schooling created a binary where instruction and learning that occurred within a certain time, space and under supervision was deemed education and thus learning that occurred elsewhere was not. This distinction had the domino effect where schools became the primary vehicle for education resources; “money, men, and good will,” would not be utilized for education in other aspects of life such as work, civics, leisure and family or community-oriented activities (Illich, 2002, p. 8).
Additionally, schools became an analog (and reinforcement) of industrialization; just like an auto factory produces cars, schools produce learning. These processes and perceptions reinforce each other, becoming so entrenched that alternatives become obscured or appear insurgent.
The Institutionalization of Learning Results
The institutionalization of learning results in the institutionalization of the learner as well. According to Illich (2002), schooling creates the “schooled mind” and teaches people ‘the need [emphasis added] to be taught’ (p. 15 & 47). Further, participants are indoctrinated into the myth of ritualized advancement, the progressive consumption that produces certification, the quantification of personal growth and the merchant-customer relationship (Illich, 2002, pp. 38-9). Adult learners, who consistently cite time, money, academic workload and lack of autonomy as barriers to their educational goals are significantly impacted by institutionalization (Munip & Klein-Collins, 2023).
Similarly, Illich (2022) acknowledges that traditional curricula often chain the attainment of one skill to other ‘irrelevant task[s]’; moreover, resources are misappropriated by spending time on “predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting” for relatively small numbers of people (pp. 17, 19). Unnecessary courses, bureaucratic bloat and inflexible structures result in increased time and costs for the student, stifling their objective and making them feel helpless.
Deschooling Society addresses the alienation and powerlessness derived from unrestricted bureaucracy and a one-size-fits-all approach to education, but Illich acknowledges that there are exceptions and alternatives. He recognizes that institutions are tools and that these tools reside on a spectrum. One side encompasses “manipulative institutions” that organize production and the other side is comprised of “convivial” institutions that facilitate activity (Illich, 2002, p. 53). Illich (1973) elaborates on this concept in Tools for Conviviality; industrialization results in the “specialization of functions, centralization of power, and turns people into accessories of bureaucracies,” whereas the opposite—conviviality—“enlarges the range of each person’s competence, control, and initiative” (p. xii).
The Nontraditional Learner Today
These convivial tools and institutions of education that Illich describes align with and predict the practices and opportunities those serving adult learners and nontraditional students today provide. The relationship between Illich’s prescription and contemporary education outlets are strongest within accelerated degree programs, interdisciplinary programs, competency-based education, credit for prior learning (CPL) or prior learning assessment (PLA), distance learning, open education resources (OER) and massive open online courses (MOOC).
The most prescient of Illich’s (2022) alternatives for learners are his “learning webs” that consist of public networks—available to all—that provide equal opportunities for teaching and learning (pp. 76-7). Notably, Illich predicted the ways education, collaborating, learning and skilling happen through the internet today. He discusses a computerized database of skills, resources, learners, peers and mentors that the user could access by via telephone and subsequent customized resource printouts.
These developments could result in someone being matched with a range of options: a peer to collaborate with; a mentor to provide guidance and feedback; a mentee; a public tool library, lab or workshop; a database of tapes for particular skills or subjects; or a tape recorder to provide instruction for use by learners (Illich, 2022, pp. 78-9). A direct line can be drawn from these counterculture-era prophecies to contemporary formal and informal learning webs: Coursera and Sophia, Patreon and YouTube, OERs and, of course, distance learning programs at colleges and universities.
The Credentialing System
There are over one million different credentials offered in the U.S. and a colossal amount of money spent promoting, packaging, delivering and procuring them (Credential, 2022). Notable is Illich’s warning against the consumptive cycle of credential earning. He does, however, acknowledge the utility of assessments. Rather than relying upon completing a curriculum that includes several unrelated courses, an employer or institution can test a specific skill or skill set (Illich, 2022, p. 91).
Much like Illich’s prophetic learning web, we see specific skills-based assessment increasingly used today. CPL and PLA provide a way for a person to equate experiential learning with college-level learning. The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and American Council on Education (ACE) recommendations add standardization and continuity to CPL practices.
Additionally, corporations like Amazon (AWS Academy) and Google (IT Certificates) are providing free training and certification to address current and future workforce gaps. While these examples are on the convivial end of the spectrum, we must still acknowledge the expansion of credential consumption. It is urgent that we demand guidance, transparency, access and equity for those seeking credentials.
Over 50 years after its publication and more than 20 years after the death of its author, why revisit Illich and Deschooling Society? We acknowledge that our use of tools—technology—is fully ingrained in contemporary society.
Now, we must be able to recognize the difference between those who provide maximum opportunity and those who impose manipulation. Illich, the missionary, reminds us that schooling and learning are not the same, warns us of the impact institutionalization has on humanity and provides alternative opportunities for those who understand that learning is more than a relationship between supplier and consumer. Lastly, if you find that old magazine with the Illich story and futuristic illustrations, please remind me of the name. I will gladly revisit it.
Credential Engine. (2022). Counting U.S. Postsecondary and Secondary Credentials. Washington, DC: Credential Engine.
Illich, I. (2022). Deschooling society. Marion Boyars.
Illich, I. (1973). Tools for conviviality. Perennial Library.
Ivan Illich. (2004). In Encyclopedia of World Biography (2nd ed., Vol. 8, pp. 112–114). Gale. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3404703204/GVRL?u=chic13716&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=2be701ef
Munip, L. & Klein-Collins, R. (2023). How they pay: The voices of adult learners on college affordability and how institutions are responding. CAEL.