The Idea of Deschooling in Contemporary Times: Rediscovering the Path of Hope
Ivan Illich was a remarkably great thinker inspiring us to rethink technology and development, medicine and health, and above all, school and society. Is education all about compulsory attendance at formal institutions, passing through the ritualization of fixed curriculum, graded learning and examinations? Does it restrict our imagination, our ability to evolve, grow and learn from multiple/informal sources? With institutionalized learning are we moving towards reckless homogenization? A teacher engages with Ivan Illich, and inspires us to revisit the path-breaking text Deschooling Society.
Amrita Sastry is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi, New Delhi
“The pupil is thereby ‘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.”
Ivan Illich (1926-2002), an influential philosopher, wrote extensively about the problems of institutionalisation of education system. By 1971, he came out with the most radical and controversial text Deschooling Society which debunked the entire idea of schooling and proposed an alternative model to “The Schooled Mind” with the development of an informal “Learning Web”. This book still inspires me today and many academic researchers who want to explore some of the most radical views on education. Illich problematises few things in the beginning of the book and further provides the solution for it by discussing about the ‘rebirth of Epimethean Man’.
- The belief that learning happens only through teaching is problematic because it ignores the informal aspect of learning which happens in the child’s life through divers agencies of socialization. And socialization is a lifelong process which doesn’t stop as one enters the formal domain of schooling.
- One of the major problems with the education system is that “educators try to package the instruction with the tag of certification”, and subsequently the involvement of students is restricted. Illich questions the fundamental idea of packaging and certification.
- The compulsory licensing of the educators has shut the door for many who are genuinely interested in this ‘vocation’.
- While discussing about the phenomenology of schools, he criticizes the artificiality of the modern childhood and the supreme power the teacher holds being the custodian, moralist and the therapist.
- While looking at the relationship between schooling and the notion of education system, he wants to re-examine schooling as a ‘ritual’ and education as a ‘myth’. Thus the myth which is being created by the education is constantly being reinforced by the school rituals. He also tries to identify the four axes on which the mythical notion of education is sustained— the myth of institutionalised values, the myth of value measurement, the myth of packaged values and the myth of self perpetuating progress.
Indeed, in contemporary times schools seem to have become the most powerful institutions which convince us to exchange our real lives with some kind of packaged substitutes that can be commodified for our consumption. The‘distributer- teacher’ delivers the packages designed by the technocrats to the ‘consumer-pupil’. Children are taught to be the passive recipients. This is a modern form of colonialism where new kinds of elites are created with a consumerist mindset. What follows further is a dangerous type of pedagogical alienation (which is even worse than the Marxist notion of labour alienation). Thus schools which are a form of knowledge production alienate their students from their creative possibilities. It makes alienation preparatory to life thus depriving education of reality and work of creativity. Schools are designed in such a manner that it reinforces the idea that there is a secret to everything in life, and the quality of life solely depends on knowing those secrets which can only be unfolded by the teachers. This is how the creation of ‘schooled mind’ begins where everything the teacher says in the class becomes the bible for the pupil. They don’t question it, and, instead, internalises the value that teacher is sole source of knowledge.
Once talking to a Nursery kid, I realised how deeply it was ingrained in the thought process of the little one that his Ma’am( Nursery Teacher) was the sole source of ‘The Correct Knowledge’. My everyday lived experience with my child helps me to reflect on the practical role of the formal agency of socialization (here it is schooling) and how it shapes the child in the formative age. Everyday engagement in the school set up restricts the child’s thinking. In the schooled world the road to happiness, said Illich, is measured with the consumer’s index. There are various rituals in the processes of schooling which converts the index into measurable facts. The child being a blank slate (Tabula Rasa) gets shaped by this without even being aware about its limitations. It acts as a self fulfilling prophecy for the child, and he eventually forgets about his own creativity and tries to visualise himself the way the teacher or the institution reflects back upon him. It reminds me of C.H.Cooley’s theory of ‘Looking Glass Self’:
“I am not what I think I am.
I am not what you think I am.
I am what I think, you think I am.”
The result is the development of a ‘Schooled Mind’, and the student thinks of the world as a pyramid of classified packages which are only available to those who carry the proper tags. Thus, the idea of hierarchy, progress, tags and consumption is legitimised by school, and the child internalises it through the medium of the teachers. Thus by producing students fit for the society, schools eliminate the others who do not match up to the standards written by various indexes and parameters. Teachers are the sole owners who decide on these parameters. As a custodian, the teacher acts as a master of ceremonies, and guides the students to follow the rituals. As a preacher, the teacher indoctrinates the pupil about‘ right’ and ‘wrong’, as a ‘therapist’ the teacher enters the personal life of the child.
For all these problems, Illich claims that it is time for us to debunk the existing structure and replace it with some alternative model which he terms as ‘Learning Web’. ‘Learning Web’ acts a mutual aid where everyone builds upon with the knowledge and experience they have and share it with others. Thus it acts as a new form of educational institution which is not rigid and regimented; rather here is a space where one is free to choose, to be reflective and these shared experiences create a new reality. Illich argues that a good educational institution should have few purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at anytime in their lives; it should empower all of them who want to share their knowledge and find those who want to learn from them; and finally it should create opportunities for those who want to present an issue to the public to make their arguments known. As most of one’s learning in life begins informally and the initial stages of one’s life are very crucial to build the ‘base’, institutionalised schooling creates a hindrance to the process of ‘true learning’. All this doesn’t mean that Illich is against standards or quality learning, rather it’s quit opposite of that. He is rigorously demanding for quality education, but he is also arguing that credentials are not in any way a reliable measure to know who does have or doesn’t have the ability and talent. The inherent problem with institutionalised schooling is that it enforces the belief that learning can only happen in the domain of schooling and one cannot attempt it at home. This kind of system further creates packaging of instruction with some kind of ‘certification’. Certification in today’s time has become a “Social Fact” leding to licensing of the educators. Schools which should supposedly create equal opportunities and give the space for self- fulfilment have actually hierarchized and divided the society into various strata. By saying this, Illich envisions a better way where learning happens spontaneously without any rigid boundaries and hierarchy. He believes that people from all ages should be free to choose on what they want to learn and when they don’t want to learn. Such kind of system can be developed through some constitutional guarantee and also by ensuring that students are not blindly complying with the curriculum given to them. He proposed that informal education could be supported by the following four services:
- Reference services to educational objects which help in getting access to things or processes which are being used as a part of formal learning such as libraries, laboratories, museums, theatres etc.
- Skill based exchanges which allow people to list their skills and the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills.
- Peer group learning that allows learners to meet others interested in studying the same subject—a kind of communication web which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.
- A database of educators available for assistance, which is a kind of directory giving addresses and self-description of the professionals and freelancers along with the detailing of how to access their services.
This sort of of de-institutionalisation would also end the mistaken notion that learning can only happen in schools.
For example, if someone has to repair a pipe in the washroom, he/she will call a plumber and he/ she will not ask for his certificates and degrees and definitely will not judge him on his grades he has obtained during the schooling. The most important criteria would be whether he has the necessary skills carrying out that act.
While sensitizing us towards the alternative education system, he is hopeful about the rebirth of an Epimethean Man. He contrasts a world which pre-dated classical Greece with the world of classical Greece wherein we comply to fit into the institutions to get predictable results, a world typically managed by expectations. In our times we are compelled to believe that we need external institutions for our survival. However, Illich tries to liberate us from this pathetic dependence on this formal institutionalised structure. He advocated participation in meaningful settings which don’t create an abstract intellectual barrier. Much like Buddha’s belief in self- responsibility, Illich too gave tremendous importance to it, and sought to dispel the illusions conditioned by the institutionalised learning.
While searching for an alternative, it is very important to open up possibilities for human abilities and sensitize them from the beginning. The need of the hour is ‘institutional revolution’ to enable free formation of the individuals which is only possible by deschooling. Life, according to Illich should be ‘convivial’; it should be lived in a joyous collaboration with friends and others. ‘Convivial’ way of learning will ensure creativity because the tools of learning will be in the hands of the people and not in the institutions per se. Sadly, it’s over forty five years; Illich is yet to ignite many minds as the same educational system persists. It is unfortunate for us that even in the 21st century our educational system is dogged to believe that one can force millions of unique minds into identical schools, where they are taught the identical curriculum and follow the identical schedule. However, as I am reflecting on him today, I am not hopeless as his faith was bestowed upon the ‘emergent minority’ ,who are critical about the institutionalised cultures and who are willing to keep hope above expectations, who love humans more than products. Now the time has come for a profound revolution; it is crucial to ask whether teachers and parents can develop new modes of interaction with their children that are more developmentally sensitive to the unique needs of each child. Can schools provide students with the tools and resources for living more integrated lives with the community and with the planet? According to a growing array of progressive and humanistic alternatives, the answer to both these questions, I feel, is “Yes!” Thus, the deschooling of society would open up a field of potentialities of which humans are previously not aware; it would possibly carve out the space for creativity.
To quote the feeling of a teacher searching for alternatives:
Sometimes I wonder education has lost its voice,
Did it happen by accident or did we give it a choice?
Too often we lose our creativity in search of one answer,
This plague is like an epidemic, it’s spreading like cancer.
A solution at the back of the book isn’t how the world works.
Don’t forget that each person should radiate all their sparks.
How can we look at standardization to create test?
Paper and pencil isn’t going to prepare you for life’s quests.
Think about the solutions in the real world,
It is thinking outside the box that makes things unfurl.
It is important to ignite the young mind,
We don’t want education to be loose and blind.
Sometimes we feel we have a line and we need to toe it,
‘Creativity’ is the greatest human virtue, we need to grow it!
This article is published in The New Leam, NOVEMBER-DECEMBER Issue( Vol.2 No.16-17) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at firstname.lastname@example.org
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