Damning critique of role and nature of schooling in modern Western societies

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Dhu al-Qa'dah 17, 1436 2003-09-01

Book Review

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 13, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1436)

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd., London, 2002 (first published in 1971 by Calder and Boyars). Pp. 116. Pbk. £8.95.

Rid society of school? The proposition Ivan Illich makes in Deschooling Society may seem preposterous, even treasonous, to many. How can we live without school? Where will our children go? What will they do about jobs? When will they learn the heritage of their civilization? Civic values? Literacy and numeracy? Such reactions only prove what Illich asserts: we are addicted to schooling. This addiction is so great that it seems impossible to challenge its existence and practice.

But is it really so very difficult to imagine society without school? After all, modern schooling is less than a century old in most parts of the world, and a little over a century old in its birthplaces in Europe and America. Before modern schooling, people in different times and places found various ways to answer all these questions, ways that were meaningful in their own cultural, historical and social milieu. Young people learned language, religion, cultural values and social responsibility by living life. Craftsmen learned trades by practising them with those who had more experience. Education was casual and informal yet sufficiently rigorous, and was part of life, which was a life of learning. That education was not separate from the life of families and societies.

As many historians have pointed out, modern schooling arose with other institutions of modern society, first in the West and then around the globe with colonialism. Schools, prisons, hospitals, asylums, armies and other institutions of modern society are all of the same mindset. They are places of social control and conformity to orders; they are places where others decide what is to be done, when and for how long; they are places that create, in Illich’s words, a "schooled society": a society of people who expect lifelong subservience to a system that is beyond their reach or influence.

At the core of Illich’s analysis of the schooled society lies consumerism: not the narrow form of consumerism that proliferates in shopping malls today, but the broader idea of consumerism, that people can no longer think or do things for themselves, that they are addicted to consuming ideas, habits, practices, as well as products, from professional producers. Such a society is one that has ceased to think for itself, and has ceased to be creative; Illich would say that it has even ceased to be human. The schooled society can only do one thing: seek more schooling. While this may benefit the bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians that control modern societies, its benefits for the rest of us are dubious and, in Illich’s view, downright alienating, even destructive.

The commonest defense of schooling is that it prepares one for the world of work. Yet the irony of this defense is that school in most modern societies has become a holding zone for those unable to find employment or who are unemployable, which in the end is only a way of deferring the inevitable condition of joblessness. Even those who ‘succeed’ do so only at the expense of their peers. So, if jobs are scarce at graduation – while remaining the main reason for schooling – then why submit children to twelve years or more of schooling? Can we not put our heads together, support one another, and heed Illich’s call to find another way? Our inability to do so may only prove his point.

Illich describes the schooled pupil as one who is made to "confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new." A schooled imagination will "accept service in place of value," and for a schooled mind "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." In a schooled society, "health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor 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 resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question." The end result is the "institutionalization of values."

One of the founding myths of the schooled society is the modern idea of ‘childhood,’ with childhood being defined as a set age-group that receives appropriate institutional treatment. But, as Illich suggests, "if there were no age-specific and obligatory learning institutions "childhood" would go out of production. The youth of rich nations would be liberated from its destructiveness, and poor nations would cease attempting to rival the childishness of the rich." In the end, "if society were to outgrow its age of childhood, it would have to become livable for the young. The present disjunction between an adult society which pretends to be humane and a school environment which mocks reality could no longer be maintained." Contrary to the institutional wisdom that more treatment is the best solution to a problem, the deschooled society will need less school, not more.

For Illich school is a large-scale initiation rite into institutional society, with university as its climax. Despite some benefits of relatively free thought and association, "the American university has become the final stage of the most all-encompassing initiation rite the world has ever known," and only those who have been schooled into the myth of consumerism are given its privileges. Of course, all societies have rites and rituals, but the rite of the American university, and its global clones, "is the first which has needed a dull, protracted, destructive, and expensive initiation into its myth." In Illich’s view, "the contemporary world civilization is also the first one which has found it necessary to rationalize its fundamental initiation ritual in the name of education." But Illich believes that reform of such a system is futile, "unless we first understand that neither individual learning nor social equality can be enhanced by the ritual of schooling." Modernity simply "cannot go beyond the consumer society unless we first understand that obligatory public schools inevitably reproduce such a society, not matter what is taught in them."

Illich amply deconstructs institutional society, yet this is not the end of his work: it is only a means to an end. He believes that "a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume – a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment." Toward this end, he outlines several ways in which "the future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies," so that personal growth can replace addiction.

One way to do this is to create "learning webs." In a chapter on this topic he attempts to show that "the inverse of school is possible: that we can depend on self-motivating learning instead of employing teachers to bribe or compel the student to find the time and the will to learn; that we can provide the learner with new links to the world instead of continuing to funnel all educational programs through the teacher." After addressing possible objections against such a system, Illich outlines the characteristics of new formal educational institutions: "a good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known."

These few quotes give an idea of the author’s perspective, but they only scratch the surface of what he is trying to accomplish: a prospectus that goes far beyond merely reforming or disestablishing school. Since its first publication (1971), Deschooling Society has informed many important efforts at scholarship and activism around the world, all aimed at creating more humane societies and awakening people from the slumber of consumerism. When first encountering this work, many readers have found that Illich has given voice to what they felt as students: that uneasy, often unspoken feeling of being trapped, as if imprisoned, taking orders from people who were forcing them to study things that were irrelevant to their lives and interests. Perhaps Deschooling Society can help a new generation to recognize institutional addictions, and their own condition of being schooled, and perhaps it can even inspire them to find ways of living a full life of learning without schooling.

Despite efforts to develop Islamic education, the schooling to which Muslims subject themselves and their children is largely of the same kind as all other forms of schooling, secular or religious. This is because all the formative economic, political, and social debates of the past century – communism versus capitalism, conservatism versus liberalism, globalism versus nationalism – accept the basic premise that universal schooling is required for a healthy and prosperous society.

Despite interminable discussions on the content and process of schooling, few people question its necessity. Those who question school usually do so on religious grounds and opt instead for "home-schooling," which removes children from the social setting of school but which often provides many of the curricular components of modern schooling at home, the assumption remaining that schooling is necessary to get jobs, or to get into college for a better job later.

Deschooling Society offers a radically different perspective on the necessity of schooling, and it should be essential reading for Muslims truly concerned about the education of their children, as well as for Muslim youth who are feeling alienated from schooling. It may also help Muslims to create a sense of solidarity with others, because it is important for us to remember that schooling is a common pathology of modernity that has become virtually ubiquitous in all human societies.

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