Deschooling Society

Two ideas are very much in my mind. For one of them, I've drawn very heavily on the thought of writer Ivan Illich. (His work appears in the New York Review of Books. cf. "Why We Must Abolish Schooling," 2 July 1970, pp. 9-15.) lllich says we must deschool society. My own way of putting it, which is not very different, but tactically helpful, is to say that we must dissolve the schools back into society. They seem to me to have precipitated or congealed—a little like a lump in a cream-of-wheat—and the thing we have to do is stir them back into the mix, so to speak. (I was once asked "Why spend all this time talking about improving the schools? We ought to close them down." I said, "No, no,that's not quite the way to put it—we ought to open them up.")

One of the things I've learned in part from Illich—and in part from other sources; Paul Goodman has also been a great influence on my thinking—is that very recently in historical time, mostly within the past century, and mostly with—in the past half century, our society and, with,the possible exception of Tanzania, every country in the world, has done a most remarkable thing. We have locked up learning in schools. To put it another way, we have defined education (or learning) as schooling. We have decided as a matter of social policy to measure people's education, their learning, their competence, and their job-worthiness almost entirely in terms of the amount and the fanciness of schooling that they've been able to consume. And every country in the world, as I've said, with the possible exception of Tanzania, because they're too poor to do it, has taken this step. It is a disaster. 

Let me paraphrase Illich. He points out that defining education as schooling has a number of very horrible consequences. One is that we make it so expensive that most people in the world cannot now afford it, and at not time in the foreseeable future will they be able to afford it. We have created a permanent shortage. He (Illich) first came upon this awareness when thinking about the underdeveloped countries—his interest has been very much in Latin America—and he has done a lot of investigating into their educational policies. He discovered that they were spending enormous portions of their national budget on education. But since all this was being funneled into schools, it had the second effect that whatever public money a country decided to invest in public education, it was almost invested entirely in the schooling of the children who could stay longest in school. And naturally those were the children of the rich. We have the situation in these poor countries that children of the rich have very much more public money invested in their schooling than the average poor child. The difference, the discrepancies are staggering.

In most South American countries this discrepency between the amount of public money that gets invested in a kid who comes out (so to speak) at the top of the educational machine and the average of kids at the bottom is on the order of 350 to 1. In one country, Bolivia, the ratio is 1500 to 1. So that's another consequence of defining education as schooling—you put it out of the reach of most people, and the people whose reach you put it into are the people who are most privileged anyway.

There's no greater myth than the one that increased schooling is somehow a great social equalizer or leveler. There probably has never been a more powerful instrument for maintaining the class system or power structure in any country than the schoolrooms.

lllich also notes that the position of schools in modern society is very much like that of the church in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. It has that kind of universal grip on people's imaginations. And not since the Church has there been an institution which had this "power" to cast people out and then make them think that it was their own fault. He points out that most underdeveloped countries have passed compulsory schooling laws—Brazil is an example—which make school attendance required up to the age of 16. Half of the children of Brazil do not even enter the second grade, because there is no second grade for them to enter. The most optimistic social planners in Brazil cannot foresee any time within the next generation when they will have schools for even as many as one-fourth of their children. Yet there is a compulsory legal obligation to attend!

To quote lllich again, the one thing schools really teach, all over the world, and they teach it to everybody—is the superiority of the schooled over the unschooled. So all these people who in their own eyes are dropouts, all the .people who have failed to take advantage as they see it of a legal opportunity, a legal obligation, can then blame themselves. So you can see, we have here an instrument which can separate society into chiefs and braves, sheep and goats, high and low—an instrument which can effectively condemn the vast majority of society to a kind of permanent inferiority and convince them it is their own fault. It's a superb defuser of political, or revolutionary, or change-making potential. It's marvelous if you get people to say in this country, "If I'd been smarter, if I'd done more work in school, I'd have had a chance for a good job.'' 

Defining education as schooling—making it so expensive that no country can afford as much of it as its citizens want, or think they need, or are trained to think they need-is that it is not only true of the poor countries, it is true of every country, including the richest country, which happens to be our own country. lllich looked at some statistics on these matters that have been collected from independent sources that in the last year for which we have figures (1969). indicated this country spent on public elementary and secondary education something to the order of $36 billion. As we all know, this money was very unevenly distributed between the children of the rich and the children of the poor. To have provided equal resources in terms of building, equipment, teachers' salaries, and all of this kind of thing—to have provided equal educational resources would have cost somewhere on the order of $80 billion. Projected figures for 1975 are that we will spend about $45 billion and that to get equal resources for all children we would have to spend a little over $100 billion. These figures did not take into account the costs of college or graduate education, which are much more expensive per pupil and for which the demand is rising even more rapidly. 

What sort of adjuctments do we have to make to these figures? Well, the total educational budget for 1969 is about $70 billion, which is about twice the figure that was being quoted for elementary and secondary education. The inequality of resources is even greater at the college and university level, so I think you could say that if you had provided equal resources at the elementary, secondary, and university levels for all our people in 1969, it would have cost something on the order of $130, $140, or $150 billion. In 1975 we would have to spend on the order of $200 billion.

We aren't going to spend that kind of money. There's no possibility; you read about the taxpyer revolts, the alumni revolts, the bond failures. We know something about the kind of trouble private colleges are in and the kind of problems State universities are having with their legislatures. The people have come very close to the limit of what they are willing to spend on schooling. We have created a situation in which the demand vastly outruns the supply. It has to, it can't possibly be otherwise.

The struggle between social groups and classes, and racial and other minorities, for these ARTIFICIALLY scarce educational resources is one of the most bitter, divisive, corrosive, and inherently insoluable problems we've got.

This is part of what is in my mind when I say that we have to think about I deschooling society, about breaking up this definition of learning as schooling. But there is still a further consequence of defining education as schooling, which even lllich has not written about. We've generated a race for the competitive consumption of schooling. 

Now the competitive consumption of anything leads to fairly ridiculous results—preposterous or dangerous might be better words. Our I competitive consumption of automobiles has led us we can all see where. But there is at least this much to be said for competitive consumption of automobiles—if I had a car and my neighbor down the street bought a bigger and fancier and longer and more expensive car my car would not die of jealousy in the driveway or become any lesser a car because somebody else had a bigger one.

But this isn't true of schooling. If you have a certain quantity of schooling, let's say a high school diploma, every time somebody else gets a high school diploma, the value of yours goes down. Every time somebody gets more schooling (a bachelor's degree or whatever), the value of your high school diploma goes down even further. When your neighbor buys a Porsche, however, your Ford does not cease to work well. Education we see is different.

When everybody gets a particular academic credential, the value of that ticket-credential-piece of paper, the cash-in value goes to zero. I came to my office today on the MTA from Boston and saw this sigh, one of the "Finish high school," signs, the "Stay in school, get a good job" kind of thing. If they ever get that message across, and everybody really does stay in school and everybody gets a high school diploma, a high school diploma will be worth just what an elementary school diploma is worth—i.e., nothing.

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  • SIV||


    Holt riffin' off of Illich...


    Welch and KM-W mommyblogging about how hard it is to get their kids into the right preschool.

    Would you buy that for a quarter?

  • Libertarian Money||

    "children's citizenship" I love that way of phrasing it.

    For years children have been losing more and more of their rights. It is about time people started to recognize it.

    I know plenty of children that can out think a college graduate. Sadly, that's not a joke.

  • Robert||

    Excellent stuff.

  • ||

    It's a very basic economic principle that if you increase collectivity/"equality", you decrease efficiency and value. It's too bad the fundamental educational and political theology parasitically operates on the antithesis of this

  • Mstmompj||

    "We have not yet got to the point where we say 'You can't have a driver's license, or you can't take the driver's test, unless you're a certified graduate of a certified driver-training school.' If you can learn to drive your car in a pasture somewhere, or get your second cousin's brother-in-law or some guy down the street to show you how to drive the car, nobody cares how you learn to do it, as long as you learn to do it."

    Yes, we have, sadly, gotten to that point. In Texas, purely parent-taught driving is now unavailable. Even 18- to 24-year-olds are required to take a 6-hour state-approved driving course (though they don't have the same requirement as the under-18s for state-approved behind-the-wheel driving lessons--yet.)


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