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.) Illich says we must deschool society. My own way of putting it, wihch 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 within 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 tunneled 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 discrepancy 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.

Illich 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 Illich 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. Illich 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 on 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 adjustments 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 1 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 taxpayer 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 insoluble problems we've got.

This is part of what is in my mind when I say that we have to think about 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 Illich 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 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 sign, 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.

So let's put up a whole lot of new signs—"Go to college, get a good job" and spend $200 billion so that everybody can in fact go to college. If we can persuade all the young people in the country—which seems most unlikely—to put up with four more years of what they put up with, so that everybody finally gets a bachelor's degree, that will become worthless. It's not worth too much right now—as some of you may have found out who got one recently. There are already people, have been for a couple of years, talking about the need for a post-PhD degree because the PhD degree doesn't mean anything anymore.

That process can go on forever. As fast as we get everybody one academic credential, get them up one step of the pyramid, we're going to build new pyramids on top of that. It's the rat-race to end all rat-races.

There are some other anomalies of schooling. We have attached to or dropped on our schools three functions: one of them you might call education. This people would define differently, and they would have different opinions about how you get it or what you do to get it. It has something to do with human growth and development—people get "smarter," they know more, they understand more, they can do things better, they become more perceptive; it is growth of human potential. Maybe not everybody, but a great many people in schools are reasonably committed to this. Growth is one of the things they want to have happen.

But we've got two other functions in our schools. One of them, if you want to be polite, you can call the custodial function; if you want to be blunt, you can call it the jail function. The point is the same either way. There are very large numbers of people in our society who do not want young people "hanging around." Mothers want them out of the house, merchants want them off the streets and out of their stores, workers want them off the job market; so we need a place to put them.

We put them in places called schools. Up to a certain point, we do this with compulsory attendance laws, and we hope that by the "release" age they will all be so hooked on the superiority of the schooled over the unschooled that sheer greed or fear or anxiety will keep them in a little longer. In other words, that they'll stay in the cell even after we've unlocked the door.

The third function of schools is one that follows in the line of that infamous Selective Service director we had a few years ago, what you might call "channeling," or "grading", or "labeling," or you might call it "sorting"—at any rate, the schools have become the principal mechanism for deciding who goes where in society and deciding who gets what.

This is a recent development.

I don't say a society anything like what we have now in the world can avoid such mechanisms, but the point is that, until fairly recently, these mechanisms were not in the schools. As Paul Goodman has pointed out, at the turn of the century only about six percent of our young people finished high school and about a quarter of one percent went to college. That means that this country, which even then was a very scientific, technical, and industrial society (hard as that may be to believe), this country was largely run by what we now call dropouts. There were other ways of learning all the things that people had to know in order to make a society like that go, and there were other ways that society decided who was going to do this, who was going to do that, who was going to get good jobs and not so good jobs, or make a lot of money, or make very little money. This function, this channeling, sorting, grading, labeling, function, has been dropped on the schools.

Now the point I'm coming to here is that the first of these three functions, which a very large majority of people involved with the schools really do believe in—education—is absolutely opposed, incompatible, and irreconcilable with the other two. You cannot do the first and the second and the third in the same place. You cannot make schools into jails and expect them to be places where much human growth can occur. And you can't get very much in the way of human development in a place where you're constantly sticking "winner" labels and "loser" labels on people.

When you turn education into a race, which is essentially what we do, you have to have many more losers than winners. That's how races work. We really have to award a hundred loser labels in our schools for every winner label we put on. The trouble with putting loser labels on people is that they begin to feel like losers, and think like losers, and act like losers, and human growth stops. There is no way to change that, except to get out of the labeling business. I'd really like to see schools and universities get out of the diploma/credential-granting business altogether. A society that has needs for tests of skill should have them at the place the skill or competence is to be used.

The difference I think is put very simply this way. We require people to pass a drivers' test in order to get a driver's license. Fair enough. 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. This, in a nutshell, is the situation that people like Illich and Goodman and myself are interested in. A situation in which it's what you know that's important, not where or how you learned it.

Now the other idea that is very much in the forefront of my mind is a goal, or an ideal, which is even more remote than what I've been talking about. Let me make here a distinction between what I call goals and what I call tactics. What I mean by goals is simply the way I would have things if I could have them any way I wanted. Ideals—visions. Of course I can't have things as I want them, neither can anybody else; we're all more or less boxed in by circumstance. The problem then is, beginning where we are, hemmed in as we are, how we get from where we are to where we want to go? How do we move in the direction of our goals? These are tactical questions, and some of them are very short range. Others are more distant. People find themselves at different places on the tactical road, so to speak.

Not everybody is tactically where I am in the matter of education, but I'm very interested in talking about how to move down this road, no matter where people are.

In our society, people who talk about goals, or ideals, or visions, or utopias are usually called idealists. As you know, it is not a compliment. If you want to compliment somebody, you call him a realist. Or better yet a hard-headed, even a hard-nosed, realist. A hard-nosed realist says, "I don't mess around with all these vague, woolly, abstract idea kind of stuff, I've got problems to solve. I've got to take these problems as they come, you know. I've got to get things from the 'in' basket to the 'out' basket."

And indeed he does. But you can't be a realist unless you are also an idealist. You can't find sensible solutions to day-to-day problems unless you have some kind of vision or sense of what it is you really want. If I were to say to you, "What's the best road out of Cambridge?" you'd say to me, "Where do you want to go?" If I said, "Oh I don't care where I go, I just want the best road," I can think of a lot of things you might call me. You wouldn't call me a realist. Now our country, indeed our world-wide society (with respect to what seems to me important, there is very little difference between one place and another whatever they may say about what they're doing), society is full of so-called realists—what C. Wright Mills called "crackpot realists." They stagger and lurch from crisis to crisis—do you know enough physics to know what Brownian motion is? Just generally, what mathematicians call "drunkard's walk." I think we have to have goals before we think about tactics.

A long run goal that I've come to believe in is what I call "children's citizenship." I have been catling it "children's liberation" but the word "liberation" seems to me to be kicked around by too many people using it in too many ways—it's already loaded with different connotations, many of them bad, and it's not precise enough anyway. So I like "citizenship" better.

What I am urging is that we abolish the institution of childhood. The fact of childhood, the fact that some people are younger than others and that in the early years of our life we are smaller, more ignorant, more inexperienced, and in many cases, clumsier than we will be later, these are facts of biology and always have been. But the institution of childhood, the decision to divide human life into two quite separate chunks, one called childhood and the other called adulthood, is historically a very recent one. Most cultures never did it, but Western cultures seem to have.

This creation of a kind of artificial, special, supposedly protective (but in fact exploitive) status called childhood is socially, psychologically, and educationally a disaster. We have to admit it. We have to open the door, so to speak, to participation in the society, so that children can go through it if and when they feel ready. Very specifically, I propose and I urge granting children virtually all the rights and privileges and prerogatives and responsibilities and duties which we grant to adults. I favor pushing these down the age ladder as far as we can get them. I want to make available to children—available, mind you—the choice for any and all of the rights which we now think belong only to adults. I mean the right to vote. I mean the right to hold, to buy, or sell property. I mean the right to work, the right to privacy, and the management of one's own life. The right to travel, the right, if you choose to live away from your own family, your blood family. If you need a guardian, the right to choose, on the basis of mutual agreement, one that seems right to you. The right to direct your own learning and your own life.

I want this as a choice. I'm not proposing that every six-year-old be fired out the front door of his house on his birthday, being told, like in a cartoon, "Never darken this door again." I suspect if this option for participation was available, if children could enter adult society as they felt ready to, that many children would stay (although not so long as they are now compelled to) in a state of subservience, dependence, protection. That's OK with me, all I want is that they should have the choice. I do not want to do what we now do, which is to lock every child into a few relationships from which he has absolutely no escape.

And the other thing I would say is this. One of the reasons our schools are in trouble is that we have asked them to do all by themselves what used to be done by culture, by the community, by a great number of people. A kid growing up in a genuine community, in a smaller town or village, was very likely to have relationships of different intensity with ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty older people. He may very well have had around him what we call an "extended family"—aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, second cousins, plus neighbors who would pay varying kinds of attention to him.

It was a whole range and repertory of adults from whom he could draw various kinds of examples, advice, answers to questions, support, and sympathy, consolation, whatever he needed.

These networks—this is an Illichian phrase; he wants to create new kinds of open educational networks in society—have disappeared. What we now have is mom and pop and teacher. And even if mom and pop and teacher are the nicest people in the world, and they really dig this kid, and he really likes them, it is not enough—it is just not enough people. He needs more. And in most cases, they don't like the children that much.

Today if he comes up to some adult he sees working and asks him a question that he wants to have answered, the result is probably, "Go ask your teacher. What are you doing out of school? Go ask your mother. Go on home. Don't bother me, kid." In other words, people have said "OK, children, you are the responsibility of your mother and your father and your teacher and I wash my hands of you." This is what I mean when I say we have loaded onto the schools and the parents a burden which used to be distributed among a much greater number of people and talents. These old networks have disappeared. We hardly have any communities any more, in the sense we once did. The extended family has been destroyed as an institution; it was not young radicals but industrialization that destroyed it. It had been largely destroyed even when I was growing up. I think the only way children are going to find new networks—a chance to make a whole lot of new relationships—is by giving them the freedom to make them. I do not believe we can provide the networks for them. The child has to have a kind of chance that he does not now have for finding his teachers, finding the people who will teach him. And he cannot do this so long as he is locked into these two little boxes—one, the home; the other, the classroom.

John Holt is the author of several outstanding books on education, including How Children Fail, How Children Learn, The Underachieving School, and the recently-released What Do I Do Monday?