Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich: a book review

“Once a value becomes institutionalised, that is, learning comes to mean ‘getting credentials’, that constitutes a dangerous misconception in society. Namely, that process rather than substance is the way to solve problems. The alleged problem of a lack of education is, in this scheme of things, not solved through the growth of knowledge, but by schooling.”
– Arjun Khemani


“All over the world the school has an anti-educational effect on society…”

– Ivan Illich, 1971, Deschooling Society, Chapter 1: Why We Must Disestablish School, p. 8”

Why is learning primarily thought of in the context of the school—a particular kind of institution, with a very specific form and organisational structure? How can there be essentially one educational path for all children? What are schools really for? Is there another way to learn? Do schools promote learning at all?

In his best-known and widely quoted book, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich presents a radical critique of the role and practice of school. He also suggests an alternative means by which people could learn without school, that he calls “learning webs”. Illich describes school as an institution built on an obligatory curriculum based on the assumption that there is “a secret to everything in life; that the equality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly succession; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets.” (ibid., Chapter 6: Learning Webs, p. 76) Illich saw that the school system is based on entirely false assumptions and saw its purpose as the manipulation of society.

At the very start of the book Illich explains why we must disestablish not just the school system, but the mentality of schooling and being schooled that is ubiquitous throughout society (hence “deschooling society”). Once learning is confused with being taught—or as Illich calls it, the blurring of “process and substance”—then people start seeing schooling as education. As Illich writes:

“Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. 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. 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. 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.” (ibid., Chapter 1: Why We Must Disestablish School, p. 1)

Once a value becomes institutionalised, that is, learning comes to mean ‘getting credentials’, that constitutes a dangerous misconception in society. Namely, that process rather than substance is the way to solve problems. The alleged problem of a lack of education is, in this scheme of things, not solved through the growth of knowledge, but by schooling. Hence instinctively the “schooled” mind equates a lack of education to a lack of schools, and a lack of quality education to a lack of good schools. Illich writes:

“School teaches us that instruction produces learning. The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling. Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all nonprofessional activity is rendered suspect. In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.” (ibid., Chapter 3: Ritualization of Progress, pp. 38-39)

But that conclusion of the schooled mind rests on an unquestioned premise: that schooling promotes learning, and that without schooling, there is no learning. Schooling then becomes an obligation whose educational value may not be questioned.

“School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching.”, writes Illich. “And institutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” (ibid., Chapter 2: Phenomenology of School, p. 28) Illich notes that learning is actually almost never the result of teaching but that “…it is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.”:

“Most people learn best by being ‘with it,’ yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.” (ibid., Chapter 3: Ritualization of Progress, p. 39)

The method of teaching in schools assumes that the students learn by way of absorbing whatever information is fed into them. But as Karl Popper said (Objective Knowledge, 1972, 1979, Appendix 1: The Bucket and the Searchlight: Two Theories of Knowledge, pp. 341-361) “the bucket theory of the mind” is a misconception, and I think Illich would rather appreciate Popper’s stance that we learn actively through conjecture and criticism, rather than passively through allegedly authoritative knowledge being poured in by teachers. Learning is not an act of memorization or reproduction of knowledge. It is an act of understanding and utilising knowledge.

Illich is scathing not just about academic schooling but about the teaching of trades and crafts:

“Skill teachers are made scarce by the belief in the value of licenses. Certification constitutes a form of market manipulation and is plausible only to a schooled mind. Most teachers of arts and trades are less skillful, less inventive, and less communicative than the best craftsmen and tradesmen.” (ibid., Chapter 1: Why We Must Disestablish School, p. 15)

And he points out the paradox of the authoritarian school system being held up as essential preparation for the individual freedom of modern liberal society:

“The claim that a liberal society can be founded on the modern school is paradoxical. The safeguards of individual freedom are all canceled in the dealings of a teacher with his pupil.” (ibid., Chapter 2: Phenomenology of School, p. 31)

Almost every student realises this from personal experience. My friends explicitly wish each other “happy independence day!” after leaving the room where they wrote the last of their mid-term examinations. There is no such thing as individual freedom in school. It is taken away and in its place is the absurd idea that lack of freedom promotes excellence and self-discipline. Of course schools don’t take children seriously! Children taken seriously are as unlikely to choose to institutionalise themselves in a stultifying authoritarian institution as are adults.

As Illich writes:

“School groups people according to age. This grouping rests on three unquestioned premises. Children belong in school. Children learn in school. Children can be taught in school.” (ibid., Chapter 2: Phenomenology of School, p. 26)

School lures the whole of society into believing that learning is the product of schooling. To the schooled mind, this is not open to question.

“Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But, this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher.” (ibid., Chapter 2: Phenomenology of School, p. 28)

“School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.” (ibid., Chapter 7: Rebirth of Epimethean Man, p. 113)

The structured nature of formal education suggests to the schooled mind that learning ends when one leaves school. But as John Holt said, we are “learning all the time”. (John Holt, 1985, Learning All The Time) Learning is as natural to human beings as breathing.

Then why must we make education coercive, as in the school system?

Logic tells that curiosity and creativity can take you places where the unimaginative, rigid structure of school never could. Imagine a society free of the schooled mentality, with networks that would allow curiosity and creativity to flourish. What would this fantasy of an unschooled society look like? A schooled mindset craves a straightforward path to an approved result. But life isn’t like that. You try many things in life and do more of what works. You work on things that are interesting rather than prestigious and you follow the path as it unfolds. Why do we need a distinction between education and the real world when the former is but a part of that reality?

What is Illich’s idea of a better way to go about learning?

The alternative:

“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.” (Ivan Illich, 1971,Deschooling Society, Chapter 6: Learning Webs, p. 75)

According to Illich, a good educational system “must not start with the question, ‘What should someone learn?’ but with the question, ‘What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?’” (ibid., Chapter 6: Learning Webs, pp. 77-78)

This alternative, Illich suggests, consists of education through a “learning web” made up of a network of important relationships. It has four key components:

1. “Reference Services to Educational Objects—which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories, and showrooms like museums and theaters; others can be in daily use in factories, airports, or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off hours.”

2. “Skill Exchanges—which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.”

3. “Peer-Matching—a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.”

4. “Reference Services to Educators-at-Large—who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and freelancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators, as we will see, could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.”

(ibid., Chapter 6: Learning Webs, pp. 78-79)

The basis of these components is that learning is tied with the individual. It is up to the individual to seek the skills and learning he or she desires, and up to the individual to share the skills and knowledge that he or she may have. Knowledge need not need a certified teacher to share it. And we must allow for the “unhampered participation in a meaningful setting” and let people learn simply “by being with it”. (ibid., Chapter 3: Ritualization of Progress, p. 39)

The Internet, with its instant access to millions of knowledgeable people and online resources, is surely far better than Illich’s learning webs idea. So it is puzzling that Illich was opposed to it. There are countless videos and tutorials online on YouTube, millions of articles, blog posts, journals and newsletters, entire libraries of books in searchable digital form, specialised discussion forums in which knowledgeable people freely share their knowledge, and in which deep ideas can be discussed, criticised and improved. Yet instead of embracing the Internet as the incredible learning resource it is, parents and teachers try to deny children access to it in favour of making them participate in the mindless anti-educational drudgery of school.

There are some strange ideas in the book, which we could criticise, such as Illich’s politics and the fact that he did not approve of roads, but they are not germane here, and they do not negate the sound arguments he makes against schooling or his proposal that we adopt a model of education in which knowledge and skills are transmitted through networks of voluntary relationships.

See also:

Arjun Khemani, 2022, ‘Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich: a book review’,

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