Leigh Blackall’s recent post about those systems that manage learning, links to a 1971 essay by Ivan Illich in The New York Review of Books titled “Education Without School: How It Can Be Done.” I’m reading more an more Illich after following an earlier link by Leigh to another Illich piece titled “The Educational enterprise in the Light of the Gospel” from 1988 which is stunning in it’s re-reading of the figure of power in the the most famous temptation of the New Testament as a means to redefine the cultural crimes of institutionalizing the marginalization of the majority of the population through asylums like school.
Here is a taste from his 1988 essay:
Consequences that are implicit in the ideology of the industrial mode of existence, and which by now are taken for granted, were simply not tolerated in 1940 except under the Nazi regime. The use of modern science and technology for the purpose of separating people into masters and slaves was then impossible except under the flags of Hitler or Hirohito. Under a different name this separation is now considered as an inevitable outcome of an educational system, which is part and parcel of the only social reality my contemporaries are able to conceive, which compounds majority status with the sense of failure.
Again and again Illich refers to how institutional education has become a social technology of invidious and disastrous distinction that has become the accepted, if no generally assumed, logic of schools that we not only tolerate, but in many regards embrace, applaud, and increasingly pay a tremendous amount for. We prepare our classes around much the same assumptions, and ultimately prepare our kids for such an experience. And when Illich frames this process in light of the Nazi regime of mechanization and control it initially is not only a shocking comparison, but one which I immediately resist. It’s frightening how deeply our corrupted brokering of ideas of equality and opportunity have been tied up with a process of “separating people into masters and slaves.” The extremity of his critique, and his ability to tie it back into a radical re-reading of the Gospel makes it one of my favorite exegeses on education I’ve read recently. And his sense of a solution does not fall back to an overhaul of leadership, or new strategies for reform, but rather “niches, free spaces, squatters arrangements, spiritual tents” through which we can help one another learn within the context of life, not separated out from it.
And this is where Leigh’s recent link to Illich’s essay in The New York freview of Books seems so appropriate for his critique of the LMS, which is not simply a critique of a specific technology, but rather a critique of the current imagination of the process for learning, a synecdoche wherein this specific tool stands in for the more generalized approach to education. And what’s amazing about Illich’s 1971 essay “Education Without School: How It Can Be Done” is how it outlines the three purposes of a good educational system:
 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. Such a system would require the application of constitutional guarantees to education. Learners should not be forced to submit to an obligatory curriculum; or to discrimination based on whether they possess a certificate or a diploma. Nor should the public be forced to support—through a regressive taxation—a huge professional apparatus of educators and buildings which in fact restrict the public’s chances for learning to the services the profession is willing to put on the market. It should use modern technology to make free speech, free assembly, and a free press truly universal and, therefore, fully educational.
If you take these three purposes of a good educational system, and you graft them onto our current access to tools and resources for this kind of approach it’s remarkable to see that the internet provides us with a remarkably effective, cheap, and scalable platform for experimenting with such a system. But actually attempting this, even imagining it has less to do with the tools (and that was probably equally true in 1971) and everything to do with the psychic difficulty to throw off our mental chains that prevent us from daring to imagine an education without school.
It’s fascinating to me, none of this is new, and what remains is our fear in the face of a very real and powerfully stifling uncertainty.