Education without School?

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:

[1] it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; [2] empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and [3] 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.

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18 Responses to Education without School?

  1. Andrea_r says:


    When I talk to new homeschoolers, the big thing underlying everything is fear. It eventually gives way to the sense the parent is “getting away with something” and finally, a changed mentality.

    Schools as we know then are pretty darn young in terms of history. Remember when it was only a couple hundred years ago when middle & upper class Englishmen were educated at home.

    Please consider also reading The Underground history of American education available in its entirety online.

    And then all the John Holt books you can find.

    I see my job as a homeschooling parent to be the support system, the guide if you will. I provide the tools; they do have the motivation, because they are born learning. We didn’t drive it out of them by forcing “learning” upon them.

    If it is the mountain of books or endless library trips, the tv, the DVDs, or the “hey can we google this?” it does not matter, as we use any tools available freely and without limitation.

  2. Ron says:

    “…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.”

    Yep, that’s the ticket.

    When most discuss education what they do not take into account is the simple example of learning to ride a bike. You can have all the tutorials, examples, illustrations, etc. you want. In the long run, the way a person learns to ride a bike is getting on it and riding it.

  3. Matt says:

    I don’t think I would let a doctor educated in Illich’s system operate on me, or drive across a bridge designed by an engineer that didn’t have some way to prove they knew how to design bridges properly. There are hundreds of examples for this, but my point is where does public accountability come in? Certificates, diplomas, and submitting to an obligatory curriculum is what gives us confidence to trust our lives with “trained professionals”. To me educational without school just might lead us back to the 1700s, when people die from ingrown toenails because the local doctor was just a doctor because he said he knew medicine and that he heard somewhere that amputation was a safe way to fix most problems. After all, for most schools, we are not talking about training people to parse Latin or identify butterflies.

  4. Andrea_r says:

    And today, we are not talking about educating doctors. We’re talking about simple things like learning how to read and become an adult – things you don’t need special training in. Things that most adults shoudl know how to do and should (if they know it well) be able to teach another, regardless of training.

    I’m a long-term homeschool with 4 children. Two of them are grown and out of the house. One went on to college & became a programmer. the other is becoming a graphic artist. Neither one felt impeded in any way.

    I’ve heard the doctor excuse trotted out many times. What people fail to remember is not all doctors graduate at the top of their class. And in my case, and I think Jim;s reason for researching, I’m talking about *children*.

    I live in a province where the trained professionals manage to produce a literacy rate of 60%.

    Yeah, you read that right.

    Need I give any more evidence? How bad to things need to get here?

  5. Ron says:

    “To me educational without school just might lead us back to the 1700s…”

    Yes, that’s the fear that I felt Jim was describing.

  6. Matt says:

    @Andrea – I’m not sure what all you are talking about. I am not all that concerned with home school right now. I used to work at a Sylvan learning center, and we had to teach plenty of dumb-as-dirt home school teens (because where I lived at the time, the literacy rate among home school graduates was less than 50%. Yes, you read that right). I have also seen many brilliant home schooled people. Not sure what that has to do with anything. Many of my friends home school their kids. I have no problem with that.

    In fact, my only problem with home schoolers is that some of them seem to have a chip on their shoulder and they always want to come out swinging at anyone that even remotely questions their sacred cow.

    I live near a district where 90% of the people that come out of public schools are literate. You know what that statistic means? Nothing.

    Today we are talking about educating doctors. When we talk about educating without schools, that includes colleges. In fact, much of the open education movement is aimed squarely at getting rid of colleges.

    Jim mentions LMSs. I forget the exact statistics, but the LMS is a tool that is mostly used at the college and adult education level. Also, when Illich speaks of degrees and diplomas, you don’t give those to children for learning to read. You give those to high school and college graduates as “proof” that they are trained in a particular topic. So, in my opinion, we are talking about doctors here.

    Especially when Illich says things like “any time in their lives” – that would mean we are not just talking about children here.

  7. Matt says:

    “Yes, that’s the fear that I felt Jim was describing.”

    So, questioning something = fear? Hmmmm….. No way it could be a rational criticism?

  8. Ron says:

    @Jim – Thanks for the opportunity to talk about our experience with both traditional schooling and educating at home. The comments have quickly devolved into a conversation Andrea & I have had too many times to count.

    @Matt – “So, questioning something = fear? Hmmmm….. No way it could be a rational criticism?”

    You didn’t ask or pose a question. You made a statement that your concern (i.e fear) was that homeschooling might lead us back to the 1700s.

    If you had used the verb “will” instead of “might”, some might consider your original statement a criticism. In the world I grew up in, arguing in favor of or in opposition to something based on what one feels is a possible outcome doesn’t qualify as criticism.

    Rational? To be honest with you, no, I don’t believe that your concern is a result of a thorough rational evaluation the subject.

  9. Jim, just quickly – thanks for entering into it. I REALLY want our network to look into Illich ideas, find the links to contemporary interpretations, and think about how we can develop education using technology that will enable an Illich idea to grow. OER seems to be one way, using popular social media, and dumping the LMS that – along with a long list of things, prevents search engines finding it and deep linking.

    On the usual doctor, pilot, engineers point… actually, I would trust a doctor who learns this way. I’ve met a few who learned what they know in war zones and aid work stations.. the foundational knowledge (they say) could be learned by anyone anywhere. Apprentices, yep – eventually I trust them too.. many say going to tech to learn is a waste of time. Many technical colleges around my way are simply assessing people’s knowledge and skills. How they learned and where becomes a non issue, so long as they can demonstrate their skills.

    If more of our institutions thought about this and more, we might be able to readily embrace, assess and even give public accountability to things like alternative building, some of those wild sustainability ideas, transition economics, permaculture and all the other things waiting to be endorsed by the “education” system.

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  11. Matt says:

    @Leigh – my father-in-law is a doctor. I know many doctors. The key word in what you say is “few”. A few doctors have learned that way. But also few doctors only use foundational knowledge. Most of them have to choose an area to specialize in and spend years perfecting specific procedures. I want a doctor who operates on my brain to have learned the right way to do that from an actual apprenticeship, not YouTube. And yes, I did read someone once that argued you could learn neurosurgery from watching YouTube. Also, I live near a technical school that gets praises from all its graduates on how practice and hands-on the teaching there is.

    When you say this: “How they learned and where becomes a non issue, so long as they can demonstrate their skills.” Where are they going to demonstrate their skills? Would you be willing to be the first one to hire an electrician to demonstrate his skills on your house for the first time? You say that you would “eventually” trust apprentices. Someone has to trust them first. I’m not saying I am against open education. I am just saying that no one is addressing these issues. They just write off these concerns without giving practical examples. Consumers will need practical examples before they will hire people that haven’t been through a traditional system. We are not talking about people being confident in their own skills. We are talking about society itself accepting this new paradigm, managers hiring people that were educated in this new system. I can’t tell you how many managers I have talked to that won’t hire home-schooled people. “Just because Mommy said they can do Math doesn’t mean they really can” is a very, very common reason given. As of now, the “educational system” is the only place that will trust these apprentices first and then given them some kind of proof that they know what they are doing.

    We have to realize that most colleges do not really see their mission as just teaching people. They see it as preparing students for the work place – to either be hired or to be able to support themselves by starting their own deal. I am not saying that diplomas and certificates and curriculum plans are working wonderfully in all cases – I am saying that the general public still sees those as some kind of proof. That is public accountability.

    @Ron – the “world you live in”? If you stop for a second, you might notice the world is not revolving around you. In my world, if I use the word “will” instead of “might”, that would show that I am closed-minded and think that my way is the only way. I use the word “might” to show that I am just raising an issue, not expounding on my entire theology. I would encourage you to quit being so judgmental – it will shut down truly rational people from listening to what you have to say. They will label you as emotional and judgmental.

    Overall, I have a problem with anyone that believes that there is only one right way to educate ALL children and adults. I can line up hundreds of testimonies of people that started out as home-school children and failed miserably. Their parents got so frustrated that they stuck them in public schools. And to their surprise, the structure, competition, and social interactions in public schools actually helped their children to turn their lives around and go on to become successful doctors, lawyers, etc. We seem to forget in all these statistics about how bad schools are that these are statistics – averages, numbers. But there are other sides to these numbers, the kids that do great in public schools, the public schools that have high success rates, the people that say they actually loved high school. Are these people just supposed to go to hell because the way that worked for them isn’t cool enough for us educational reformers? If you think public schools are right for ALL students, you are wrong. But if you also think that open education is right for ALL students and all career paths, you are wrong. If you think homeschooling is right for ALL people, you are wrong. We need to have open educational paths for those that it works for. But we also need the public educational system for those that it worked for (FYI, it worked just fine for me). We also need home schooling, and private schools, and Montessori schools and technical colleges and online schools and all kinds of other out-of-the-box ideas. Ron, if you had read some of the crazy, out-of-the-box ideas I have written about, you would see how silly your comments to me really are. I am just concerned that the issues discussed here will really go no where because no one is addressing the issues that the general public is most worried about. If you all keep dismissing the “doctor, pilot, engineers point” so quickly – no one is going to listen! Trust me – I have presented these ideas at conferences, and then watched the eyes rolling and read the negative feedback. Education is not getting anywhere because the reformers are not winning many people over.

  12. @Matt I urge you to look up the concept of RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) and its close cousin APL (Assessment of Prior Learning). These concepts are big in Australia and NZ with some education and training institutions making it their primary service!

    If you read my original comment again, you’ll see that the answer to your question: Where are they going to demonstrate their skills? was already there. I said: Many technical colleges around my way are simply assessing people’s knowledge.. they are developing these RPL and APL services, and reporting very different sorts of people taking advantage of them. RPL and APL services are allowing for different modes of learning to be used (informal, networked, workplace, etc) so long as evidence is gathered and able to be assessed.

    You say I have a problem with anyone that believes that there is only one right way to educate ALL children and adults. That’s nice, but I had the distinct impression that Jim’s post, and the links he points to say exactly the same thing! They challenge the school narrative – the belief that it is only one true way to learn. You can see that same belief in your own words earlier: I want a doctor who operates on my brain to have learned the right way.

    What I hope to see in your comments is evidence that you have considered Illich’s critique and the idea that his proposal of “Learning Webs” chapter 6 in his short book, Deschooling Society might be a model with which we could recognise the Internet educationally. It seems to me that your comments so far are a little off-the-cuff and to be frank, all-too-familiar. With all respect, let’s take it up a notch.

  13. Ron says:

    @Leigh – “With all respect, let’s take it up a notch.”

    Yes, let’s do that. I’m no longer teaching, but I’m still interested in the subject.

    Here is a link to a paper I wrote about 7 years ago: The context in which I wrote the paper is at the beginning.

    I apologize for the character set issues. The content has been through a few content management system changes/upgrades 😀

    Institutions here also do RPL/APL. The year that I wrote the above paper I also completed a course on RPL/APL. One of the benefits to the student that I saw in doing an APL is that the student recognized that they had skills that prior to they had not considered important or relevant to the training they were taking.

  14. Thanks Ron, read it through. I wonder why you didn’t take “unschooling” back further to Illich’s “deschooling”. I’ve also looked at the unschooling and homeschooling movements, and found their premises to be unconvincing and perhaps a little light. I am certainly an Illich fan boy, and while I haven’t read extensively on this idea, nor have I come across anyone who writes with such depth of meaning. Deschooling Society should not be read without his Energy and Equity and Tools for Conviviality. As Jim notes in his post here, Illich is both shocking and scathing, but his philosophy is rich and deep, and his experiences demand recognition.

    In your essay you write: The society in which we live imposes an additional consideration on adult education. Most adult education is pursued for professional reasons, and most professions require credentials. And while I agree, I think we can and should do more to bridge the gab between those who teach and learn out of genuine interest, and those who do it for money and promotion. Both are valid, and I think we have a technology that enables us to bridge the gab and enhance both groups. Unfortunately, those who manage learning (the money and promotion types if you like), predominantly do not engage with popular media and go further by restricting access to opportunities to learn! This is a travesty, and leads to a great opportunity lost for deschooling.

    The institutions still have their role to play in formal and documented teaching, assessment and credentialism, but they should do it in such a way that does not exclude people who enjoy teaching and learning in other ways. Again, we have the technology to enable this.

    For me, the LMS (all it represents, and all it determines) is the barrier. I’m still thinking about it.. but I also think Jim’s involvement in setting up a WordPress Multi User under his institution’s banner is also a problem when thinking in the principles of deschooling and conviviality.. Maybe that will draw Jim back in here 🙂

  15. Ron says:

    “I think we can and should do more to bridge the gab between those who teach and learn out of genuine interest, and those who do it for money and promotion.”

    Definitely agree whole-heartedly.

    Jim may be off reading the Underground History of American Education. It’s a riveting read even if you don’t agree with all the conclusions that are drawn.

  16. Reverend says:

    Yeah, we are looking at the implications of deschooling our children, and I am reading and looking through models now, so I appreciate the input here. Additionally, I do like the idea that this is moving back to a grassroots, local movement of education, and what you and Ron have done with homeschooling at

    I need to keep reading, and while I have not read the Underground History of American Education, it is now on my list.

    I’m not always sure how to approach the idea that engineers and doctors are the people who institutionalized education, and all its potential problems, are empowering. And that raises the larger question that ultimately the talented tenth is getting all the benefits of such a system, which still leaves the question of who is lost in this system open. I think the larger issue here is that we certainly do need a way of measuring someone’s ability, but I’m not sure these specific examples explain a larger question of a larger dysfunction in funding for an open access to opportunity. I don’t know, I struggle with this because I believe in public education and its vision, but I also wonder how long we can disinvest it of any of its power and hold it up as a space where credentials, specialization, and professionality get defined. In fact, I think it becomes the place where all these things become next to impossible.

    Yeah, UMW Blogs as an institutional banner system does raise some questions. But, one of the things about this system that has suggested some real promise is the idea that people can use whatever tool they want online, and feed it back in as a aggregation hub. Therein lies the promise in my mind to move towards the idea the more individualized space where people have complete control of their work. We enable that on UWM Blogs, but as Jared Stein noted at ITEC 2010, most still choose UMW Blogs over, blogger, etc. And therein is a larger question, do people want to use these institutional tools because the provide more cache? I mean umwblogs is a .org not a .edu, and it just recently got linked from the UMw homepage. I always thought of the UMW Blogs experiment as an interstitial step, but with that said, I think it could be a way to connect people at different universities in new and interesting ways. Fact is, I still like experimenting with this stuff at the institutional level, and the fact that I have ben able to is a boon, yet I certainly keep all the questions you raise close to my heart, because I know the creep of security, lock-down, what’s good for the many is good for one, can all so quickly redefine such an experiment. We’ll see, but I kinda think of umwblogs as one of those spaces that can work towards those three idea purposes Illich poses for education on the open web.

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  18. Liji says:

    Hi, am a work from home (freelancing writer) single parent. I always believed in and wanted to educate my only child in a good convent school. But rising prices have forced me to think on educating her at home. It’s scary as I feel it’s kind of deviation from what everyone around you does.

    I do not wish to send her to just any school, but at the same time have the confidence of providing her with home based education.

    just contemplating….

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