Ivan Illich

On Deschooling Society

by C.C.M.Warren, M.A.(Oxon), Retired Professional Educator

Arvika, 27 November 2012

The Austrian philosopher, New York parish priest and social critic of Western institutions, Ivan Illich (1927-2002), is perhaps best known for his study of state-sponsored schools and his innovative ideas about education published in his seminal work, Deschooling Society. Though a left/liberal and strong supporter of John F. Kennedy, making observations about what he considered to be a basically industry-dominated educational system in the years before and after the Secoond World War, his ideas are applicable to all kinds of state-controlled schooling systems, as best epitomised by his classical statement:

An accomplished histologist, crystalographer, theologian, philosopher, historian and linguist (he spoke Italian, French, Spanish, Latin, Croatian, German, Hindi, English, classical Greek and many others), his ideas would at length come up against the establishmentarian views of the Vatican and force him to resign his priestly office.

What brought Illich to the public's attention was the publication of his revolutionary book, Deschooling Society (1971), which is perhaps best summed up by his own words:

    "Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education -- and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries." (1)

Illich was far ahead of his time in the scope he saw for information technology:

    "The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity." (2)

This was, of course, long before the invention of the PC or the Internet. Today's 'peers' are to be found in their tens of thousands online and their works obtainable at the touch of a mouse button. The idea of a decentralised educational system, brilliant in its conception, is, though, taboo to governmental systems whose primary aim in the schooling system is to funnel its citizens into industry, and control them politically and intellectually by systematically dumbing them down.

    "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." (3)

The arrival of the Internet no longer, of course, means we need "institutions" to educate our children, according to Illich's concepts. The Homeshooling Revolution, which is exploding across the globe, is a profound challenge to all ideas of institutionalised education, and in particular state schooling, which is why in many countries the state is reacting with hostility and sometimes with violence, as we have seen here in Sweden in the Domenic Johansson case. And this is the whole point: homeschooling is an obstacle to both right- and left-wing utopians (fascists and communists), and their 'Third Way' Europeist successors, who want to shape society in their own image because state-controlled schools are, to borrow Illich's own words, "the reproductive organ of a consumer society". In other words, schools serve the interestes of the corporations, globalists and other totalitarain systems rather than living up to the UN-inspired mantra of the state serving "the best interests of the child".

Illich saw the institutionalisation of education as simply a tool of big government for the institutionalisation of society as a whole that took no real congniscence of the best interests of children or adults for that matter. In his book, Tools for Conviviality (1973), in which he criticised the dehumanising effects of modern institutions, he wrote that:

    "[É]lite professional groups...have come to exert a 'radical monopoly' on such basic human activities as health, agriculture, home-building, and learning, leading to a 'war on subsistence' that robs peasant societies of their vital skills and know-how. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but 'modernized poverty,' dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts." (4)

Illich proposed that we should "invert the present deep structure of tools" in order to "give people tools that guarantee their right to work with independent efficiency." (5)

The book's vision of tools that would be developed and maintained by a community of users had a significant influence on the first developers of the personal computer, notably Lee Felsenstein (6). The very existence of computers and the internet in an educational context may therefore be seen as an extension of Illich's ideas, dovetailing neatly into the philosophy behind homeschooling.

According to a contemporary review in The Libertarian Forum:

    "Illich's advocacy of the free market in education is the bone in the throat that is choking the public educators." (7)

Should it therefore come as any surprise to learn that the institutional élites want to control the internet in order to protect their monopoly? And is it not, therefore, logical to suggest that the political drive to monopolise rather than de-establish education is one of the litmus tests identifying the totalitarian mindset in modern society? Surely it must be, for the evidence is everywhere in front of our eyes.

Therefore we must conclude that all those who support or enforce the state monopoly in education cannot be said to be liberals democrats in the classical sense. They are, in a word, anti-libertarian or pro-totalitarian.

Had he still been alive, I have little doubt that Ivan Illich would have agreed with me. He observed the same tendencies in medicine:

    "In his Medical Nemesis, first published in 1975, also known as Limits to Medicine, Illich subjected contemporary Western medicine to detailed attack. He argued that the medicalization in recent decades of so many of life's vicissitudes — birth and death, for example — frequently caused more harm than good and rendered many people in effect lifelong patients. He marshalled a body of statistics to show what he considered the shocking extent of post-operative side-effects and drug-induced illness in advanced industrial society. He introduced to a wider public the notion of iatrogenic disease which had been scientifically established a century earlier by British nurse Florence Nightingale (1820–1910). Others have since voiced similar views, but none so trenchantly, perhaps, as Illich." (8)

Deschooling in any degree - whether total or partial - ultimately means that the élite must forfeit their monopoly on power to that same degree, and those who have power, as we well known from all the suffering they cause, do not easily or readily yield it. This is why citizens must actively and vocally compaign to force their politicians to be both accountable, respect natural human rights, and to honour their treaties with, and commitments to, such institutions as the European Union and United Nations, respectively, which guarantee parents the right to choose the kind of education their children will have whether it be on pedagogical, philosophical, religious or any other grounds.

But there is, unfortunately, a very real tension that sometimes leads to conflict between those who seek a total monopoly on education through state institutions and the human rights they purport to defend that on their political platform for election in a democratic society. As home educators, classical libertarians and staunch defenders of natural human rights and common law, we insist most strongly that those in power be forced to relinquish their claim for a total monoply of education and cease preventing citizens from pursuing homeschooling or any other form of education that they wish. And I have no doubt that Ivan Illich would have been right behind us were he still with us today.


(1) Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Introduction
(2) Ivan Illich, ibid., chapter 6, Learning Webs
(3) Ivan Illich, ibid., chapter 6, Learning Webs, 'General Characteristics of New Formal Educational Institutions'
(4) Chase Madar, The People's Priest, in The American Conservative, February 1, 2010
(5) Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)
(6) Convivial Cybernetic Devices, From Vacuum Tube Flip-Flops to the Singing Altair, An Interview with Lee Felsenstein (Part 1); The Analytical Engine (Computer History Association of California) 3 (1), November 1995
(7) Leonard Liggio, Disestablish Public Education, in The Libertarian Forum (1971)
(8) Wikipedia, Ivan Illich, in Medical Nemesis

Recommended Reading

(1) Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society


(1) The Complete Works of Ivan Illich

Copyright © 2012 C.C.M.Warren - All Rights Reserved

Last updated on 27 November 2012