In a previous article1 I discussed what is becoming a common complaint about schools, one that is reflected, for example, in the recent report of the Carnegie Commission: In school registered students submit to certified teachers in order to obtain certificates of their own; both are frustrated and both blame insufficient resources—money, time, or buildings—for their mutual frustration.
Such criticism leads many people to ask whether it is possible to conceive of a different style of learning. The same people, paradoxically, when pressed to specify how they acquired what they know and value, will readily admit that they learned it more often outside than inside school. Their knowledge of facts, their understanding of life and work came to them from friendship or love, while viewing TV, or while reading, from examples of peers or the challenge of a street encounter. Or they may have learned what they know through the apprenticeship ritual for admission to a street gang or the initiation to a hospital, newspaper city room, plumber’s shop, or insurance office. The alternative to dependence on schools is not the use of public resources for some new device which “makes” people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment. To foster this style, attitudes toward growing up, the tools available for learning, and the quality and structure of daily life will have to change concurrently.
Attitudes are already changing. The proud dependence on school is gone. Consumer resistance is increasing in the knowledge industry. Many teachers and pupils, taxpayers and employers; economists and policemen would prefer not to depend any longer on schools. What prevents their frustration from shaping new institutions is a lack not only of imagination but frequently also one of appropriate language and of enlightened self-interest. They cannot visualize either a de-schooled society or educational institutions in a society which disestablishes school.
In this essay, I intend to show that the inverse of school is possible: That we can depend on self-motivated learning instead of employing teachers to bribe or compel the student to find time and the will to learn; that we can provide the learner with new links to the world instead of continuing to funnel all educational programs through the teacher. I shall discuss some of the general characteristics which distinguish schooling from learning and outline four major categories of educational institutions which should appeal not only to many individuals, but also to many existing interest groups.
An Objection: Who Can Be Served by Bridges to Nowhere?
We are used to considering schools as a variable, dependent on the political and economic structure. If we can change the style of political leadership, or promote the interests of one class or another, or switch from private to public ownership of the means of production, we assume the school system will change as well. The educational institutions I will propose, however, are meant to serve a society which does not now exist, although the current frustration with schools is itself potentially a major force to set in motion change toward new social arrangements. An obvious objection has been raised to this approach: Why channel energy to build bridges to nowhere, instead of marshaling it first to change not the schools but the political and economic system?
This objection, however, underestimates the repressive political and economic nature of the school system itself, as well as the political potential inherent in a new educational style. In a basic sense, schools have ceased to be dependent on the ideology professed by a government or the organization of its market. Even the Chinese feel they must adopt the basic international structure of schooling in order to become a world power and a nation state. Control of society is reserved everywhere to those who have consumed at least four units of four years, each unit consisting of 500-1000 hours in the classroom.
School, as I suggested in my previous article, is the major component of the system of consumer production which is becoming more complex and specialized and bureaucratized. Schooling is necessary to produce the habits and expectations of the managed consumer society. Inevitably it produces institutional dependence and ranking in spite of any effort by the teacher to teach the contrary. It is an illusion that schools are only a dependent variable, an illusion which, moreover, provides them, the reproductive organs of a consumer society, with their immunity.
Even the piecemeal creation of new educational agencies which are the inverse of school would therefore be an attack on the most sensitive link of a pervasive phenomenon, which is organized by the state in all countries. A political program which does not explicitly recognize the need for de-schooling is not revolutionary; it is demagoguery calling for more of the same. Any major political program of the Seventies should be evaluated by this measure: How clearly does it state the need for de-schooling—and how clearly does it provide guidelines for the educational quality of the society for which it aims?
The struggle against domination by the world market and big power politics might be beyond some poor communities or countries—but this weakness is an added reason for emphasizing the importance of liberating each society through a reversal of its educational structure, a change which is not beyond any society’s means.
General Characteristics of New Formal Educational Institutions
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. 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.
Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags. New educational institutions would break apart this pyramid. Their purpose must be to facilitate access for the learner: to allow him to look into the windows of the control room or the parliament, if he cannot get in the door. Moreover, such new institutions should be channels to which the learner would have access without credentials or pedigree—public spaces in which peers and elders outside his immediate horizon now become available.
I believe that no more than four—possibly even three—distinct “channels” or learning exchanges could contain all the resources needed for real learning. The child grows up in a world of things, surrounded by people who serve as models for skills and values. He finds peers who challenge him to argue, to compete, to cooperate, and to understand; and if the child is lucky, he is exposed to confrontation or criticism by an experienced elder who really cares. Things, models, peers, and elders are four resources each of which requires a different type of arrangement to ensure that everybody has ample access to them.
I will use the word “network” to designate specific ways to provide access to each of four sets of resources. The word is often used, unfortunately, to designate the channels reserved to material selected by others for indoctrination, instruction, and entertainment. But it can also be used for the telephone or the postal service, which are primarily accessible to individuals who want to send messages to one another. What are needed are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching.
To give an example: the same level of technology is used in TV and in tape recorders. All Latin American countries now have introduced TV: in Bolivia the government has financed a TV station, which was built six years ago, and there are no more than 7,000 TV sets for four million citizens. The money now tied up in TV installations throughout Latin America could have provided every fifth adult with a tape recorder. In addition, the money would have sufficed to provide an almost unlimited library of prerecorded tapes, with outlets even in remote villages, as well as an ample supply of empty tapes.
This network of tape recorders, of course, would be radically different from the present network of TV. It would provide opportunity for free expression: literate and illiterate alike could record, preserve, disseminate, and repeat their opinions. The present investment in TV instead provides bureaucrats, whether politicians or educators, with the power to sprinkle the continent with institutionally produced programs which they—or their sponsors—decide are good for or in demand by the people. Technology is available to develop either independence and learning, or bureaucracy and preaching.
The planning of new educational institutions ought not to begin with the administrative goals of a principal or president, or with the teaching goals of a professional educator, or with the learning goals of any hypothetical class of people. It 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?”
Someone who wants to learn knows that he needs both information and critical response to its use from somebody else. Information can be stored in things and in persons. In a good educational system, access to things ought to be available at the sole bidding of the learner, while access to informants requires in addition others’ consent. Criticism can also come from two directions: from peers or from elders, that is, from fellow learners whose immediate interests match mine, or from those who will grant me a share in their superior experience. Peers can be colleagues with whom to raise a question, companions for playful and enjoyable (or arduous) reading or walking, challengers at any type of game. Elders can be consultants on which skill to learn, which method to use, what company to seek at a given moment. They can be guides to the right questions to be raised among peers and to the deficiency of answers they arrive at.
Copyright © 1970 by Ivan Illich
"Schooling: The Ritual of Progress," NYR, December 3, 1970.↩
“Schooling: The Ritual of Progress,” NYR, December 3, 1970.↩