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Contribution of Ivan Illich to Contemporary Schooling Theory and Practice

Contribution of Ivan Illich to Contemporary Schooling Theory and Practice

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was a Croatian-Australian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and critic of the institutions of modern western culture, who addressed contemporary practices in education, medicine, work, energy use, transportation and economic development. The book that brought Ivan Illich to public attention was De-schooling Society published in 1971. It was a ground breaking critique of compulsory mass education. He argued that the oppressive structure of the school system could not be reformed but must be dismantled in order to free humanity from the crippling effects of lifelong institutionalization.

The book that brought Ivan Illich to public attention was De-schooling Society (1971), a radical critical discourse on education as practiced in “modern” economics. Giving examples of what he regards as the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education, Illich posited self-directed education. Supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements.

Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be more feasible if it was 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 seek alternatives to other established service industries.

The last sentence makes clear what the title suggests- that the institutionalization of education tends towards the institutionalization of society and that ideas for de-institutionalizing education may be a starting point for a de-institutionalized society.

The book is more than a critique, it contains suggestions for a reinvention of learning throughout society and lifetime. Particularly striking is his call (in 1971) for the use of advanced technology to support “learning webs”.

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.

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.” Since Illich’s opposition was not merely to publicly funded schooling, as with the libertarians, but to schooling as such; the dis-establishment of a schools was for him not a means to a free market in educational services, but a de-schooled society, which was a more fundamental shift. As he later asserted in After Deschooling, What? (1973): ‘We can disestablish schools, or we can deschool culture’. He actually opposed advocates of free-market education as “the most dangerous category of educational reformers.”

Tools for Conviviality

Tools for Conviviality (1973) was only two years after Deschooling Society. In this new work Illich generalized the themes that he had previously applied to the field of education: the institutionalization of specialized knowledge, the dominant role of technocratic elites in industrial society, and the need to develop new instruments for the reconquest of practical knowledge by the average citizen. He wrote that “elite 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.” 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.

Tools for Conviviality attracted worldwide attention. A resume of it was published by French social philosopher Andre Gorzin Les Temps Modernes, under the title “Freeing the Future”. 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.

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