Eric_W's Reviews > Deschooling Society

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich
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Nov 22, 09

bookshelves: current-affairs, essays-and-misc

Ivan Illich is one of our more interesting social critics. Schooled as a priest he became anathema to both the left and the right of the Catholic Church. He was Vice Rector pf the Catholic University of Ponce in Puerto Rico when he was ordered to leave by the Bishop. He went to Mexico where he founded the Center for Intercultural Documentation. In 1967 he was summoned before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to undergo a modern form of the medieval inquisition. One of the reasons for their distaste of his ideas was his reluctance to promote the Pope's strong move to help the underdeveloped countries. Illich was against the so-called development of underdeveloped countries arguing it was a "war on subsistence". At the time when he railed against it (the mid-sixties), it deeply offended the conventional wisdom. "Rich nations," he wrote, " now benevolently impose a straitjacket of traffic jams, hospital confinements and classrooms on the poor nations and by international agreement call this 'development.'" Development disabled their ability to seek alternatives and created "under-development as a form of consciousness" which occurs with " the translation of thirst into the need for a Coke."

In Deschooling Society [Illich:] identified schooling as the fundamental ritual of a consumer society. Schole, the Greek word from which ours derives, means leisure, and true learning, according to Illich, can only be the leisured pursuit of free people. The claim that a liberal society can be built on a compulsory and coercive ritual is therefore paradoxical. By designing and packaging knowledge, schools generate the belief that knowledge must be acquired in graded and certified sequences. And this monopoly of schools over the very definition of education, Illich argued, not only inhibits alternatives but also leads to lifelong dependence on other service monopolies. By the early seventeenth century a new consensus began to arise: the idea that man was born incompetent for society and remained so unless he was provided with 'education'. Education came to mean the inverse of vital competence. It came to mean a process rather than the plain knowledge of the facts and the ability to use tools which shape a man's concrete life. Education became an intangible commodity that had to be produced for the benefit of all, and imparted to them in the manner in which the visible Church formerly imparted invisible grace. Justification in the sight of society became the first necessity for a man born in original stupidity, analogous to original sin.

In the early 70's he wrote book:Tools for Conviviality|253076] in which he argued that being anti-growth would merely stabilize "at the highest levels of endurable output." He disliked the term 'technology' because of the confusion it caused, preferring to use the word 'tools'. The hammer, highways, the health-care system are all examples of tools. All tools go through a metamorphosis. First they are productive, then they become counter-productive and they become ends rather than means. For example, automobiles expanded our mobility but we have now become their prisoner. Some tools do not dictate how they must be used. Libraries, the telephone, bicycles can be used freely whereas a high-speed transportation system "compels our allegiance by adjusting time and space to its own dimensions." He liked austerity, as defined by Aquinas, "a virtue which does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness." Austerity, according to Illich, is the only "alternative to intensified surveillance and management by technocratic elites."

The Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit" of 1992 represents the logical outcome of the failure to master tools. It was not about finding a better life that is simple in means and rich in ends; "it is about the equitable division of pollution optimums under the aegis of global monitoring." The idea of conservation must become intrinsic to the dignity of human nature and not just a requirement for survival. Illich was also critical of the power of dominant professions. In contrast to the old liberal professions like law and medicine, new professions have sprung up that have become protection rackets, licensed monopolies licensed to serve clients with services they insist must be recognized. "Grave-diggers did not become members of a profession by calling themselves morticians, by obtaining college credentials, by raising their incomes, or by getting rid of the odor attached to their trade by electing themselves president of the Lions Club. Morticians formed a profession, a dominant and disabling one, when they acquired the muscle to have the police stop your burial if you are not embalmed and boxed by them."

It was also in Puerto Rico that Illich came into contact with the first of the great secular bureaucracies whose pretensions he would make a career of puncturing, the school system. He sat on the board that governed the island's entire educational establishment and was soon engaged in a full-scale effort to understand what schools do. He came to the conclusion that compulsory education in Puerto Rico constituted "structured injustice." By "putting into parentheses their claim to educate," lie was able to see that schools focused aspiration on a mirage. In Puerto Rico, at the time Illich began studying the question in the late 1950s, children we' already required by law to have more schooling than the the state could afford to give them. The worst aspect of this Illich was that people also learned to blame themselves for failing to achieve the impossible. "Schooling," he concluded, "served ... to compound the native poverty of half the children with a new interiorized sense of guilt for not having made it" " you look around the globe at the most lethal conflicts convulsing the world, not one of them turns on race. Think about it. English vs. Irish, Croatians, Moslems, Bosnians and Serbs , Irakis vs. Kurds; the combatants are racially indistinguishable. The conflicts turn on difference of religion or ideology and the one thing we' learned very clearly, is that people of one race are fully capable of murderously exploiting people of the same race. Why do we get this so wrong in the United States, Why do we equate skin color with culture in the multicultural rubric, given what I just said. Given that it so ill-equips us to understand and of these conflicts I just mentioned. The answer is obvious. This is the only western country, to have abducted and plunger into its mists millions of enslaved people from Africa. . . . And blacks out of that dispossession had to create out of nothing an identity, plunged into this society yet kept viciously apart from it and the very rigidity of segregation actually gave some firm moral footholds because at least you knew what you were up against and black survival tools from black religion to jazz. . . cultural survival tools are among the richest treasures that this country has ever produced. The black quest to belong is the greatest example of unrequited love anywhere in the world."
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message 1: by Terence (new) - added it

Terence I was a middle/high school teacher for three years. While I actually enjoyed it when me and my kids connected on some lesson, and there are teachers out there who do teach things, the system as a whole resembles exactly what you've described as Ilich's views.

Among others, one of the reasons I left the profession was that I couldn't believe in the system; I felt I was doing more harm than good.


message 2: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Good review. Although the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith no long uses the Iron Maiden or the Wrack. :-)


message 3: by Eric_W (last edited Nov 23, 2009 10:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric_W Abigail wrote: "While I have no wish to down-play the terrible injustices of the institution of slavery in the United States, and human agony caused by it, I was struck by this statement: "This is the only western..."

Yes, it's a long quote (I should have put it in italics to make it more obvious.) The beginning of the quote starts with "you look at...." I found his writing to be more than a little obtuse but provocative.


Eric_W Stephen wrote: "Good review. Although the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith no long uses the Iron Maiden or the Wrack. :-)"

True, they have much more sophisticated methods now if no less painful.


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