Illich and the Deschooled Society

As a sociologist of education, I often assign students to read Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society,” and it inevitably starts the same discussion: how would a large and complex society such as the United States function without formal schooling? Of course, my university students—benefactors of and true believers in schooling structures for the most part—may put it a little more bluntly: Is this guy crazy or what?

Illich makes some excellent points about the darker effects of schooling. Schooling is socialization; schooling routinizes education and teacher-child relationships; schooling often stifles children’s natural creativity; schooling becomes a stylized system that shapes children into students. When these conversations happen with my students, my job is to lead them away from a very understandable rejection of Illich’s hyperbole, and to guide them into thinking about what we can learn from Illich, and how we can apply it to the task of—if not demolishing the educational system—making schools more welcoming for children, particularly those whom society is more likely to deem “in need” of socialization. In different schools and different places, these groups may include racial/ethnic minorities, children from low-income families, immigrant children, or any other groups that have historically been denied full birthright into the “American dream.”

So what have I learned from Illich? Is there any school that Illich would deem worthy of keeping? From his description of what learning should entail, it seems like Montessori might fit the bill, though this particular reading does not seem to admit that any formalized structure would do. As a mother, would I pull my children out of school and “deschool” them? Much has been made of the tiny minority of parents who choose to “unschool” their children, but I would not choose this for myself—I have a job! Responsibilities! Bills to pay! In most cases, unschooling/deschooling remains an option for the privileged, as it all but requires a stay-at-home parent. When we cannot jump into Illich’s deschooled utopia with both feet, there are many opportunities to see how Illich’s vision is gaining a foothold in some areas of life.

To take one example that is both a “reference service to educational objects” and a “skills exchange,” I put forward the Oakland, CA library system’s Tool Lending Library. With a 5-star average across 28 reviews on Yelp, the Temescal Tool Lending Library (located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Oakland) is described as “everything you imagine it to be!” Says one rapturous user, “The staff is friendly and helpful – need them to hold something? Call! Not sure what tool for the job? Ask! The TLL is an amazing resource for when you don’t really want to hire a professional for lack of tools or buy tools yourself. They have high quality tools and are very helpful.” Raves another, “I’ve gotten everything from wrenches and paint scrapers to heat guns and sawzalls to a concrete breaker and chainsaw (chainsaw is a Friday-only thing–note).”

Chainsaws on Fridays only, people!

Of course, the new “sharing economy” boasts dozens of sites like Skillsbox as well, an online community where with a few clicks, you can trade your talents for credits with which to “buy” other kinds of knowledge and skills. Recent swaps include basketball lessons, bricklaying, tutoring, and web design.

I myself was an active swapper on the old Swaptree site, swapping videogames and CDs. We estimated we saved well over $200 swapping items we were no longer wanted or needed. But Swaptree became (to swap clothing and the like) and then became the NEW, an “online consignment” site where I can “make sales” and “get payouts,” much like eBay with a little swapping on the side. Innovations that “democratize” services like taxis (Lyft, Uber) and room-renting (Air BnB) often come under fire for capitalizing on the sharing economy. The gloomy conclusion is that the almighty dollar still creeps in where it’s least wanted, leaving those previously marginalized by the powers-that-be in little better position than where they started, as others have documented.

So what’s the upshot? Does it always have to be so gloomy? I argue that the answer is no. There is plenty we can take from Illich, even if we aren’t ready to give schools the old heave-ho. The explosion of new media and the world wide web leaves open endless possibilities, and though we in the higher education community are certainly suffering MOOC fatigue, my final, hopeful example, Khan Academy, promises to teach you a little of anything “For free. For everyone. Forever.” For someone like me who missed out on high school physics, that’s a pretty good deal.

Newton’s first law of motion: Basic primer on Newton’s First Law of Motion

P.S. I had to choose either physics or AP Biology because of scheduling conflicts. Illich would laugh, or maybe cry.

Illich and the Deschooled Society

2 thoughts on “Illich and the Deschooled Society

  1. ZacZ says:

    The skill exchange component of Illich’s chapter make me think of Ithaca Hours and other alternative currencies. The goal of alternative currencies, however, are not to “de-economize” an economy, but rather to strengthen bonds within a local community. Even alternative economies require some central regulatory body, and the Ithaca Hours example certainly “socializes”, although the participants understand this socialization in a positive, productive sense (unlike Illich, who views the “socialization” represented by schooling as something unfree, negative, and detrimental to learning). Perhaps a useful comparison to think through in more detail…

    Thanks for the post!


  2. “the world wide web leaves open endless possibilities….” Yes indeed! I think we need to stay hopeful about the possibilities of de-schooling society using the educational structures we have. Let’s transform them! We can use those “endless possibilities” the web gives us to learn with and from each other, and to create skills repositories, and artifacts, and just about everything else. Last semester I found the Illich-ian answer to the Mooc in the Cmooc (, and now I’m making my way through Code Academy. Both go beyond self-paced, self-motivated autodidactism (long good history of that, but it isn’t enough) to leverage learning webs, bring people into creative dialogue with each other, and empower them to solve re-world problems. Engelbart would be proud.


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