Why We Must Abolish Schooling – Ivan Illich

This radical article was a compelling and engaging read. It is hard to accept everything that is mentioned, but a lot of it is ripe for reflection and consideration.

Firstly, I would warn Illich of falling into the trap of Lamb’s when roasting pig. (Kliebard, 196) While the fact we have obligatory schooling does have a lot of negative consequences, there are as well, other reasons for its current form with regards to our existing social institutions. While this does not mean we should ignore the deficits of our education system (quite the opposite!), it means that we cannot be so quick to toss away all aspects of it. Rather we need to look toward measured reformations that lead to the desired changes.

What made this article so interesting is that Illich’s desire for radical alternatives have actually been realized in the internet. His idea that “the most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gives each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern,” is clearly just describing an early UseNet group. The internet has since developed to such a level that, I believe, Illich would be astonished at just how much social networking has developed.

Rather than taking a view outlining the deficits of our school system (which Illich has done very well), I will take the remainder of this reflection to consider the position of a school system, given that Illich’s radical alternative to schooling has become reality.

Throughout the article, Illich highlights the failure of schooling to teach practical skills and abilities, especially if those desires are fueled by students (and even more so disenfranchised students) own interests. This is true for today’s school, as we still provided courses according to established and inflexible curricula. As well, he comments on the non-connecting consequences implicit in the school system are still relevant, for example, “History is tied to advancement in math, and class attendance to the right of using the playground.” Or, in the case of my school last semester, failing student lose access to their phones and computers.

As has been observed in previous modules, there is far more to schooling than mastery of content and skills. An important part of the experience is social development (or indoctrination for the pessimistically inclined), the scaffolded development of worldly understanding and how to react to influences (to quote Dewey’s creed “The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.” (http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm )), and many more aspects that I have articulated in other posts (I will write a summary of all of these “secondary purposes to the current school model” in a blog post).

While some of these will lead to the reinforcement of potentially detrimental social institutions, such as the nine-to-five work week and corporate hierarchies, my belief in action stemming from humility and grounding in oneself makes me hesitant to outline a school system with the intention of radically overthrowing society as we know it. Not only would it be much more difficult (and as I stated in the previous section Philosophical Thinking I strive to be lazy and dumb), it would face huge opposition to any potential implementation.

If we accept that school is less suited to teach skills and concepts that a learner is interested in, and that the opportunity to learn anything one could like is available through the internet, we can start to define “primary purposes for schooling,” and more specifically for the educators and students within this model.

Ideally, school should serve to provide a foundation for later life. This does not necessarily mean skill training, but more especially, it should help to define the student as a self-constructing social element, that can define itself in ways that it chooses.

To put it simply, school should develop a positive perspective of oneself within society. Students should be trained to seek out learning opportunities that interest them and engage in a social community that furthers their learning. In previous blog posts I have called this a “sharing community.”

Through a sharing community, schools can help to develop tolerance and engagement. Skills and interests can be accessible to learners outside the classroom, but the way they engage with these new learning opportunities can be (positively or negatively) influenced by their experiences in school.

The question of how to address systematic inequalities can be answered within a single classroom or throughout the system as a whole. Being a single teacher without any widespread influence, my focus will begin within a single classroom (namely my own). By opening my assumptions and experiences to a community of other interested individuals (a sharing community), the idea can develop and spread through the experiences of the many. Therefore my implementation would be grounded in a sharing community, which as I have stated previously, the product follows the method.

  • Kliebard, H. M. (Unknown). Why history of education in teacher education? Unpublished manuscript, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI.
  • Illich, I. (1970, July 2). Why we must abolish schooling. The New York Review of Books, 15(1), 9–15.

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