Ivan Illich’s New-Old Vision for the Future of Education

by Reihan Salam

Dale Stephens of UnCollege kindly pointed me to a fascinating passage from Ivan Illich’s surprisingly prescient and quite brilliant hippie-anarchist tract, Deschooling Society, first published in 1971. Naturally, the book is freely available on the web. Stephens points me to the following passage:

Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.

Let me give, as an example of what I mean, a description of how an intellectual match might work in New York City. Each man, at any given moment and at a minimum price, could identify himself to a computer with his address and telephone number, indicating the book, article, film, or recording on which he seeks a partner for discussion. Within days he could receive by mail the list of others who recently had taken the same initiative. This list would enable him by telephone to arrange for a meeting with persons who initially would be known exclusively by the fact that they requested a dialogue about the same subject.

Matching people according to their interest in a particular title is radically simple. It permits identification only on the basis of a mutual desire to discuss a statement recorded by a third person, and it leaves the initiative of arranging the meeting to the individual. Three objections are usually raised against this skeletal purity. I take them up not only to clarify the theory that I want to illustrate by my proposal for they highlight the deep-seated resistance to deschooling education, to separating learning from social control but also because they may help to suggest existing resources which are not now used for learning purposes.

Imagine if this idea had been embraced in 1971, and if the public school system of that era didn’t see thinkers like Illich as marginal cranks but as constructive critics pointing the ways towards a freer, more adaptable educational ecology that wasn’t school-centric but rather centered on lifelong, peer-based learning driven by curiosity rather than bureaucratic and political imperatives. Consider that the foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population increased from 3.8 percent in 1970 to 12 percent as of 2010. Might a more diverse set of educational institutions have been more responsive to the changing needs of a changing K-12 population? I can imagine civic-minded social democrats objecting that an era of rising diversity is precisely the time to have a more centralized school system, the better to inculcate shared civic values, etc. I have to say, I don’t get the impression that centralization has yielded those benefits — and its not clear that a more open educational system couldn’t achieve the same goal of cultivating active and engaged and informed citizens, albeit through a different route.  

And speaking of which Somini Sengupta has written a profile of Salman Khan’s efforts to spread his Khan Academy model into traditional schools.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.