The Agenda

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

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.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Film & TV

In Unsane, Aetna Meets Kafka

Unsane doesn’t take the form of a horror film; at first, it appears to be a Hitchcockian thriller about mistaken identity or perhaps getting ensnared in a web of bureaucracy. Yet with clinical detachment it develops into a nerve-flaying story almost too agonizing to endure. Unlike most horror movies, it isn’t ... Read More
Science & Tech

The Real Deal With the Tech Giants

A bit of dialogue from the old television series Person of Interest, where a reclusive billionaire programmer and a former CIA agent use a giant supercomputer to predict crimes and save people: FINCH: Hester's living off the grid. No photos online and nothing on the social networking sites. REESE: I've never ... Read More

Viva l’Italia?

Italy has just had elections, with very interesting results. I wanted to talk with Alberto Mingardi, which I have. He is one of the leading classical liberals in Italy -- the director general of the Bruno Leoni Institute, in Milan. (Mingardi himself is Milanese.) He is also an authority in arts and letters. In ... Read More

Putin and the Cult of Leadership

On Sunday, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin won an unsurprising reelection-campaign victory against Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, by a margin of 76.7 percent to 11.8 percent. The results were unsurprising because Putin is a tyrant who murders or imprisons political rivals, and who isn’t afraid to use ... Read More

Trump and Brexit Derangement Syndrome

I am not one of those Brexiteers who believe that Brexit and Trumpism are essentially the same phenomenon in two different countries. To be sure, they both draw on some of the same political trends, notably a distrust of elites and an upsurge of popular anger over evident failures of public policy such as illegal ... Read More

Stand Up to Putin

President Putin’s landslide victory in Russia’s presidential election was achieved against the lackluster competition of a group of mediocre candidates from which the sole serious opponent had been excluded; amid plausible allegations that his security services had tried to poison two Russians in England by ... Read More