The Myth of Schooling

The desire for education has actually given way to the compulsion of schooling.

[School is] a new religion. Its doctrine is that education is a product of the school, a product which can be defined by numbers. There are the numbers which indicate how many years a student has spent under the tutelage of teachers, and other which represent the proportion of his correct answers in an examination. Upon the receipt of a diploma the educational product acquires a market value.

The school is now identified with education as the Church once was with religion.

[Scholastic ideology] reduces education to a combination of classrooms, curricula, funds, examinations and grades.

There is no intrinsic reason why the education that schools are now failing to provide could not be acquired more successfully in the setting of the family, of work and communal activity, in new kinds of libraries and other centres that would provide the means of learning.

The fear that new institutions will be imperfect, in their turn, does not justify our servile acceptance of present ones.

This plea to imagine a [country] without schools must, for many of you, come as a surprise. It is precisely for surprise that true education prepares us.

The basic purpose of public education should be to create a situation in which society obliges each individual to take stock of himself and his poverty. Education implies a growth of an independent sense of life and a relatedness which go hand in hand with increased access to, and use of, memories stored in the human community. The educational institution provides the focus for this process.

This presupposes a place within the society in which each of us is awakened by surprise; a place of encounter in which others surprise me with their liberty and make me aware of my own.

Our hope of salvation lies in our being surprised by the Other. Let us learn always to receive further surprises. I decided long ago to hope for surprises until the final act of my life - that is to say, in death itself.

[Ivan Illich]
Celebration of Awareness, p.106, 109, 113-114


More and more, men begin to believe that, in the schooling game, the loser gets only what he deserves. The belief in the ability of schools to label people correctly is already so strong that people accept their vocational and marital fate with a gambler's resignation.

In cities, this faith in school-slotting is on the way to sprouting a more creditable meritocracy - a state of mind in which each citizen believes that he deserves the place assigned to him by school.

School inevitably gives individuals who attend it and then drop out, as well as those who don't make it at all, a rationale for their own inferiority.

Another illusion is that most learning is a result of teaching. Teaching may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. The strongest motivated student faced with the task of learning a new code may benefit greatly from the discipline we now associate mostly with the old-fashioned schoolmaster.

But most people acquire most of their insight, knowledge and skill outside school - and in school only in so far as school in a few rich countries becomes their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.

The radical deschooling of society begins, therefore, with the unmasking by cultural revolutionaries of the myth of schooling. It continues with the struggle to liberate other men's minds from the false ideology of schooling - an ideology which makes domestication by schooling inevitable.

[Ivan Illich]
Celebration of Awareness, p.151, 154-5


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Negative Father                                 -                      Positive Father

The King is dead, long live the King!

J.F. - When the head of the Sicilian Mafia, Toto Rina, was arrested in Palermo, it was a big success for the Italian police - but five minutes later Toto Rina must have been replaced by someone else as the boss of the Mafia.

So the real adversary is the organization, not any one person.

M. - [...] if you want to treat the causes, it's the individuals that need to be reformed. They need help in changing themselves.

[Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard]
The Monk and the Philosopher, p.201

Every one of us, and every group with which we live and work, must become the model of the era which we desire to create.

[...] we must recognize that our thrust toward self-realization is profoundly hampered by outmoded, industrial-age structures.

We are presently constrained and driven by the impact of man's ever growing powers.

Our existing systems force us to develop and accept any weaponry system which may be technologically possible; our present systems force us to develop and accept any improvement in machinery, equipment, materials and supplies which will increase production and lower costs; our present systems force us to develop and accept advertising and consumer seduction.

It is [...] tempting to attack those holding roles such as national leader, administrator, manager, executive, labour leader, professor, student, parent. But such attacks on individuals often disguise the real nature of the crisis we confront: the demonic nature of present systems which force man to consent to his own deepening self-destruction.

The way ahead will be found by those who are unwilling to be constrained by the apparently all-determining forces and structures of the industrial age.

The celebration of man's humanity through joining together in the healing expression of one's relationships with others, and one's growing acceptance of one's own nature and needs, will clearly create major confrontations with existing values and systems. The expanding dignity of each man and each human relationship must necessarily challenge existing systems.

We have failed to discover how the necessary changes in our ideals and our social structures can be made. Each of us, therefore, through our ineffectiveness and our lack of responsible awareness, causes the suffering around the world.

[Ivan Illich]
Celebration of Awareness, p.17-19

The faces change but the roles remain the same. The game goes on.
For 'real' change we must change that which creates the roles, sets the rules: the system.

Lester works his way up the hierarchy - the pyramid - 'following the money,' hoping to find the puppet-master, see the wizard. But if he goes high enough what he will find is that even the highest player is contained by the pyramid itself. All heads butt against the same ceiling.

The wizard is nothing more than a fanciful idea based on a short-sighted view. The pyramid - that is, the structure that surrounds them all - is his real enemy. Whilst his targets remain players then he is merely playing a game - albeit for higher and higher stakes - because any position within the pyramid can be replaced, and will be. Bust one, and another surfaces.

Those who are long-sighted see the pyramid - i.e. the larger picture.
Those with near-vision see the players - i.e. the near view.

The Wire is not without long-sighted characters. McNulty, Colvin, and Lester are all are thwarted by the stifling myopia that surrounds them. But when it comes down to it, none are far-sighted enough - they all have their own games to play. None of them take their battle to the pyramid.

It is amazing that The Wire can enjoy such popularity and yet its lessons go largely unheeded. We still go on looking at the layers whilst ignoring the system that contains them; believing that by voting for this or that politician, or by busting this or that person we will really change things.

It should, perhaps, come as no surprise. As a society we are dangerously myopic. Short-sighted eyes cannot see any further than the immediate players, so when a party or a figurehead falls and is replaced it represents a victory, a new dawn. Those with long-sight see that it is nothing more than a changing of the guards.

One plays the short game, one the long. A society needs both, and each has its place and time. 

If we truly want change - that is, the long-term sort that Lester and his like seemed to be after - then we must look beyond players. This is the resounding lesson of the Wire. Its final shots couldn't make it any more clear: the old roles remain, only with new faces. Michael becomes Omar, Carver becomes Colvin, Sidner becomes McNulty ... the game goes on.

For all that 'change', nothing is really different.

[...] in our situation we're all powerless.

I mean, we pretend we're run by people. We're not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere."

Some commentators, he says, think we're run by an oligarchy. "But we're not. I mean, nobody can see power in Britain. The politicians think journalists have power. The journalists know they don't have any. Then they think the bankers have power. The bankers know they don't have any. None of them have any power.

[Rory Stewart]
'The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere'

Any human with above room temperature IQ can design a utopia. The reason our current system isn’t a utopia is that it wasn’t designed by humans. 

Just as you can look at an arid terrain and determine what shape a river will one day take by assuming water will obey gravity, so you can look at a civilization and determine what shape its institutions will one day take by assuming people will obey incentives.

Just as people can level terrain and build canals, so people can alter the incentive landscape in order to build better institutions. But they can only do so when they are incentivized to do so, which is not always. As a result, some pretty wild tributaries and rapids form in some very strange places.

I know that “capitalists sometimes do bad things” isn’t exactly an original talking point. But I do want to stress how it’s not equivalent to “capitalists are greedy”. I mean, sometimes they are greedy. But other times they’re just in a sufficiently intense competition where anyone who doesn’t do it will be outcompeted and replaced by people who do.

Business practices are set by Moloch, no one else has any choice in the matter.

[Scott Alexander]
'Meditations on Moloch'

Question Everything?

To begin with this approach can be characterized by the motto: de omnibus dubitandum; everything must be doubted, particularly the ideological concepts which are virtually shared by everybody and have consequently assumed the role of indubitable commonsensical axioms.

To 'doubt' in this sense does not imply a psychological state of inability to arrive at decisions or convictions, as is the case in obsessional doubt, but the readiness and capacity for critical questioning of all assumptions and institutions which have become idols under the name of common sense, logic, and what is supposed to be 'natural'.

This radical questioning is possible only if one does not take the concepts of one's own society or even of an entire historical period - like the Western culture since the Renaissance - for granted, and furthermore if one enlarges the scope of one's awareness and penetrates into the unconscious aspects of one's thinking.

Radical doubt is an act of uncovering and discovering; it is the dawning of the awareness that the Emperor is naked, and that his splendid garments are nothing but the products of one's fantasy.

Radical doubt is a process; a process of liberation from idolatrous thinking; a widening of awareness, of imaginative, creative vision of our possibilities and options.

All this means that humanist radicalism questions every idea and every institution from the standpoint of whether it helps or hinders man's capacity for greater aliveness and joy.

The importance of [these thoughts] is that they have a liberating effect on the mind by showing entirely new possibilities; they make the reader more alive because they open the door that leads out of the prison of routinized, sterile, preconceived notions.

[Erich Fromm]
Introduction to 'Celebration of Awareness', by Ivan Illich, p. 9-11