Some thoughts on Education

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

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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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Experiential Education

Restrictive Systems

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

Radical Doubt

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