School Is Cancelled!An Invitation to Deschooling Society

— The NotA Collective

Authored by a Croatian who at various times in his life was a Roman Catholic priest, a theologian-philosopher, and a social critic, the author of Deschooling Society comes out swinging and he isn’t pulling any punches:

“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom, nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.”1

After reading the above paragraph, excerpted from the book’s introduction, you might find yourself thinking that the pugilistic offerings of its author, Ivan Illich, are a poor fit for Notes on the Academy. We have, in our earlier articles, spent a lot of time trying to think of the many ways in which schools and colleges can be made better. If the above quote is anything to go by, Illich would much rather that we shut down the academy altogether. How does one approach a book whose rejection of institutionalised schooling is so vehement?

To make matters more puzzling, Illich occasionally indulges in libertarian day-dreaming, which some of our readers will regard a capital offense. Knowledge of the ruinous effects that neoliberal reforms have had on the education system in India has, one hopes, inoculated our readership against such fanciful thinking. Since Illich’s Deschooling Society was written before the advent of neoliberalism, we will excuse these passing flirtations and in this Invitation, we will ask: what can Illich’s powerful critique of institutionalised schooling teach us?

Interrogating Education

Illich’s principal virtue is that he is sensitive to certain ramifications and distinctions that are not often remarked on. For example, after observing that “school is recognized as the institution which specializes in education,” Illich teases out a damning corollary:

“School appropriates the money, men, and good will available for education and in addition discourages other institutions from assuming educational tasks. Work, leisure, politics, city living, and even family life depend on schools for the habits and knowledge they presuppose, instead of becoming themselves the means of education.”

He is raising the oft-realised possibility that life itself, in the shadow of institutionalised education, comes to be evacuated of educational possibility. These sorts of insights are sprinkled throughout Deschooling Society, and often prompt careful consideration. Further along, Illich demarcates between learning and instruction like so:

“Instruction is the choice of circumstances which facilitate learning. Roles are assigned by setting a curriculum of conditions which the candidate must meet if he is to make the grade. School links instruction but not learning to these roles. This is neither reasonable nor liberating. It is not reasonable because it does not link relevant qualities or competences to roles, but rather the process by which such qualities are supposed to be acquired. It is not liberating or educational because school reserves instruction to those whose every step in learning fits previously approved measures of social control.”

In simpler terms, by way of example: one can learn a great deal of electrical engineering “on the job”, apprenticing under a more experienced individual. But this kind of learning is not recognised because institutionalised education only recognises “the process” (like gaining admission to an engineering college, maintaining a minimum CGPA, etc.) and not the “relevant qualities or competencies” (like actually being able to repair a toaster). Society, by failing to prioritise learning over instruction, is then cleaved into two: the educated ‘haves’ and the uneducated ‘have-nots’.2

The contradiction between learning and instruction is a theme that Illich revisits throughout Deschooling Society, for its effects linger long after the learner has passed out of school. He argues that when one assumes that instruction produces learning, the learner is transformed, in all their engagements with public life, into little more than a client. Illich argues that school teaches us to believe

“… that process inevitably produces something of value and, therefore, production necessarily produces demand. School teaches us that instruction produces learning. The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling. Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions… In school, we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.”

A parallel clientelisation takes place in other spheres of public life. The result? “Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.” The confusing of process for substance, or more generally form with essence, is a theme we have touched on many times in the past, and we are happy to see it developed in new and interesting ways.

Another of Illich’s complaints is that institutionalised schooling inducts the learner into a world where processes are assumed to always create measurable values and that “everything can be measured, including their imaginations, and, indeed, man himself.” In responding to this myth, Illich’s desire to see education as truly emancipatory shines:

“But personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else’s achievement. In such learning one can emulate others only in imaginative endeavour, and follow in their footsteps rather than mimic their gait. The learning I prize is immeasurable re-creation.”

Undergirding many of Illich’s criticisms is the commodification of education (where learning is standardised, packaged, and sold to the pupil-as-consumer) and the psychological effect this process has on an individual; as labour is alienated under capitalist relations of production, so learning, Illich argues, is alienated under institutional frameworks of education.3

Illich goes further, training his sights on the fantastic (!) notion that learning happens because of teaching, observing that “learning [often] happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction.”4 The reader will by now expect Illich to have choice words for teachers, and he doesn’t disappoint when outlining the three principal roles that teachers play:

“The teacher-as-custodian acts as a master of ceremonies, who guides his pupils through a drawn-out labyrinthine ritual. He arbitrates the observance of rules and administers the intricate rubrics of initiation to life. At his best, he sets the stage for the acquisition of some skill as schoolmasters always have. Without illusions of producing any profound learning, he drills his pupils in some basic routines… The teacher-as-moralist substitutes for parents, God, or the state. He indoctrinates the pupil about what is right or wrong, not only in school but also in society at large. He stands in loco parentis for each one and thus ensures that all feel themselves children of the same state… The teacher-as-therapist feels authorized to delve into the personal life of his pupil in order to help him grow as a person. When this function is exercised by a custodian and preacher, it usually means that he persuades the pupil to submit to a domestication of his vision of truth and his sense of what is right.”

All of this, and much more by way of explication, happens in just the first three chapters, titled Why We Must Disestablish School, Phenomenology of School, and Ritualisation of Progress.

The Spectrum of Institutions

An interesting chapter titled Institutional Spectrum offers a categorisation of (ostensibly) public institutions on a spectrum stretching from “manipulative” ones like prisons and mental asylums to “convivial” ones like public transport, parks, and libraries. What distinguishes them? Chiefly, answers Illich, the kind of rules that govern their use.

“The rules which govern [convivial] institutions for use have mainly the purpose of avoiding abuses which would frustrate their general accessibility… The regulation of convivial institutions sets limits to their use; as one moves from the convivial to the manipulative end of the spectrum, the rules progressively call for unwilling consumption or participation.”

After showing us this axis along which public institutions can be ordered, Illich turns to a discussion of “false public utilities” like superhighways. He argues that unlike all-purpose roads, these highways only serve the needs of a small, privileged minority that owns private cars, and yet their cost is shouldered by the public. Unsurprisingly, given what we have learned so far, Illich views schools as extraordinarily manipulative institutions, similar to superhighways, writing: “By making men abdicate the responsibility for their own growth, school leads many to a kind of spiritual suicide.” This is all very dramatic, but we admit freely that Illich’s arguments are occasionally quite seductive:

“The underconsumption of highway mileage is not nearly so costly as the underconsumption of schooling. The man who does not own a car in Los Angeles may be almost immobilized, but if he can somehow manage to reach a work place, he can get and hold a job. The school dropout has no alternative route. The suburbanite with his new Lincoln and his country cousin who drives a beat-up jalopy get essentially the same use out of the highway, even though one man’s car costs thirty times more than the other’s. The value of a man’s schooling is a function of the number of years he has completed and of the costliness of the schools he has attended. The law compels no one to drive, whereas it obliges everyone to go to school.”

Is the state-mandated demand that one go to school tyrannical, then? And what alternatives would Illich have us pursue instead?

Radical (Utopian?) Alternatives

Before offering us alternatives to our “schooled” society in a chapter titled Learning Webs, and so that we may catch our breath here, Illich helpfully and succinctly summarises his arguments against schooling:

Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags. New educational institutions would break apart this pyramid.

So, how would we go about this “deschooling” of society? Illich suggests that we start by asking “What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?”

To this end, he imagines the publicly funded skill centres where “reading, typing, keeping accounts, foreign languages, computer programming and number manipulation, reading special languages such as that of electrical circuits, manipulation of certain machinery” might be taught. A credit system might be established too, where certain sections of the population would be given credit that could be used at such skill centres, and where other sections of the population may have to pay commercial rates. And how might one earn more such credit? By teaching skills at such skill centres! Illich imagines that in this way, “An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite of those who earned their education by sharing it.” Illich also proposes the development of peer- or professional-matching networks — anticipating that happy corner of the Internet where individuals come together to learn new languages, read and discuss old books, etc. — that would put learners in touch with each other, or even in touch with professional educators when they require advanced instruction.

Illich would also have us supplement this skill-exchanged, peer-networked economy with publicly funded testing and certification, the idea roughly being that it didn’t matter where or how you learned how to repair a car engine, so long as you demonstrate that you can reliably repair one. Broadly, all these suggestions embody four central freedoms Illich holds dear:

  1. To liberate access to things by abolishing the control which persons

and institutions now exercise over their educational values.

  1. To liberate the sharing of skills by guaranteeing freedom to teach

or exercise them on request.

  1. To liberate the critical and creative resources of people by

returning to individual persons the ability to call and hold meetings — an ability now increasingly monopolized by institutions that claim to speak for the people.

  1. To liberate the individual from the obligation to shape his

expectations to the services offered by any established profession — by providing him with the opportunity to draw on the experience of his peers and to entrust himself to the teacher, guide, adviser, or healer of his choice. Inevitably the deschooling of society will blur the distinctions between economics, education, and politics on which the stability of the present world order and the stability of nations now rest.


Illich’s Deschooling Society is a trip. A short, rough, exhilarating one that leaves you with plenty to reflect on. Some readers might find Illich’s antipathy towards institutionalised education — which was undertaken on unprecedented scales during the twentieth century, most notably in countries pursuing socialist construction like the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, and which brought literacy to people who had been hitherto denied its utility and power for centuries — unacceptable and reactionary.5 Others may view his suggestions for deschooling as utopian, untethered to any political or material reality. Neither of these critics would be wrong. In the fifty years that have passed since its publication, the Nehruvian developmental state in India has given way to a state apparatus that has dispensed with even the charade of feigning interest in public education. A majority (over 70%) of the Indian higher education sector is now administered by the private sector and higher education has over time become a luxury that few can afford.6 This also strongly restricts access to facilities unlocked by institutionalized schooling. Less state involvement is clearly not the answer, and neither is utopian day-dreaming.

Nevertheless, Illich’s Deschooling Society — for its prescient warnings about the dangers of commodification of education, and for its patient excavation of the contradictions inherent in the project of institutionalised education — remains valuable reading. We are certain that the creative energies of today’s youth, when unleashed on the contradictions uncovered by Illich, will result in their resolution.

  1. All the quotes in this article are taken from Deschooling Society (1971) by Ivan Illich. ↩︎

  2. In this context, Illich brings Durkheim’s insights on the essence of religion (as arbiter of what is sacred and what is profane) to bear on the sociology of education too: “The very existence of obligatory schools divides any society into two realms: some time spans and processes and treatments and professions are “academic” or “pedagogic,” and others are not. The power of school thus to divide social reality has no boundaries: education becomes unworldly and the world becomes noneducational.” ↩︎

  3. “Alienation, in the traditional scheme, was a direct consequence of work’s becoming wage-labor which deprived man of the opportunity to create and be recreated. Now young people are prealienated by schools that isolate them while they pretend to be both producers and consumers of their own knowledge, which is conceived of as a commodity put on the market in school. School makes alienation preparatory to life, thus depriving education of reality and work of creativity. School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition. And school directly or indirectly employs a major portion of the population. School either keeps people for life or makes sure that they will fit into some institution.” ↩︎

  4. Illich’s view of this the relationship between teaching and learning is actually quite temperate: “[T]he fact that a great deal of learning even now seems to happen casually and as a by-product of some other activity defined as work or leisure does not mean that planned learning does not benefit from planned instruction and that both do not stand in need of improvement.” ↩︎

  5. Here’s a beautiful excerpt from Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China that captures a small part of what it feels like to be able to read: “The old man fumbled in his breast pocket and brought forth a soiled cloth, which he carefully unwrapped to reveal a worn little notebook. ‘See here,’ he said. ‘I already recognise over 200 characters. Every day the Red Army teaches me four more. In Shansi I lived for sixty-four years and yet nobody ever taught me to write my name. Is the Red Army good or isn’t it?’ He pointed with intense pride to the crude scrawl of his characters that resembled the blots of muddy hen’s feet on clean matting, and falteringly he read off some newly inscribed phrases. And then, as a sort of climax, he produced a stub of pencil and with an elaborate flourish he wrote his name for me.” ↩︎

  6. Livemint. (2021, July 29). Majority of Indian colleges are run by private sector, govt tells Rajya Sabha; The NotA Collective. (2021, March 20). Higher Education: A Luxury? Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

One thought on “School Is Cancelled!An Invitation to Deschooling Society

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s