|Where have all the education radicals gone? Roman Catholic priest and critic of modernity, Ivan Illich (1926-2002)|
The Baffler, George Scialabba
"The first of [Ivan] Illich’s books, Deschooling Society (1971), made him very famous. It caught the crest of a wave of critique and experiment in American education: Paul Goodman, John Holt, Paulo Freire, free schools, community control. Illich shared his contemporaries’ anti-authoritarianism but not their reasons. For most educational radicals, the enemies were tradition—the age-old authority of church and state, bosses, and parents—and inequality: the gap between resources devoted to rich and poor children. From this point of view, the remedies were plain: practice emancipatory social relations in all schools and lavish more resources on those serving poorer children.
To Illich’s mind, those remedies missed the point. He thought the educational system had no good reason to exist. It was, like every modern service industry, in the business of creating and defining the needs it purported to satisfy—in this case, the certification of experts—while discrediting alternative, usually traditional, methods of self-cultivation and self-care. The schools’ primary mission was to produce people able and willing to inhabit a historically new way of life, as clients or administrators of systems whose self-perpetuation was their overriding goal. Thus schools produce childhood, a phenomenon that is, Illich claimed, no more than a few centuries old but is now the universal rationale for imposing an array of requirements, educational and medical, on parents and for training people as lifelong candidates for credentials and consumers of expertise.
It is not what schools taught that Illich objected to; it is that they taught:
To understand what it means to deschool society, and not just to reform the educational establishment, we must focus on the hidden curriculum of schooling. . . . [It is] the ceremonial or ritual of schooling itself [that] constitutes such a hidden curriculum. Even the best of teachers cannot entirely protect his pupils from it. Inevitably, this hidden curriculum of schooling adds prejudice and guilt to the discrimination which a society practices against some of its members and compounds the privilege of others with a new title to condescend to the majority. Just as inevitably, this hidden curriculum serves as a ritual of initiation into a growth-oriented consumer society for rich and poor alike.
Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction, they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. . . . Neither ideological criticism nor social action can bring about a new society. Only disenchantment with and detachment from the central social ritual and reform of that ritual can bring about radical change.
What school teaches, first and last, is “the need to be taught.”
In a series of subsequent books—Tools for Conviviality (1973), Energy and Equity (1974), Medical Nemesis (1975), Toward a History of Needs (1978), The Right to Useful Unemployment (1978), and Shadow Work (1981)—Illich formulated parallel critiques of medicine, transportation, law, psychotherapy, the media, and other preserves of self-perpetuating expertise. The medical system produces patients; the legal system produces clients; the entertainment system produces audiences; and the transportation system produces commuters (whose average speed across a city, he liked to point out, is less than the average speed of pedestrians or bicyclists—or would be, if walking or bicycling those routes hadn’t been made impossible by the construction of highways). In this process, far more important than merely teaching us behavior is the way these systems teach us how to define our needs. “As production costs decrease in rich nations, there is an increasing concentration of both capital and labor in the vast enterprise of equipping man for disciplined consumption.”
Why do we have to be taught to need or disciplined to consume? Because being schooled, transported, entertained, etc.—consuming a service dispensed by someone licensed to provide it—is a radical novelty in the life of humankind. Until the advent of modernity only a century or two ago (in most of the world, that is; longer in “advanced” regions), the default settings of human nature included autonomy, mutuality, locality, immediacy, and satiety. Rather than being compulsorily enrolled in age-specific and otherwise highly differentiated institutions, one discovered interests, pursued them, and found others (or not) to learn with and from. Sick care was home- and family-based, far less rigorous and intrusive, and suffering and death were regarded as contingencies to be endured rather than pathologies to be stamped out. Culture and entertainment were less abundant and variegated but more participatory. The (commercially convenient) idea that human needs and wants could expand without limit, that self-creation was an endless project, had not yet been discovered."