Without a doubt, Ivan Illich’s most widely read and influential book is Deschooling Society, published in 1970. It brought Illich to the attention of a mass audience, its handful of essays - first appearing in Saturday Review and The New York Review of Books - adding much fuel to the then-raging discussion about the “education crisis.”Illich’s main interest was to warn so-called developing nations in Latin America and elsewhere of the troublesome myths, realities, symbolic fallout, and social effects of compulsory schooling, as evidenced in the modern, industrialized nations. Schools, he argued, tacitly trained people to be consumers and worse, to believe that the only knowledge worth having was knowledge taught by professionals. School confused means and ends and was essentially a big lottery in which everyone was forced to participate but from which only a tiny few actually benefitted. The opportunity still remained, he argued, for non-industrialized, non-consumption-intensive nations, whether run with a socialistic bent or not, to opt out and take a different route than building service-oriented economies. These nations could avoid the social inequities and tremendous costs of the industrialized model.
How Illich and Deschooling were received in Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia or Nicaragua, for instance, we can't say. We were not there and we don't read Spanish, for example. But up North, so to speak, educational activists and theorists found the book tremendously stimulating. Many educational activists relished its radical arguments. And Illich’s book was, and continues to be, a major inspiration for the homeschooling movement, as well as for the closely-related unschooling movement, despite the fact, often overlooked by those familiar only with the book's title, that it doesn’t even mention, much less endorse, either idea. Illich called for a society whose tools were such that compulsory schooling would not be necessary - convivial tools, he called them, the use of which people could learn from each other, with no need for professionals.
As we see it, the issues that Illich raised in this illuminating little book have never demanded more attention and discussion than they do right now. Compulsory schooling, in all its forms, is upon us as never before, and not simply because of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), shrinking school budgets, or rising college tuitions. More troubling, by far, is the escalating intensity and broadening scope of schooling that the response to climate change engendering.
As currently formulated and described by politicians and scientists - the Al Gore crowd, we might call them - solutions to the problem of “global warming” call for people to conceive of themselves in radically new ways: less as persons who live locally and remain rooted in the soil beneath their feet and more as global citizens with global responsibilities. And it’s that change of mind and redefinition of self that will, in turn, require schooling and regimentation on an unprecedented scale. The effort will aim to “educate” not only youngsters as formal students but all persons pretty much all the time - at home, at work, at the doctor’s office, at church.
To see why this will be so, look at how Illich came to think about his own book: As popular and piercing as its critique certainly was, Deschooling did not fully capture the man’s thoughts about education, which continued to evolve. Even as the book neared publication, Illich foresaw that his argument was about to cause “unwanted side effects.” By attacking the assumptions that underlay traditional schooling as harshly as it did, his critique, he saw, would almost certainly cause the educational system to defend and consolidate its power. How? By changing and redefining itself. No longer would schools, as traditionally understood, be the sole provider of education. Now, the whole world would be turned into a professionally-administered classroom. Illich recalled to David Cayley, in the book Ivan Illich in Conversation (p.73), that
... nothing would be worse than to believe that I consider schools the only technique for creating and establishing and anchoring in souls the myth of education. There are many other ways by which we can make the world into a universal classroom.
It was Wolfgang Sachs, then a student of Illich’s in Germany, who Illich says first warned him that as prescient and penetrating as Deschooling’s arguments may have been, Illich was “barking up the wrong tree.” As Illich told Cayley, Sachs and fellow students
claimed that by making so much of the unwanted side effects of compulsory schooling, I had become blind to the fact that the educational function was already emigrating from the schools and that, increasingly, other forms of compulsory learning would be instituted in modern society. It would become compulsory, not by law, but by other tricks like making people believe that they are learning something from TV or compelling people to attend in-service training, or getting people to pay huge amounts of money in order to be taught how to prepare better for intercourse, how to be more sensitive, how to know more about the vitamins which they need, how to play games, and so on.
Sachs was right, of course, as can be seen in the subsequent rise of major industries devoted to such notions as adult education, continuing education, lifelong learning, and on-the-job training. Every activity, from sports to cooking to remaking one’s persona so as to sell more effectively, has been made the subject of “self-help” books, training classes, and electronic courseware authored by self-proclaimed experts. Just look at all the crap, most of it made from unearthly plastic, that’s sold under the rubric of “educational toy.”
And don’t forget the continual bombardment of advisories in the newspapers, monthly magazines, and nightly television programs urging us to submit regularly to a growing list of medical tests - tests whose hidden curriculum, to borrow a key phrase from Deschooling, is to have us conceive of ourselves and our bodies in terms of arcane measurements: pressure levels, chemical ratios, genetic risk factors, and so forth. In short, we are our medical charts, described and understood in terms defined by professionals.
Right now, Planet Earth is coming to be conceived widely in a similarly new way, too - as a self-contained system that must be managed intensively and on an unprecedented, all-encompassing, global scale. “Today’s ecology,” Sachs writes, “is in the business of saving nothing less than the planet. That suggestive globe, suspended in the dark universe, delicately furnished with clouds, oceans, and continents, has become the object of science, planning, and politics.”
And so, too, are the people living on this planet-turned-computer-guided-spaceship objects of planning. The modern, industrialized conception of the human being is as a collection of bodily systems - endocrine, reproductive, digestive, immune, and so forth - that can be monitored, analyzed, tinkered with, and manipulated in the name of health. And this same line of cybernetic thinking leads, as well, to the human being as a whole being understood as merely one form of sub-system struggling for survival in the larger, ultra-competitive ecosystem where scarcity - particularly scarcity of energy - rules. So, as Planet Earth succumbs to management on an unprecedented scale, with enormous computer simulations fed torrents data flowing in from vast webs of sensors on land, in the oceans, and orbiting in space, can there be any question that people - as individuals and as abstract populations - will require intensive management and planning, as well?
The emerging vision of “technocratic environmentalism,” Sachs notes, understands the situation like so: “As a global species we are transforming the planet. It is only as a global species - pooling our knowledge, coordinating our actions and sharing what the planet has to offer - that we may have any prospect for managing the planet’s transformation along the pathways of sustainable development.”
What’s entirely missing in most discussions, however, is any consideration of limiting or even reversing economic growth - the growth that gives rise to climate problems in the first place. Instead, we’re told that the management of the global ecosystem will depend on figuring out how much growth this system can sustain without collapsing. In 1989, the Scientific American boldly explained it in terms that Dr. Strangelove might have uttered to his audience in the War Room:
Two central questions must be addressed: What kind of planet do we want? What kind of planet can we get? How much species diversity should be maintained in the world? Should the size or the growth rate of human population be curtailed? How much climate change is acceptable?The point being that economic growth and escalating consumption will continue in this managed world, and schools, where people are tacitly taught to consume, will continue as well.
For centuries, notes Sachs, Western society has sought to control Nature. But, just in case anyone missed it, this has led to unpleasant and unpredictable consequences. And so, from now on, “the purpose of global environmental management is nothing less than control of a second order; a higher level of observation and intervention has to be installed, in order to control the consequences of the control over nature. Such a step becomes the more imperative as the drive towards turning the world into a closely interelated and expanding economic society continues unabated.”
In short, economic growth and development, which have historically progressed hand in hand with compulsory schooling, are hardly likely to disappear. And given that this growth and development will need to be managed within a most-demanding set of constraints, won’t the schooling of the people involved need to be more intensive, as well?
Assuming that economic growth proceeds, this will see more of the world’s population join the “developed” world. In turn, more schooling will be required to enable society to reproduce itself, especially as survival and maintaining sustainable growth come to depend on ever-more intensive and technical management of the biosphere. People living at a traditional subsistence level have no need for schooling as Illich saw it, but people living in a market-intensive, industrialized way cannot get by without intensive and compulsory schooling. Economies don’t grow without the people involved being taught to consume and to get with the program.