Ivan Illich on ‘Deschooling’

Ivan Illich (1926–2002) was born in Vienna, became a Roman Catholic priest and spent most of his life working in Latin America. By the end of the 1960s, however, he was forced to leave the priesthood after criticising the Catholic hierarchy. He rose to international prominence in the 1970s when he wrote a series of books critically analysing the institutions of modern society: work, transport, medicine, and perhaps most famously, schooling.

As early as the 1970s, Ivan Illich was beginning to imagine an educational future in which the proprietary knowledge relations of the conventional classroom were transformed:

A … major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside of school, and in school only in so far as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives. Most learning happens casually, and even the most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction. Normal children learn their first language casually, although faster if their parents pay attention to them. Most persons who learn a second language do so as a result of odd circumstances and not of sequential teaching …

School, by its very nature, tends to make a total claim on the time and energies of its participants. This, in turn, makes the teacher into custodian, preacher and therapist … The teacher-as-custodian acts as a master of ceremonies, who guides … pupils through a drawn-out labyrinthine ritual … The teacher-as-moralist substitutes for parents, God or the state … [and] indoctrinates the pupil about what is right and wrong … The teacher-as-therapist feels authorized to delve into the personal life of pupil[s] in order to help [them] grow as (World Indigenous Peoples) … The safeguards of individual freedom are all cancelled in the dealings of a teacher with [their] pupil[s] … [T]he schoolteacher fuses in his person the functions of judge, 38 ideologue, and doctor …

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 only be know in orderly successions; and that only teachers can 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 …

If there were no age-specific and obligatory learning institution, ‘childhood’ would go out of production … The disestablishment of schools could also end the present discrimination against infants, adults and the old in favour of children throughout their adolescence and youth. The social decision to allocate educational resource preferably to those citizens who have outgrown the extraordinary learning capacity of their first four years and have not arrived at the height of their self-motivated learning, will, in retrospect, probably appear as bizarre … Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of the schoolteacher …

New educational institutions would break apart this pyramid. Their purpose would be to facilitate access for … learner[s]: to allow [them] to look into the windows of the control room or the parliament, if [they] cannot get in 79 by the door. Moreover, such new institutions should be channels to which the learner would have access without credentials or pedigree—public spaces in which peers and elders outside of his immediate horizon would become available.

I believe that no more than four … distinct ‘channels’ or learning exchanges could contain all the resources needed for real learning. [Children] grow up in a world of things, surrounded by people who serve as models for skills and values. [They] find peers who challenge [them] to argue, to compete, to cooperate and to understand; and if [they are] lucky, [they are] exposed to confrontation or criticism by an experienced elder who really cares. Things, models, peers and elders are four resources each of which requires a different type of arrangement to ensure that everybody has ample access to it.

I will use the words ‘opportunity web’ … to designate specific ways to provide access to each of the four sets of resources … Educational resources are usually labelled according to educators curricular goals. I propose to do the contrary, to label four different approaches which enable … student[s] to gain access to any educational resource which may help [them] to define and achieve [their] own goals:

1. Reference Services to Educational Objects—which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories and showrooms like museums and theatres; others can be in daily use in factories, airports or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off-hours.

2. Skill exchanges—which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.

3. Peer-matching—a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.

4. Reference Services to Educators-at-Large—who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals and freelancers, along with the conditions of access to their services. Such educators … could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.

… The disestablishment of schools will inevitably happen—and it will happen surprisingly fast … [T]he growing awareness on the part of governments, as well as of employers, taxpayers, enlightened pedagogues and school administrators, that graded curricular teaching for certification has become harmful could offer large masses of people an extraordinary opportunity: that of preserving the right of equal access to the tools both of learning and of sharing with others what they know and believe.


Illich, Ivan. 1973. Deschooling Society. Harmondsworth UK: Penguin. pp. 20, 37–38, 78, 34–35, 78–81, 104. || WorldCat


Previous || Chapter 2: Directory || Next