Researching Home Education: Ivan Illich

The Philosophy of Education

'Together we have come to realise that for most men
the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school.' Ivan Illich

I’ve long been interested in the philosophy of education. When studying education at university in the early 1990s, I loved learning about Paulo Freire, famous for the quote, "Education is politics. It can be used to liberate or domesticate a people." There was much talk and reading during that first year of my degree about individualised education and we were almost led to believe that there was an educational revolution happening. Apparently, when we walked into classrooms in less than four years’ time we would achieve amazing things in ways never possible before. Many of us had completed high school only months earlier and were doubtful that what the lecturers were arousing in us could ever be put into practise.

About a quarter of the students studying education dropped out before the first semester ended. After the first practical session, many more changed courses or left university. There was no synchronicity between the course and the field. It was very disenchanting for the visionaries among us! One friend completed her four years of study and even after the practical sessions we attended as student-teachers, she still hoped she could make a great difference in some way. At 21, she was employed as a History and English teacher at a large high school. She didn’t last the school year and left to pursue another job. Just months into her dream career she declared the system hopeless. At uni I focused on the other half of my double degree – developmental psychology. I only continued with the Bachelor of Education so I could get a job with the department, or “fall back” on teaching if I couldn’t find the right pscyh position.

As a home educating parent, I continue to read about various philosophies of education. I’ve had the freedom to implement many of the ideas I’ve read and respected. These influences moulding me in my role as the main facilitator in our families’ home based learning. 

This blog post is the first in a short series of weekly summaries of people who have redefined education.

Ivan Illich was born in Vienna in 1926. His life work was that of a priest, a writer, and a speaker. His whole thinking was based on his concern for man's unfolding - physically, spiritually and intellectually. Illich sought to liberate by offering alternatives to institutionalised thought. He illustrated modern education as something which was marketed; a product to be consumed – the more wealthy one is, the more schooling one could amass. He loathed the fact the compulsory schooling brought discrimination to the self-taught individual. He rejected the focus on professionalism and certification, valuing instead skills of actual social value. One of his most famous books is Deschooling Society (1970):

“Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value. 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. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.”

In addressing the alternatives of incidental and informal education, Illich realised that the model of traditional education methods faced hurdles in our modern western society.

“Traditional society was more like a set of concentric circles of meaningful structures, while modern man must learn how to find meaning in many structures to which he is only marginally related. In the village, language and architecture and work and religion and family customs were consistent with one another, mutually explanatory and reinforcing. To grow into one implied a growth into the others… Education did not compete for time with either work or leisure. Almost all education was complex, life-long, and unplanned. Contemporary society is the result of conscious designs, and educational opportunities must be designed into them.”

Ivan Illich proposed practical solutions to the dilemmas modern education faced and created. He argued that a good education system should have three purposes: to provide all that want to learn with access to resources at any time in their lives; make it possible for all who want to share knowledge etc. to find those who want to learn it from them; and to create opportunities for those who want to present an issue to the public to make their arguments known. He suggested that four distinct knowledge exchanges, which he called educational or learning webs, could facilitate this.

“Educational resources are usually labelled according to educators curricular goals. I propose to do the contrary, to label four different approaches which enable the student to gain access to any educational resource which may help him to define and achieve his 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 freelances, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators... could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.”

Learning Webs – an idea I’ve heard echoed in their own words by many home educators. Fifty years on, Illich’s suggestions in Deschooling Society may be a little closer to reality. I have witnessed some reform in mainstream education since I began observing it with reflection, but there have not been enough positive changes that I want to go and compete that degree, or send my own offspring to school. Perhaps my head is in the clouds and home education is idealistic or, as some suggest even an elitist luxury; but one thing I see home based learning as, is the ultimate individualised approach to education as lifelong learning.

You can download and read the whole book Deschooling Society from here, for free.





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