Perspectives on Education

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Within the world of education Ivan D. Illich is best known for his controversial theory of “de-schooling”. This theory proposes radical transformations to education through the abolition of schooling. Schooling and education are completely conflicting concepts for Illich who even as early as his introduction reveals that for most people “the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school”. In our competitive world education can be seen by some as the great panacea that can reduce all inequality and poverty, a national investment in human capital.

This idea of schooling providing a way to improve social standing is in direct contradiction to Illich’s perspective that “the mere existence of school discourages and disables the poor from taking control of their own learning” (DS 1972: p8). Illich proposes that there are two main types of institutions: manipulative and convivial. The school is a “manipulative” institution that discourages individual perceptions and disables judgments by confusing process with substance and subsequently teaching with learning.

Yet commonsense tells us that a daily organized system will expose individuals to a variety of information and subject areas during schooling sessions that natural exposure to the world may not. It is too general to assume schooling inhibits all individual perceptions because surely observations can still occur and perhaps even compliment the information made available through schooling. In fact, modern schooling encourages individuals to take control of their own learning through the practical application of theoretical lessons. According to Illich schools and the school system have deteriorated beyond repair.

The system we rely on so holistically is criticized alongside many other public institutions such as the church for exercising outmoded functions that fail to keep pace with our changing world, functioning only to maintain order and protect the structure of the society that produced them. Presently the acquisition of education can only occur in our society through schooling, which in essence is discriminatory and socially divisive because universities become social gatekeepers and with the escalating growth of educational institutions in our consumer society schooling has become our modern dogma.

Poverty is being reinvented and can now be defined as a measure of those with less schooling and consequently fewer prospects for the future. However, the paradox which exists is that these discriminatory institutions that restrict learning seen as negative by Illich are arguably also providing a sense of equality because “Rich and poor alike depend on schools and hospitals” for guidance (DS 1972: p2). Illich defines Schooling as “the age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full time attendance at an obligatory curriculum” (DS 1972: p26).

Immediately we can see that schooling as a dominant form of education is far from perfect and the boundaries imposed by this explanation become clear. Age is specified reinforcing the idea of exclusivity within a “manipulative” institution. Another reason for age specification is that only during childhood would it be possible to impose segregation and submission to teacher’s authority over individual judgment. A teacher being essential for learning to occur is another “major illusion on which the school system rests” (Ds 1972: p12) because even the way we think is “schooled” by these “manipulative” institutions.

Illich believes teachers are given too many roles within “manipulative” institutions and for the child become the ‘custodian’ drilling students in basic routines, the ‘moralist’ indoctrinating the pupil about right and wrong and finally the ‘therapist’ delving into the personal life of the student (DS 1972: p32). Schooling is given the status of being the best source of learning within our society and this status relies on the existence of four myths described by Illich.

The myth of ‘institutionalized values’ includes the idea that learning only occurs in certified learning institutions like schools. It is based on the assumption that schools are valuable because they produce learning and that this learning is the result of attendance. Hence the value of learning must increase in proportion to the amount of attendance and can be measured and documented with grades and certificates. Illich criticizes this idea and believes learning is not the result of instruction but rather “the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting”.

This theory is valid to a degree but it is important to recognize that educational institutions are providing this ‘meaningful setting’ and instruction although not always essential to learning can prompt participation and serve as the catalyst for subsequent learning. The myth ‘measurement of values’ implies that valuable aspects of education and growth are quantifiable. Yet Illich maintains that personal growth cannot be measured by schooling, despite the tendency to accept rankings, which is ‘schooled’ into people by ‘manipulative’ institutions.

This myth is based on an idealistic view that our level of ability exists as a separate entity that need not be evaluated comparatively, but our society functions competitively and so rankings cannot fail to be relevant to us. The myth of ‘packaging values’ is based on the idea that the school sells curriculum. Curriculum becomes merchandise in a market where the teachers are the distributors and the students become consumers. The reactions of the student become research data to determine the feasibility of merchandise and are charted and used for the preparation of the next model.

Finally the myth of ‘self-perpetuating progress’ asserts that schooling is becoming a rapidly growing industry. There will always be more to consume and the greater your share of educational qualifications the bigger your chance for a good job. In this model Consumers/pupils are taught to adjust their desires to marketable values. Schooling is considered by Illich to be counter-productive past a certain point of development. This theory is adapted from a term used in medicine “iatrogenesis” and signifies the treatment being more damaging than the problem itself.

This problem cannot be solved through new teacher attitudes, new software and hardware, or expanding teacher responsibility. Illich characterizes the current system as a ‘manipulative’ one with academic standards that entrench schools, undermine self-education, intimidate prospective learners and devalue learning outside the school. His solution is an inverse system of ‘convivial’ education, namely Learning Webs. Convivial institutions are inclusive and humanizing.

Such institutions are characterized by “their vocation of service to society, by spontaneous use of and voluntary participation in them by all members of society” (Gajardo 1994: p716). Illich’s perspective of a ‘convivial’ society ‘does not exclude all schools. It does exclude a school system which has been perverted into a compulsory tool, denying privileges to the drop-out” (TFC 1972: p56). Using the idea of this ‘convivial’ approach to education, Illich devises an alternative: educational webs that heighten the opportunity for learning and sharing.

A good education system by these standards “should provide all who want to share what they know, to find those who want to learn it from them and finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known” (TFC 1972: p78). Four learning webs or networks of exchange are described in this theory for effective learning. Firstly ‘Reference services to educational objects’ provide the public with access to things used for formal learning. Examples he gives are libraries and laboratories.

The second network is ‘Skill Exchanges’ which involves willing participants listing skills and abilities they would be willing to model for others under conditions of their choice and how they can be reached for this. Thirdly ‘Peer-Matching’ is a “communications network which persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry” (DS 1972: p79). Finally all of this can be monitored through ‘Reference services to educators at Large’ that will be listed in directories with descriptions of skills.

These elders would be chosen based on their reputation through polling or contacting previous clients. This idea of learning webs becomes more relevant today because we are able to interpret the theory to the information that is available to us today via the Internet. In conclusion Ivan Illich’s perspective of de-schooling, his ideas of schooling myths and ‘convivial’ societies and the solution of learning webs as mutually exclusive to schooling provide a unique, if somewhat utopian perspective of education.

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