Some Overview Comments on Ivan Illich's 1970 book: DESCHOOLING SOCIETY.

Bob Corbett

Illich longs for a different world than exists today. This world is a much more radically individualist world where fundamental responsibilities fall to the individual. There is an irony here. Much of the tendency toward a more society-dominated world came from people who claimed that radical individualism disadvantaged too many, especially the gigantic underclass, and simply fed class divisions. Thus many programs toward government control came from people called in the contemporary sense "liberals," who supposedly want to protect and advance the cause of the underclass.

Illich believes this has resulted in a disaster which has the following outcomes:

These are the sorts of reasons that lead Illich to call for a fundamental and radical change of social values.

Before I try to clarify these notions and the arguments he offers for them, let me try to make this picture a bit more vivid. This is extremely difficult to do to people primarily raised in the United States after the mid-1960s. By that time the society was, on Illich's terms "all schooled up," and most of you will have grown up taking this "all schooled up" society as completely NATURAL and obvious. Not so with me.

I was born in 1939 into a St. Louis working class neighborhood. I had finished college before the 1960s hit and radical changes began to occur. That is, I was an adult, finished with undergrad university before "schooling" was the fully dominant world that it is today. While the outside society -- outside my working class neighborhood -- was changing in this direction ever since the depression, but with more vigor after World War II, the changes were much less noticeable to the working and underclass folks. Thus I have lived in both these worlds.

For me, like Illich, there is no NATURAL in this. These are very different world options and one is more dominant today that in the past. Neither is really "natural," rather, they are chosen by humans. Illich is concerned that the negative impact on us represented by the "schooled up" world is simply too great and that it must be overthrown.

Now, let's try to get much more clear on what this "schooled up" society is all about.

I begin with society and will get to the school after that.

What is it we reward? Illich makes a distinction between

process and produce
following accept procedures and actual achievement

On his view we have shifted our focus from rewarding actual achievement to rewarding simply processes or following socially accepted procedures. Let me give you some very concrete examples. The "old world" of rewarding actual achievement and produce are still alive in our society for us to see, they are just being taken over more and more by process, and credentialing.

The old world: is still alive in many areas of sports and entertainment.

If a team wants a good field goal kicker it will indeed seek a kicker who demonstrates to them he can kick. That someone comes to the team with a certificate that he went to kicking school and got all good grades in kicking would be laughed out of court. The issue would be: can the person kick field goals with accuracy and distance under pressure of game situations.
Similarly, with much in entertainment worlds. Webster University has a highly regarded theater department. Students work hard here and hopefully learn a great deal. But when they go out looking for an acting job, that they have a degree from Webster University with a major in theater is of extremely little interest. The issue is performance and demonstrated ability, not a credential.

These are some areas of society in which demonstrating actual ability REGARDLESS OF ITS SOURCE is what will be rewarded in society.

However, in increasing areas of life, individuals do not put forward their skills and abilities. Rather, they get some certification and we make A HIGHLY DUBIOUS assumption that the certification tells us who has abilities and who does not. Some of the earliest certifications were for physicians and lawyers. Nowadays a huge number of work places are such that they require certification to admit employees. This runs from certified plumbers and carpenters in the building trades, through teachers (at least at elementary and secondary schools -- ironically, while the PHD is generally a minimum certification for university teaching, there is no formal certification for university professors), and encompasses an increasing number of professions such as counseling, psychology, day care centers and so on.

What would Illich have against this process? There are several arguments: Illich presumes, and rightly I think, that there is a general belief that society will indeed get the best people via the certification process. Illich believes this is not only false, but has other negative consequences besides the belief's falseness.

Some of his arguments are:

  1. A logical argument with a factual tag.

    There are four logical possibilities about any person in relation to any job.
    1. The person has the skill and ability AND the credential.
    2. The person has the skill and ability BUT NOT the credential.
    3. The person does not have the skill and ability BUT DOES have the credential.
    4. The person has NEITHER the skill and ability OR the credential.

    I think we can safely leave out D. Illich has no more sympathy for this individual as a candidate for social rewards than does the credentialing system.

    1. The position A is the standard assumption as to who the credentialed ARE. Illich thinks there is a huge degree of evidence that indicates this is the sheerest nonsense and that we are quite aware of it. The educational establishment in the United States is under constant fire since people do get credentials and come out of that experience too often with precious little related skill -- students graduating from high school who are functionally illiterate and so on. You know the arguments as well as Illich or I do. Nonetheless, a huge weight of social rewards are tied to this assumption, even though we know it is highly controversial, if not directly false.

    2. The case of B is one that interests Illich a great deal. Again, in the factual case there is virtually no one who denies this. Most of us have met people, perhaps even relatives at family parties or what not, whom we see relating to people in such a fashion that all we know about teaching and learning suggests:

      This person would be a wonderful teacher…. yet the person wouldn't have the slightest chance at that since he or she is not credentialed, perhaps not even formally educated at the university level. You could probably produce many more examples to indicate that this group of people exist and are significant.

      Nonetheless they are very often excluded from the work place by social custom and even by law.

      Illich focuses on both the terrible injustice to deny the individual his or her talents, and at the same time brings our attention to the great social loss by denying society the benefit of the genuine talents and skills.

    3. Case C is another case which interests Illich (and many much less radical reformist critics of society as well), is that credentials often do not tell us much about what we can expect in skill or knowledge.

      I simply love my job of teaching philosophy. However, the gradually evolved societal position in philosophy teaching (and all other areas of teaching) as done here in the U.S. seem based on a terrible lie. Students typically take courses which carry 3 credit hours. Since our major is for 36 hours (if the number were different it would just change the math and not the factual situation), each course is 1/12th of a philosophy major. Virtually any student with money enough, time enough, patience enough and just the minimum intellectual ability, can hang around long enough to get such a degree. What does that tell us about the person's philosophical ability? I would say virtually nothing. Some do this 36 hours successfully and come out rather surprisingly learned people in the area. Others do it and know very little philosophy in the long-run. I don't think this suggests that we have a bad department or that our students or standards are not good enough. Rather, it tells us more about the silliness of the assumption that surviving a process of learning guarantees any significant degree of learning.
      I used to be romantically attached to the European examination system. There one doesn't get credit by the course. Rather, you go to the university, study, and when you are ready you present yourself for examination. These exams are cumulative and quite difficult. You either pass and get your "certificate" or you don't. It seemed much more likely to make the credentialed = learned or skilled equation to be a reliable one. However, when I would make this argument in Europe, my European colleagues would laugh at me and say that's only because you have never lived it. Rather, students don't study the subject itself, becoming learned in history, biology or math, rather they study the examinations themselves. Oh they don't have the ACTUAL exams at their finger tips, but they study the past exams and how to take exams and so on. These professors argue that no more (in raw numbers) of their students are learned that ours. The percent of learned students is probably higher, they argue, simply because the European university doesn't let as many students in and does a great deal of weeding out before university.

    Now Illich does not argue that one way to become learned or skilled is not to become credentialed. Many people use that avenue an important tool. However, this in no way suggests that it is the BEST way to become learned or skilled, nor that it is the only way, nor that it is in any way reliable as a measure of genuine knowledge or skill.

    Thus the point of this argument is to show that there are at least 4 distinct possibilities and that a society which "schools" itself up as ours, increasingly accepts only one. (Credentialing is the only acceptable test of learning and skill) and that this is factually mistaken and has other socially negative results.

  2. The socially negative result of not adequately training people in skill and ability.

    Illich agrees that it is quite valuable for the individual and the society alike to have people who are learned and skilled. It is useful to the individual for many reasons, including the aim of education of their own personal development for its own sake, and for job training as well, it makes it more likely they will have skills, talents and knowledge (as opposed to credentials) that the economy could well use in advancing our material well-being.

    However, he believes that by not demanding of people that they be rewarded for actual knowledge and skill (as one is in much of professional athletics and the entertainment world) but by rewarding people for getting credentials, the end impact is that society has students aiming at the absolutely wrong thing:
    a credential rather than for learning and skill.

    I've had a huge amount of experience in my 35 years of teaching and I think my experience speaks well to Illich's factual claim. I've met students in each of the following categories:

    I think those are the greatest categories which describe the greatest number of students. On Illich's view too many of them lead to an effect of lessening the actual achievement of learning and skill enhancement, thus depriving both the individual and society of important personal and social values.

    Note, his argument does not claim that people cannot learn via credentialing. People obviously do. But not all people learn that way and not all people have reasonable access to that avenue. These latter folks are simply excluded by the exclusivity of the tool.

    Tangential argument: While I'm not here to make the argument that follows, it does fit here, so let me give you the very brief version of this argument of Illich.

    Call this the social control argument. When very limited institutions, like the school or welfare bureaucracy, decide how one gets certified, and when certification is a process rather than demonstrated skill, talent or even need, then this process acts as a decisive control mechanism. Those institutions decide what is and what isn't satisfactory for certification. If one doesn't do it THEIR way, certification isn't forthcoming. This tends to be an extremely conservative (in the sense of simply conserving the status quo) social system. Novelty is often viewed as undesirable [for one thing it challenges the power of the credentialing institutions], and alternative modes and ideas are simply ruled out unless a very select power group accept them.

    Let me use another football image. Prior to the 1970s virtually all place kickers kicked straight on with the toe. That is, they lined up directly behind the ball, ran straight forward and kicked with the toe. If one were coached by any standard coach that is how one learned to kick. However, football is not "schooled up" and certification doesn't dominate. In the late 1960s pro-soccer came to the United States on a larger scale than every before -- my father was a pro-soccer player in the 1930s and 40s, me, briefly, in the 1960s. What happened was football began to take more notice of soccer players and entertained them as kickers. When they kicked, however, they were totally uncontrolled by the tradition structures of football. Kicking straight on with the toe was virtually unknown in soccer. Rather, they kicked from the side with the instep. Note what has happened: that sort of kick proved more successful (an achievement criterion) and now, as best I can tell, there is not a toe-kicker left in pro-football. Had the role of football players been credentialed one has good reason to believe the credentialing schools for football kickers would have been a great deal more conservative in allowing the soccer-style kickers. Novelty threatens the powers of the credentialers.

  3. Illich believes this mistaken notion between the necessary or likely relationship between credentialing and skill or knowledge, leads us to a warped sense of social values, that entire social process which he calls "schooling" [this is "schooling" of the society here rather than just the school]. We come to value processing, as though it had value in and of itself. We come to believe that processing is both the only way to skill and knowledge, and the most effective tool for giving these values. Lastly, we come to value the processing itself rather than the produce, the achievement.

  4. Illich argues that this is especially damaging to the poorer members of society. This is because the wealthier members are in a better position to have the time and wealth to simply last out the processing systems. The poor will always have lesser access, and lesser time to linger, and thus be disadvantaged in getting these-door opening credentials. They would have a much better chance, on his view, if two things occurred:


    Illich is NOT against standards. The exact opposite is true. He wants to rigorously demanding standards. However, he argues, credentials are not in any way a reliable measure of who does and who doesn't have ability, learning and talent.

Those activities test ACHIEVEMENTS not processing, not schooling, not credentialing. By the way, things like awards for ACHIEVEMENT in practice are not credentialing notions. They are testimonies to actual achievement. The award for best actor isn't because one hung around long enough in the theater, it is a measure of achievement.

The point here is that Illich is in no way opposed to standards. Rather he believes very much in the standards of demonstrated knowledge, talent, achievement and so on. He doesn't trust the notion of credentials for having been in some curriculum of study or training.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett