Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: Deschooling Society

"Classics" wrote Mark Twain, "are something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read". Judging by the number of copies in the library,  I'm obviously the last person with an interest in Education to have read this book, and it is a real classic. As you may have noticed, I make it a rule* never to conceal my ignorance, so I'm going to review it anyway.

As you might gather from the title, the book is highly critical of the modern educational institutions. The opening sections are a strong, and now familiar critique of the educational system as a means of institutionalising society. The criticisms are not so different from those of Ken Robinson, although Illich is intellectually a much heavier hitter, and Ken Robinson has better jokes. Perhaps the criticisms were radical when he wrote the book in 1970, but, alas, not anymore. Illich takes the critique a step further by observing that the current system convinces people that all education must come from a school (or University). This it tend to make people expect that everything must come from a bureacratic institutions - he talks about '"HEW  (Health Education Welfare)Pollution". Politically, it's all fairly left wing stuff, but Illich never slides into sloppy polemic. It's all well written and coherently argued, and he is as quick to jab at the Marxists as anyone.

The book really starts to sizzle about halfway, and I note from the markings in the library copy, most readers had given up by then (Highlighter Pen only managed chapter 1, The Underliner left me after chapter 3). Unlike many critics, Illich goes on to propose an alternative model for education, and, for something written in 1970, it's remarkably prescient in terms of where learning is really going in the 21st century.

Illich outlines a system where people connect directly, on a one to one basis, with people who have skills and are willing to teach them. He couldn't foresee the web as an enabling framework, but the system he describes is uncannily close to the Web 2.0 model of education, where deep social networks can easily connect learners into peer groups, or with experts in the field. He talks about the need for shifting education from a funnel based model, where people are given the learning that the institution thinks they need, to a web (his word, in 1970!) where people sought the learning they needed across a network, directly from experts, not necessarily teachers. He talks about giving people access to learning objects, and letting them get on with it, which reminds me of Sugata Mitras experiments enabling children in India to learn with fairly unregulated access to a computer.

 The accuracy of his vision is uncanny, and does much to explain his popularity with the connectivist/web 2.0 set. He was a Catholic priest, and such men have been canonised for lesser visions than his.

The book is full of other ideas ahead of their time. Social networks, Government 2.0, appropriate technology and hacker culture are all in there, imagined as they might be without the enabling medium of the internet  I feel I aught to read it again very carefully, to see if I can pick out The Next Big Thing.

Style wise, it's not at all heavy going, and at 116 pages it isn't an intimidating read, a couple of bus journeys, you have no excuse. If you don't have time to dig it out of the library, there's even a free eBook (all formats) you can download this very instant from and, funnily enough given the book, there's also discussion forum on Wikiversity, which is a example of exactly the kind of learning web he was talking about

His lefty/anarchist perspective might put some readers off, but if you can put up with my writing, his will present no challenge. If you are interested in a fresh view of education in society, this is an important book.

Read it.

I'll tip my cap to Steve Wheeler at this point, who brought Illich to my attention in a talk he gave to us in UCC in late 2008.

* More of a guideline, to be honest.

1 comment:

  1. I also read it recently. I loved it. Hard to see much of it as radical now I agree. It is insidious how people don't seem to read books anymore and be self-taught. I don't even think academics are that well-read anymore and many seem to more name drop than grapple with a wide variety of texts. Who has the time when you're punching your ticket in the credentialization arms race. The need to learn from a certified expert and that anything else it dodgy is a really, really bad thing. It just doesn't conform to the way true knowledge is acquired. I guess I'm a radical now since I've come to think college education is an obstacle to learning.