De-Schooling -- brief notes

Ivan Illich

Present Dominant Views
Illich's  Alternatives
CHILD Passive, a vessel to be filled ( even in 'progressive education'). Dependent, immature, needs motivating No such thing as a child. Pupils to be seen as 
active and self-liberating with a right to control education in their interests
LEARNING Learning equated with teaching. Teaching 
equals pushing knowledge down students' throats via various funnels
Genuine learning is only possible as the pursuit of our own interests via choice and control. Inevitably personal. Intermittent and life-long
KNOWLEDGE Knowledge is a commodity, alien to the real interests of the pupils ( inevitably -- it is always teacher-related). A hidden curriculum exists which produces a consumption-orientation and passivity No such thing as an abstractly worthwhile  body of knowledge. Emphasis on personal knowledge. Learners know best what is relevant to them
TEACHER A professional pedagogue who knows what is best and who possesses esoteric organisation and communication skills No separate teaching profession -- general de-professionalisation. Professional knowledge a mere restrictive practice. We still need advisers and 'teachers' -- not necessarily professional ones.
SCHOOL Defined as "compulsory attendance at an age-specific, teacher -related curriculum". Deeply imbued with non-educational values from the wider society. Organised as a hierarchy, a funnel. No schools. Instead, learning webs (sic), networks, contacts between those who want to teach and those who want to learn. All educational resources to be harnessed -- including work
SOCIETY Bureaucratic, work-oriented, consumption-centred. Built on satisfying "false needs" Democratic rather than bureaucratic. Small-scale, de-centralised, "convivial". Organised to meet real (limited) needs, then leisure-oriented

Paolo Freire

Present Dominant Views
Freire's Views (pre-revolution)
Passive, oppressed, afraid of freedom. In a "culture of silence". Dehumanized. Accepts the oppressor and his/her reality A "subject", naming his/her own world and establishing own definitions of reality in a critical way. A full, active human being, fully politicised and aware.
LEARNING "Banking" -- storing deposits, receiving gifts. Aimed at domestication Via "dialogues" between equals. Aimed at political ends -- "conscientisation" (raising revolutionary consciousness)
KNOWLEDGE Rendered as "nuggets" or as abstract techniques devoid of personal meaning. Alien, value-laden (as in "hidden curriculum"). Looks neutral but is really political (ideological) Not entirely a matter for individuals. There is a concept of "truth" and worthwhileness. Active knowledge is to be aimed at praxis, so not abstract but historically relevant and aimed at political liberation. Adult literacy programmes the only example.
TEACHER An oppressor, sometimes a benevolent one. Bosses, politicians, landlords are "teachers" too. An organiser of "dialogue". Plays a definite committed role in fostering liberation. No fixed specialism - in dialogues, both parties teach and learn.
SCHOOL (No special analysis offered -- Freire's focus in on those who do not attend school). A place where "banking" takes place. No mass schools. Teams of researchers and lots of organised dialogues.
SOCIETY Analysed in "Third World Marxist" terms -- a mixture of Marx with some bits of phenomenology and other humanisms (including Christianity) -- an "alienation problematic". Society as oppressive, unequal, exploitative and alienating. Struggle as a central permanent feature. No detailed analysis of the future society -- presumably some sort of utopian communism at the end of alienation? For the present, the major concern is the struggle within society -- after the Revolution, people will be able to decide what they want, when they are free from alienation.


Illich and Freire are united in one basic claim --  that the education system as we know it, schooling, is anti-educational, repressive, and designed to domesticate rather than liberate people. For both, schooling is closely interwoven with advanced industrial societies, and the societies themselves are repressive and dominating. Two main implications follow: 

(a) You cannot reform school, but must abolish it. Illich is very much against  'progressive' education, free schools, community schools and so on. 
(b) In attacking schooling, we are attacking the key central values of the current society, and so no compromise available with current society either. In nibbling away at  education, we should realise that the wider society needs to be nibbled to. 
In this sense, both Illich and Freire are radicals, and both see the need for fundamental changes in schooling, while being prepared to face the social consequences as well. Unlike some other progressives, who believed in piecemeal reforms, and who saw education as needing to serve particular groups, or as compensating other groups. In both cases, proposals about schooling stem from a thorough, radical critique of existing notions of the child, and knowledge, and schooling, as in the tables above. 

Ivan Illich

Illich's view seems to be the modern society has got out of control, has got into a vicious circle of expanded production and consumption. It has also developed different sorts of specialists -- teachers and doctors --  and developed mass, bureaucratic organisations, which are no longer responsive to the true needs of individuals, but which provide standardized, impersonal packages to be consumed. School is perhaps the most evil of all, precisely because it promises individualised treatment, and the pursuit of a critical inquiry, but it provides the same standardized impersonal treatment and manipulation because of the way it is organised. What is needed is personal individual liberation from mass society, a return to small-scale democratic institutions, and a new humanistic approach, where individuals relate to each other as whole people, and where individuals can choose and control their own education -- this is  'conviviality'. 

All sorts of criticisms are possible. The common ones are: 

  1. Illich is impractical, utopian and Romantic ( see Hargreaves in Flude and Ahier 1974) since deschooling would not work in our society. This is not really a criticism in one sense, however, since Illich wants deschooling to produce individuals who will not fit in, and will not want to fit in to our present society. 
  2. Deschooling is against human nature, since children need guidance and compulsion. This is in some ways and untestable philosophical issue, however. It is possible to say that radical individualism would lead to chaos, anarchy, and the war of each against each  [and any Durkheimians would want to point out that unrestrained egoism leads to anomie and suicide]. However, Illich hopes that a new kind of social order will emerge, based on the free co-operation of individuals pursuing their own human ends. [This is the old and familiar dilemma about individual freedom and social order, much discussed by people like liberals or Utilitarians -- see file, for example]. 
The critique by Gintis, in Dale et al (1976), it is useful because it shares a number of basic Marxist philosophical views with Freire  (although not with Illich). Gintis's article is rather long, so let me try to summarise it in a few key points: 
(1)  Illich's attack on modern industrial society is a good one, but he has not looked far enough for the source of all the dehumanisation and repression. He argues that this is grounded in a consumption ideology, but, of course, this only reflects the production system of society. As a marxist, Gintis would obviously see the production system as the key to understanding social life, and this production system is a capitalist one, based on private property, and involving a necessary exploitation of people in pursuit of profit. It follows that it becomes necessary to organise society rationally, and to dehumanise people, by treating them as commodities, and organising society as a  'cash nexus'. Illich seems to believe that ending consumption ideology would bring about social change, but Gintis says we need some way to end capitalist production. Illich is not totally committed to this -- he simply wants small-scale capitalism. 

(2) Illich advocates the individual liberating him or herself by some process of recognising  'false needs', and restating true needs. This is to be done by persuasion, and sermonising. Gintis argues that, on the contrary, this is not just a matter of individual realization and liberation, but of politics -- people have to gain experience of liberation in practice, in groups, and once they are conscious they have to organise as groups to change society. Social classes, not isolated individuals, change society -- the proper location for this sort of action is in industry, in work, in family life, and not just in education. 

(3) Illich's proposals are based on negation  [or what we have called elsewhere 'inversion']. Illich simply identifies the main oppressive characteristics of society, and turns them upside-down. The policy is really a rejection of work, a rejection of schooling, and the rejection of mass technology. Instead, what is required, Gintis argues, in a classical Marxist way, is a synthesis of these opposites, to retain the best sides of existing practices, and then to move beyond simple negation, looking towards new organisations that contain and control the best elements both of what is and its opposite. Instead of easy solutions, Gintis advocates the 'long march through the institutions'.

Paolo Freire

Many of these themes are found in Freire too: he says his books are read by both marxists and Christians. I'm not too clear about  'Third World theology', but I can see that his ideas are heavily underpinned by marxist analysis. His work is riddled with terms like alienation, oppression, domination, exploitation, and praxis. Much of it rests on classical Marxist analyses of capitalism, and its internal and international consequences -- profit, or economic growth, must mean exploitation; private property causes alienation; wealth arises at the expense of poverty and powerlessness; society is best understood as a conflict between classes with opposing interests, no matter how benevolent the ruling class might be in its charity and reformism. Freire is completely against conservative or liberal analyses that see poverty and misery as accidental, or the result of bad organisation, or as the result of personally wicked or unenlightened bosses. Instead, conflict and repression are structured, and inevitable, at least while capitalism exists. They can be no freedom without radical changes in society -- free choice within capitalism is a myth, and freedom in education is a myth too 

Freire's commitment is to Marxist goals, and he seems quite prepared to envisage armed struggle to get there, as seen by his references to people like Guevara, Debray, or Mao. His proposals are consciously political -- he wants to encourage the oppressed to fight. 

Looking at the table above which refers to him, we might need to explain some of these terms. References to a 'subject' implies that a human being is an active participant in constructing their own society, and reality, according to their true interests. Of course, people have to identify the true interests and pursue them, and this means they must break with seeing reality as fixed, objective, or thing - like, as some kind of constraint. This discussion is linked to the Marxist term  'praxis' , which is an embodiment of ideas, thoughts and intentions in practice -- self conscious action, rather than some kind of mechanical practice. Sometimes, praxis is seen as the whole point of theory, and successful practice becomes a kind of test that adequate theory. However, this is not as easy as it looks -- for example, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish praxis in this active sense from mere successful adaptations to already fixed constraints and agendas. There are also problems in seem praxis as the main test of the validity of a theory  [and these days, a certain unease among marxists, in seeing close links between theory and praxis in the first place of, especially if you are an Althusserian]. Nevertheless, theory and knowledge are not to be seen as abstract understandings but as connected to definite attempts to change the world. 

 'Dialogue' is perhaps the most fascinating concept. It refers to an evolving discussion between equals, with no assessment or imposed limits. [In this, it closely resembles the famous  'ideal speech act' of Habermas, where participants are are entitled to raise claims about the validity of any statement, and where the pursuit of the better argument is the only guideline]. The dialogues occur only if participants have common interests in the first place. It becomes the first stage in teaching literacy, which is Freire's main example and interest, to establish first of all what the dominant concerns of the illiterates are. There is no assumption that the participants have identical interests, of course, or there will be no progress or learning: instead, dialogues operate by each person adding their own expertise and knowledge to the discussion. Using phenomenological approaches here, Freire suggests that in dialogue each person draws the attention of the other to new issues that lie in the other's  'horizon'. Each person also draws attention to the assumptions made by the other. Both parties attempt to identify and analyse new problems that are connected with common interests: clearly, illiterate Brazilian peasants would be able to accurately describe their experience, while the task of the researcher/teacher would be to generalise, and theorise about that experience, in order to politicise it. 

For example, if I entered into a dialogue with one of my students, our immediate common interest might be the examination. You would have specific interests in passing as examination while I, a marxist dialogician in this case, would have a theoretical/political interest in getting you to see examinations as a form of social control. You would describe accurately and in a novel way, perhaps, your interest in examinations and how it fits into your life history. As you talk, I might seize on one aspect of what you said to introduce my themes and interests -- I might drew attention to the consequences of passing or failing in terms of your employability, for example, and then invite you to discuss why jobs are allocated to those with formal educational qualifications in the first place. I might ask you how you actually pass examinations, what counts for you as a right approach, and then go on to discuss the actual criteria that examiners used, and suggests that these are linked to common ideologies. As our dialogue progresses, I attempt to modify your views by reference to my abstract theories, while you modify and test my abstract theories by reference to your concrete situation: as a result, we both learn. 

There are obvious dangers here, of course, since, despite our formal equality, one person might be able to dominate the other in practice. In schooling, this is often exactly what happens, a sense, at the end of the day I have the power to assess you, and not vice versa. there are other complications too -- my professional ideology, which you might share, and which might even be right, says that I am the one who knows things, while you are the one who needs to know them. In a sense, Freirian dialogues are open to a classical Marxist problem -- at some stage, marxists tend to think they are right, and they even have a theory which explains why other people might be plausible but wrong  [see file]. 

In the final analysis, we can at least see how radically different Freire is. Teachers are politically committed and involved, in his conception of educational practice, not at all carefully neutral and abstract, which is often claimed to be the case in ours. There is no assessment, not even nice, benevolent, progressive and student-friendly assessment. Teachers must prepared to be learners, to be vulnerable, instead of always being knowing, cool, and in charge.

Final Points

I hope you will have noticed that:

(1) the same arguments about schooling apply even more to universities and colleges -- see file
(2) what we have done here is deeply paradoxical -- I have given an organised discussion of deschooling. So --even deschooling can be 'banked'? Perhaps when people do contact their teachers in a learning web they might still need didactic teaching?


Dale R, Esland G, MacDonald M (eds) (1976) Schooling and Capitalism: a sociological reader, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul in association with the Open University Press ( see especially chapters by Gintis, Johnson and Freire).
Flude J and Ahier M (eds) (1974) Educability, Schools and Ideology, London: Croom Helm
Freire P (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed,(trans Myra Bergman Ramos) Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.
Illich I (1971) Deschooling Society, London: Calder and Boyars
Reimer E (1971) School is Dead: an essay on alternatives in education, Harmondsworth: Penguin Education

up to main page