The next instalment of ‘Positive views’ book reviews is here – and I’m looking at the late great Ivan Illich.

Deschooling Society
Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution
Tools for Conviviality
All by Ivan Illich

Review By Tim Barton

(Part 1 of 2)

A number of themes are found in his works, most of which revolve around his critique of institutionalisation. This critique focusses on the tendency of modern institutions to become oversized, dehumanising and alienating. They undermine confidence and stifle creativity, yet are often set up in the first place to fulfil positive goals and to realise humanly creative ends. 

Beyond a certain scale, however, they lose the capability to reach these goals, indeed often increasing pressure away from them. The factors that make this inevitable include schooling, the ‘expert’ culture, commodification and counterproductivity, all of which are intertwined. His work is profound and solution-oriented. I would rank as his three most important works Deschooling Society, Celebration of Awareness and Tools for Conviviality.

The education establishment of the seventies was increasingly centralised, with nationalised curricula, government interference and a ‘bureaucratisation of accreditation’. The recent British moves to privatise have not helped much, and it would be interesting to see how he would approach that today. Our culture for paper proof of formal education has if anything worsened. Whoever formally ‘owns’ it, the rise of institutionalised education, obscuring as it does everyday/vernacular/apprenticed forms of learning, is a part of the devaluing commodification of knowledge.

Illich’s ideas for deinstitution-alising education – ‘deschooling’ – and for, instead, creating humanising, or ‘convivial’, forms of education were an important part of a radical tradition of alternative schooling ideals.

“The pupil is […] ‘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.” – Deschooling Society

The bureaucratisation of accreditation does not merely affect youth in education. It becomes enshrined in academia as a method of keeping one up on the [Professor] Joneses. More PhD’s, more citations, more publications. This quantitative valuing of expertise is an inextricable part of the reversal of the education establishments nominal purpose. In creating this culture of ‘expertise’, power becomes expropriated from ordinary individuals, whose empowerment to shape their own lives and environment is negated. The only opinion on a given subject to be granted any credence by the state and other institutions is the opinion that comes from the recognised ‘expert’.

However, this ‘expert’ has to daily prove expertise through time-consuming rituals, such as rehashing the last decent work he/she did another twenty times, in different guises, to ensure maximum citations, and to work towards yet another post-graduate qualification. ‘Experts’ become the gatekeepers, controlling the production of knowledge, controlling how knowledge is ‘legitimately’ acquired, and creating a cartel. This is obvious in all spheres of the knowledge economy. 

Those who have been active in environmental campaigns, for example, will be familiar with the ‘argument’ that you don’t know what you are talking about because you don’t have letters after your name/a piece of paper saying you have a ratified quantity of pre-packaged knowledge. And you will know this for the crock that it is, as you will often be better read than half (at least!) of the company lackeys that are devaluing your contribution. Illich is as concerned as we are to demythologise science: though it is still a skill requiring knowledge, it is not out of the reach of the literate and numerate layperson. All of us can, if sufficiently astute, become, say, ‘citizen scientists’.

In creating a society where the institution can control what is perceived as ‘needs’, and thus control what is considered the ‘satisfaction’ of those needs, institutions can more fully control the factors they need to in order to achieve their goals. However, in so doing they not only dehumanise and disempower real individuals by positing a more ‘useful’ conception (the theoretical ‘average citizen’) they also thereby create a warped view of the very reality they seek to control. 

In making everything and everyone cohere to their theoretical construct, they make everything and everyone into a static unit to be moved around their intellectual chess-board. That is to say, they create a mere commodity. In education this phenomenon mutates learning from a healthful and voluntaristic activity into a measured and weighed object/thing. The acquisition of more of this object gives the individual greater social value than someone who has acquired less of it. Qualitative measurement falls by the wayside, as quantitative value becomes paramount.

• The second part of this review will be in HIP Issue 125.

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