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Ivan Illich was one of the most visionary political and social thinkers of the twentieth century. The book that brought Illich to public attention was Deschooling Society, a critical discourse on education as practised in "modern" economies. Full of detail on contemporary programs and concerns, the book remains as radical today as it was when first published. Giving examples of the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education, Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements:
“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.”
The last sentence makes clear what the title suggests, that the institutionalization of education tends towards the institutionalization of society and that ideas for de-institutionalizing education may be a starting point for a de-institutionalized society. The book is more than a critique, it contains suggestions for a reinvention of learning throughout society and lifetime. Particularly striking is his call for the use of advanced technology to support "learning webs”:
“Educational resources are usually labelled according to educators curricular goals. I propose to do the contrary, to label four different approaches which enable the student to gain access to any educational resource which may help them to define and achieve their own goals:
Reference services to educational objects – which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories and showrooms like museums and theaters; others can be in daily use in factories, airports or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off-hours.
Skill exchanges – which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.
Peer-matching – a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.
Reference services to educators-at-large – who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals and freelancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators… could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.”
“Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "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.
Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.”
One critique of Deschooling Society was by Harvard professor Herbert Gintis, who from his Marxist perspective, criticized Illich’s in his attempt of explaining the problems of industrial capitalism through an analysis of a part of the whole system. According to Gintis, issues like alienation in capitalist social and political structures could only be explained by studying the means of production in the capitalist system, and not by analyzing institutions used by capitalism to maintain its own structures. As a Marxist, Gintis could not accept that human beings’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours were linked to secular institutions like schools. Nevertheless, Gintis was one of the few intellectuals that, rather than taking a stand for or against schools, tried to understand the method of analysis offered by Illich in his book.
“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life-style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life-style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume - a style of life which is merely a way station of the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon the choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies.”