Reading Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society in the Neoliberal University

A Catholic priest who eventually left the church, Ivan Illich wrote to issue warnings – some prescient, others less so. His 1971 book Deschooling Society seeks to speak to the ‘schooled’, to convince them that the idea of ‘schooling’ our way to a better society will never work. Writing at the time he did, Illich’s work fits into a broader rethinking of education that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. In the UK, AS Neale wrote about a school with no rules in the eponymously named book Summerhill, published in 1960. The Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts was founded on similar principles in 1968 by Daniel Greenberg. John Holt’s works, How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967) argued passionately against any type of coercion in learning and strongly influenced the ‘unschooling’ movement in the US.

The core idea – that the US school system kills freedom and ultimately learning – has been picked up many times since then, by writers like John Taylor Gatto, Jonathan Kozol, Nikhil Goyal, and Alfie Kohn. Illich’s development of the idea forms a comprehensive critique and an original one. As a critic of all institutions, Illich’s thinking has been identified with anarchism, and remains a useful perspective for thinking about the total institutional environment we are in today. Half a century after the book’s publication, the educational apocalypse Illich predicted has arrived. In some – though not all – of its details, it looks just like he feared it would.

If we do not challenge the assumption that valuable knowledge is a commodity which under certain circumstances may be forced into the consumer, society will be increasingly dominated by sinister pseudo schools and totalitarian managers of information… Pedagogical therapists will drug their pupils more in order to teach them better, and students will drug themselves more to gain relief from the pressures of teachers and the race for certificates. Increasingly larger numbers of bureaucrats will presume to pose as teachers.1 Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, (1971)

Illich predicted an educational dystopia of commodity capitalism: “School sells curriculum–a bundle of goods made according to the same process and having the same structure as other merchandise.” The result is education that “looks like any other modern staple. It is a bundle of planned meanings, a package of values, a commodity whose “balanced appeal” makes it marketable to a sufficiently large number to justify the cost of production.” He wrote before the takeover of education by neoliberalism, and some of Illich’s libertarian prescriptions have actually come into effect in ways that would have repelled his anti-authoritarian instincts.

The Crisis of the Neoliberal University

In his book Science Mart: Privatizing American Science, historian Philip Mirowski traces three regimes of science organization – and therefore of universities – in the US. The first regime began around 1890 and persisted until World War II. In this period, corporations did much of their scientific research in-house: the famous Bell Labs and Dupont Labs were exemplars. There was no centralized government science policy. While technical and engineering education were growing, as documented by David Noble in America by Design, higher education was an elite affair teaching liberal arts and creating interconnections among the ruling class. Davarian Baldwin traces some of the history of this early period in his book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities. Baldwin notes that in this period, “higher education was a sort of ‘finishing school,’ meant to develop the character and enhance the networks of male students already well-positioned in families of power and influence.” Built on slave trade profits and seized Indigenous land, “these lush, green campuses were further ensconced in at least quasi-rural environments, where the fresh air and open space were meant to serve as a balm from the foul smell and so-called dangerous ethnic amalgams found in cities.”

During World War II, when the US replaced Britain as the world imperialist leader, universities took a new form, one for which many faculty are still nostalgic. Scientific research was brought into the universities. Unlimited military funding anchored science and industrial policy. A nationalist ethos was shared between research and teaching: the idea was that the mandate would turn out democratic citizens who would both defend the nation and create a nation worth defending. The academic ethos of peer review, academic freedom and tenure, and a mix of pure research driven by curiosity and research in the national and public interest – these elements of the university are identified by Mirowski as belonging to this second, World War II-Cold War regime.

That regime gave way to what we are living through today: what Mirowski calls the “globalized privatization regime”. In the new scheme, research has been brought back into corporations – Facebook, Google, Microsoft do their own proprietary research with no mandate or expectation to make their results public. Social science research is done in think-tanks, which tell their patrons what they want to hear. Scientific research and development can be also outsourced. Meanwhile university research is “published” in a closed system of more or less predatory journals,2A system whose corruption is documented by scientist Bjoern Brembs among others. while researchers are encouraged to find private sector partners and develop spinoff enterprises with their intellectual property.

Teaching is also being spun off using online teaching methods and contract faculty to deliver most of the education to a student class that collectively has borrowed trillions of dollars to pay for these educations and pays the loans back to banks for decades after leaving university. Full time staff at the universities is increasingly administrative. The patriotic mandate is gone: education is offered as a way for an individual to advance, a neoliberal investment in a credential which is an investment in oneself. People who work or study in these institutions are ideologically lost. The sincerity of the public mandate of the Cold War University was always questionable, but neoliberal universities don’t even try to claim such a mandate. And as Baldwin points out, as business propositions, neoliberal universities try to trade on what’s left over from their public mandate – notably their tax-exempt status and the free land they were given to advance that mandate – to make lucrative real estate deals based on “creative class” and “smart cities” hype.

With the removal of educational patriotism, government funding for universities is also being cut. In a dynamic labeled by professor and university critic Chris Newfield the “tuition trap”, universities make up for the shortfall in government funding by raising tuition, which shows governments that universities can indeed use tuition to make up for such a shortfall, which spurs governments to impose further cuts, which lead to further tuition raises. The result is ever more indebted students in deeper financial obligations to banks, while universities keep raising tuition trying to find students’ (and their parents’) financial breaking point.

Universities also turn to foreign students, who can be charged higher than domestic tuition rates. “To maintain graduate enrollments, many departments in the sciences began to admit rising proportions of foreign students. While this had a salutary effect on the rather parochial atmospheres of many American university towns, it also had the deleterious effect of revealing the essential bankruptcy of the Cold War justification of education as serving the objectives of state building. Many of the students in scientific/technical areas were not U.S. citizens, and periodically some politician would demand to know what the universities were doing by training the workforce of potential competitors at American expense.”3Philip Mirowski, Science Mart: Privatizing American Science (2011), 116 One such politician was Tom Cotton who recently said “If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America. They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.” Cotton worried that students would “go back to China to compete for our jobs, to take our business, and ultimately to steal our property and design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people.” Significantly, the US is becoming a more hostile place to Chinese students and researchers, with hundreds of scientists under investigation, unsolved murders of Chinese researchers , and anti-Asian racist violence. As China’s universities advance, Chinese students’ tuition may end up staying at home. This will only deepen the university’s crisis.

Today the right-wing attacks universities as bastions of left-wing thought. This is nonsense. There are no such bastions. Universities serve the elite and their right-wing, not some imaginary left-wing university conspiracy. They serve their corporate masters better to the degree that students are saddled with immense debt levels and that curricula are constrained and oriented towards narrow corporate priorities.

Today’s debate about academic freedom and the importance of the university (which Mirowski argues were freedoms concomitant with the Cold War university model) is anticipated by Illich, who concludes that on balance, the dissent and free thought coming out of universities is probably not worth it: “There is no question that at present the university offers a unique combination of circumstances which allows some of its members to criticize the whole of society. It provides time, mobility, access to peers and information, and a certain impunity… but… only to those who have already been deeply initiated into the consumer society.” Like Jeff Schmidt’s important book Disciplined Minds, which reveals hidden elitist assumptions in the curricula and entrance exams for graduate and professional schools, Illich is arguing here that the university creates people who dependably exercise their creativity in the service of elites, not in the service of the downtrodden.

Aaron Swartz tried to make MIT’s journal articles available openly on the Internet. He was arrested, threatened with a 35-year jail sentence, and was ultimately hounded to suicide by a US prosecutor. Alexandra Elbakyan has managed to fulfill Swartz’s dream on Sci-Hub. Before the rise of predatory monopoly journal companies and the struggle against them, Illich worried that institutionalized science was already undermining the possibilities of massive scientific learning and advance by locking science away in institutions: “Until recently science was the one forum which functioned like an anarchist’s dream. Each man capable of doing research had more or less the same opportunity of access to its tools and to a hearing by the community of peers. Now bureaucratization and organization have placed much of science beyond public reach… the members as well as the artifacts of the scientific community have been locked into national and corporate programs oriented toward practical achievement, to the radical impoverishment of the men who support these nations and corporations.”

The school system, like the university system, has been transformed since Illich’s writing. In the US, public education has been mostly destroyed and teacher’s unions mostly broken. Programs like Teach For America have turned a profession that should provide a good livelihood into a volunteer, charity-like program – a humanitarian intervention into exoticized urban neighbourhoods. For profit-testing and the utterly irrational goal of trying continually to raise a school’s average test scores relative to other schools dominates all discussion of schools, teaching, and education. Both US political parties, Democrats and Republicans, see nothing but political benefits from attacking public education. The elite send their children to private schools, while public schoolchildren, their parents, their teachers and teachers unions are a relatively powerless constituency, easily scapegoated for social ills.

A libertarian streak and the 1970s context led Illich to the belief that certain aspects of the market could act as a check against totalizing state institutions. He was wrong. Half a century later, it is the market that is totalizing, with the state’s bureaucracy and politicians serving private profit. Students’ time, teachers’ labour power, credentials, and professional associations have all been cannibalized for the sake of private profit, and the school itself is increasingly irrelevant in a post-pandemic world where children are confined to their homes and computer screens, through which they are controlled for the benefit of private educational corporations and tech companies. A further revolution, layered on top of previous changes unforeseen by Illich, has occurred: private philanthro-capitalists, notably Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who accumulated fortunes through government-sponsored monopolies, have now taken over the shaping of public school curricula and testing. Tanner Mirlees writes about this in Edtech, Inc. As Edtech promises innovation just around the corner – just over the horizon – never in the present – the present moment is full of austerity for most, and great liberal education for the wealthy.

A Deeper Critique: Illich Identifies Schooling as the Contradiction

Mirowski may have exaggerated the differences between the three university regimes. In America by Design, historian David Noble quotes the president of Stevens Institute Alumni Association in 1896: “The financial side of engineering is always the most important… the young engineer… must always be subservient to those who represent the money invested in the enterprise.” Noble continues: “From the outset, therefore, the engineer was at the service of capital, and, not surprisingly, its laws were to him as natural as the laws of science… his design of machinery, for example, was guided as much by the capitalist need to minimize both the cost and the autonomy of skilled labor as by the desire to harness most efficiently the potentials of matter and energy.” If Illich is right, the Cold War university was no model for education and trying to return to it is as undesirable as it would be futile.

Fifty years into the neoliberal regime, what can we gain from Illich’s libertarian critique? In the 2020s, the statement that school should not exist sounds preposterous, even reactionary. But Illich’s critique is profound enough that paying attention to it could help us avoid past mistakes as we try to envision something beyond the current neoliberal model.

Illich separates schooling (unnecessary) from learning (necessary) and teaching (whose usefulness is debatable): “Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.” In other words, people learn wherever they are. If they happen to learn in school, that is merely because that is where they were stuck. And teachers are as often obstructions to learning as they are enablers of it. Illich elaborates on his only concession about the value of teaching, that it “may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances”: “The strongly motivated student who is faced with the task of acquiring a new and complex skill may benefit greatly from the discipline now associated with the old-fashioned schoolmaster who taught reading, Hebrew, catechism, or multiplication by rote.”

When teachers stick to what they are actually good at – drilling skills with motivated students – they provide something of value. In 1956, for example, a group of teenage native speakers of Spanish taught several hundred teachers the language in six months using the U.S. Foreign Service Institute Spanish manual. “No school program”, Illich comments, “could have matched these results.” Unfortunately, when they claim a more exalted social role for what they do, teachers eschew useful drill teaching in favor of an ever-growing list of fad methods for education. Worse, they contribute to a mystique of schooling and the creation of schooled minds. ”Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.”

Like any commodity, schooling rises in value with scarcity. The scarcity itself is created because people try to protect their jobs from competition, “making skills scarce and on keeping them scarce, either by proscribing their unauthorized use and transmission or by making things which can be operated and repaired only by those who have access to tools or information which are kept scarce. Schools thus produce shortages of skilled persons.”

Certification is another problem, for Illich: “[i]nsisting on the certification of teachers is another way of keeping skills scarce. If nurses were encouraged to train nurses, and if nurses were employed on the basis of their proven skill at giving injections, filling out charts, and giving medicine, there would soon be no lack of trained nurses.” Sharing one’s knowledge should be a right, but that right is taken away through certification, to be “conferred only on the employees of a school.” In 2021, in the midst of the “microcredentials” fad – selling the credential without any guarantee of the knowledge – Illich’s critique of certification is sobering.

An artificial division of society ensues: “education becomes unworldly and the world becomes noneducational.” And because learning is such a ubiquitous, natural human activity, confining learning to schools requires extensive re-engineering of the whole society and not just the school. “In American society, children are excluded from most things and places on the grounds that they are private… Since the last generation the railroad yard has become as inaccessible as the fire station.” In this passage you can see how different Illich’s world is from our own. For people born after the 1970s or 1980s, the idea of accessing a railroad yard or a fire station on anything other than a controlled school trip sounds as unlikely as visiting a Roman Colosseum to watch a live chariot race. Many of the things Illich was trying to preserve in Deschooling Society have been decisively lost.

The critique of schooling leads to a devastating critique of the university, which is schooling taken to the extreme. Illich estimates that a US student’s education costs 5x the “median life income of half of humanity”, and a university student in Latin America has 350x the “public money spent on his education as on that of his fellow citizens of median income.” The result is the creation of a global schooled elite: “the university graduate from a poor country feels more comfortable with his North American and European colleagues than with his nonschooled compatriots.”

The education machine is also a cooptation machine: “Having a monopoly on both the resources for learning and the investiture of social roles, the university coopts the discoverer and the potential dissenter.” And the hidden curriculum of university is an education in consumption, “imposing consumer standards at work and at home”. Educating the elite (and increasingly the masses) in consumption at university is a relatively new phenomenon corresponding to the expansion of university education. Illich laments the current bureaucracy and anticipates the neoliberal university when he contrasts it with the medieval counterpart: “To be a scholar in the Middle Ages meant to be poor, even a beggar… The old university was a liberated zone for discovery and the discussion of ideas both new and old… The structural purpose of the modern university has little to do with the traditional quest… Students see their studies as the investment with the highest monetary return.”

Can Ilich Help Us Imagine Education Beyond Neoliberalism?

There appears to be no end in sight for the neoliberal university. The trends – rising tuition paid by indebted students, part-time contract teachers, a growing army of administrators, privatized research – all continue. Mass higher education will also probably continue to exist in some form, however neoliberalized. The Bernie Sanders movement proposed debt relief for students before it was scuttled by Biden; the Republicans are at present running a focused campaign against education using the slogan ‘critical race theory’ as the enemy. Any good way out of the neoliberal system would have to address the financial domination of everything, criticized (including in its student dimensions) by Michael Hudson in the book Killing the Host. Free tuition would go some ways towards decommodified and definancialized education. Decommodifying housing in cities would also go a long way to getting universities out of the real estate game.

In 2004, I interviewed the rector of the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela. She suggested I imagine the possibilities if everyone in society had a university education. Illich would probably object that this would be a waste of resources. But let’s say we could, through a colossal struggle, achieve an education system that was neither neoliberal nor bound up with imperialist, Cold War agendas. What would such a system do, and what would it be for? To answer this question, we could do well to pick up Illich again.

How might we imagine getting out of our own educational dystopia? Need we become like the educational reformers mocked by Illich, those “who feel impelled to condemn almost everything which characterizes modern schools-and at the same time propose new schools”?

Illich proposes a series of laws – that would presumably have to be duly passed by governments – to end schooling as we know it. To begin, “we need a law forbidding discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum.” In the future, asking someone where they went to school will be considered taboo, “like inquiries into his political affiliation, church attendance, lineage, sex habits, or racial background.”

How could society be sure people had the skills needed, whether to fly a plane or to perform a surgery, without school? Illich would have us replace public universities with publically funded testing. Learn wherever you like: your credential will come from passing a test. This type of testing was the basis of entry into the Chinese bureaucracy for thousands of years, through the famous exam system. That exam system was brought to Europe by the Jesuits in the 17th century and impressed the Prussians, who built their educational system around it. Others in Europe emulated the Prussians. After 1911, imperialist powers forced China to drop their “traditional” exam system and adopt the “European” education system – which had incorporated elements from China hundreds of years before, but had come to emphasize the student going through the curriculum over taking the test at the end. Illich suggests updating the Chinese system for the modern era: “For three millennia, China protected higher learning through a total divorce between the process of learning and the privilege conferred by Mandarin examinations.”

In Illich’s system, testing would have to be a public service and its integrity would have to be guaranteed. After some discussion, Illich ultimately concludes that testing is necessary, even if it should be restricted. But the testing Illich proposes is very different from our test-score driven schooling systems. In our system, the state conditions funding to teachers on how well students perform on privately produced, state-administered tests – students have to prove to the state that they did well without cheating. In the Chinese exam system, the state’s legitimacy was based on a guarantee to the students of fairness in grading and scoring – the state had to prove to the students that their test score was based entirely on their performance.

The acquisition of skills, too, should be publicly funded. Illich presents three levels for how such a system could work.

Free skill centers: “One way would be to institutionalize the skill exchange by creating free skill centers open to the public. Such centers could and should be established in industrialized areas, at least for those skills which are fundamental prerequisites for entering certain apprenticeships–such skills as reading, typing, keeping accounts, foreign languages, computer programming and number manipulation, reading special languages such as that of electrical circuits, manipulation of certain machinery, etc.”

Educational currency: “Another approach would be to give certain groups within the population educational currency good for attendance at skill centers where other clients would have to pay commercial rates.”

A skill exchange bank: “Each citizen would be given a basic credit with which to acquire fundamental skills. Beyond that minimum, further credits would go to those who earned them by teaching… only those who had taught others for an equivalent amount of time would have a claim on the time of more advanced teachers. An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite of those who earned their education by sharing it.”

Beyond teaching and testing technical skills that keep a modern society running, does Illich provide for any role for education in a broader sense? The study of history, philosophy, mathematics, music, art, drama? To Illich, these highest forms of learning should be the least formal, the least associated with ‘schooling’. That is because this type of learning “relies on the surprise of the unexpected question which opens new doors for the inquirer and his partner.” There is a role for the teacher here, but as a guide: “The educational guide or master… matches individuals starting from their own, unresolved questions… helps the pupil to formulate his puzzlement since only a clear statement will give him the power to find his match, moved like him, at the moment, to explore the same issue in the same context.” He envisioned something that the Internet easily provides today, “an educational network or web for the autonomous assembly of resources under the control of the learner.”

This educational vision would require a series of social changes. Planned obsolescence and industrial secrecy would have to give way to an economy of “durable, repairable, and reusable” goods. Institutions from railway yards and fire stations, legislatures and factories opened: “To deschool the artifacts of education will require making the artifacts and processes available–and recognizing their educational value.”

Illich’s libertarian streak might not appeal to those disillusioned with the 50 years of neoliberalism that has run amok through the world since he wrote the book. Nevertheless, the radical question about the abolition of schooling itself is a better starting point than looking to tinker with so deeply flawed a system. Universities and public schools probably do have a role in a good society, but Illich is right that mandatory attendance at school and a job market revolving around credentials from pretentious institutions do not. Finding a path from here to an education system that meets social needs while respecting the freedom of its members remains to be done. Illich challenges us to make sure our ideas pass the test of freedom.

Justin Podur is a Professor and Author based in Toronto.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Ivan Illich