Ivan Illich (1926 - 2002)
Ivan Illich is best known for his book Deschooling Society (1971) in which he critized the over-institutionalization of the education system and society as a whole.
"School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age."
I first came across Ivan Illich and Deschooling Society back in mid 2019 through Piotr Wozniak's article on free learning where he discusses the origins of the terms 'deschooling', 'unschooling', 'free learning' and 'self-directed learning'. I found the term 'deschooling' pretty intriguing, so on July 26th 2019 I imported the book into my SuperMemo collection.
Repetition history for the book Deschooling Society.
The book is a must-read. Despite having been published almost 50 years ago, the criticisms Illich makes of the traditional education system in Deschooling Society are still entirely relevant, and as I will argue in this essay, the alternative education institutions he proposed - learning networks and webs of peers - could be combined with Piotr Wozniak's research on free learning, the pleasure of learning and spaced repetition to form the intellectual backbone of a completely new kind of educational anti-institution.
Some describe Illich as an anti-educationalist, but at face value this term suggests that he is somehow against education, when in fact he advocates strongly for life-long free learning. Others use the term anti-institutionalist, but again it is not institutions per se that Illich opposes, but the institutions in their current deranged form.
While Piotr Wozniak has written that his idea of Grand Education Reform is different to the more radical deschooling that Illich proposed, there are still some big overlaps between Wozniak's and Illich's ideas.
In Deschooling Society, Illich makes three main critiques of the traditional education system.
The first five chapters of Deschooling Society criticise the over-institutionalization of school and society.
The hierarchy of school.
The department of education sits at the top of the institutional pyramid and manufactures a homogenous diet of government-approved subjects like the central planners of the Soviet Union.
Students sit at the bottom of the pyramid and are coerced by authoritarian teachers into consuming the curriculum. They are conditioned like dogs through unequal power-relations to respond to the demands made upon them by higher-ups.
Having been schooled into submission, students must acquiesce to any demands on their time, no matter how unreasonable. The ritual of school becomes schooling for schooling's sake and consumes the lives of its participants.
By institutionalizing school and making it compulsory, governments create the monopoly of school where societies view formal educational contexts like schools and universities as the only channel through which 'genuine' education can be delivered.
As the sole producer, deliverer and measurer of teaching and learning, the school cartelizes education. Like the corrupt state church, schools commodify learning with degrees, diplomas and certificates which act like indulgences for worshippers dreaming of salvation.
"School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age." - Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society ^IllichStateChurch
Learning that does not take place in formal contexts is seen as 'lesser' or 'invalid' - since it is not graded, it cannot be measured. And to the administrators and beaureaucrats of the traditional education system, if it cannot be quantified or measured, then by definition it has no value.
But school is not only a monopoly in the market power sense, it also shackles the minds of people working in the education industry.
Since society treats all educational contexts outside of school as illegitimate, any idea that cannot be squeezed into a classroom or a lecture hall is rejected as worthless.
As a consequence, there is little incentive for alternative educational institutions to arise.
The education system filters people based on processes - how, where and in what manner skills were acquired - rather than simply on the skills themselves. Increasingly those measures are surrogated for the underlying skill and knowledge they represent. Students' entire lives come to depend on the fake rewards they recieve for fake learning, and the most important positions in society come to be filled on the basis of attendance at 'elite' curriculums, rather than actual competency.
The learning network can be thought of as the inverse of school, an anti-institution. Rather than a hierarchy constructed around power-relations, grades and certificates, the learning network is decentralized and organized around "intentional social relations in fluid informal arrangements".
"New educational institutions would break apart this pyramid. Their purpose must be to facilitate access for the learner: to allow him to look into the windows of the control room or the parliament, if he cannot get in by the door." IvanIllich in Deschooling Society
TODO: Explain more concretely.
"The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description." Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society
Illich suggested that rather than relying on the university as a matchmaker between learning peers, you could completely obviate the need for an intermediary by using a computer:
"Each man, at any given moment and at a minimum price, could identify himself to a computer with his address and telephone number, indicating the book, article, film, or recording on which he seeks a partner for discussion. Within days he could receive by mail the list of others who recently had taken the same initiative. This list would enable him by telephone to arrange for a meeting with persons who initially would be known exclusively by the fact that they requested a dialogue about the same subject." Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society
In this way, groups of learning peers with overlapping interests could form completely independently of any institution or organization.
The goal of the United Network of Free Learners is to find the institutional inverse of the current system, uniting the learning networks and web of peers ideas from Illich with Piotr Wozniak's research on free learning, the pleasure of learning and spaced repetition.
One critical difference exists between Illich's ideas of how to implement his solutions and how the United Network of Free Learners will.
In Deschooling Society, Illich suggested that the only way to change the system and implement his learning networks and webs of peers ideas would be to pass a law that outlawed discrimination based on attendence at some curriculum:
However, I see no circumstance under which this could possibly be achieved:
Firstly, such a law would undermine the authority of the beauraucrats implementing it, which is to a large extent determined based on their prior attendance at elite institutions. And secondly, I would expect it to be extremely unpopular amongst those schooled members of the public who have already acquired degrees and credentials.
While in 1971, a constituional ammendment may have been the only channel through which to change the status quo, the internet has provided us with an alternative approach: rather than lobbying bureaucrats or marching in the streets, all you need to do is to create a better service online that anyone can access for free. If you create something that provides more value than existing services, people will use it. You don't need to ask permission, you simply need to create a better service.
Building upon Illich's vision, the first iteration of the learning network will manifest itself as a collection of Discord communities, like a network of SuperMemo.Wiki Discord channels. Each individual Discord community can be thought of as a node in the network, and will be organized around some theme, like "Mathematics".
Structurally the communities will be flat organizations - rather than having layers upon layers of bureaucrats and administrators, instead the communities will be started by geeks and nerds who are passionate about free learning and optimal learning techniques like spaced repetition and incremental reading.
Those geeks and nerds will play a central role in shaping the culture of the community: the way they talk, the topics they are interested and the experiences they share with the community will define how new people are integrated into the network. They can be considered the "network builders", and their jobs will be to "keep themselves, and others, out of people's way", to "facilitate en-counters among students, skill models, educational leaders, and educational objects."
Members of each community will be able to find new free learner communities by following links between Discord servers, joining those that overlap with their interests. Voice chat events, seminars and reading groups can be shared between related nodes in the network to foster a network-wide sense of community.
Each node in the network would have a similar culture and set of principles that would make it easy for learners to traverse the network of nodes from community to community.
In the same way that progressive overload is considered a common sense principle in strength training communities, so would spaced repetition and free learning be considered the de-facto techniques for learning. In this way, each community would extend Illich's vision by adding Wozniak's ideas about learning optimization.
Joining the United Network would not be considered a compromise instead of going to university, but rather it will be considered the optimal choice for ambitious young learners.
One of the major goals of the United Network is to facilitate networking, collaborative projects and the collective pursuit of meaningful goals for peers with overlapping interests.
As the network grows, communities organised around broad themes can fork into more and more specialized communities and over time, the United Network will provide peer matchmaking opportunities for niches that the traditional education system simply cannot, by virtue of the superior power of internet to matchmake peers with narrow interests.
"The United Network of Free Learners will fill the cracks left by the traditional system like an infinitely fine dust." - Me
Such a peer-matching system requires no incentives (paying teachers, tutors), but only a communications network because it is a mutualistic relationship: in the same way that a good chess player is always glad to find a close match, free learners are always glad to another who shares overlapping interests.
"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. New educational institutions would break apart this pyramid." Ivan Illich in DeschoolingSociety
In the United Network, no one will be excluded based on certificates or grades and no one will be encouraged to fall into the trap of pursuing credentials over skills. Relationships on Discord are not built on the basis of arbitrary things like credentials or a diploma, rather they are based purely on the quality of your contribution.
The culture of each community would encourage each member to lead a life of action instead of a life of consumption: rather than being forced to passively sit in a lecture hall, each community will encourage learners to actively focus on creative output into the real world.
Learners will realise that when you commit to working on meaningful creative projects that you share into the real world, you do not need fake rewards for fake learning.
Members will be encouraged to engage in public learning: learning with the garage door up! The collective intelligence of the network will share and analyse workflows, strategies and techniques to converge on dominant metas - both those that are specific to individual nodes (eg. Mathematics), but also those that can be generalized to subsets of the network or perhaps the entire network.
A new corpus of knowledge about what works in learning and creativity will be built on the basis of undirected tinkerers sharing, analysing and experimenting.
"Consumer resistance increases in the knowledge industry... What prevents their frustration from shaping new institutions is a lack not only of imagination but frequently also of appropriate language and of enlightened self-interest. They cannot visualize either a deschooled society or educational institutions in a society which has disestablished school." Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society
I feel like those of us who have been involved in the SuperMemo.Wiki project might be unique in the way that we can see a glimmer of hope in the Discord community that has been building over the past year.
I have seen the potential for this sort of community to provide an alternative to those who are unsatisfied with the current system. My experience in the SuperMemo.Wiki Discord has shown me that it is easy to find groups of exceptionally interesting and talented individuals to talk about ideas and undertake projects with.
Let me know what you think.