Educational History: Ivan Illich and Deinstitutionalisation

After being introduced to Ivan Illich as an educational thinker by two retired friends who were teachers, it raised so many questions in life that I have decided to create a series of digests on his famous book Deschooling Society.  He is a thinker who demands being read, so if you have not encountered his thought I recommend you make a point to read his work firsthand and then prompt you to go and explore it yourself.  This is the very spirit of Ivan Illich.

Ivan Illich


The best insight into Ivan Illich’s life and works has to be firstly from being the autodidact (self learner), then from his own words, and then from the excellent series that broadcaster David Cayley made with rare and in depth interviews with the man himself. The five part series called ‘Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman’ you can see punctuating this brief article.


This man Illich has disturbed my cosy thinking and influenced my perspective on education and the great institutions which shape our lives.  In this post modernist age, and I use that phrase with some reservation, the role of institutions, their objectives, their origins and effectiveness must the re-examined in light of our ever moving society.


Society does not always move forward into progress, nor in any single direction.  Ivan Illich had great vision understanding the deracination (uprooting) of people from their own experience.  He was concerned about the polution and destruction of our environment, our food, our medicine, our institutions and spoke plainly about the problems.


Part One: Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman – Interviews with Ivan Illich


On the back of the old scruffy copy of the Pelican Book I own the blurb reads ‘Is schooling the same thing as education ?’ Ivan Illich demanded that culturally we question the propostion that learning is a result of teaching.  We all learn day by day and some of us can find little in our lives which schooling has directly and profoundly influenced.


Two questions emerge.  What is it then that has given schooling such enormous and widespread prestige in all societies throughout the world ? And what is it that schooling actually does if its educational function is in doubt ?


Ivan Illich argues in an eloquent and persuasive way that school has the prestige it does because it is one of the major means by which the status quo is preserved.  It is not only inefficient in terms of education, but also profoundly divisive.


Deschooling Society has already become a classic statement of a new and disturbing view of the school as an institution.  It is amply possible to disagree with Illich but it is hardly possible to ignore him…


Part Two: Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman – Interviews with Ivan Illich


Illich is a force of nature for reclaiming life from centralised power structures and placing the individual back in the moment.  Peter Jenkins in the Guardian in 1971 is quoted ‘His assault on the school… demands to be considered seriously’. David Gow in the Scotsman said ‘Deschooling Society is one of the most genuine subversive books in that it amounts to a radical re-interpretation of social reality; and Ian Lister in The Times Educational Supplement said ‘Illich and Reimer have asked some of the profoundest questions about education today’.


Part Three: Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman – Interviews with Ivan Illich


Around these areas thought will be refined to bring forth an emergent, holistic and eclectic approach to cultural improvement which aims to annex rather than provide an alternative.  The second elementary cultural phenomena highlighted by Umberto Eco is particularly where these Illich-influenced essays will focus: Kinship relations as the primary nucleus of institutionalized social relations…


Ivan Illich Deschooling Society

Recaping Illich

Many people, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what institutions do for them.  They confuse process and substance and automate human interactions.  Once this perspective shift takes place an incomplete logic is assumed.


The more the experience of the depersonalized institution, the less questioning of the dehumanized systems, superstructures and corridors down which people are directed.


The individual is led into a territory where, in education, teaching is confused with learning, grade advancement with education, diplomas with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.


The individual’s psychology becomes trained to accept service in place of value.  Medical treatment is mistaken for health, social work for the improvement of community life, policing for safety, military posturing for national security, the rat race for productive work.


Part Four: Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman – Interviews with Ivan Illich


Health, learning, dignity, independence and creative endeavour are defined as little more than performance measurements of institutions which in their origins were formed to serve these ends but which have become fossilized, abstracted and bureaucratised drifting from the human interrelationships which served as a nucleus.


Their improvement is often attempted by allocating more resources and further scaling up the codifying of these institutions into personal life spaces by creation of new agencies, paperworks, flow charts or processes.


In these articles I will be recapitulating, expanding and critiquing the famous work of Ivan Illich called Deschooling Society (1971).  It examines the proposition that institutionalisation of values inevitably leads to physical pollution, social polarization and psychological impotence.


These are three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery – a type of techopoverty which goes uncognicized by many.  This process of degradation is accelerated when non-material needs are transformed into demands for commodities.


When health, education, personal mobility, welfare or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or treatments we have effectively attempted to reduce humanity to an abstract material equation entirely out of context with the needs of our psychic or holistic being.


Part Five: Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman – Interviews with Ivan Illich


In 1971 Ivan Illich wrote about the direction of society being to increase the institutionalisation of values and spent much of his life contending that we must define conditions which would permit precisely the contrary to happen.


He suggested all that time ago that there is a need for research on ‘the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats.’


All of these issues are being focused in on by the Ragged project, as how can we act responsibly and effectively if we do not explore the issues at hand in depth.  The technology shifts which have happened in the previous 30 years are gargantuan and are forcing a great rethink about how we live, socialise, work and function.


Here is Ivan Illich talking about schooling….

Ivan Illich 2


A great collection of Ivan Illich’s writing can be found on David Tinapple’s website:


Here is the classic Text Deschooling Society


Click to Download: Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich
Click to Download: Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich