©2011 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Ivan Illich

Tracey Halliday



Theory of Value
What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

"It must not start with the question, What should someone learn?' but with the question, 'What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?'" (p. 77-78)

All knowledge and skills that are of interest to each individual are worthwhile to learn, and the student should choose the method by which he wants to learn them - "the educational path of each student would be his own to follow, and only in retrospect would it take on the features of a recognizable program. The wise student would periodically seek professional advice: assistance to set a new goal, insight into difficulties encountered, choice between possible methods." (p. 99)

The ultimate goal of education is liberation - "To liberate access to things ... To liberate the sharing of skills by guaranteeing freedom to teach or exercise them on request ... To liberate the critical and creative resources of people ... To liberate the individual from the obligation to shape his expectations to the services offered by any established profession." (p. 103)

Education "Should use modern technology to make free speech, free assembly, and a free press truly universal..." (p. 76)

Theory of Knowledge
What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

Knowledge is learned and is broken into two categories: skilled knowledge which can be "acquired and improved through drills because skill implies the mastery of definable and predictable behavior" (p. 17) and more "liberal knowledge such as "inventive and creative behavior" (p. 17) and "the ability to argue, to compete, to cooperate, and to understand." (p. 76)

Belief is uneducated knowledge. (p. 49)

A mistake is caused by lacking enough skill knowledge to perform it correctly. (p. 17)

A lie is caused by lacking enough liberal knowledge to tell the truth. (p. 17)

Theory of Human Nature
What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Human beings (grouped together as simply "man" by Illich) have evolved from one who once relied on nature to one who seeks to control it - "Primitive man lived in [a] world of hope. He relied on the munificence of nature, on the handouts of gods, and on the instincts of his tribe to enable him to subsist ... The classical Greeks recognized as true men only those citizens who let themselves be fitted by paideia (education) into the institutions their elders had planned... Contemporary man goes further; he attempts to create the world in his image, to build a totally man-made environment." (p. 106-107)

All other species in the world are engineered or shaped in some way by man - "a child on the streets of New York never touches anything which has not been scientifically developed, engineered, planned, and sold to someone. Even the trees are there because the Parks Department decided to put them there." (p. 108)

Man's potential is limited by the institutions that he has created - "Surrounded by all-powerful tools, man is reduced to a tool of his tools ... Man is trapped in the boxes he makes to contain the ills Pandora allowed to escape." (p. 109)

The limited resources available on Earth also limit man's potential - "The value of institutionalized man depends on his capacity as an incinerator... Man now defines himself as the furnace which burns up the values produced by his tools." (p. 114)

Theory of Learning
What is learning? How are skills/knowledge acquired?

"Learning itself is defined as the consumption of subject matter, which is the result of researched, planned, and promoted programs. Whatever good there is, is the product of some specialized institution. It would be foolish to demand something which some institution cannot produce." (p. 108)

"To learn means to acquire a new skill or insight" (p. 11)

Most skills and knowledge now and should be acquired voluntarily, outside of the schools - "Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction. Normal children learn their first language casually." (p. 12)

Skills and knowledge should be acquired by everyone through networks of peers and skill models "What are needed are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching". (p. 77)

Theory of Transmission
Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Currently, "skill teachers are made scarce by the belief in the value of licenses. Certification constitutes a form of market manipulation and is plausible only to a schooled mind. Most teachers of arts and trades are less skillful, less inventive, and less communicative that the best craftsmen and tradesmen." (p. 15)

However, teachers should be "skill models" (p. 87) merely be skilled at their subject matter and willing to demonstrate it to those interested. There should be no set curriculum. - "Opportunities for skill-learning an be vastly multiplied if we open the 'market.' This depends on matching the right teacher with the right student when he is highly motivated in an intelligent program, without the constraint of curriculum." (p. 15)

"Educational webs" should be the primary methods of instruction - "The child grows up in a world of things, surrounded by people who serve as models for skills and values. He finds peers who challenge him to argue, to compete, to cooperate, and to understand; and if the child is lucky, he is exposed to confrontation of criticism by an experienced elder who really cares." (p. 76)

Four Methods of Learning from which each student should be able to choose freely:

1. 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 office hours.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4.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, as we will see, could he chosen by
polling or consulting their former clients." (p. 79-80)

Currently, "Instruction is the choice of circumstances which facilitate learning. Roles are assigned by setting a curriculum of conditions which the candidate must meet if he is to make the grade." (p. 11)

"Curriculum has always been used to assign social rank ... [it] could take the form of a ritual, of sequential sacred ordinations, or it could consist of a succession of feats in war or hunting." (p. 12)

However, a curriculum of interest is proposed where all learning is voluntary - "Learners should not be forced to submit to an obligatory curriculum, or to discrimination based on whether they possess a certificate or a diploma." (p. 75)

What is Society?
What is Society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Society is enveloped, even trapped, inside itself and all of its evils - "Our society resembles the ultimate machine ... a box: you expected to be able to take something out of it; yet all it contained was a mechanism for closing the cover. This contraption is the opposite of Pandora's 'box" (p. 105)

Currently, the school is the monopolistic institution involved in the educational process - "School teaches us that instruction produces learning. The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling ... In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and finally that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates." (p. 38)

However, no institution at all need be involved in the educational process - "Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting." (p. 38)

Theory of Opportunity
Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

All should be educated in that which they are interested - "A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives, empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known." (p. 75)

Schooling is a societal evil to be eliminated, ending its monopoly over education - [From the chapter entitled "Why We Must Disestablish School"] - "School appropriates the money, men, and good will available for education and in addition discourages other institutions from assuming educational tasks." (p. 8) "Schooling is obligatory and becomes schooling for schooling's own sake." (p. 17)

"School has become the planned process which tools man for a planned world, the principal tool to trap man in man's trap. It is supposed to shape each man to an adequate level for playing a part in this world game." (p. 110)

"School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is." (p. 113)

Schooling is an "age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum" that makes people dependent rather than independent. (p. 25-26 & p. 47)

Theory of Consensus
Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

Inequality and inadequacy, especially in schooling, creates disagreement between rich and poor and even between different countries - "Obligatory schooling inevitably polarizes a society; it also grades the nations of the world according to an international caste system. Countries are rated like castes whose educational dignity is determined by the average years of schooling of its citizens ...The escalation of the schools is as destructive as the escalation of weapons but less visibly so." (p. 9-10)

Equality of schooling is not possible, due to the positional value of it - "Rather than calling equal schooling temporarily unfeasible, we must recognize that it is, in principle, economically absurd, and that to attempt it is intellectually emasculating, socially polarizing, and destructive of the credibility of the political system which promotes it." (p. 10)

Therefore, since it creates disagreement and can't be equalized, it should be eliminated to achieve consensus -"Inevitably the deschooling of society will blur the distinctions between economics, education, and politics on which the stability of the present world order and the stability of nations now rest." (p. 103)

Currently, the opinions of the rich (and thus powerful) take precedence over those of the poor because the rich have more opportunities in life- "poor children lack most of the educational opportunities which are usually available to the middle-class child ...So the poorer student will generally fall behind so long as he depends on school for advancement or learning ... All this is true in poor nations as well as in rich ones." (p. 6)


All page citations from Illich, Ivan. (2000). Deschooling Society. New York: Marion Boyars.