Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Ivan Illich publishes Deschooling Society

Some critics of school call for a transformation. Others call for reformation. Still others call for a restoration. In his critique of schools, Ivan Illich stands in near isolation. His is a call for deschooling. As a historian and social critic, Ivan Illich has spent his lifetime questioning such modern industrial certainties as development, medicine, health, technology, and, in the case of Deschooling Society, education. Illich first began to consider the problematic nature of compulsory schooling while an administrator in both an adult education program and at the University of Puerto Rico. While professional educators discussed the the need to increase the compulsory school age within Puerto Rico, Illich began to question the apparent discrepancies between schooling's promise and its actual outcomes. Illich, recognizing that schooling in Puerto Rico was too costly to be provided for all children, identified schooling as a system for producing dropouts -- a system which gave more to those who had at the cost of those having little. Schooling, contrary to its promise of serving equality and providing education, instead promoted a class-based society as well as a society addicted to progressive consumption. Continuing his contemplations on the numerous ills afflicting modern society , Illich founded the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1961. While CIDOC functioned primarily as a language school for American clergy who were involved in an ongoing project of the United States to "develop" Latin America, it also sought to problematize these clergy members' understanding of Western "development" so they could come to understand its negative implications and, hopefully, rethink their participation. At the same time, CIDOC soon came to be an important international "think tank" of scholars, historians, philosophers, and social critics. Such prominent thinkers as Paulo Freire, Everett Reimer, Jonathan Kozol, Paul Goodman, and John Holt shared their thoughts and writings during their stay at CIDOC, and it was here, over the span of numerous discussions, that the essay "The Futility of Schooling in Latin America" would later develop into the book Deschooling Society.

In Deschooling Society, Illich demonstrates that schools function as tools which are in fact counter-productive to their best intentions and that their "successes" must be contemplated with human dignity and freedom in mind. Schools, Illich shows, are successful in preparing individuals to "fit" into a schooled society. Schools successfully prepare the student to need treatments which can only be satisfied by institutions. By this process, need and consumption, each of us finds our place in consumer society. The ill of underconsumption is curable through further participation in institutional life. The school successfully indoctrinates each student with the belief in unlimited production and consumption via planned obsolescence. The newest textbook, curriculum package, or teacher training program renders last season's tools insufficient. Schooling successfully dulls the student's imagination making it unlikely, even impossible, to imagine meaningful learning experiences occurring in any other context. Learning requires an expert, a program, a measurement, and a certificate. Learning happens via obligatory attendance to an impersonal relationship in which one has authority over another's interests. Schooling is the mechanism through which we learn to accept the society, its institutions, and their rankings as they exist, as they have always existed, and as they will continue to exist.

In the midst of this criticism, Ivan Illich demands that society be deschooled. Falsely interpreted to mean the elimination of schools, Illich calls for the disestablishment of school or the end to compulsory attendance schooling. He states, "I've nothing against schools! I'm against compulsory schooling. I know that schools always compound native privilege with new privilege. But only when they become compulsory can they compound lack of native privilege with added self-inflicted discrimination" (Cayley, 1992, p.68). His critique is not focused on the school but rather institutionalized school which monopolizes learning, instruction, and credentialing and creates a demand for something which it can only provide to fewer and fewer people at greater and greater public expense. Schooling, among others, is an institution which must be delegitimized. The secular sovereignty exercised by schools must be exposed and the methods with which it divides people into social classes and squelches self-directed inquiry made obvious. In the institutional-school paradigm, knowledge is a commodity and schools teach pupils to need the instruction which can only be found in schools. According to Illich, "obligatory instruction assumes the belief that man can do what God cannot, namely, manipulate others for their own salvation" (1970, p.50). By deschooling society, schools would continue to exist but their workings would be very different from those operating at present. Deschooling could only occur given alternative social arrangements and legal protections as well as a reconceptualization of what constitutes learning in the heart of every deschooled person.

According to Illich, schools are the "reproductive organ of a consumer society" (1970). Schools produce myths upon which an economic society depends. Schooling is a ritual performed by participants who are made blind to the discrepancy between the purpose for and the consequences of the ritual. Despite the advertised purpose of promoting social equality and democratic participation, schooling is "the ritual of a society committed to progress and development" (Cayley, 1992, p. 67). In his thesis titled, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich promulgates four myths created by the school ritual; 1) the myth of unending consumption, 2) the myth of measurement of values, 3) the myth of packaging values, and 4) the myth of self-perpetuating progress. In the first myth, schools teach us that learning is the result of an instructional process that produces something of value. What is learned is that only the curricularized instructional process in which knowledge is divided into discreet bundles of information dispensed by certificated experts under compulsory attendance can produce valued outcomes. The payoff for a greater investment of time and money is more knowledge and additional diplomas. "The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling" (Illich, 1970, pp.38-39). The second myth inculcates consumers with the understanding that only that which is quantifiable is justifiable. Only measured experiences possess worth. Only distinct quanta of subject matter which are measurable constitute learning. With this myth, "people who submit to the standards of others for the measure of their own personal growth soon apply the same ruler to themselves. They no longer have to be put in their place, but put themselves into their assigned slots, squeeze themselves into the niche which they have been taught to seek, and, in the very process, put their fellows into their places, too, until everybody and everything fits" (Illich, 1970, p.40). Myth number three, packaging values, is the accepted belief in educational research conducted by experts to determine what and when another (or masses of others) should learn. "The result of the curriculum production process looks like any other modern staple. It is a bundle of planned meanings, of packaged values, a commodity whose 'balanced appeal' makes it marketable to a sufficiently large number to justify the cost of production. Consumer-pupils are taught to make their desires conform to marketable values. Thus they are made to feel guilty if they do not behave according to the predictions of consumer research by getting the grades and certificates that will place them in the job category they have been led to expect" (Illich, 1970, p.41). Finally, the fourth myth, self-perpetuating progress, promotes the need for ever increasing quantities of schooling at ever increasing costs. With increased expenditures, the student improves his or her own value in his or her own view and in the view of the market, though not necessarily increasing his or her learning. The increasingly large expenditures on gymnasiums, state-of-the-art dining/entertainment/living facilities, and curriculum resources entice student-consumers to consume more while industry requires particular educational accouterments for a declining job market grown increasingly competitive. As the creator, propagator, and protector of these four educational myths, schools retain their sacred positions as the purveyor of "secular salvation" (Gabbard, 1993). Despite the argument that schools have become counterproductive in their service to fewer and fewer clients and in the face of increasing public expenditures yielding insignificant increases in standardized measurements, the school institution stands as an immutable public shrine whose foundation holds firm amidst tremors, shifts, and quakes.

In a deschooled society, individuals choose for themselves action-oriented lives, rather than lives constrained by the parameters of consumption. Individuals participate in learning "webs" in which each is a teacher and also a learner. Relationships among people are convivial and promote self and community reliance rather than addictions to institutions and to their product, consumption addiction. The need is for relational structures, for goods which are engineered for durability rather than obsolescence, and for "access to institutions that increase the opportunity and desirability of human interaction" (Illich, 1970, p.63). In a deschooled society, the worlds of work, leisure, politics, family and community life are the classrooms and their secret and protected spaces made more accessible. Learning, therefore, occurs in and of the world and individuals define themselves by their own learning and the learning that they contribute to others. Illich writes, "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 lifestyle which allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume ... a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment" (1970, p.52). By creating and defining lives free of the predetermination of institutions, individuals are opened to the surprises found within friendship, vocation, and critical and emancipatory participation in the world.


Cayley, David (1992). Ivan Illich in Conversation. Concord, Ontario: Anansi Press.

Illich, Ivan (1970). Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row.

Prepared by Dana Stuchul and Alison Kreider (UCLA)

Citation: Stuchul, Dana & Alison Kreider (1997). 1970 Ivan Illich Publishes Deschooling Society. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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