the school in the sky, the school between the cracks

I’m finally reading the immensely powerful Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich and I’m gripped by the sense he conveys of the “nonschooled learning” (pg 10) which  institutionalised schooling precludes. From pg 8:

School appropriates the money, men, and good will available for education and in addition discourages other institutions from assuming educational tasks. Work, leisure, politics, city living, and even family life depend on schools for the habits and knowledge they presuppose, instead of becoming themselves the means of education.

He argues that obligatory schooling inevitably escalates, with more schooling being the only response to the demands which the existence of the school system creates, in turn leading to international rankings in which “Countries are rated like castes whose educational dignity is determined by the average years of schooling of its citizen” (pg 9). If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that schooling creates a framework in which the process through which competencies are acquired comes to substitute for the competencies themselves i.e. the fact of being in school comes to be seen as the important things, rather than the learning that was supposedly the reason for being there in the first place. In the process, other forms of learning go unvalued and unrecognised, as he explains on pg 12-13:

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 fo confinement during an increasing part of their lives.

Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction. Normal children learn their first language casually, although faster if their parents pay attention to them. Most people who learn a second language well do so as a result of odd circumstances and not of sequential teaching. They go to live with their grandparents, they travel, or they fall in love with a foreigner. Fluency in reading is also more often than not a result of such extracurricular activities. Most people who read widely, and with pleasure, merely believe that they learned to do so in school; when challenged, they easily discard this illusion.

Interestingly, he talks about drill instruction as an effective means through which motivated students can learn complex skills. But it is one which schools do badly, in part because they feel to distinguish between skill acquisition and education, doing both badly in the process. Education in Illich’s sense involved the “open-ended, exploratory use of acquired skills” (pg 17) and shouldn’t be conditional upon obligatory attendance. Skill acquisition and education require different conditions, often mutually exclusive ones, with the former involving predictable steps and circumstances which the latter requires space from.

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