VTCLIS12ers, I am in San Diego CA for a conference, so I’m currently in Pacific time. Did you guys know that there’s only one time zone for the entire country of China? Totalitarianism FTW.
I would like to spend some time to talk about Ivan Illich’s book chapter “Deschooling Society: Learning Webs”. This composition was written in the 70s, which make it quite prophetic in its description about the internet. The overall theme of the book chapter however, concerns the total replacement of the school systems with its proposed new system. The feeling I got when reading this is a sense of confusion. Perhaps I am too blind and indoctrinated by the school system, but I didn’t know the school system was as bad as Illich described. In fact, Illich proposed the “inverse” of school.
Illich does raised an interesting point of how all schools are fundamentally the same (in the 70s). I don’t pretend to know everything school system that exists on the world, but those that I have experienced (Chinese and American) do seem to have some fundamental similarities. One thing I do want to point out is that Illich did referenced China’s Cultural Revolution. I know the revolution was actually happening when Illich was writing the book chapter, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt citing the revolution as a possible “successful” attempt at dechooling the society. The Cultural Revolution was responsible for hundreds of thousands of death; people were murdered BECAUSE they were educated. Millions were relocated and forced to abandon their profession to work in farms. Because of the Cultural Revolution, China had lost generations of educated people, and to this day, the moral standards of the Chinese society still have not recovered. This is a heart-breaking subject that is also fascinated to read about, so I do encourage everyone to at least start at the Wikipedia article. If something akin to the Cultural Revolution is needed to “deschool” society, then I will not wish it upon anyone.
There seems to be a lot of claims in the book chapter about schools that I don’t know if I agree with. For example, Illich claimed that “schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life”. I’m not sure that this is true, at least not all the time. Most knowledge taught in school is readily available elsewhere, and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a class where the teacher claimed that the way he/she teaches is the ONLY way for us to learn. (There may be misguided radical teachers that would say that, but I would hazard to say that they are in the minority). He also claimed that the public is “indoctrinated to believe that skills are valuable and reliable only if they are result of formal schooling”. I also don’t think that is completely true. I believe the public DO value skills and knowledge that did not stemmed from formal education, however, I would tend to agree that there may not be enough appreciation for it. But Illich seems to imply that the entire schooling system is a conspiracy to keep knowledge and skill scarce to general profit. That is a rather cynical outlook that is entirely possible, but I don’t think is true. I don’t think people are as sinister as we like them to be.
There are some very good ideas here, I especially like the uplifting of games (as described by Illich) in the educational setting. Like many other methods described by Illich, this relies heavily on the self-motivation of the learners. In fact, the entire system Illich described only works under the assumption that people WANTED to be learners. I would love to believe that is true, but I am dubious. However, I agree that in an ideal society where all social elements encourages the population to emerge as learners (which is not what we have right now), this is possible. Another idea that Illich proposed (one that even he agreed was radical) was a “bank” for skill exchange. This is a truly fascinating idea, but seems monumental in its implementation. Essentially, we would be creating a whole new economy that is based on the exchange of skill. Like any economy, there will be ways where it can be abused and manipulated. Illich freely admitted that such a system would “promote an elit of those who earned their education by sharing it”. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing.
The entire discussion about the short-coming of sequential education is familiar to me. We have had heated discussions about the fallacy of such a system. I am very conflicted on this subject. On one hand, I can see the amazing appeal of non-linear education, a system where the learners to see the big picture and work their way to the nitty-gritty details of knowledge and skills they wanted to learn. On the other hand, coming from a STEM background, I don’t know how this can be realistically accomplished. Some knowledge in STEM makes the most sense in a sequential manner. It would be a difficult for a learner to appreciate calculus before he/she has a good understanding of algebra. Illich envisioned a system where learners would be able to specify specifically what they want to learn. This seems great, but very idealistic, and again hinges on the assumption that all participants are motivated learners.
The peer-matching network Illich described is very interesting, as it is essentially a more narrow, focused form of the internet we have today. Illich described in this manner, we “abolish the power of one person to oblige another person to attend a meeting”. Googling/wiki-ing is the same way; I am not obligated to provide and/or obtain knowledge and skills from the internet, yet I maintain the agency to do so, and I DO choose to do so with a clear motivation.
Illich vision of a deschooled society have some very appealing aspects to me, yet the entire system just seem way too radical for me. Illich predicts “the disestablishment of schools will inevitably happen–and it will happen surprisingly fast”. It’s been 30 years and it hasn’t happened yet. I supposed then I am part of the problem, as it appears I am far too indoctrinated to believe Illich. They say “Who dares, wins”. Well, I guess I’m a loser then.