Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Deschooling Society

Some extended thoughts on Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society.  
  • Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Print.
Illich's ideas are far reaching, his thoughts for reform comprehensive.  It strikes me that the problems with the modern structure of school that Illich identifies are ones that are expressed—in spirit if not exactly in content—by many presently disaffected Americans, especially those commonly referred to as "Tea Partiers."  Illich decries institutional grading, ranking, and certification structures which produce so-called "experts," and which give rise to the meritocratic elite class that is regularly criticized by, for example, Glenn Beck and his followers.

To the extent that Tea Partiers and those like them express frustration with the institutionalized management of modern American life, Illich would support them, though he would likely take issue with some of the forms in which they express that frustration.  At the outset of Deschooling Society, Illich writes,
I will show that the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence [...] this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial 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." (1)
Illich sounds especially like a Tea Partier/libertarian when he continues, "I believe that most of the research now going on about the future tends to advocate further increases in the institutionalization of values and that we must define conditions which would permit precisely the contrary to happen" (2).   In other words, Illich states that his concern is for the increased management of modern life, the seeming constant progress toward a human existence totally administered by experts.  In popular terminology, he is for personal freedom, personal responsibility, and personal initiative.  This would seem to align him squarely in the conservative camp, especially considering that Deschooling Society is an argument against the public school structure (unchanged in any significant way since the book's publication in 1970).  It would be easy to view Illich this way, to react to his arguments against beloved liberal institutions in a knee-jerk manner, either completely writing him off or wholeheartedly embracing him without looking into his argument very thoroughly.  To do so, however, would be to miss the point of his book, would be to misunderstand him in the same way so many like him are misunderstood.

Though on the surface Illich's ideas appear quite similar to those expressed by Tea Partiers and other anti-establishment conservatives, they are different in one very important way.  This difference can be made quite clear through the lens of health care, a favorite conservative topic during the past election thanks to the reform bill passed by congress last year.  Those who oppose the new legislation often present arguments that resemble Illich's argument against institutionalized care, or "treatments."  Institutionalized, centralized health care reduces an individual's options, which can easily be interpreted as a reduction in individual freedom.  This was the great fear some expressed in response to the idea of a single-payer, nationalized health plan, the fear that all individual choice would disappear, that American citizens would be told what doctors to see and what procedures would be allowed.  The easy, though not particularly effective, argument against this line of reasoning is that this over-management, this rationing of health care, already exists in for-profit form.  American health insurance companies restrict their clients in terms of what doctors they can see and what procedures will be covered.  This counter-argument fails, of course, because it is an argument that assumes a person's health must be managed by professionals—it is an argument about the structure of management, not whether such management is needed in the first place.  Even if it seems irrational to some, I can certainly understand how some Americans would rather keep the problematic health care management structure we have now than accept a totally new, untested system of management.  Better the evil you know than the one you don't know.  

While Illich would recognize and perhaps at a certain level sympathize with the standard liberal argument in favor of health care reform—in favor of centralized, national health care—he would (and does at points, though not at length in this text) argue that the underlying problem is the fact that the idea of health is now defined by the institutional structure that manages it.  We have our minds and bodies serviced in the same way we have our cars serviced—by experts at certified service stations.  In the same way that service stations ultimately argue against the personal acquisition of the knowledge and skill required to care for a car, our health care structure ultimately argues against the acquisition of the knowledge and skill required for individuals to care for themselves in very basic ways.  As Illich would point out, the problem with our health care industry is that it is an industry.  It is a structure which both promotes a certain definition of health and the "treatments" one must receive to attain that "health."  The health care debate is crippled by an ignorance of, or an unwillingness to recognize, the fact that the parameters of the debate have been set according to institutionalized values, values which, according to Illich's argument in Deschooling Society, we first learn about and accept through the process of school.

I'm reminded of a man—let's call him Leonard—my wife and I know who once had a problem with shoes.  Leonard's problem was that every pair of shoes he tried hurt his feet.  He went through multiple shoe pairs and always had the same experience—the shoes would "feel good" at first, but after wearing them all day, his feet would hurt.  His response to this was to return pair after pair, regarding them all as failures, as shoes that didn't "work."  This issue, of course, is that Leonard had accepted institutional ideas—in this case the values communicated, either explicitly or implicitly, through shoe companies and their advertisements—about what a shoe should and should not do.  After so many tries, it should have become obvious to him that his feet hurt at the end of the day not because his shoes were inadequate but because he had been on his feet all day.  In short, feet get tired.  No shoe can completely eliminate such fatigue; it can only postpone it.  Leonard had an expectation problem, not a shoe problem.

Illich's argument in Deschooling Society is that society has an expectation problem born of institutional values.  School, as well as other bureaucratic institutions, teaches individuals to have certain expectations of the world, expectations which, like Leonard's, are ultimately unrealistic and serve only to frustrate us and make us unsatisfied.  More on this later...

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