So I then came to define education as learning under the assumption of scarcity, learning under the assumption that the means for acquiring something called knowledge are scarce.
So said Ivan Illich during a series of interviews with David Cayley, first published in 1992, and re-published a couple of years ago in Ivan Illich in Conversation.
‘Education’, for Illich, is shorthand here for compulsory systems of schooling. That the nature of the school as we know it is still based on the ‘assumption that the means for acquiring something called knowledge are scarce’ is all the more obvious now. But even in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was already becoming evident that the means for accessing information and for acquiring knowledge were expanding and deepening at a tremendous rate.
Illich’s observation is hugely more material now that it was just two decades ago. The means for acquiring knowledge are certainly no longer scarce, and the implications of that fact for the institutions of formal education, I believe, could be (should be) profound. The guardians of knowledge, like the priests who watched over the mediæval chained libraries have lost their grip on the sources of information that have given them such authority for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Too many of our formal institutions of education still operate as if they continue to be the heirs to those priests, those guardians of the knowledge.