Books That Made Me An Educator: Illich’s Flawed Classics

illichbooksThis is the second in an occasional series of posts highlighting some of the books that led me into education or that have greatly influenced me as an educator over the years. The first in the series can be found here.

In 1971, Ivan Illich published Deschooling Society, and then two years later Tools for Conviviality. I read both books in the mid-1970s, the first as a high school student, the second during my first year at university, where I was studying politics. I read neither book with as yet any hint in my mind that I would later go into teaching and spend fifteen years as a teacher and as a headteacher, and then the rest of my life since involved in so many other ways in education. I do remember reading the two books and thinking as I read them that, while I was one of those people for whom school (including university) was a relatively easy part of my life, in the sense that I was able to negotiate the eccentric and high-handed ways of the educational institutions with relative ease, I never truly enjoyed the process at any point. I found the whole concept of school, and certainly many of the daily rituals of school, to be personally demeaning and humiliating much of the time. Even as a very young child I was aware that I was being pushed and pulled hither and thither, sometimes by people who were relatively kindly in the ways that they did it, sometimes by people who seemed at best benignly indifferent to my interests, and sometimes by people who should never ever have been allowed within 100 yards of any child never mind put in a position of direct responsibility over one.

My whole time as a teacher and as a school leader was coloured, always very consciously, by my own very clear memories of my time as a pupil, by the recollection of all those tiny, seemingly trivial, anxieties that speckled the normal day of a school student. These were the minor vexations, the moments of distress, the petty humiliations, the fleeting fears that meant little in isolation but that accumulated over time to make school days stressful. Equally, in teaching and school management, I always made sure that I could recall, and try to replicate in my dealings with children and young people, the moments of pleasure, the brief surges of pride, the little triumphs, the rare instances of being treated as an equal or at least not being spoken to in the various dreadfully condescending ways that some – thankfully few – teachers I encountered felt the need to deploy in the classroom.

Both of Illich’s books stayed with me, all through university and all through my career in education. I have gone back to both books time and time again. Even from the start, I was aware of what I considered to be deep flaws in his thinking, and each time I went back to them those flaws became clearer and, for a number of reasons, more and more illuminating of both the richness and the deficiencies in Illich’s underlying philosophy. Illich recognised the deep human issues that the concept of compulsory schooling brought with it; however, he offered no real solutions for those problems. His underlying anarchistic, Epimethean philosophy allowed him little scope, I believe, for any real understanding of the socio-economic drivers for mass education, and his analysis suffered in comparison, for example, to that of Paulo Freire.  However, Illich’s core distaste, and rightful distaste, for the effects of compulsory schooling has been the backdrop to much of my own thinking in this area down through the years.

But so too Tools for Conviviality, a book that added to the earlier work by offering an expression of the kind of society, the kind of human interaction, that I have always felt since could be the basis for an open, humane and compassionate form of education, in which people would be given autonomy and respect as individual learners, sometimes learning alone, often learning with others. Illich defined conviviality as:

individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value…

He saw conviviality as completely antithetical to industrial productivity:

I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.

I realised even then, while still in my teens, that the school as I knew it, with its regimentation, with its unbending hierarchy of teachers and taught, with its arbitrary rules, and with its often absurd and sometimes deliberately cruel methods for excising ignorance and maintaining orderliness, was a tool of the same ideological and socio-economic forces that directed the mines, the factories, the mills, the steelworks and the shipbuilders in the Scotland in which I grew up, the same forces that later wiped out those same industries along with the communities they supported. I knew then that this had always been the case, that the school had always been an instrument, although a highly imprecise and capricious instrument, of those with power and influence in societies through the ages. I also knew then that any such instrument wielded by any elite could not, by definition, operate in the real interests of ordinary people such as me.

My lifelong interest in education, therefore, was triggered four decades ago by two remarkable and flawed books written by an Austrian philosopher-priest, and, alongside Letter to a Teacher, led me spend to five decades as a learner, a teacher and an observer of the school and its deficiencies, as well as its apparent durability. And now, informed by many years of reading, writing and thinking about the essence of learning, about the nature of teaching, about the gradual revolution wrought in educational possibilities by digital technology, I have finally been sparked by the urge to come full circle and write the combined Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality for the Knowledge Age.

I am working on that now.