Illich & Convivial Education

Ivan Illich used the phrase Tools for Conviviality as the title of one of his books. It is a powerful book with a trenchant set of messages, messages I have found myself agreeing with in the round but feeling very uncomfortable with in much of the detail – in other words, his core sentiment and philosophy are ones I have great sympathy with, but the conclusions he reached were hugely challenging in many ways. They are the sorts of conclusions that I have to re-think each time I come across them. (It was also the book that taught me the meaning of iatrogenic, a word I’ve managed to throw into a few conversations over the years.)

Illich defined a society based on convivial tools as:

“…. a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers….”.

I was reminded of this when I read Don Ledingham’s post on “Them” Vs “Us”, in which he describes the problem thus:

“I reckon one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education is the way in which people use the third person plural in a negative sense.

Listen to any conversation about education and very soon “they” will emerge as the problem. So teachers will talk about “them” (management), management will talk about “them” (teachers and the local authority) and those in the local authority will talk about “them” (schools and the government).

Of course there are many others groups who can be characterised as “them” – children, parents, IT managers, unions, finance departments, politicians, social workers, doctors, the media – “if only “they” could do their jobs properly then all would be well.”

I recently read someone’s view (although I cannot remember where) that you can often tell the difference between a healthy organization and an unhealthy one by the fact that, in the healthy organization, people tend to use ‘we’, while in the unhealthy one they tend to use ‘they’. Looking at Don’s post, I think the challenges faced by our formal insitutions of education (whether schools themselves or the administrations that run them) in moving from ‘we’ to ‘they’ are enormous, and will require a much more root and branch revolution in attitudes and practices than might arise from a change in the particular behaviour itself. But, that root and branch change has to start somewhere, and language can certainly influence attitudes greatly.

There are so many facets of this issue that can be raised and discussed – for me, most of the important ones are structural.

The notion of hierarchy, for instance, is built in with the bricks in Scottish education and, I assume, exists in most formal education systems around the world. The fetish in education, as in so many of our public services, for rigid and deeply layered hierarchies generates precisely the organizational mindset that promotes the top-down divisions of ‘us and them’. So, how do we really begin to break that notion of hierarchy down? Not easy, for my guess is that there are just too many working in education at the moment for whom the hierarchy serves to confirm their own elite status (and this happens at every level up and down the hierarchy – elitism is a relative notion). The ‘us and them’ attitude is therefore merely a reflection of the reality faced by most unpromoted teachers in the classroom, for instance, when they look at the phalanx of ‘managers’ piled high above them, both in school and beyond the school.

There is also the separation (certainly in the Scottish context), in many minds, between the school as something on the one hand that belongs to the community and on the other that is a component of the local authority administration – this is what allows so many headteachers to view themselves as somehow separate from the management of the authority when they are, in fact, senior managers in the authority. They are able to ask people like Don, a senior manager in a schools’ administration, questions such as ‘what is the authority going to do about…..?’ with no sense that they are just as much part of the authority as anyone else in the organization.

Of course, in a humane and compassionate world, the good headteacher should have every right to see his or her school as something that belongs to the community that it serves and not necessarily to the bureaucracy that administers it. The tension is inevitable since it is the administration, at the end of the day (or the end of the month) that pays the headteacher’s salary!

There is another critical element in this, and one that I see no signs of being relinquished any time soon by the local or central governments controlling public education. This is the almost total disempowerment of classroom teachers that has taken place over the past 2 or 3 decades. Teachers simply, in Scotland, no longer have any control over their own destiny to any extent that genuinely recognizes their skills, knowledge and commitment to what they do. Teachers have been placed in a position where, for the most part, they are quite unable to lift their heads above the minutiae of the daily crap they have to deal with from the mess of advisers, ‘improvement’ officers, inspectors, directors and so on who collectively determine every aspect of a teacher’s job today, a bureaucracy too often served by headteachers too fearful of the next ‘improvement’ visit or the next national inspection to risk not falling in entirely with the nonsense that is today foisted on teachers in relation to planning, recording, assessment and evaluation. People who feel disempowered cannot but help see those who have taken their power away as ‘them’ – no amount of care over use of language will change the structural fact of the situation that teachers find themselves in.

The existing structures in formal education therefore, at the very core of ther system, program the notion of ‘us and them’ into the DNA in our schools. This is why I think that we need a radical restructuring of formal education, and why Illich’s notion of ‘conviviality’ is so attractive. As Illich writes:

“I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of 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 consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.”

‘Individual freedom realized in personal interdependence.’ What better way to describe the kind of healthy organization(s) we need in education today? Teachers, currently, have precious little freedom, and their sense of interdependence is seriously warped by their constant need to heed the ridiculous and pointless strictures placed upon them by a system that is intent on squeezing the lifeblood out of teaching and teachers. To the individual teacher at the bottom of this pile, the morass of contradictory and baseless instructions, directives, edicts and decrees that rain down on them every day must make them feel they are trapped by a kind of mass hysteria, a host of emperors without clothes, none of whom has the insight or the balls to say ‘this is nonsense’.

The ‘us’, I cannot help feeling, is almost irrelevant for too many teachers in Scottish education today. ‘Them’ are in charge, although ‘them’ are probably no longer capable of reversing the madness of the current system in order to shift schools back to something at once humane, freely interdependent, and convivial!