Schooling: “the pyramid of classified packages”

Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.

So wrote Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society. Illich’s solution was more nuanced than simply deschooling society, by which he meant extinguishing the compulsory aspect of schooling: he also sought to build what he termed learning networks:

What are needed are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching.

But Illich wrote this in the pre-digital era, when his focus was on Latin America, and when the only technologies he could envisage using for such networks were cassette tape recorders. He saw these  as tools for free expression, unlike TV, which he felt gave the bureaucrats “…the power to sprinkle the continent with institutionally produced programs which they-or their sponsors–decide are good for or in demand by the people.”

With hindsight, his views were ideologically sound, visionary and idealistic, but perhaps technologically naive. Today however, Illich’s vision of learning networks are being realised in multiple guises across the Web, some more useful and open than others. Given the profound technological shift that is already making his concept of the learning network viable, it is interesting to look back at how Illich sought to categorize the different approaches he envisaged that would enable the learner to gain access to whatever educational resource they wanted and needed. He offered four categories:

  • Reference Services to Educational Objects – these facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning;
  • Skill Exchanges – these permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached;
  • Peer-Matching – a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry;
  • Reference Services to Educators-at-Large – who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services.

It is clear from this short list that Illich recognized learning as a fundamental human activity that everyone could and should engage in, both as teachers and learner: everyone wants to learn, and everyone should be enabled to teach whatever skill or knowledge they can offer to others. At the same time, he wanted to make it possible for those wishing to learn a subject or skills to find those able to teach that subject or skill. Equally, he saw the need for the mirror image of this learner/teacher relationship, by proposing a system that would enable those with skills and knowledge to teach to find those who want to learn from them. Of course, given the limitations of pre-digital technology, such a relationship could only be either face-to-face or asynchronous (for instance, by the teacher sending tapes to a learner).

Given that such limitations no longer exist, the limitations of Illich’s four approaches also becomes apparent. However, the core premiss of these approaches stands, I would suggest. The logic of his approaches becomes obvious when you consider what he saw as the three central purposes of education (something I have quoted more than once before, both here on the blog and in many keynotes and presentations over the years):

A good educational system should have three purposes:

  • it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives;
  • it should empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them;
  • it should furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

We all sit on the shoulders of giants, and Illich was a giant amongst the giants of education.