Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Stench of Education, Educational Needs (?) and Learning under 'Conditions of Scarcity'

I'm on an Ivan Illich kick. If you don't know who this is, Illich wrote Deschooling Society back in the 70s. It was a book that got alternative education models going in earnest.

But what is significant is that at the time of publishing the book, Illich was already revising his thoughts on education.
In a forward note to Deschooling our Lives, a collection of essays edited by Matt Hern, Illich wrote;

I called for the disestablishment of schools for the sake of improving education and here, I noticed, lay my mistake. Much more important than the disestablishment of schools, I began to see, was the reversal of those trends that make of education a pressing need rather than a gift of gratuitous leisure. I began to fear that the disestablishment of the educational church would lead to a fanatical revival of many forms of degraded, all-encompassing education, making the world into a universal classroom, a global schoolhouse. The more important question became, "Why do so many people - even ardent critics of schooling - become addicted to education, as to a drug?"

What a piercing idea-education as 'a gift of gratuitous leisure' rather than a 'pressing need.'
When Illich's recantation was published in the Saturday Review, that same week the book came out, it was to explain that
the alternative to schooling was not some other type of educational agency, or the design of educational opportunities in every aspect of life, but a society which fosters a different attitude of people toward tools. I expanded and generalized this argument in my next book, Tools for Conviviality.

"Fostering a different attitude of people towards tools." That is something I would like to spend some time on and would appreciate input from readers of this blog.
When you think tools, what comes to mind and how does this bear on how you thing about education?
Illich goes on to point out that the educational function was emigrating from the schools and that, increasingly,
other forms of compulsory learning would be instituted in modern society. It would become compulsory not by law, but by other tricks such as making people believe that they are learning something from TV, or compelling people to attend in-service training, or getting people to pay huge amounts of money in order to be taught how to have better sex, how to be more sensitive, how to know more about the vitamins they need, how to play games, and so on. This talk of "lifelong learning" and "learning needs" has thoroughly polluted society, and not just schools, with the stench of education.
Wrapping up this short foreward, Illich says;
When I wrote Deschooling Society, the social effects, and not the historical substance of education, were still at the core of my interest. I had questioned schooling as a desirable means, but I had not questioned education as a desirable end. I still accepted that, fundamentally, educational needs of some kind were an historical given of human nature. I no longer accept this today.
As I refocused my attention from schooling to education, from the process toward its orientation, I came to understand education as learning when it takes place under the assumption of scarcity in the means which produce it. The "need" for education from this perspective appears as a result of societal beliefs and arrangements which make the means for so-called socialization scarce.

And, from this same perspective, I began to notice that educational rituals reflected, reinforced, and actually created belief in the value of learning pursued under conditions of scarcity. Such beliefs, arrangements, and rituals, I came to see, could easily survive and thrive under the rubrics of deschooling, free schooling, or homeschooling (which, for the most part, are limited to the commendable rejection of authoritarian methods).

What does scarcity have to do with education? If the means for learning (in general) are abundant, rather than scarce, [and I think at this point we can think about the tools for learning and how accessible they are to everyone] then education never arises - one does not need to make special arrangements for "learning." If, on the other hand, the means for learning are in scarce supply, or are assumed to be scarce, then educational arrangements crop up to "ensure" that certain important knowledge, ideas, skills, attitudes, etc., are "transmitted."
Education then becomes an economic commodity which one consumes, or, to use common language, which one "gets." Scarcity emerges both from our perceptions, which are massaged by education professionals who are in the business of imputing educational needs, and from actual societal arrangements that make access to tools and to skilled, knowledgeable people hard to come by - that is, scarce.

Illich concludes with his wish that;

If people are seriously to think about deschooling their lives, and not just escape from the corrosive effects of compulsory schooling, they could do no better than to develop the habit of setting a mental question mark beside all discourse on young people's "educational needs" or "learning needs," or about their need for "a preparation for life."
How does that make you feel?


Anonymous said...

I feel that Ivan is right. It's like repeatedly telling people that natural food that hunter-gatherers used to collect and survive on for generations is wrong and bad for them while advertising and extolling extremely expensive wheat and barley that only has a few precious sources.

Learning is wired-in to our human kind. Learning, from all different types of sources, is as natural as breathing. Most of us could all be doctors, politicians etc.

People in a profession ring-fence it by surrounding it by jargon and old-boyism. They take the right to reject anyone who comes to them to learn. It's entirely the wrong attitude, but what do we expect in a society that perpetuates slavery by keeping people in the dark?


Sara said...

When I think of tools, the first thing that comes to mind are tools to procure basic human needs; food, shelter and clean water. Fostering independence, or better, interdependence on a local level, would, I believe, undermine the power structures that depend on the "educated" masses to consume their products.

The second area, and for many this is the kicker, is health care. It is probably a bigger hurdle to overcome than anything else. I think 90 per cent of "need" in this area could be eliminated if people returned to a more natural diet and lifestyle, as Danae pointed out, closer to the hunter gatherer combined with small scale horticulture. As in, "Let your food be your medicine." The other 10 per cent; broken bones, serious trauma, etc. could be seen to, perhaps, by medical teams whose needs were taken care of by their local communities, in much the same way that churches provide housing, etc. for their clergy or how the Levites in the Old Testament were provided for by their communities.

rav143rab said...

I agree with this excerpt from one the previous comments
(Anonymous post)--

*Most of us could all be doctors, politicians etc.*

It's not just "education"...I think a lot of ideologies need to be revisited with a planet-wide perspective,,,, be it economics, politics........

We should realize that all the above ideologies took birth to solve problems with a localized perspective......... times have changed..... instead of adding amendments, there is an urgent need
to re-visit fundamental stuff.

It's time to re-invent the wheel

rfs said...

Hi all thanks for the comments. Illich did indeed observe that the 'educational needs' had migrated to all areas of societal organization.
And as Danae points out in her comment, we are exclude from the 'boy's club' of knowledge and ready access to 'tools of conviviality' and this is what we have to change.
@Sara-reading your comment brought the word 'resiliency' to mind. How can we make ourselves more resilient as individuals and communities? is the question now.

Anonymous said...

@sara-Are you talking about communism? Because that is what it smells like. I have lived under Communism and it is not something I would wish on my enemy.
As to the idea that we could all be doctors, that is ridiculous! It takes years and years of training that most people could not, or would not want to do.

Sara said...

No, I wasn't suggesting communism, at least not as it has been historically applied. Communism as a philosophy, however, may (or may not) have something to contribute toward constructing an alternative to our collapsing industrial empire, if only to provide a useful critique. As would libertarianism. But communism as a form of compulsion has always failed, and ended up enslaving rather than liberating people.

Where I think I would disagree with Illich (and most social reformers) is the mentality that we must present social change as a solution to immediate crisis. I could very well be wrong, but I think that we have time to slow down and think of creative ideas to share with friends and neighbors that would lead to a more "convivial" society. One in which tools allow humans to make their work also their artistic self expression, rather than simply being cogs in the great industrial wheel- where there is no distinction between a hobby and a profession that supplies income. I also think that these tools should be privately owned, though not of necessity by single individuals. There should be room for voluntarily shared tools by couples, families, extended families, neighborhoods, church communities and communes as well. But it's got to be voluntary, not compulsory.

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