deschooling, Ivan Illich

Reflections on Illich 12: The anti-dote to perpetuated immaturity is to get rid of compulsory, age-segregatated schooling

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 29  “If there were no age-specific and obligatory learning institutions, ‘childhood’ would go out of production.”

It is real responsibility, in real life situations, with real consequences that enables maturity to develop.  Continuing to shelter young people beyond their childhood is to perpetuate childhood.  This is what compulsory, age-segregated schooling does; it perpetuates childhood into ever extending age groups.  And how can this be measured?  It is measured by the level of Social Welfare dependence.  Children depend upon others to care for them.  Adults take responsibility for their own lives.

Institutionalized children, become dependent upon the institutions of the culture, the major one being the Social Welfare System, and an example of others would include the hospital system.

This is why Illich insisted that there needed to be a deschooling of society.  It is not just the institutionalizing of education that is the problem, it is the institutionalizing of everything in society.  It all leads to dependence, which is a manifestation of immaturity at a whole range of ages beyond childhood.

Maturity is taking responsibility for your own affairs, and not depending upon others or an institution to look after you.

“Therefore let us … go on to maturity [taking on the responsibility for your own affairs] …” wrote the Apostle Paul (Hebrews 6:1).

Ivan Illich, Schools, State Schools

Reflections on Illich 11: Schools are ancient and modern, and perpetuate childhood

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 28  “The school system is a modern phenomenon, as is the childhood it produces.”

School as we know it in our era has only appeared once before in history, and that was in the Ancient community of Sparta.  According to Flaceliere (1965) at the age of 7 a young boy was taken from his family, schooled in a state-controlled total institution, where he was indoctrinated to give allegiance and unquestioning obedience to the state until his death.  Spartan girls were raised to be on equal footing with the boys, but the objective was with a militaristic end in view – breeders of strong Spartan boys for the Army.  Schools and schooling were designed to create total dependence upon the state, and to form the citizens into military units that responded to the states martial objectives.

In the case of modern schools, their original raison d’etre was also militaristic.  The German Kaisers wanted to created a powerful war machine in Europe, and saw state-compulsory schooling as a means of achieving this objective.  When the concept of state-controlled education reached England, America and Australia, it was seen as a means of creating a large workforce of factory workers.  In the words of Reynolds (2014):

“… the traditional public school: like a factory, … runs by a bell.  Like machines in a factory, desks and students are lined up in orderly rows.  When shifts (classes) change, the bell rings again, and students go on to the next class.  And within each class, the subjects are the same, the assignments are the same, and the examinations are the same, regardless of the characteristics of individual students. … A teacher in a modern industiral-era school was like a factory worker, performing standardized operations on standardized parts.  And the standardized parts–the students–were taught along the way how to fit into a larger machine. … the modern school system provided far less scope for individuality on the part of both its producers and its products.  But the trade-off was seen as worthwhile: the modern assembly-line approach, in both settings, produced more of what society wanted, and it did so at a lower cost.  If standard parts are what you want, an assembly line is better than a blacksmith” (Reynolds, 2014, Standardized Parts and Mass Production).

So, the 19th Century objects of schooling were to create a ready supply of “punctual, obedient factory workers; orderly citizens; and loyal soldiers” (Reynolds, 2014).

Between Sparta and the experiment of the German Kaisers, education was a family and marketplace activity, and was not delivered in schools as we know them today.  In that sense, the school system is a modern phenomenon.  And since factories have shifted from the West to Asia, at least some of the reasons for schools and schooling have disappeared–training of piece-workers with no jobs at the end of the training process.

I remember the first thing that I was told by my platoon sergeant, when I got off the bus and commenced my military training: “Don’t think, soldier! You are not paid to think, that is what officers are paid to do.  You are paid to do as you are told.”  Military training militates against maturity and responsibility.  As a soldier, others make decisions about what you will wear, where you will live, what you will eat, whether you will sleep (or not), how you will behave, and so forth.  Schooling that is based on a militaristic and factory model prevents responsible thinking, the essential prerequisite to maturity.  Growing up requires real opportunities to make significant decisions, with actual consequences.  Schools perpetuate childhood;  particularly in the context of age-segregated cohorts, with age-oriented learning materials.

Education for maturity, education for responsibility and productivity in life requires education in life under the guidance of loving parents, and in the company of supportive siblings.  True education orients a child to the twin objectives: to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself.  This cannot be achieved in the context of a school, and is not the by-product of schooling; it is the fruit of unschooling with a discipleship emphasis.


Bursts of Inspiration in Other Directions

Christian Response to ‘When forty Winters Shall Beseige Thy Brow’ – William Shakespeare

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d where all they beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praised deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer–‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse–‘
Proving this beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new-made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st cold.

The physical beauty of womanhood serves many purposes in the economy of God. Primarily it anticipates the beauty of the church, the blood-washed bride of Christ. In addition, it ensures that men are attracted to a mate so that families are created, and the human race is perpetuated. Feminine beauty can also add an aesthetic dimension to relationship; it is important to look fresh for the sake of others. If the physical beauty of youth is depended upon, and attention is not given to inner graces (like long-suffering, patience, kindness, etc.), then a woman’s attractiveness has an end. Age will not be avoided, nor shall its imprint be erased. It shall appear as “deep trenches in … beauty’s field.” Shakespeare addresses the inevitable by suggesting that beauty can be reproduced in offspring. For Shakespeare, then, it is essential that a young woman make it her duty to marry and prove “beauty by succession.”

As the inevitable is painted in word-pictures, there is a sense of hopelessness which is characterized by such words as: “winters shall besiege thy brow,” “dig deep trenches,” “tatter’d weed of small worth,” “deep sunken eyes,” and “all-eating shame.” This changes at the volta, however:

“How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,”

The tone now becomes one of potential solution. Although, the poem finishes with a melancholy note: a feeling of coldness prevails in the presence of new blood; the death of personal beauty is guaranteed, but beauty as a form continues in progeny.

Sonnets have always been the favoured form of poets to express love, and the more important issues of life. The theme of Shakespeare’s verse is better served in the genre of the sonnet. As mentioned before, Shakespeare’s use of words contrasts sharply with his theme of physical beauty. There is a steady down-ward progression of images, moving towards the grave coldness of the final couplet. However, imposed upon this down-ward movement is the sense of resurrection, or at least a sense of hope in the midst of the unavoidable.

The last line of the second quatrain suggests personal responsibility for the loss of physical beauty. The dissipation of youth creates a guilty conscience that is plagued by “an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.” Procreation, therefore, sports an element of penance for youth’s wantonness.

When read aloud, the words of the poem make their passage with difficulty. Facing up to the consequences of our youthful indiscretions, and the steady encroachment of old age, is a very difficult and painful process.

Shakespeare has a point, if the poem is considered from a purely humanistic perspective. Physical beauty does fade, and more quickly if it is through foolish youthful dissipation. There is a sense of physical beauty having its regeneration in our progeny. However, it is not physical beauty which is eternal. The real beauty of a woman is described by the Apostle Peter as “the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”

Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Schools

Reflections on Illich 10: The characteristics of schools

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

pp. 26-27  “… I shall define ‘school’ as the age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum.”

The characteristics that Illich refers to as being defining characteristics of schools are:

1.   age-specific (and age-segregated) learning contexts;

2.   teacher-related (teacher-centred) processes;

3.   full-time attendance (compulsory attendance); and

4.   obligatory curriculum (centrally determined, and obligatory for all to complete).

Each of these characteristics militates against efficient and effective learning on the part of the students. 

Firstly, age-specific and age-segregated learning ensures that learning will be pitched at the mediocre, with very little attention to the needs of those students at either extreme of learning capacity.  Age-specific and age-segregated cohorts are created on the assumption that all children pass through the same stages of development at the same times, which is not true in all areas for all children.  There are developmental differences that enable many children to be at different stages at different times in different areas of their lives.  This assumption of equal development suppresses individuality, and creativity, and ultimately prevents most children from becoming excellent at anything.

Secondly, teacher-related/teacher-centred processes focus on the interests, strengths and abilities of the teacher.  Effective learning takes place when the student has a particular interest or passion that is being catered for.  Learning should not be totally child-centred and child-focused, however, the individuality of the student needs to be taken into consideration, including favoured learning styles, previous learning, orientation, interests and passion of the child.  All these need to be taken into consideration when facilitating learning opportunities.

Thirdly, full-time, compulsory attendance does not take into consideration the powerful learning that takes place when spontaneous opportunities in the context of living life present themselves.  It is important to have the time and the flexibility to respond to these learning opportunities.

Finally, a centrally determined, obligatory curriculum does not take into consideration the myriad of variations of learning needs that are spread across families, communities, regions and so forth.  No one person can learn everything there is to learn.  And no one person or group of people can choose from the full range of possible things that can be learned, which are to be the universally required core learnings.  These are local decisions.

Discipleship, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Unschooling

Reflections on Illich 09: Learning in life ensures that education is relevent and real

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 23  “A deschooled society implies a new approach to incidental or informal education.”

In a formal schooling situation, learning is standardized and presented as a curriculum.  However, much of the learning that takes place is learning for examinations, not learning for life.  Very little of what is learned for examinations is retained beyond the examination.  In fact, a whole lot of self-learning usually needs to take place, after schooling has finished, for young people to become useful in a vocation.

On the other hand, learning in life (expanding knowledge from the events, situations and opportunities that present themselves as you go about daily routines) ensures that learning is anchored in reality.  This incidental and oftentimes informal learning is usually the learning that remains.

At this time, society tends to give more value to formalized school learning.  However, those who have been unschooled, and especially those who have been unschooled with a discipleship emphasis, will prove to be the most useful and adaptive participants in the broader society, because their learning is relevant, and much more anchored in reality.

Education Delivery Programs, Home-Based Education, Ivan Illich, Schooling

Reflections on Illich 08: Floating the idea of Flexi-Learning Centres

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 20  “The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.”

As I continue to argue, from my perspective, the best form of foundational education is unschooling with a discipleship emphasis.  However, no family is able to pass on to the children everything that needs to be learned for the child to become a mature contributor to the welfare of the community.  There comes a time (sometimes earlier, and sometimes later in the child’s education) where there must be recourse to learned and skilled others in the community.

The question is, how is the access obtained?  Illich’s suggestion is that there be networks or services that provided a clearing-house for those with passionate concerns to meet with those with the same passion and desire to learn.  A forum for connecting those in the community who are experts in a field of knowledge or skills-set, with those who want to acquire that knowledge and/or skills-set.

This should not be institutionalized, where the financial remuneration for the exchange of knowledge and skills comes from government taxes, or even mostly from other institutions such as the church.  These clearing-houses need to be privately managed, and the financial exchange be between the families seeking the knowledge/skills and the supplier of the knowledge/skills.

I am calling these clearing-houses Flexi-Learning Centres.  They are not to take over the role of the home.  However, home-based education uses the home as a bases, where learning is done in and out of the home, and such networks and services, as suggested by Illich, become a means of accessing a whole range of supplementary educational experiences. 

A Flexi-Learning Centre would not be a school; there would be no compulsion, there would be no age-grade segregation, there would be no government-mandated curriculum, there would be nothing of school in the mix.  Activity may take place at the Flexi-Learning Centre, if appropriate, but there is no requirement for this to take place if learning would be better accessed in another place.  However, it would be a location where families could find out about what is available, where, when and at what cost, and delivered by whom.

Bursts of Inspiration in Other Directions

Response to John Buyan’s poem “Sin”

Sin is the living worm, the lasting fire;
Hell soon would lose its heat could sin expire.
Better sinless in Hell than to be where
Heaven is and to be found a sinner there.

One sinless with infernals might do well,
But sin would make of heaven a very Hell.
Fools make a mock of sin, will not believe
It carries such a dagger in its sleeve.

How can it be, say they, that such a thing
So full of sweetness ere should wear a sting?
They know not that it is the very spell
Of sin to make men laugh themselves to Hell.

The Apostle Paul, in the seventh chapter of the book of Romans, writes that “sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.”  Man’s struggle with sin has been the focus of much thinking and writing over the centries.  Bunyan himself has also written comprehensively on the topic.  His poem, bearing the title ‘Sin’, expresses his conviction in regards to the exceeding sinfulness of sin.  Much of modern Christendom has lost its hatred of sin.  There exists a flirtation with, and casualness about, the malady that riveted our Lord to the cross, causing Him to suffer the cruelest death ever experienced in the history of mankind.

Sin is the living worm, the lasting fire;

From the first line, Bunyan would have us imagine the worst concerning sin.  His intention is to evoke a fear that hopefully would shake the fool from his complacency.  Such complacency, if not arrested, causes men to “laugh themselves to Hell.”

Buyan’s use of words like ‘fire’, ‘Hell’, ‘infernals‘, ‘dagger’, etc., is designed to evoke in the reader a sense of the torment of Hell.  This is the destination of all who die in their sin.  Jesus described Hell as a place where the fire shall never be quenched, and where the worm never dies.  It evokes the imagery of never-ending, excruciating pain: a constant gnawing, with no let-up forever and ever.

The poem is written in the style of the Heroic Couplet, each line constructed with an iambic pentameter.  This poetic form is reserved for those themes that are lofty and of grave importance.  The issue of the sinfulness of Man, and God’s total abhorrence of sin, is perhaps the greatest question to be addressed in the universe.  God clearly resolved the issue at Calvary.  Three stanzas, each containing two sets of rhyming couplets, carry the theme.  The choice of three stanzas is an interesting one.  Three is the number of the Godhead.  Sin is the great issue that God in Christ has addressed through the Cross.  There were three crosses at the scene where Christ made the redemptive transaction, taking upon Himself the sin of the whole world, and making available to all who would believe, His own gift of righteousness.  Jesus was three days and three nights in the grave, triumphing over Satan the author of sin, and triumphing over death, the just wages for sin.  On the other hand, two reflects the dual nature of Christ the Sin-bearer, who was both God and Man at the same time — two natures in one Person.

Bunyan’s choice of language is deliberate and carefully executed.  His use of contrast, amplifies the intensity of his description of sin.

One sinless with infernals might do well,
But sin would make of Heaven a very Hell.

Hell is made to sound even more Hellish when contrasted with Heaven.  The sting of death is made more real when held against the misapprehension of ‘sweetness’, by the fool.  ‘living worm’ and ‘lasting fire’ are juxtaposed against the mockery and laughter of utter fools.  Malevolence is suggested by the image of ‘a dagger in its sleeve’, which is an image common in clandestine and violent scenes.  Paul, elsewhere in the Scriptures, quotes the Old Testament passage, “O death where is they sting?”  Bunyan, on the other hand, attributes this deathly sting to sin, as a precursor to Hell.  The poem is full of ‘s’ sounds, thirty-three in such a short poem.  This adds to the Hellish tone of the poem.  It underscores the sound of sin, but subtly introduces the hiss of the Serpent, the original author of sin.  In the same way, ‘fire’, ‘heat’ and ‘Hell’ all stir up a sense of the intensity of the consequence of sin — a consequence to be turned from.  His use of the word ‘spell’ also introduces the notion of witchcraft. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and hell is crowded with the original, and recruited, rebels against God’s throne in heaven.

Bunyan’s poem is inescapably biblical.  His imagery is lifted from the recorded words of Jesus and Paul on the subject.  To some of us, who have been raised under the humanistic preaching of much of modern Christendom, some of this imagery is foreign.  However, this does not change the reality that Bunyan is describing.  We would all do well to ponder His poem, and hopeful it will lead us to reconsider what Jesus meant when He spoke of the need to enter in at the narrow gate.  Many of us have been seduced by the apparent sweetness of sin.  In a drunken stupor we mock and laugh at those who concern themselves with the struggle against sin.  For some of us our conscience is so seared that we are not even aware of our wretchedness, and how close we travel to the pit of Hell.  Perhaps if we were to see into the pit, and hear the ceaseless, agonizing screams of those who find their eternal abode there, we would shed our mirth, and clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, bemoaning our exceeding sinfulness.

Bunyan has been read by millions, by many generations since he wrote in the seventeenth century.  His book ‘Pilgrims Progress’ has been a classic inspiration to countless Christians.  This poem ‘Sin’ focuses specifically on the issue of sin, and very powerfully draws our attention to its seductive nature.  As we analyse Bunyan’s treatment of this theme, we realize how timely his message is for every generation, and for every situation.  Having read and studied the poem, my desire is to fall to my knees and cry out to the Lord:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”