deschooling, Discipleship, Ivan Illich, Unschooling

Reflections on Illich 02: Schools don’t just school the kids, they school the whole society

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

p. 4  “Everywhere not only education but society as a whole needs ‘deschooling’.”

When I was growing up, the most common comment made to a child when met by an adult was, “What are you going to be when you leave school?”  It was assumed that children went to school.  No one that I knew even thought of a possible alternative.  Schools and schooling are a mindset, and a mental stronghold.  And the stronghold pervades our western culture.  Sure, there are small pockets of those who have thought outside the norm, and there is an even smaller minority who have actually applied themselves to the task of doing stuff that is not like school.

However, due to the pervasiveness of schools and schooling, the very fabric of western culture is schooled.  Schools look very much like total institutions (as I argue in my dissertation pp. 87-90), and the survivors of schools carry institutionalized thinking into the general culture.  This spreads institutional thinking throughout the culture.

Institutional thinking reduces human value and interaction down to systems, rationalization, pragmatism and utilitarianism, that is measured quantitatively.  All in all you’re just another brick in the wall (to paraphrase Waters).

This is in contradistinction to organic thinking.  Organic thinking is creative, entrepreneurial, cooperative, relational and achieves quantity through qualitative measures.

Institutional thinking is top-down.  Organic thinking is top-up; and by top-up I mean the kind of leadership that serves and equips, rather than uses and rules over.

Cultural change must begin with me and mine, and must start with a change of heart.  Having a change of heart, we need to become educated after a process of deschooling.  From my perspective, the best way to become educated is through unschooling, and the most powerful unschooling is that that which is done at the side of a caring and trustworthy mentor, who demonstrates and coaches, equips and encourages, and finally releases into joy and fruitfulness in life.  Over time, this will leaven the whole of the culture with an unschooled mindset.  It has to start somewhere.


One thought on “Reflections on Illich 02: Schools don’t just school the kids, they school the whole society

  1. ronald slyderink says:

    We are all unfortunately or fortunately depending on the ‘culture’ heavily influenced by that culture and the values and behaviour of its citizens and institutions including ‘schools’. There is no doubt that schools which reflect the society and culture they are in will impact heavily on the mindset, values and behaviour of people (teachers, principals, students, parents, …) in life-changing ways. Unfortunately as we can observe, the effects are unsatisfactory to say the least (you have mentioned some of these) and are not conducive to the quality of life God wants us to live in how we relate to him and one another, locally and globally. Our society is prominently materialistic, pleasure self-seeking, orientated to gaining wealth, health, comfort, personal fulfilment and being popular – apart from God and following what he says which is a recipe for disaster. Virtually all schools either ignore God entirely as not having any relevance to ‘education’, ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, life, work, sport… or pay lip service to him, reducing him to be largely irrelevant. There are few if any curricula or subjects or units of study or ‘lessons’ that put God central or that have the goal of using what has been learnt to serve and love others in serving and loving God. (there may be an emphasis on ‘appropriate understanding’ but no real application especially as it relates to loving God and our neighbour).

    Without belittling the uniqueness and variety of any society or culture, we can conclude and say that the only true culture/society that will survive and thrive will be a culture that embraces God and the Kingdom of God in its life and teachings. Our modern civilisation with its many diverse cultural differences including its educational and schooling systems to maintain and continue its culture will not survive if its values and behaviours are contrary to the principles, attitudes and values of the Kingdom of God.

    It all starts with ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand’ and becoming children of the King who love God and his ways and commandments and seek to honour and serve him in all we think, do and teach/learn. This may sound simplistic, but it is vital and significant to real lasting change and genuine learning or education. Our teacher will be the Holy Spirit and Spirit filled people who work with children/people/students guiding, encouraging and most likely disciplining as we grow in Christ.

    It is as you say a question of the heart, a question of the heart and attitude of the teacher and learner being focused on fostering genuine relationships between God and one another. That’s where the context of content and curricula arises, directed to helping to gain whatever knowledge and skills is needed to put love and serving into action. It will be action learning towards serving, it will incorporate all dimensions of our being, our heart/mind/hand nature. When we address the fundamental question of who God is and what his will, plan and ways are and who we are then the meaning and purpose of life can be ascertained and these will fundamentally direct and affect what and how we teach and learn and we are on the way of being ‘educated’. Deschooling and unschooling has to occur if we are to address the fundamental flaw of leaving God out as well as assuming that learning automatically occurs when we parrot lots of information and concepts, with an overemphasis on conceptual academic learning. At best conceptual learning complements learning, at worst it numbs the mind and heart to what is important and is consumed and enslaved to the trivial and self-absorption living independently from God.

    Let God be exalted, he is our standard and hope.


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