Education, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Teaching

Reflections on Illich 17: Don’t wait to be taught: have a go and learn.

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

p. 48  “School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.  Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition.”

It has been very painful to watch someone I know struggle with the helplessness that they feel because their schooling has instilled in them that unless they are taught, they cannot learn.  Actually, this is the condition of a number of people that I know.  They have been schooled, and they have been schooled exceptionally well.  These people live less than satisfying lives because they are always blaming their lack of knowledge on not having been taught such and so.  It is a debilitating condition to be in.

I remember that I did not really start learning to drive until after I had been given my driver’s license.  I was taught the basics, but the real lessons came from repeated practice on the open road, and having to learn how to adjust to the unpredictable as it came in my ongoing driving experience.

A proper education is like this.  At the beginning we do need to be taught some basics, such as: moral precepts, decoding/encoding skills, mathematical tables, and some basic historical, geographical and scientific facts.  However, if we are spoon-fed beyond the basics, then we lose the capacity to self-learn, and as a consequence become dependent upon others to teach us.  Those who have been institutionalized by schooling and its spoon-fed learning model, are not able to cope with the learning opportunities that life throws up at them.

The best context for learning is to have a go, fail, consider the lessons that can be learned from the attempt, then have another go with better insight.  To wait until someone teaches you, before having a go, means that you are ever learning, but never arriving at the truth, or never learning at all.


One thought on “Reflections on Illich 17: Don’t wait to be taught: have a go and learn.

  1. ronald slyderink says:

    I concur with this. A major reason why we struggle to self-learn is we have been insidiously brainwashed into restrictive modes of learning, principally conceptual learning (and the teaching behind it). This has dominated curriculum and subjects and we think we need to know the what of things and verbalise it to show we have learnt (it is only one form of learning). There is no end to this and we become obsessed with knowing in this way more and more at the expense of knowing how to apply and direct it to improve the quality of lives and living. We end up stifling real authentic liberating learning which is a balance of ‘mind, hand and heart’, of cognitive, psychomotor, conative and affective elements, of knowing what, knowing how, and knowing when and why to Act to make a difference (all about attitude, heart and wisdom). There is a greater chance to arrive at the truth if we give our children and students the opportunities to learn holistically giving them experiences and abilities to develop themselves and open themselves to relate and interact with others for the mutual benefit of all.


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