Self-Directed Education and the Traditional School: Room Enough For Both?
In 1970, the Croatian-Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich—not to be confused with Tolstoy’s famous character, “Ivan Ilyich”—published his now-famous Deschooling Society, a critical exploration of the ways in which the modern education establishment interfaces with the exigencies of modern economies. Rather than places of authentic learning, development, interaction, and academic engagement, in this work Illich conceptualizes schools essentially as mechanisms for social reproduction—for the training of obedience, the exercise of normalizing control, the development of consumers. What’s more, Illich argues that in failing their outward purposes, aims such as the development of independent citizens, schools simultaneously remain all the more honest to their true, foundational principles. For Illich the organized school is inimical to authentic learning as much by design as by historical or social accident.
In so far as today’s schools are direct descendants of Thorndike’s administrative progressivism, and in so far as this approach to schooling if not embodies then at least significantly enables the system Illich critiques, Illich’s argument for me recalls the useful historical quip, from Stanford’s David Labaree, that early on in the history of American education, “Thorndike triumphed over Dewey.” From this perspective, Illich’s argument is predicated largely on this historical fact, which at the time codified the school as a non-educative instrument, though of course in concert with more pervasive and yet more subtle social forces, too. In the context of this abstraction, then, we might read Illich’s argument as at some level an expression of a more fundamental tension—between Thorndike and Dewey, but also more broadly between the social forces of normalization that theorists such as Marx and Foucault identify and the liberating conceptions of the individual these very same authors, Dewey among them, offer up as alternatives. Speaking to the ubiquity of these forces, it is no surprise that Illich, Marx, and Foucault alike theorize extensively about the nature of power and control, about how they interface with, manifest within, and operate in society. Critically, the school as a social institution cannot escape these critiques.
To make specific these generalizations, but at risk of over-simplifying Illich’s position, it is perhaps worthwhile to review some of his most quoted words on the subject of schooling—and its relation to these mechanisms: power, control, and society. Consider, for example, the following indictment from Deschooling Society:
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.
Expressing the today-popular charge of credentialism, coincidentally a topic on which Labaree has written extensively, Illich here speaks also to the intentional tendency of schools to reify the power structures that obtain in society at large, between consumer and producer, mapping these within the confines of the classroom onto the student-teacher relationship. For Illich, as traditional schools paint the world, students can have access to it only by jumping through the appropriate hoops, hoops that necessarily involve power transactions. In another section, Illich reveals the authorizing and legitimating mechanisms by which schools carry out this bait-and-switch:
Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher.
Underlying both of these excerpts is a particularly modern understanding of the traditional school, which treats the school as if it were an extension of society and of state—and I would wager rightly so. (Of course, and this will be important later, Illich seems not to acknowledge that schools are a product also of our grandest democratic hopes, not just the means by which certain sectors or forces of society may oppress.) In this approach he closely anticipates Michel Foucault’s landmark Discipline and Punish, published just five years later, wherein Foucault similarly highlights the insidious mechanisms by which formalization displaces the individual-as-personal-subject in favor of the individual-as-state-object, taking as his primary subject penality, however, rather than education. Even so, by virtue of their shared grounding—the state—punishment and education retain a close relationship, as Foucault so eloquently describes in one of the more widely quoted sections of Discipline and Punish, not surprisingly echoing Illich’s language from five years earlier:
Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?
In short, Foucault and Illich speak in general unison to the nature and tendency of society, and by extension of schools, to privilege standards and factories over the needs of individual students, to privilege Thorndike over Dewey. It is this conception of the school against which Illich writes and which catapults into the spotlight a fascinating and relevant movement: self-directed education.
This extended historical background, then, I mention in large part by way of introduction to the modern instantiation of “deschooling,” which author and educator John Holt popularized in the 1970s, with only minimal definitional alternation, as “unschooling.” Importantly, while commonly associated with homeschooling, “unschooling” at the same time is the close cousin and often synonym of self-directed education more broadly, and is for this reason of interest to me here.
Now, although the intellectual relationship between Holt and Illich is complex—and could be the subject of its own extended academic study—for the purposes of this post I want to highlight one important similarity: their shared belief that traditional schools are incompatible with authentic learning; and moreover that only self-directed engagement, of one form or another, can appropriately foster such learning. Indeed, the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, one of the several vocal proponents of self-directed education, explicitly issues a strong screed against traditional forms of learning, condemning and giving up on the traditional school almost entirely.
As someone hoping to enter the traditional classroom as a teacher, and who believes in many of the values central to these philosophies, I cannot help but find troubling this absolutist opposition—which I wager is useful more as a rhetorical device than as a meaningful distinction capable of advancing conversation. Surely, I want to argue, we can within the traditional schools move away from Thorndike and back toward Dewey, allowing us to reclaim this institution as the enabler of authentic learning rather than as its enemy. (In fact, in another post George has already explored some of the ways by which teachers can foster specifically self-directed learning in their traditional spaces.) That is, I would like to suggest that at the same time as we honor our hesitations about traditional schools---and they are well-founded, I agree—we should also seek to honor the ways in which these institutions do live up to their highest ideals and the important and multiplicitous roles they play in our society.
To be sure, if we believe at once in the power of self-directed education—too, by extension in the power of self-directed learning, a related yet distinct endeavor—and in the social and educational importance of the traditional school, the perspectives Illich contributes to this conversation demonstrate that any attempts at authentic reform will have to contend with the traditional school not only as a place of learning but also as an arm or agent of standardization, of normalization, of something like Foucault’s disciplinary society. Crucially, I would like to suggest that Illich enriches our ongoing conversations around education, adding important theoretical perspectives and considerations, and that as readers of these arguments today, we ought to use them as the starting off points for discussion, rather than merely the justifications for wholesale revolt—to spark conversation rather than abandonment.
If you are an educator, administrator, researcher, reformer, activist, conscientious observer, or citizen, what is your perspective on this perhaps manufactured opposition? Should we try to walk the fine line between the extremes of industrial and decentralized education? Is there even a line to walk? Where do Illich and Holt get it right—what do they contribute to our understanding of the importance of self-directed education—and where are their claims more dubious? And ultimately, what is at stake in this conversation?