I grew up in a town in the northeast of England. Billy and I met at the local comprehensive, hanging out in the music department at lunchtime, a quiet corner where we would eat our sandwiches, teach ourselves to play the guitar, and keep out of the way of the hurlyburly that comes with keeping 1,500 hormonal adolescents cooped up alongside one another for a large part of their waking hours. Over the course of our teens, I watched his self-taught musicianship soar beyond my basic busking and came to the conclusion that I’d rather be a writer than a rock star, anyway, because you had a better chance of living past the age of 27.
Neither of us had heard of Ivan Illich, but when I discovered Deschooling Society in my mid-twenties, it gave words to things we’d known instinctively a decade earlier. There is an innate human capacity for learning, we are not dependent on learning transmitted from professionally accredited teachers, and the primary social function of the schooling system is to shape us for and assign us a place within the existing social order of the world.
This last lesson is mostly taught indirectly, by implication, but now and then you get a straight look at what you’re up against. Towards the end of Year 10, they would ship us all out on work experience for a couple of weeks, timed to quieten the place down while the year above sat their GCSEs – and perhaps also to chasten us into studying harder on our return so as to postpone our entry into regular employment. By that stage, Billy had developed a sideline in filmmaking and he’d arranged a placement with the video workshop at the back of the local arts centre. On the Friday before it was due to start, there was a hitch, some paperwork that was needed for insurance purposes. He spent the afternoon running around the school, tracking down the teacher who needed to sign off first one form and then another, and the second time around, this teacher snapped. ‘Why can’t you just go and do your work experience in an office like everybody else?’ she said. ‘After all, it’s what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life.’
At this point, I’m obliged to insert a disclaimer that the woman in question had doubtless had a shitty day, and not all teachers think this way about their students – and of course I’ve known wonderful teachers, not to mention wonderful people who tried working as teachers and were burned out by the system.
But it’s the system Illich has in his sights – and for him, it is beyond reform. What’s wrong with our schools is not that they are too liberal or too conservative, too hidebound or trendy in their curricula. For a strongly motivated student, he writes at one point, there are many skills where the discipline of drill teaching and learning by rote is preferable. The problem is that we have structured a society in which huge amounts of resources go into educational institutions which work against the grain of motivation, which initiate us into a needy dependence on scarce commodities – and which lend a rubber stamp of meritocracy to the perpetuation of privilege, since access to desirable fields of work is routinely subject to discrimination on the grounds of how many years the applicant has spent in formal education, whether or not the education in question has any connection to the skills actually required for the job. Needless to say, the strongest indicator of how many years of education an individual is likely to complete is the educational and financial privilege of their parents.
Deschooling Society was written in the early 1970s and some parts of Illich’s analysis have aged better than others. His vision for ‘learning webs’, using a database system to connect learners outside of institutions, may seem prophetic of the internet age (and inspired the web startup I co-founded in the 2000s), but by the end of his life Illich himself had become deeply sceptical of the hope invested in networked technologies.
On the other hand, revisiting this book in early 2019 – with the Fridays For the Future school strikes spreading across 130 countries – his idea that school might be the most hopeful location from which revolutionary change could erupt seems less quixotic than it did to his fellow revolutionaries in the 1970s. ‘The risks of a revolt against school are unforeseeable,’ he writes, ‘but they are not as horrible as those of a revolution starting in any other major institution … The weapons of the truant officer … might turn out to be powerless against the surge of a mass movement.’
Meanwhile, this summer it will be 25 years since we sat our GCSEs. Not long ago I was invited to a Facebook group for organising a reunion. It’s fair to say my life has taken a different direction to most of those I was at school with, but as we each shared the potted version of what happened on the way to our forties, I was struck by how many of the stories involved dropping out of college or university, or following a course that led nowhere, until somewhere further into adulthood you’d find something that actually felt like you – and maybe even go back to school for the necessary study or training. Only this time around, you were there for your own reasons.
First published in STIR: Issue 25.