What Did School Teach You?

I finally got around to reading some Ivan Illich, specifically his text Deschooling Society. Now, it’s a book I almost entirely agree with, I mean, it’s really not that difficult to agree with it unless your brain has been well and truly fried by progressivism. Illich both criticizes the modern Western mode of schooling, whilst putting forth some form of a replacement. The point where I have some disagreements with Illich is with the replacement, but I won’t get into that here, because they’re still half-baked ideas. What I will dig into however is some of the blind spots in Illich’s work, which it seems to me he would have left out either due to slight cultural/material differences or he would have considered them so obvious as to not bother writing them down at all.

The overarching argument of Illich’s book is that schools have confused process and substance. That is to say that the education system has confused the merit of working through the system with the actual understanding itself, or; the very fact that one has gone through/utilized/been seen to go through this system means they have acquired the knowledge the system supposedly set out to teach, which of course, is entirely incorrect. The system which does the teaching and the knowledge itself can never be made synonymous, it’s an error of institutional vindication.

Illich makes it clear that this alteration of logic creates a whole system of assumptions which change the way one both learns and understands what learning is. If it is understood that a greater understanding is synonymous with a greater treatment and prolonging of one’s time within the educational system, then it comes to be collectively understood that those who have remained within education and the academy the longest are the most learned; escalation of one’s educational treatment equates to a greater knowing. Of course, when put like this, it begins to become clear that this might not be all that true.

Illich continues this logic and states that “The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” These are of course many of the requirements of schooling, especially the idea that saying something new is the equivalent of being knowledgeable. The entire point of a PhD is to extend the knowledge of a particular field of research, usually this entails stretching the field so thin that one exists within a space which is an inch wide and 40 miles deep, a space which very quickly becomes useless and forgotten. It could be deemed a tragedy that so many thesis’ and papers are only read by their writers and their editors, it could be considered tragedy, but in reality, it isn’t, because the large majority of papers and journals are written not out of passion, or love of knowledge, but as proof of being educated, and proof of accreditation.

Here’s where Illich continues his critique in one direction – how do we save schooling? – and I continue it in another. Namely, what happens to our understanding of the world once the idea of schooling as synonymous with knowledge is deeply imbedded within us? Firstly, any and all forms of autodidactic and self-study are thrown away. Once you understand that you can only learn via a tutor or accredited system, you teach yourself that you have no right to teach yourself. Except, who was it who taught your tutor? And their tutor? Eventually, you go far enough back and you realize there has always been someone was simply interested in the study of knowledge for its own sake, and not for the sake of social proof or academic vindication. Secondly, self-study becomes increasingly suspicious. If we equate knowledge with accreditation, then why should be trust those who teach who do not have accreditation? Of course, this is really, really dumb. If 2 people follow the exact same course of study, but the only difference is one of those people ‘hand-in’ their work to an accredited body, what is the difference in knowledge? There isn’t any.

Once this general logic of knowledge, accreditation and education/schooling is understood, it disrupts your entire autonomy. As Illich makes clear “Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.” What are all these things at a foundational level? They are knowledge and common sense lost within the abstraction of accreditation and bureaucratic ladders. No one questions if someone is being healed within a hospital because that what it’s for, no one questions whether police are protecting us because that’s what they’re for, no one questions whether or not our work is productive because that’s simply what you do etc. This is a material example of free-floating power, in which we once again hand over responsibility to a symbolic abstraction standing in for the substance of our needs. We need protection, health and knowledge etc. but it’s far easier to get these pre-made.

There are many ways in which Western education systems eradicate common sense and replace it with conformity, but immanentizing one’s understanding into the logic of accreditation and social/cultural vindication is the main one. Alongside this school also teaches you to put up with various absurdities one wouldn’t commit to outside of its institutions. Not being allowed to go to the bathroom for example, or sitting for hours upon hours within dingy, beige walls under fluorescent lighting is another. School is the test phase for adult life. Can you conform? No, well guess what, we have ways to make you. Practically all forms of education-based punishment mirror the form of societal aftereffect you’d receive if you behaved that way as an adult, the problem is the education system assumes all autodidactic study and action contrary to its system to be bad.

If you vandalize something you get a detention (jail sentence), if you hurt someone you get expelled (removed from society and imprisoned), these are relatively good examples of helping one understand that their actions within a society have consequences. But what about the more nuanced forms of covert-punishment/control which are deemed bad by the education system by their very reality as antagonistic to the system’s aims? You don’t want to work/study because it’s not something you’re interested in? Social isolation and alienation for you. Not a massively social person and prefer to be on your own? Too bad, time for you to work in a group. Prefer silence, quiet and a good book over extroverted displays of status? Sorry to say, that’s not allowed. Do you have a preference for the finer things in life and are generally creative? Well, sorry, life’s a bit rugged and that’s stupid anyway. Not into X, Y and Z even though they’re popular? Well, something must be wrong with you, weirdo!

The problem here isn’t with people having differing opinions, the problem is that the education system exacerbates notions of normalcy via its internal logic. An internal logic which states that everything popular is accredited, and everything accredited is correct and learned, and everything correct is, well…correct. So, you’re taught to understand from a very young age that your differing interests in life and the world, your preference for self-study and silence and your alternative perspective on life is incorrect because it isn’t accredited, is weird because it isn’t normal and is suspicious due to it being both weird and wrong. You are taught not that your passions and interests are different, but you’re entirely incorrect and incompatible for having them.

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2 thoughts on “What Did School Teach You?

  1. Is it because we want to be able to measure outcomes? No one knows what education means or what it is for so we cling to simplifications and reduce human knowledge to a series of testable metrics which at their best are only the building blocks of real, empowering understanding, they are not understanding itself.

    How pervasive is this pattern in our world? Loosing sight of the real world and retreating to our constructed reality where we give up on the search for the complex vital real and appeal to our bureaucracy to provide a simplistic structure where we can prove our achievements through the acquisition of symbols?

  2. Sorry, but credentials and formal education matter. I’d rather have a surgeon who has credentials as proof of the relevant knowledge than a surgeon who claims to have studied all the right things but can’t prove it. (Sure, I could interrogate each surgeon myself before choosing one—but I wouldn’t know what questions to ask, because I haven’t studied medicine.)
    The same concern—verification of knowledge—applies similarly to dentists, attorneys, tax preparers, teachers, plumbers, airline pilots, and every other worker in any field where competence matters (which is almost every field).

    Therefore, like it or not, we probably shouldn’t do away with formal education and credentialing systems.

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