This guest post is part of our continuing series on the center-left roots of school choice.
It may be hard for younger readers to imagine a time when to be anti-establishment was a position of the political left.
Today, of course, the left is so well-ensconced in positions of power and influence in academia, media, the professions and government that those who criticize any of these bastions are immediately labeled as belonging to a neolithic right that does not appreciate the ever-unfolding benefits of the new establishment’s guidance.
In the 1960s, though, to be critical of the establishment was the hallmark of the left. And no one did so with more radical intellectual sophistication than Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest and influential activist born in Austria in 1926.
Illich was best known for his leadership of the Centro Intercultural de Documentación at Cuernavaca, Mexico, which he founded in 1961 and shut down in a storm of conflict in 1976. Ostensibly a language school, CIDOC was chiefly known for its critique of the “neo-colonialism” practiced, Illich argued, by missionaries, the Alliance for Progress, and the Peace Corps, and it drew notable educational reformers of the era, including John Holt and Paul Goodman. In 1967, I staffed a conference in Puerto Rico of Christian Social Relations staff from across the United States. Illich was the primary speaker, and I can testify to his passionate eloquence in private conversations as well.
In “Deschooling Society” (1971), Illich directed that eloquence against the American educational system. He portrayed it as an unreformable bureaucracy devoted to the forced-feeding of conventional ideas into passive youth. The various reforms proposed at the time, including progressive “alternative schools” and “new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils,” he wrote, would not provide the education needed by contemporary society, nor would “the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes.”
“School,” Illich insisted, “has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age. The nation-state has adopted it, drafting all citizens into a graded curriculum leading to sequential diplomas not unlike the initiation rituals and hieratic promotions of former times. The modern state has assumed the duty of enforcing the judgment of its educators through well-meant truant officers and job requirements.”
What was needed instead, he continued, were “educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” Specifically, individuals should be enabled to acquire the skills currently taught in schools (badly, in Illich’s view, and with accompanying bad habits and attitudes) through other routes, including individual or group tutoring and mentoring by those competent to teach a particular skill.
Of course, “free and competing drill instruction is a subversive blasphemy to the orthodox educator,” but Illich argued it would be both efficient and liberating. Above all, it would deprive government of a major instrument for regimenting its citizens. “The first article of a bill of rights for a modern, humanist society,” he wrote, “would correspond to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: ‘The State shall make no law with respect to the establishment of education.’”
Illich supported school choice, with caveats. Continue Reading →