Ivan Illich, Education, and The Good Life

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1972) exposes our assumptions that a degree is an education, that medicine is health care, that security is safety, that institutionalization of jobs in corporations, schools, and government creates our freedom. We’ve come to confuse degrees, medicine, jobs, and security for the good life.

When what we value, what we want, becomes institutionalized, our values grow frustrated, and what we want turns against us: “…the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery…this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities; when health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or ‘treatments.’”

It’s not a question of spending more money on education, but of a lack of respect (value) for alternative forms to institutionalized education: “Rich and poor alike depend on schools and hospitals which guide their lives, form their world view, and define for them what is legitimate and what is not. Both view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, learning on one’s own as unreliable, and community organization, when not paid for by those in authority, as a form of aggression or subversion.”

Modern segregation of family, church, job, and school leads to specializations of each, which in turn results in our feeling confined in each, able to do only one thing at a time. In “the medieval town…traditional society was more like a set of concentric circles of meaningful structures, while modern man must learn how to find meaning in many structures to which he is only marginally related. In the village, language and architecture and work and religion and family customs were consistent with one another, mutually explanatory and reinforcing. Education did not compete for time with either work or leisure. Almost all education was complex, lifelong, and unplanned.”

For Illich, the problem is that “members of modern society believe that the good life consists in having institutions which define the values that both they and their society believe they need.” A wise man, Aristotle argues in Nicomachean Ethics, is one who knows what is good for himself and for everyone else. What will happen to Education? Given our current confusion of wants, as Frank Sinatra sang, we may have to “just wake up,” and “kiss that good life goodbye.” And learning to live without our good life as we have come to know it just might be something we should want.