First published by Harper & Row, USA, 1971

by Ivan Ilich

Reviewed by Mike Woods

Ivan Illich wrote ‘Deschooling Society’ in 1971 and yet this book stands the test of time. It is a must read for any serious deschooler! Illich’s book is foundational and sits alongside John Holt’s books How Children FailHow Children Learn and Everett Reimer’s School is Dead. His erudition can not be faulted. Be warned, however, that he is somewhat of an intellectual and the intensely academic focus may be off-putting for some.

Why we must disestablish school

In his opening chapter “Why We Must Disestablish School” Illich sets out to take on the establishment:

“Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. 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. His imagination is ‘schooled’ to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, policy protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools and other agencies in question.”

This stunning run of argument leads to the conclusion that our reliance on institutions and the subtle distortion of reality that results from believing in these institutions is solely as a result of the prominence of schooling. He goes on to say that “Everywhere not only education but society as a whole needs ‘deschooling’”.

This chapter puts the axe at the root of school’s problems:

“A … major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only in so far as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.”

While he critiques the institution of school and calls for its disestablishment he provides the first seeds of a concrete alternative:

“The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern”.

This alternative is essentially a service which ‘matches’ people according to their interest in a particular ‘title’ – the name of a book, article, film or recording for example. He argues that this approach would ‘separate learning from social control’. He develops this further in his later chapter on ‘learning webs’.


Chapter two presents the phenomenon of school. He discusses school according to the following phenomena:

age: school groups people according to age
teachers and pupils: by definition children are pupils
full time attendance: the development of the teacher as secular priest – ‘teacher as custodian’, ‘teacher as moralist’, and ‘teacher as therapist’
The chapter concludes with a discussion of the hidden curriculum of schooling:

“To understand what it means to deschool society, and not just to reform the educational establishment, we must now focus on the hidden curriculum of schooling. We are not concerned here, directly, with the hidden curriculum of the ghetto streets which brands the poor or with the hidden curriculum of the drawing room which benefits the rich. We are rather concerned to call attention to the fact that the ceremonial or ritual of schooling itself constitutes such a hidden curriculum. Even the best of teachers cannot protect his pupils from it. Inevitably, this hidden curriculum of schooling adds prejudice and guilt to the discrimination which a society practises against some of its members and compounds the privilege of others with a new tittle to condescend to the majority. Just as inevitably, this hidden curriculum serves as a ritual of initiation into a growth-oriented consumer society for rich and poor alike.”


In chapter three Illich turns to critique the university. In what he describes as ‘the ritualisation of progress’ the old notion of the university as ‘a liberated zone for discovery and the discussion of ideas both new and old’ has been transformed into ‘the final stage of the most all-encompassing initiation rite the world has even known’. He claims that our society is the first which has “needed such a dull, protracted, destructive and expensive initiation into its myth”. The initiation of young people into the ‘myths’ of society has become the prime role of the university, and the foremost myth is “the Myth of Unending Consumption of services”.

Choosing our institutions

The next chapter develops his thinking around the myth of Unending Consumption through looking at the ‘Institutional Spectrum’. His philosophy is evident in the statement:

“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life-style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life-style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume – a style of life which is merely a way station of the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon the choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies.”

It is interesting to reflect on this statement, nearly thirty years later, for it would seem that society has in general failed to rethink its alternatives to the pre-existing institutions – hospitals remain the dominant access point to health-care, church buildings are the dominant access points to Christians, schools are the dominant access points to learning, and so on. I agree with Illich that our ideologies and technologies have failed to answer the fundamental problems in late 20th Century society. It is a telling reminder that the ‘New Right’ ideology has simply failed at the basic test of re-inventing the institutions.

Irrational consistencies

Illich’s attention now turns to the educational discourse, and he argues that educational researchers and thinkers are more conservative than in other disciplines. He argues that without “a new orientation for research and a new understanding of the educational style of an emerging counter-culture” the educational revolution will not happen. He seems to have been right. His desire still stands:

“Our present educational institutions are at the service of the teacher’s goals. The relational structures we need are those which will enable each man to define himself by learning and by contributing to the learning of others.”

Learning webs

His concept of ‘learning webs’ is outlined in Chapter 6 of Deschooling Society. Learning webs have remarkable similarities with the learning tools provided by the internet. Illich claims:

“A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.”

These purposes could be achieved through four networks:

“1. Reference Services to Educational Objects – which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories and showrooms like museums and theatres; others can be in daily use in factories, airports, or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off-hours.
2. Skill Exchanges – which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.
3. Peer Matching – a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.
4. Reference Services to Educators -at-Large – who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals and freelancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators, as we will see, could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.”

Many elements of these four networks can be seen on the internet: mailing lists and usenet newsgroups serve as examples of vehicles for peer matching, the web provides elements of a Reference Service to Educators, and there are innumerable libraries and other educational facilities (Educational Objects) that can be accessed on-line. The key difference between Illich’s network concepts and the internet is the degree of organisation. Inherently, the internet is chaotic and without structure. But, it is in this chaos, that many of its strengths lie. There are no filters to prevent people from exploring similar interests. A state agency would create databases with “categories of interests” and would inevitably filter requests.

Epimethean and Promethean Man

The final chapter is entitled ‘Rebirth of Epimethean Man’. Illich refers to classical Greek mythology and the story of two brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus warned Epimetheus to leave Pandora alone. The original Pandora was sent to Earth with a jar which contained all ills and one good thing – hope.

He describes modern society built on its institutions as Promethean Man. Prometheus creates a reality which ultimately is without hope though he does not perceive this. As Illich says:

“To the primitive the world was governed by fate, fact and necessity. By stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus turned facts into problems, called necessity into question and defied fate. Classical man framed a civilised context for human perspective. He was aware that he could defy fate-nature-environment, and then discovers that he can do so only on the condition of constantly remaking himself to fit it. We now must face the fact that man himself is at stake.”

Promethean Man therefore:

“… has developed the frustrating power to demand anything because he cannot visualise anything which an institution cannot do for him. Surrounded by all-powerful tools, man is reduced to a tool of his tools. Each of the institutions meant to exorcise one of the primeval evils has become a fail-safe, self-sealing coffin for man. Man is trapped in the boxes he makes to contain the ills Pandora allowed to escape. The blackout of reality in the smog produced by our tools has enveloped us. Quite suddenly we find ourselves in the darkness of our own trap.”

If that sounds pretty bleak, Illich ends on a more positive note. Epimetheus which means ‘hindsight’ is the brother that is willing to unlock hope from Pandora. Illich says:

“We now need a name for those who value hope above expectations …. I suggest that these hopeful brothers and sisters be called Epimethean men.”

As deschoolers, I would like to think Illich sees us as hopeful brothers and sisters and therefore Epimethean men and women.

What’s missing?

So what are the failings of Deschooling Society? To my mind his focus is only on adults. He has failed to provide solutions to the problems of the education of children. For a start, he does not tackle the issue of compulsory attendance at school. Does he suggest removing this compulsion? How can society best meet the educational needs of young children? It is clear that his ‘learning networks’ are for the already literate. What about the illiterate?

These questions remain unanswered.


In the late 1970’s I went to a lecture given by Ivan Illich at the University of Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand. His lecture proved to be so popular they had to shift the venue from the largest lecture hall to the gymnasium. The venue was full to overflowing with intellectuals, students, teachers, and professionals of all kinds. Why are there then so few New Zealanders who have embraced the need to find an alternative to our institutions that cause us so much harm? Maybe they have now become blinded in the smog that our institutions have produced?

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