School: A Necessary Institution?

According to Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison, who wrote the book School of Life, “All children learn at home. From birth, they explore the world, gradually making multiple discoveries about their material, social and cultural environment.” These two researchers in the educational sciences are not only interested in schools; they also study family education and the learning that takes place in the family environment, and more generally in daily life.

But what would a society without a school be like? It is to this provocative question that Ivan Illich tries to answer in his famous book published in 1971 under the title Deschooling Society. The French translation – Une société sans école – is ambiguous because what Illich proposes is not a society without a school, but a ‘deschooled’ society. In the English word « schooling », there is the idea of a process. Illich invites us, as products of schooling, to decondition ourselves, because our reasoning systems are too influenced by school. And while it is indeed a place where we learn, the institutionalization of education through the school makes us believe that we can only learn at school. However, as Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison point out in their book, we learn everywhere and all the time.

  • Thomas A., Pattison H., 2013, À l’école de la vie, Breuillet : Éditions l’Instant présent.
  • Illich Y., 1971, Une société sans école, Paris : Le Seuil.

Do Schools have a Radical Monopoly on Education?

CC Piwabay mattysimpson

We believe that we only learn in school because school, says Illich, has a radical monopoly on education. The institutionalization described by Illich is perverse: it turns a means into an end in itself. Institutionalisation uses and manipulates education so that the school itself becomes the end goal, not education. To put it simply, school has become such a strong norm that by putting your child in school, you can tell yourself that he or she is learning things and that they are smart. However, simply going to school does not prove anything, and certainly not that you are smarter than others. And at the same time, this leads to the belief that school is the only place of learning, whereas there are possible learning opportunities outside school.

Illich places this phenomenon in the context of the industrialization and machinization of society. The school produces a good, education, in great quantities, which makes us confuse « learning » and « teaching ». Institutionalization is synonymous with bureaucratization: institutions have to meet standards (international, European, etc.) that make them perverse and impose a way of doing things. Similarly, institutions create needs and make us believe that we need the goods they produce. In a world of needs, imagination disappears because needs are satisfied before they are created. This is what Illich calls « the ethos of non-satiety »: the good (here education) is defined as « the maximum satisfaction of the greatest number of people through the greatest consumption ».

Distinguishing between Instruction and Education

To understand Illich’s framework of analysis, we must bear in mind that he makes a distinction between instruction on the one hand and education on the other. Instruction takes place under specific conditions that allow a student to give defined and planned answers: there is no room for the unexpected and surprise. The form that this takes at school may also have to do with the dominance of mathematical reasoning in French  schools – this is not mentioned by Illich – as in other spheres of society. The sociologist Pitirim Sorokim speaks of « quantophrenia » to describe the desire to systematically transpose social phenomena into mathematical language.

CC Pixabay Geralt

Unlike instruction, education – which for Illich is more like co-education – is not a hierarchical and one-directional relationship. The educator is a guide. The educator and the educated learn together, without the former imposing knowledge on the latter. For Thomas and Pattison, much of our learning is done informally. According to Beckett and Hager, informal learning is spontaneous, contextual, experiential, and action-based. Moreover, knowledge is integrated by individual learners and not by teachers or coaches. It is often collaborative and occurs in situations where learning is not the main objective.

Learning is in fact what sociology usually calls « socialization ». Despite the history and force of this concept, it is surprising that school-centred societies are convinced of the need for a formal structure once children have reached school age.

  • Beckett D., Hager P. J., 2002, Live, work and learning: practice in post-modernity, New York : Routledge.

Education and Careers: a Dangerous Liaison

Just as one should not discriminate against someone based on race, religion or sex, one should not discriminate on the basis of schooling, because « schooling » labels people, and subsumes all their skills and knowledge. For Illich, since academic merit does not exist, it makes no sense that jobs are based on education, on the number of years of study, or on the degrees, one has accumulated.

CC Pixabay OpenClipart-Vectors

School is no longer a place of learning but a compulsory place if one wants to receive academic training and diplomas. In other words, it is what gives value in a ‘schooled’ world. In other words, the school is no longer a place where we go to learn, but to pass different steps that will lead us to many diplomas (high school, bachelor’s, master’s, etc.) that certify our value in the eyes of others. Indeed, it is not our knowledge that is judged, but the method by which it was acquired.

The school is a place of « training » or ‘taming’ (or « governance of conduct », to use Michel Foucault’s expression) where students are taught their place in school through the system of marks. If we follow Illich, the school is the place of competition to get to the next level, in other words, to even more schooling.

The student thus internalizes the fact that he or she needs the school to learn, thus destroying all personal initiative and self-learning. Illich also criticizes the fact that we no longer know how to do certain things, because we have learned to systematically delegate what we could do by ourselves. What would he think of Repair Cafés, these locally organized places where you can learn how to repair broken objects?

You cannot learn if what you are learning has no meaning for you. What students learn must resonate « deeply » with who they are, what they do, how they live. Our ‘schooled’ society creates a separation between work and leisure that has no reason to exist. Schools should not have the monopoly on education because other institutions also have educational qualities: the family, the laboratory, the game room (Illich stresses the role of play in learning), the tool store, the library, etc. are also places where people learn. Daily life itself is full of education.

Toward a Convivial Society?

Tools for Conviviality is the title of another book by Illich published in 1973. What would a society be like if it were deschooled and convivial? Well, it would be a society where knowledge networks are built, a society that has many open-access educational resources, a society of exchange, where everyone can share their knowledge and skills in material and immaterial places created for this purpose.

Was Illich a visionary? Behind the critic, should we look for utopia? Probably. But contemporary society may not be far away from what he described in the 1970s: collaborative practices are starting in many areas and collaborative platforms such as wwoofing are flourishing, in which people share their skills and learning by watching and by doing. These initiatives are in line with what Illich advocated: rather than creating classes that bring together children of equal age but with different interests, it is better to bring people together solely by their interest in a subject, in other words, to practice « peer matching ». Yet there a risk that Illich did not realise: the creation of spaces governed by entre-soi [Translator’s note: roughly, the idea of groups of people who share common interests and are thus not exposed to other ideas], because ‘interests’ are socially constructed and in life, we do not meet people randomly, but more often those who resemble us (same social class, ethnicity, religion, etc.).

To return to school, Illich’s work, revisited by other authors such as Alan Thomas, Harriett Pattison, Martin Fortier and Thierry Paquot, and re-read in light of the new initiatives mentioned above, leads us to believe that schools would have much to gain by developing informal learning.

  • Fortier M., Paquot T., 2016, Ivan Illich, l’alchimiste des possibles, Paris : Lemieux éditeur.
  • Illich I., 1973, La convivialité, Paris : Le Seuil.

CC Patrick Mignard for Mondes Sociaux


Crédits image à la Une : CC Pixabay simisi1 et crédits image d’entrée : CC Max Pixel

Pauline Proboeuf

Observatoire Sociologique du Changement, Sciences Po-CNRS (

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Pauline Proboeuf

Observatoire Sociologique du Changement, Sciences Po-CNRS (

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