Deschooling Society (1971) is a critical discourse on education as practised in modern economies. It is a book that brought Ivan Illich to public attention. Full of detail on programs and concerns, the book gives examples of the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education. Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations in fluid informal arrangements:
Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education – and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.
The last sentence makes clear what the title suggests—that the institutionalization of education is considered to institutionalize society and conversely that ideas for de-institutionalizing education may be a starting point for a de-institutionalized society.
The book is more than a critique—it contains suggestions for changes to learning in society and individual lifetimes. Particularly striking is his call (in 1971) for the use of advanced technology to support "learning webs."
The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.
Illich argued that the use of technology to create decentralized webs could support the goal of creating a good educational system:
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.
Developing this idea Illich proposes four Learning Networks:
- Reference Service to Educational Objects - An open directory of educational resources and their availability to learners.
- Skills Exchange - A database of people willing to list their skills and the basis on which they would be prepared to share or swap them with others.
- Peer-Matching - A network helping people to communicate their learning activities and aims in order to find similar learners who may wish to collaborate.
- Directory of Professional Educators - A list of professionals, paraprofessionals and free-lancers detailing their qualifications, services and the terms on which these are made available.
Lawrence Cremin asserts that Illich has not thought through how his educational networks would work in the real world:
Illich would like to abandon schooling in favour of what he calls educational networks, but he does not deal with the inevitable impact of the media and the market on those networks.
- "Introduction", Deschooling Society.
- Deschooling Society, chapter six
- Deschooling Society, chapter six, 'General Characteristics of New Formal Educational Institutions
- Terrence E. Deal, Robert R. Nolan, ed. (1978). "Chapter 16: The Free School Movement by Lawrence Cremin". Alternative schools: ideologies, realities, guidelines. Nelson-Hall. p. 207. ISBN 978-0-88229-383-7. Retrieved 4 June 2013.