Next steps logo

A radical’s take on educational freedom

Radical activist Ivan Illich pushed for educational freedom beyond the boundaries of just schools.
Radical activist Ivan Illich pushed for educational freedom beyond the boundaries of just schools.

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.Voucher Left logo snipped

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.

He offered a partial endorsement of a 1971 proposal by educational sociologist Christopher Jencks “to put educational ‘entitlements’ or tuition grants into the hands of parents and students for expenditure in the schools of their choice.” Jencks and others would conclude, in an important study of education’s role in perpetuating social injustice in the United States (“Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America,” 1973), that “the ideal system is one that provides as many varieties of schooling as its children and parents want and finds ways of matching children to schools that suit them. … since professional educators do not seem to understand the long-term effects of schooling any better than parents do, there is no compelling reason why the profession should be empowered to rule out alternatives that appeal to parents, even if they seem educationally ‘unsound.’”

The left-libertarian Illich concurred to a point. His disagreement with the socialist Jencks was that “educational entitlements restricted to use within schools play into the hands of all those who want to continue to live in a society in which social advancement is tied not to proven knowledge but to the learning pedigree by which it is supposedly acquired. This discrimination in favor of schools which dominates Jencks’s discussion on refinancing education could discredit one of the most critically needed principles for educational reform: the return of initiative and accountability for learning to the learner or his most immediate tutor.”

Illich might have offered a more enthusiastic endorsement for today’s education savings accounts. ESAs expand educational choice beyond schools, and give parents the power, through public funding, to pick and choose from a broad menu of educational options, and to serve up the educational nourishment they deem best for their children. With ESAs, parents determine how much, or little, they want to rely on schools. Illich would have been intrigued, and possibly even thrilled.

But let’s not lose the point about Illich, the left and visions of educational freedom.

Illich and Jencks, both politically left of center, may have disagreed about whether schools should continue to serve as the primary venue for the acquisition of skills and education more broadly, but they were in agreement that the bureaucratically-managed educational establishment had lost its credibility. They believed youth and their parents should be trusted to make sound decisions, supported in those decisions by the public funds that were then, and now, appropriated to support their education.

Full disclosure: This blog is hosted by Step Up For Students, a nonprofit which helps administer Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, the largest private school choice program in the nation, and the state’s Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program, its education savings accounts for students with special needs.

Avatar photo

BY Charles Glenn

Charles L. Glenn is professor of Educational Leadership and Development and former Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, where he teaches courses in education history and comparative policy. From 1970 to 1991 he was director of urban education and equity for the Massachusetts Department of Education, including administration of over $200 million in state funds for magnet schools and desegregation, and initial responsibility for the nation's first state bilingual education mandate and for the state law forbidding race, sex, and national-origin discrimination in education. He is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Glenn is author of a number of books, including the historical study The Myth of the Common School (1988, 2002), which has been published as Il mito della scuola unica (Milan 2004), El mito de la escuela publica (Madrid 2006), and will be published in Portuguese in 2012. He has also published Choice of Schools in Six Nations (1989), Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe (1994, 1995), Educating Immigrant Children: Schools and Language Minorities in Twelve Nations (1996), The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-based Schools and Social Agencies (2000), as well as some twenty articles in four encyclopedias, and several hundred other articles, book chapters, and monographs on education policy.

In 2002 he and Jan De Groof of Belgium published Finding the Right Balance: Freedom, Autonomy and Accountability in Education, a study in two volumes of how 26 countries balance educational freedom with common standards and accountability, pupil and teacher rights with the integrity of school mission. An abbreviated version appeared in Italian as Un difficile equilibrio, and in English (for distribution in Eastern Europe) as Education Freedom.

Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education (2004), a substantially revised and expanded version in three volumes, covers 40 countries. A new four-volume edition will add more than a dozen countries, and up-date the others, for 2012 publication.

Glenn is currently completing a series of books on the history of educational policy in North America and Western Europe. His book on The Netherlands and Belgium, Germany and Austria, Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control, was published by Continuum in April 2011. A companion volume, The American Model of State and School: An Historical Inquiry, is in press, and he is writing Challenging the American Model of State and School: School Choice and Cultural Pluralism on the antecedents and prospects of current structural reforms of education.

African American/Afro-Canadian Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present and Native American/First Nations Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present were published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2011. His book-in-progress on the harmful influence of certain ideas about education, The Genealogy of Bad Ideas in Education, will be published by ISI Books. His next project will be The Contested School: State and Church in France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico.

Glenn is active in educational policy debates in the United States and Europe, is vice president of OIDEL (the Geneva-based NGO promoting educational freedom worldwide), and a member of the boards of the European Association for Education Law and Policy and the Council for American Private Education, and of five scholarly journals. He has served as a consultant to the Russian and Chinese education authorities and to states and major cities across the United States, and as expert witness in federal court cases on school finance, desegregation, bilingual education, and church-state relations in education. His BA and EdD degrees are from Harvard, his PhD from Boston University.