There are two terms that refer to the most rare, anarchic, and apophatic approaches to schooling today, compulsory or otherwise: ‘unschooling’ and ‘deschooling." The former was coined by John Holt, one of the leading voices in the now mostly forgotten Youth Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. ‘Unschooling’ is the most common and popular word among radical home educators today. (There is even a small testimonial volume on Catholic unschooling, The Little Way of Homeschooling.) The latter term, ‘deschooling,’ comes from Ivan Illich’s book, Deschooling Society, published in 1971. This term is not well understood for a number of reasons, many of them due to Illich’s own ambiguity, and is not commonly known or used today.
Illich’s proposal in Deschooling Society seems straightforward. His opening chapter is titled, “Why we must disestablish the school.” However, in that chapter, Illich claims that “Not only education but social reality itself has become schooled.” In other words, Illich’s interest is not in educational reform; he is aiming at the present, institutionalized state of social reality. His program, then, is one of total transformation.
If one reads Illich’s other works, there is a remarkable consistency to his message, regardless of its topical particularities. On medicine, water, cities, language, third world development, technology, and more, Illich—a Roman Catholic priest—strikes out against everything he sees as objectifying the human person into what in Deschooling Society he calls a “promethean man.” No wonder his notion of deschooling was almost wholly misunderstood in its time, and is either forgotten or wildly unpopular these days. No amount of external or technical change will satisfy his call for deschooling.
Teaching precedes schooling, anthropologically and metaphysically. Humans relied on teachers long before schools existed. Long before civilization brought humans into a single place where schools could eventually emerge, teachers were already at work. The person of wisdom, the parent, the exemplar: All of these and more are embedded into the Socratic and Rabbinic icons of teaching. Socrates taught Plato long before Plato founded his Academy. Jesus taught in the synagogue, yes, but he also taught on the mount and the sea. Even on the Cross, Christ taught the thief. To teach, then, is an ancient and pre- if not anti-institutional art. The teacher who dares to teach, the professor who risks a profession, the master who shows more than she tells—the school has no power and certainly no monopoly over them.
Teaching, then, is a form of deschooling insofar as it is a form of teaching that is rooted in more than the institutional school. The misplaced assumption that to critique the school is to insult the teacher could not be further from the truth. In fact, it is this assumption, which shackles teaching to schooling, that is the greatest insult to teaching because it puts the teacher under the arbitrary authority of the school and the nation-state. Even death cannot rob a teacher of her power, wisdom, and grace.
It may seem to be the case that teachers today are unaware of the subversive potential of their vocation. It may appear that teaching is lost, but this apparent absence is only possible within a schooled vision of teaching. Among professional teachers, the deeper and more ancient roots of their vocation are not wholly out of sight. Many teachers, such as those who quit the profession as conscientious objectors and those weary and dogged ones who refuse to quit, know that the voice that calls them to teach comes from a deeper and more intimate place than the school bell. The law of the teacher is the same law to which Martin Luther King Jr. appealed when he gave his national lesson in Washington D.C. This is the law that is written on the heart of the person, the inviolable law that so many schools and nations fear and seek to control.
Ivan Illich realized that his notion of deschooling lacked the alternatives that so many of his critics demanded. He had in some respect abandoned deschooling by the 1990s. However, he failed to realize that the teacher is always already a deschooler. Education requires teachers, not schools; schooling is a sufficient but not necessary condition for the possibility of education. The instrumental treatment of teachers as mere technicians shows that the schooling industrial complex of today understands the danger of teaching. No wonder that teachers require so many handlers and administrators and tedious textbooks and tests. These disciplinary schooling devices are first implemented against the teacher before, in a perverse cycle of violence, the teacher is forced to use them against the student.
The economic questions of teacher pay and unions are mostly distractions, ignoring the difficult truth that the ontological status of the teacher is what is at stake today. If we allow teaching to be reduced to a mere profession, we have already lost the argument. For the corporate state school to thrive, the teacher’s deschooling potential must be destroyed, and for this reason deschooling may be as simple as restoring the art of teaching to what it is and will always be: love of wisdom. Yes, my claim is that teaching as deschooling is nothing more or less than the restoration of the practice of philosophy as a way of life and love.