People who care about California’s children watched in horror this week as the battle between Governor Brown and Molly Munger over their dueling education initiatives descended into a Hobbesian war of all against all (with most of the “all” firmly in the governor’s camp). Brown’s Proposition 30, already barely above 50 percent in the polls, now faces $30 million in “funded opposition” from Munger and thus the very real prospect of failing at the ballot box. If that happens, and if Munger’s favored Proposition 38 also does not pass (which seems all but certain), the resulting budget cuts to education would seem to ensure that California’s students will face a future that is poor, nasty, brutish, and – given the possible truncating of the school year to an indefensible 160 days – extremely short.
Yet it’s not Thomas Hobbes but another, more obscure philosopher named Ivan Illich who’s been on my mind lately. If you’ve never heard of Illich, you’re not alone, but forty years ago he wrote a provocative tract titled “Deschooling Society.” Illich’s basic thesis – to the extent one can be discerned from his fascinating but very rambling postmodernist essay – is that the institutionalization of schools leads to the “institutionalization of values.” That in turn conflates the process of schooling with the substance of what schools are supposed to accomplish (learning). As a result, “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.”
To combat this, Illich urged the “disestablishment” of formal schools in favor of a variety of decentralized learning possibilities, including the creation of informal computer-based learning webs to match students with experts; allowing learners to experiment with educational artifacts in laboratories and tool shops; providing skill credit (such as badges) for learning for mastery of specific tasks, such as computer programming; and providing educational games to receptive students.
What’s remarkable is that many of Illich’s ideas anticipate those that are relevant to education today, particularly around the growing use of technology to “personalize” learning. For instance, Joel Rose, the founder of New York City’s “School of One,” echoes Illich’s school-industrialization critique when he (Rose) calls for an end to the “19th-century factory-era model education system.” Similarly, compare Michael Horn of Innosight Institute’s definition of blended learning, which involves more student control “over time, place, path, and/or pace” of learning, with this passage from Illich:
The inverse of school is possible: that we can depend on self-motivated learning instead of employing teachers to bribe or compel the student to find the time and the will to learn; that we can provide the learner with new links to the world instead of continuing to funnel all educational programs through the teacher.
Not bad for someone writing in 1971. Of course, Illich also proposed creating an extensive network of trails connecting villagers in Peru by means of three-wheeled mechanical donkeys – suffice it to say that idea has yet to catch on.
But the real reason to read Ivan Illich is that his philosophical musings on the nature and role of school in our society inform the views of none other than Governor Brown. Lest there be any doubt, compare this (admittedly somewhat arcane) abbreviated passage from a radio interview Brown conducted of Illich in 1996:
Brown: So Deschooling was based on the insight that the school industry teaches people, not teaches them but manipulates them, into thinking that they have certain needs that the school itself alone can satisfy?
Illich: Schooling, which we engage in and supposedly creates equal opportunities, has become the unique, never before attempted way of dividing the whole society into classes. Everybody knows in which level of his twelve or sixteen years of schooling he has dropped out, and in addition knows what price tag is attached to the higher schooling he has gotten.
Brown: So you get a precise definition of where you are in the social hierarchy by how much schooling you had or how much schooling you don’t have, so you didn’t know you needed fourteen years and a postgraduate degree to get out of high school depending upon where you lived.
Illich: It’s a history of degrading the majority of people.
Brown: So you take somebody who’s poor and you modernize the poverty by not only having a person that doesn’t have a lot of material goods but now lacks the mental self-confidence that his father or grandfather had before that.
Although this interview took place 16 years ago, I contend Illich’s thoughts on the role of schools and education provide the closest thing we have to a “Rosetta Stone” to understanding Governor Brown’s approach to education policy. This is not to say Brown agrees with every radical idea Illich proposed – far from it. Rather, Illich’s philosophical skepticism of the school as an institution helps illuminate why Brown would be skeptical of certain education reforms that he perceives as “technocratic” – teacher evaluation and data-driven instruction come to mind – while simultaneously embracing others, such online instruction and charters, that allow for new approaches to student learning.
Which brings us back to the November election and the governor’s duel with Molly Munger. Make no mistake, like everyone else who cares about California’s schools and students, I hope the voters pass Proposition 30 to prevent further fiscal Armageddon. Should California voters decide otherwise, however, my hope is that the resulting crisis might finally provoke a serious effort to dramatically rethink and redesign every aspect of our education system. Though not by choice, we are already “deschooling” in California through budget attrition, and we may soon need to innovate like never before.
Benjamin Riley is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports education entrepreneurs. Previously, Ben worked as a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, where he worked primarily on education-related matters. He currently lives in Washington, D.C. but will one day return to the Golden State.