I found a battered old copy of Ivan Illich’s Celebration of Awareness lying around on my impossible-to-work-at desk top. Together with his Deschooling Society, it was a book I acquired in the late 1970’s more or less at the height of my desire to make something different happen in the world which I still thought it might. One day in early February 2019 I decided to re-read it. It must have been the right moment!
It was a day when the Tories were again arguing that Foreign Aid should be diverted to the military for ‘peace-keeping’ missions – or in ways that are ‘squarely in the UK’s national interest’…clearly linked to the UK’s defence and foreign policy objectives, such as they are… It was a day when a senior Tory proposed a baccalaureate system to replace A-levels, with a mix of arts, sciences and vocational subjects and exams at the age of 18. He said: “Get rid of GCSEs, which seem to me pointless. Instead there should be some kind of assessment to show how far you’re progressing,” no doubt geared towards vocational subjects to the exclusion of all else and as if there could possibly be accurate ‘measurement’ of one’s internal being. There should be a royal commission on how to prepare for the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics. “I think it’s going to be dramatic. It will change the way we teach, change the way we learn and have a massive impact on jobs and skills.” It might well be that the malign forces of capitalism will make an impact on jobs – the total elimination of paid labour so that all profit goes into the hands of the unprofitable and the plebs go rot – but change the way we teach & learn? How can that be? learning is learning – the modification of behaviour, incorporating new ideas and so on – and teaching is teaching – putting things in the way of new minds and saying, “There, what do you think of that?” Anything else is force-feeding and indoctrination…
It was a day when Lindsey German (of Stop the War Coalition), had to speak about the Tory ‘Defence’ man thus:
Gavin Williamson’s latest Churchill tribute act would be laughable were it not so dangerous… a deliberate ramping up of warmongering rhetoric which belies the reality of Britain’s military record and which can only increase tensions in an already dangerous world. He argues that the west must be prepared to ‘use hard power to support our interests’, and that he wants to increase the ‘mass and lethality’ of Britain’s armed forces. It is quite incredible that he fails to address the consequences of past ‘mass and lethality’ of British hard power. The last decade has seen catastrophic and unpopular invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bombing campaign in Libya which only exacerbated the conditions there, the continued bombing of Syria and Iraq. None has resulted in peace or democracy, and none has dealt with problems of terrorism.
But these things pass most people by.
Ivan Illich talks about ‘the basic purpose of public education’ being ‘to create a situation in which society obliges each individual to take stock of self’ and the surrounding state of things; education implies a growth of independent sense of life and relatedness; each one of us should be ‘awakened by surprise’. We should be entrusted with the opportunity of ‘a place of encounter in which others surprise us with their liberty and make us aware of our own’…
It is precisely for surprise that true education should prepare us… It is your task to surprise yourself… Our hope of salvation lies in our being surprised by the Other… Let us learn always to receive further surprises till the surprise of death.
One might choose to be surprised by the News of the Day but for a very large number of people there was nothing surprising about it on the day I started re-reading Illich’s Celebration of Awareness. Everything just like it always is on the outside – just as we are schooled into accepting.
Ivan Illich points out that ‘The Age of Schooling’ only began about 200 years ago and gradually the idea has grown that schooling is a necessary means of getting us into the idea of becoming of use to society – these days it is a conventional wisdom that the purpose of school is not about learning for its own sake, but about drilling young human beings into developing ‘skills for work’.
The school system is a modern phenomenon, as is the childhood it produces… condemned to conflict between self-awareness and the role imposed by society…
Some well-educated jerk in power suddenly remembered from schooldays that the Greek word σχολη was not an appropriate word to describe the initiation of office & factory fodder into fifty years of wage slavery – it means ‘play’ or ‘the leisure to hang around learning’. “We certainly can’t have that – it’s noses to the grindstone,” says the unadmirable jerk with a toffee nose: the word ‘academy’ makes it all sound far more robust and we’ll hide it all away by privatising it. Preparation for work, a life of wage slavery till 70 or 80…
What only began 200 years ago could very well be abandoned now… Well, that’s a nice dream.
As it is, by their very existence, ‘schools’ indoctrinate children into acceptance of the political system by getting them used to packaged learning, subjects as separate commodities, some more desirable than others, some schools competitively more desirable than the ones down the road. And…
…the more [we choose to be]… trained in the consumption of packaged goods & services, the less effective we seem to become in shaping [our lives for ourselves]. Energies & finances are consumed in procuring ever new models of staple products and the environment becomes a by-product of consumption habits…
‘League tables’ make schools into nothing more than a bunch of football teams vying for supremacy. And the Premier League is strictly for the toffee-nosed jerks.
School as it is simply imposes the system of traffic jams, hospital confinements and patterns of consumption; each car on the road denies 50 people of good transportation by bus. Ordinary school teaches us that the better schooled are superior beings with all the privileges that entails; ordinary school teaches us that it’s just the way of the world and we’d better accept it or go under. Striving for good marks in the classroom cements the desire for a good salary and all the perks there are.
In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich argues that ‘universal education through schooling is not feasible…’ He says that ‘the search for new educational funnels should be diverted into the setting up of educational webs which heighten the opportunity for everybody to transform each moment of living into one of learning, sharing & caring… Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same problems… unmanaged by outside forces… not out of assumed ignorance but from a simple honest desire to know…’
In the Danish language there are, apparently no separate words for teaching & learning – there’s just the one word indlaering which means both together, teachlearnteachlearn. That’s what peers, participating in a web, could do for each other. Nothing like having to teach something to advance your learning of it!
‘Every moment of living becomes one of learning…’ I hear young people talking about ‘furthering their career’ or something being ‘valuable for their career’ and I wonder what on earth they are talking about. Why? Because I never once thought of myself as having a ‘career’. Thinking about it now in rather repetitious retrospectatiousness (as Mr Polly would have said with ‘allitrition’s artful aid’), to have done so would have enmeshed me in an abstract concept, would have taken me out of a present moment of learning and projected my self forward in time into an imaginary something or other – falsification of being. ‘Always to keep an eye on the future means often to deny oneself in the present’ – The Testament of Joad (page 102)… I did not think of this at the time, otherwise I might have fallen into the trap of inventing a future encircled in the containment of an abstraction, viz a ‘career’ – I just bumbled along from one thing to another, doing whatever seemed to be needed to be done in the passing moment. There was always some internal focus on activity rather than submitting my self to external abstractionism. It is only possible for me to analyse it thus in dreamy retrospectatiousness. Hooray for it!
Illich was living at a time when it was fondly imagined that the ‘New Age of Technology’ would release people from drudgery & slavery and let them into an Age of Leisure. The toffee-nosed jerks, of course, had other ideas: instead of reducing the working week to two days they arranged for Technology to put people out of work while they pocketed every single bit of extra profit; organised it so that those who were left were ‘in touch’ all the hours of the day, noses to the grindstone of tablet or portable lap-top, or whatever these things I see people absorbed by on trains are called, which meant that your whole life became work. They call it ‘flexible working’ which, to them, means ‘working all the time’.
of workers long before
they get to a workplace
Illich advocates two months per year for 20/30 years of a self-generated ‘web’ of short scholastic retreats, education in work contexts, parental & buddy tutoring and political education.
I often say that all I learned at school was how to be a thoroughgoing eccentric, by other-than-consciously modelling on eccentric teachers and comrades. It occurs to me that I was not brain-washed into the so-called ‘needs of society’ by either the slightly crazy junior school I attended during the war or Kingston Grammar School, then a rather lunatic minor public school with tradition going back to the very famous Old Boy, Edward Gibbon; I simply attended the lovely dark & dingy corridors of KGS on a daily basis lugging along, with the help of a London Transport single-decker 213 bus, whatever attitudes & understandings I’d acquired from early on.
I suppose that all my teachers were somewhat pre-occupied by bombs and the daily threat of annihilation to be overly concerned with high pedagogical theory – it was perhaps for them just a matter of one class following another. Like me, they maybe just bumbled along! The pursuit of good marks was hilariously transformed by Basher Bates into a daily industry of awarding, say, 20 marks for a good answer to a question or subtracting 595 marks for ‘bad behaviour’ or what he regarded as a silly answer; sometimes he feigned amusement when Mahoney translated a Greek word he didn’t recognise in a bit of Xenophon as ‘washbasin’, no matter what the context, while on another occasion it would be, “Minus 56, Mahoney!” (“Oh, Sir…!”) and he’d always write the progressive scores down in his notebook, seeming to tot them up from minute to minute. At the end of a year the sum of minuses & pluses always came out to something relatively sensible, somewhere on the scale of 0 – 100. Oh, Basher Bates, I suppose you are long dead; you never knew how you taught me the stupidity of grades & marks, the unmeasurability of complex human beings and the inanity of competing for the achievement of accolades.
Having re-read Ivan Illich’s Celebration of Awareness, I went to his Deschooling Society with the intention of checking back on, and coming to terms with, his proposals. This caused me to wonder just what it was that I got from my very conventional education, the relationship between its rather crazy, and sometimes terrifying, formality and the rest of my living moments.
What did I get from my schooling? Here’s an initial list off the top of my head:-
• Lots of accidental stuff – all those essays: Belloc, Jefferies, George Bourne (Sturt), Carlyle…
• Validation of things which had occurred to me by reason of existential choices I had made early on, all confirmed, elaborated, tweaked by subsequent reading
• Other-than-conscious modelling on the eccentricities of teachers
• Other-than-conscious modelling on fellow scholars whom I wanted to be like
• Things I decided for myself
• Alois Haba, quarter-tone composer
• ‘Music for Schools’ in Junior School
• The catastrophic explosion of the CCF hut at KGS
• Atmospheres – all the dark corners of learning
• The old building, bricks & mortar, of KGS, somehow in my bones
Illich says kids are ‘schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence and fluency with the ability to…’ express what they’ve just learned… ‘The institutionalising of values leads to psychological impotence…’ It doesn’t look to me as though there’s anything rigidly ‘institutional’ about any of this; all focussed on self.
I have been subject to institutions! Family, School, Civil Service, Military ‘Service’, Bank, College, Teaching Containments (I mean Commitments)… But now I have come to suppose that each of these simply provided me with temporary shelter from the elements, the comfort of a base or HQ. They happened, just as things have a habit of doing. While always doing whatever it seemed advisable to do to survive and make comfort, I don’t think I really took any of them that seriously. Does that make me ‘selfish’ or was I well & truly focussed on the question Illich asked: how can the technology of life ‘serve personal, creative & autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats?’
Somehow, without realising it till relatively recently, I settled on the idea that LIFE IS CREATIVITY, I escaped being institutionalised – institutions just happened to be there, floating about in the ether. Was it just bloody-mindedness or a kind of inflexible ‘doing otherwise’, as Gurdjieff advised? According to society, learning must be institutionalised & systematised, as Illich points out; but that implies order when, looking back, my formal education was a mess, not systematic at all, maybe because it was just post-war, the teachers fearful of, or traumatised by, the experience of war.
I ordered it all for myself. The mess has turned into my present day diligent pursuit of things, all of them seeming to be separate but all in fact connected when you deliberately face up to the fact, treat it seriously.
Perhaps there was some rough thread I made myself determined to cling to come what may. How did I do that? Here’s the great Professor Joad telling us how he derived intense pleasure from playing with ideas:-
…after much clarifying, arranging, grouping, expanding, contracting and generally manipulating the ideas of other people… occasionally managing to add a small contribution of my own. You cannot move continuously among the creations of other minds without being sometimes moved to create on your own account. Even if what comes out is only an individualized version of what went in, or, to put it less politely, even if it is only the intellectual excrement which is left over after the good, sound nourishment of the ideas of the world’s great thinkers has been chewed, digested and assimilated into the.system, nevertheless, what comes out is one’s own. It is stamped ineffaceably with the seal of one’s own consciousness; its shape, its texture, its flavour, all these,; I think, are contributed by oneself.
He begs to assert that the product of his mental activity amounts to rather more than excrement. Mental processes being rather difficult to grasp, a metaphor or two might help. Joad says:-
I recently saw a chemical demonstration in which the lecturer dipped a string [my ‘thread’!] into a glass containing a solution of, I think, some kind of chloride. As the string descended into the glass, little crystals began to form along its length; presently it became almost invisible behind the coat of crystals which it had, as it were, provoked. The word which the chemist used to describe this process was ‘precipitation’. The insertion of the string causes stuff which is latent and, it may be, invisible in the solution to precipitate itself along the string in the form of crystals. The metaphor describes with some degree of exactness the character of those of my own intellectual processes, for which I wish to claim originality. The new thought which somebody more original than I has conceived and introduced into my mind is like the piece of string. It is not merely that by virtue of the process of introduction it is insensibly changed, so that what I, in fact, conceive is the nearest thing to the original idea of which my mind is capable… more important, is the fact that the new idea attracts to itself and becomes encrusted with an intellectual content of elements that have been supplied by me, elements.of whose existence I should, in the absence of the precipitating agent, have remained unconscious…
The precipitation of crystals! A deposit in the mind.
Maurice Nicoll explains the Gurdjieff process of crystalisation thus:-
Crystallized thoughts form attitudes. If you have continually thought in a certain way all these thoughts crystallize into an attitude. Let us suppose you have always thought that you did not get the attention you should have got. You have identified with this thought thousands and thousands of times. Eventually these thousands of similar thoughts form a solid deposit in the mind. This is called crystallisation. Such a crystallisation of similar thoughts forms an attitude, so you now have in you an attitude towards other people which has been formed out of thinking and thinking time and again in the same way that you never get the attention you should get from others.
Illich argues that institutions are built on the poor whose poverty may be defined in many & novel ways; institution pretend that they are in business to eliminate poverty but if they thrive on it they are scarcely going to work very hard at eliminating it! Basic needs are made into demands for capitalistically created commodities; poverty is defined as all those who have fallen behind an advertised ideal of consumption. It’s a clever conventional school ploy to sell a sense of inferiority by comparison with ‘the better schooled’ – it’s what hooks people on ‘school’. Be poor, think rich!
Illich: ‘The mere existence of ‘school’ [“Ah, that’s the place where you learn!”] discourages and disables the poor from taking control of their learning…’ Maybe not just the poor: how many people can say (and mean) ALL LIFE IS LEARNING: SURPRISE YOURSELF WITH SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY ?
And when school is finished, then you stop learning. It’s the only space where learning takes place. How we are brain-washed!
I wrote essays at school, modelling on the greats previously referred to. I got good marks, especially from Crippo! (Mr Cripps) And won the RCSherriff Essay Prize in 1954! Before that there was the copious diary writing and after it the endless set of notebooks, the chain reading that started on the daily journey from Basingstoke to London 1962 to 1964. Nobody asked me to do all this. I just did it because it seemed like the thing to do.
The institution of school gives us to understand that learning is the result of teaching. Certain kinds of teaching do help but ‘most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only in so far as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.’ Learning is casual, most of it…
Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction. Normal children learn their first language casually, although faster if their parents pay attention to them. Most people who learn a second language well do so as a result of odd circumstances and not of sequential teaching. They go to live with their grand-parents, they travel, or they fall in love with a foreigner. Fluency in reading is also more often than not a result of such extra-curricular activities. Most people who read widely, and with pleasure, believe that they learned to do so in school; when challenged they easily discard this illusion…
The discovery that most learning requires no teaching can be neither manipulated nor planned
But at school we learn that everything can be measured – what can’t be measured is a waste of time. We become easy prey for other institutions and instruction smothers the horizon of imagination. The learning Illich prizes is unmeasurable. ‘Schools pervert the natural inclination to grow and learn into the demand for instruction’.
I think I did grow and learn for myself in spite of the uncompromising teacher-toughs of whom I was more often than not somewhat terrified. How did I break free from the idea of being categorised & measured? It was probably that I spent a lot ot time studying their unmeasurable eccentricity.The problem is that unmeasured experience slips out of your hands when you crave marks & guidelines.
The result of the curriculum production process looks like any other modem staple. It is a bundle of planned meanings, a package of values, a commodity whose ‘balanced appeal’ makes it marketable to a sufficiently large number to justify the cost of production. Consumer-pupils are taught to make their desires conform to marketable values. Thus they are made to feel guilty if they do not behave according to the predictions of consumer research by getting the grades and certificates that will place them in the job category they have been led to expect… The modern university forfeited its chance to provide a simple setting for encounters which are both autonomous and anarchic, focussed yet unplanned and ebullient, and has chosen instead to manage the process by which so-called research and instruction are produced…
The result is that knowledge becomes a commodity and scholars are consumers of what those already in the know produce – they just have to wait for it to come on the market.
Well, this may be the crux of the matter. Knowledge was just not a commodity for me – not something outside me to strive for but always something to make into my very own, to process somatically. Even something like mensa, mensā, (Oh, table…) mensam, mensae, mensa, mensa… Still a somatically locked- in part of me. Oh, Plato’s Tableness… tables of Greek irregular verbs. No table meant anything unless I could sit at it or measure my height against it (6th August 1945 5pm, head-high to the dining-room table). Knowing something is a joy that courses through the veins, activates the neurons, comes out as one’s very own intellectual tidal wave.
And the teachers? They were somewhat uncompromisingly tough; kept themselves to themselves; seemed to think we’d make it… Seemed to think I’d make it. I developed a not very healthy fear of authority which I’ve now kicked into long grass.
I was not a very good scholar really. I did not know what it was to command learning till I’d been left formal schooling for ten years. Then suddenly I knew what was entailed; it was during one autumn afternoon in 1964: Five Ways of Considering a Poem! Just like that – a system. Then I thought there must be other systems and set about either discovering what they might be or inventing them for myself. David McAndrew was the man!
A system for learning; a system for thinking & making & acting – the Spidergram which I invented long before Tony Buzan made a mint with ‘Mind-mapping’. Plans & the Structure of Behaviour – Miller, Galanter & Pribram.
Taxonomies & systems are the meta-tools for learning; meta-positions are essential for looking at stuff as a whole, from what Gurdjieff would call an objective point of view, when you just know you’re right.
Illich considers Aristotle on making & doing:-
Architecture [τεχνη] is a way of making … of bringing something into being whose origin is in the maker and not in the thing. Making has always an end other than itself, action [hasn’t got such an end]; good action itself is its [own] end. Perfection in making is an art, perfection in acting is a virtue. The word Aristotle employed for making was ποιεισις and the word he employed for doings πραχις.
Making (ποιεισις) a product comes from within (our word ‘poetry’); acting (πραχις) relies on our word ‘practice’, which is supposed to make perfect.
Modem technology has increased the ability to relinquish the ‘making’ of things to machines; the potential time for ‘acting’ [often, ‘the goat’] has increased. ‘Making’ the necessities of life has ceased to take up our time. Unemployment is the result of this modernisation: it is the idleness when there is nothing to ‘make’ – the idleness of those who do not know what to ‘do’ – that is, how to ‘act’. Unemployment is the sad idleness of people who, contrary to Aristotle, believe that making things, or working, is virtuous and that idleness is bad. Unemployment is the experience of those who have succumbed to the Protestant work ethic. Leisure, according to Weber, is necessary to be able to work. For Aristotle, work is necessary for leisure.
And so, we need to learn how to act, how to be within action.
Technology provides us with discretionary time we can fill either with making or with doing. The choice between sad unemployment and joyful leisure is now open for the entire culture. It depends on the institutional style the culture chooses. Such a choice would have been unthinkable in an ancient culture built either on peasant agriculture or on slavery. It has become inevitable for post-industrial human-beings.
Well, it would have become so if the toffee-nosed had not scuppered the free person’s use of the discretionary time technology was supposed in Illich’s day to have provided us with. Post-industrial human-beings have become even more enslaved by the very technology that could have freed them from wage-slavery.
I think I became quite a proficient actor so that I eventually became quite diligent at reflecting on what was happening around me: reflection leads to ποιεισις QED.
One way to fill available time is to stimulate increased demands for the consumption of goods and, simultaneously, for the production of services: on the one hand [μεν], an ever-growing array of ever newer things which can be made, consumed, wasted and recycled and on the other hand [δε], the futile attempt to make ‘virtnous’ actions into the products of ‘service’ institutions. This leads to the identification of schooling and education, of medical service and health, of programme-watching and entertainment, of speed and effective locomotion with the idea of ‘progress’.
But there is, even now, another way!
The radically alternative way to fill available time is to produce a limited range of more durable goods, and to provide access to institutions which increase opportunity for and desirability of human interaction… Goods would have to be such that they provided the maximum opportunity to ‘do’ something with them as it might be items made for self-assembly, self-help, re-use and repair… This is education for action, post-industrial conviviality…
As things are, even technology has become infinitely expendable, of the moment; a new kind of planned obsolescence has things scrolling up the screen in a momentary flash of something-or-other, here one moment, gone the next. We should dispense entirely with technology unless it can be proved to be a useful way of enhancing a systemic process like the above. Does it oil the works? Does it assist the intellectual tidal wave?
How does one value ‘the unpredictable outcome of self-chosen personal encounter over the certified quality of professional instruction’? Perhaps it’s just becoming aware of Web Potential – not the World Wide one but the personal Web. Being a bit of a hermit, though I enjoy the company of others when occasion demands, I think I probably did my own de-schooling by creating a singular web which I ran in parallel with whatever else was going on around me. My own personal Surprise Generator. The result of my doodling, its makeup, will be of little interest to anybody else but it does illustrate a process that anybody could follow. It reveals the web of things other than the institution of school that have made me who I am. Kingston Grammar School did however provide me with a motto, as I’ve often pointed out – Bene agere ac laetari WORK WELL AND BE JOYFUL. This sustains me, for the most part.
What existential choice propelled me on the road to this moment now when I want to know what the existential choice was? What was it made me open to, or ready for, this Personal Network? Constantly watching, constantly accumulating views, perspectives, attitudes.
There was a catastrophic relationship that occurred in 1954 when all my watching & coding & arranging failed more or less completely. I made a choice to collect something different and do it with diligent misery. The delights of the relationship were certainly high delights for me but they had to be experienced in a context of abject misery. I suppose, lacking Meta-I, there was an ‘I’ that enjoyed the misery. I made efforts to join the young woman cncerned in with my Personal Network but it was not an organic progression, just a forcing of a square stick in a round hole.
Anyway, here’s what Ivan Illich proposed for a society-wide educational web of relationships:-
Educational resources are usually labelled according to educators’ curricular goals. I propose to do the contrary: to label four different approaches which will enable the student to gain access to any educational resource which may help to define and achieve a personal set of goals:-
1. Reference Services to Educational Objects – facilitation of access to things or processes which can be used for formal learning. Some of these things could be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories and showrooms like museums and theatres; others can be in daily use in factories, airports or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off-hours.
2, Skill Exchanges which have people listing their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills and the addresses at which
they can be reached.
3. Peer-Matching – a communications network in which people would describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner.
4, Reference Services to Educators-at-Large – listings in a directory with contact details and descriptions of professionals paraprofessionals and freelancers along with conditions of access to their services. This would work by networking.
Learners would be able to tap into the Opportunity Web whenever they felt the need.
One can hear vociferous objections from many quarters that the current way of organising education by ‘experts’ – lessons in separate subjects (atomisation), exams, diplomas, degrees & master degrees, CV’s, and so on is highly complex and caters for all eventualities, the only way to do it. A sound objection: potential learners would already have to be possessed of ‘web mentality’ to feel confident enough to feel the need to join a web and know that it worked. We have been brain-washed into the current system. How would people be guided into a much more fluid system? Could it all just be left to the natural process of growing up?
This whole piece of words that just drift around seems to be suggesting that that’s how it was for me. It always comes back to the question of what prompted me to make the original existential choice. Maybe there’s just no way of arranging for such a choice; one would have to make the choice to make the choice.
I have had today’s surprise: to have organised some thoughts on Ivan Illich who, together with Paulo Freire, was all the rage back in those heady days of the 1970’s.