By Arnold Kling
“I predict that within a decade or two, the idea that learning can be located in time and space will no longer seem natural.”
Most of us went to school when we were younger, and we cannot imagine otherwise. However, it may be worth contemplating radical alternatives to the notion of school. The conflict between schooling and libertarian principles appears to me to have widened in the age of the Internet.
On the one hand, the Internet greatly enhances the opportunities for independent learning. As Will Richardson points out in his e-book, Why School?,1 learners now face an abundance of educational resources, rather than the scarcity that prevailed when schools became the norm. Moreover, new knowledge is being created at remarkable rates, making lifelong learning essential.
When we think of school, we think of learning that has coordinates in time and space. I took algebra in 8th grade in Clayton, Missouri. I attended college in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania from 1971 to 1975. However, outside of school, learning can take place anywhere, at any time. The Internet makes us keenly aware of this fact, and as Richardson points out, traditional classrooms can seem backward and stifling when compared to what we can learn by ourselves using the Web.
On the other hand, the political pressure to prop up the schooling model may be stronger than ever. President Obama, during his 2008 campaign, spoke of making sure that everyone could go to college. In his 2013 State of the Union address, he called for universal pre-school. Meanwhile, the watchword for many conservatives and Republicans is “accountability,” which in practice appears to mean top-down control over schools using test scores as a metric.
Notwithstanding these political forces, I predict that within a decade or two, the idea that learning can be located in time and space will no longer seem natural. The essence of the revolution that I foresee will be our embrace of anywhere-anytime learning. It could be that schooling as an institution will adapt to this paradigm, but I would bet against it.
The keys to an educational freedom agenda were identified over forty years ago by Ivan Illich, in his book Deschooling Society.2 The first key is what he calls disestablishment:
…the United States led the world in a movement to disestablish the monopoly of a single church. Now we need the constitutional disestablishment of the monopoly of the school.
However, a second key is also necessary:
To make this disestablishment effective, we need a law forbidding discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum. This guarantee would not exclude performance tests of competence for a function or role, but would remove the present absurd discrimination in favor of the person who learns a given school with the largest expenditure of public funds or—what is equally likely—has been able to obtain a diploma which has no relation to any useful skill or job.
In fact, this dictum appears stronger than what a libertarian today would wish for. I would propose to abolish all legal requirements mandating educational certification (to obtain licenses to practice certain occupations, for example). I do not have a problem with people who willingly choose to discriminate on the basis of credentials displayed by others. What I oppose are all compulsory forms of such discrimination.
Illich originally published his ideas as essays in the New York Review of Books, then as now a publication of the Left. Today, however, Illich is remembered by libertarians and has been forgotten by the Left. Yet I do not regard Illich himself as libertarian. He was very much a part of what in the Kennedy-Johnson era was known as the “New Left,” a phenomenon that may have been dimly echoed in the Occupy Wall Street movement that flared in 2011-2012.Unlike modern libertarians, who support capitalism, the New Left denounced capitalism. On the other hand, the New Left also despised government technocrats, who they blamed for the Vietnam War, among other ills.
Today, the rift between the Left and technocratic government appears to have completely healed. The New Left distrusted policy elites, feared powerful institutions, and despaired of the American electoral process. In contrast, what Tod Lindberg describes as “Left 3.0”3 puts its faith in policy elites, welcomes powerful institutions that promote its causes, and believes that it is mastering the electoral process. More cynically, one might say that the New Left protested the academic establishment, but the Left has now become that establishment.
In Deschooling Society, Illich wrote,
I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume—a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies. We need a set of criteria which will permit us to recognize those institutions which support personal growth rather than addiction, as well as the will to invest our technological resources preferentially in such institutions of growth.
This is typical of the New Left outlook. Illich viewed the threats to personal fulfillment as lying along a continuum. If coercion is at one end and personal choice is at the other, then in between there is an important category of manipulation, as practiced by advertisers, for example. Illich singled out personal service providers who obtain their clients through word of mouth as being much closer to the “personal choice” end of the spectrum. Schooling falls within the manipulation area of this continuum.
Because Illich viewed schools as instruments of “the system” (in New Left usage), he explicitly rejected the idea of school vouchers. His problem with vouchers is that they serve to entrench the idea that education is identical to schooling. Illich argued that schooling detracted from education.
Illich embraced the anywhere-anytime paradigm for learning. When he wrote, computer technology was primitive by today’s standards. Still, he proposed to facilitate peer-based learning by using a computer to match people with similar interests (to notify you of a proposed match, the system would send you a letter using what we now refer to as snail mail).
In addition to peer-matched discussion groups, Illich’s vision for deschooled learning had three other elements. One was broad public access to what he called the “educational objects,” including books, laboratory instruments, and machines. The Internet already facilitates access to written materials, and virtual reality may increasingly serve as a viable substitute for the other educational objects.
Another element was a skill-exchange service, allowing people with a desire to learn a specific skill to find someone who could model that skill. With YouTube, we have such a service, and it is even more powerful. For example, if you want to become a plumber or an electrician (sans certification), YouTube has the resources to enable you to do so.
Of course, the fact that resources are available on YouTube or elsewhere on the Web is not sufficient. We need guides to help us navigate this abundant information. Illich may have anticipated this with the fourth element in his vision, which he called an “educator-at-large.”
The Role of Coercion in Education
When one suggests that the institution of the school is not useful, the counter-arguments that typically surface show that people suspect that government coercion is an important feature of education. The fears people have about a deschooled society include:
- low-functioning parents will be unwilling or unable to educate their children
- people, especially children, will not know what to study
- people will avoid studying important but challenging subjects, such as mathematics
- there will be rampant fraud, including consumers falsely claiming to have learned skills as well as suppliers falsely claiming to have knowledge and teaching ability
The history of education in America does not support the worst of these fears. For example, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, in their widely-cited volume The Race Between Education and Technology,4 undertook a careful examination of the expansion of primary schooling and then high school. They found that compulsory schooling laws accounted for very little of the increase in schooling that took place between the early 19th century and the late 20th century.
Still, Goldin and Katz do argue that the institution of schooling (and its provision by government) was very important to American economic success. Forty years after Ivan Illich wrote his diatribe, most people believe that to abandon schools would be a step backwards.
Whether abandoning schools would lead to progress or chaos is impossible to determine a priori. If and when large numbers of people undertake the experiment of learning without school, we may find out.
Will Richardson, Why School? (TED Conferences), September 10, 2012.
Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society. (Marion Boyers), January 1, 1970.
Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. The Race Between Education and Technology. Cambridge (Harvard University Press), 2008.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of five books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; and Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.