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From Deschooling to Unschooling: Rethinking Anarchopedagogy after Ivan Illich
The last of a four part collection of essays from the book Anarchist Pedagogies.
This article is the last of a four part mini series. It is an except of a chapter from the collection of essays, Anarchist Pedagogies, Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education. Many thanks to the publisher, PM Press and the editor, Robert H. Haworth for allowing us to reprint these excerpts.
book cover

Homeschooling and Deschooling

Homeschooling may be able to cultivate [a] new identity, but it will need to be cautious when interacting with other educational counterpublics. Albowitz recognizes the problem of inequalities among publics that could arise from the binary homeschooling counterpublic1. Inequality is the pivot point for anarcho-pedagogues in that any educational counterpublic that can be considered anarchic must avoid being reabsorbed into either a public or a private model, rife with inequality. Deschoolers are in a position to create this anarchic social identity but will need to counter any efforts to define the movement in public or private conceptions. She also acknowledges that “[thanks] to the works of feminist scholars and activists, it is possible here to discuss public spheres without automatically invoking the public/private dualism” because these separate realms are no longer isolated and definitive1. However, the fact that a counterpublic can evade this public/private distinction does not necessarily mean that it is representative of an anarchic identity. Although counterpublics are seeking alternatives to compulsory public education, Abowitz’s examples of educational counterpublics suggest a State-oriented or privatized models of educational reform, reverting back into public/private dualism. According to Abowitz, the counterpublics that avoid this relapse are those whose practices can be defined as democratic, which deschooling may embody, but is not typically the case with homeschooling generally because of the internal opposition.

As the movement expands, the homeschooling counterpublics must address deschooling on its own terms, but for now we can use models such as Illich’s to measure the amount of freedom, autonomy, and trust they have reclaimed from practices of schooling. “What prevents [the counterculture’s or insurgency’s] frustration from shaping new institutions is a lack not only of imagination but frequently also of appropriate language and of enlightened self-interest”2. Anarchist theory can provide some of this vocabulary and conceptualization, but also Abowitz’s suggestions for counterpublics will provide a more robust definition of education. Abowitz suggests using advancements made by contemporary critical theorists. The feminist “counter public has, among other achievements, produced and introduced a new lexicon into larger society, emblematic of the larger ideological and legal changes it has brought about in the last century. [Terms like date rape and sexual harassment] symbolize the feminist counter public’s engagement with wider publics, with the effect of influencing the prevailing understanding and notion about gender and power in American life”1.

In effect this counterpublic then becomes institutionalized by infiltrating public policy and carving out a space for their unique identity. In doing so, the anarchic vision is limited, as the identity–in this case, women–is reinserted back into the State. By using a model such as Illich’s, the process of evaluating educational counterpublics, in the most general sense of the term, can begin, with a focus on education and power. As it gains confidence and variety, moving beyond Illich’s model will result in a more complex model for which to base practice and innovation. Illich’s model provides an immediate foundation that may be in need of urgent revision considering the time the model was proposed, but nonetheless imparts a vocabulary to begin experiments in deschooling. His model may help anarchopedagogues suggest a model of learning that can maintain its anarchic origins.

Learning Webs

Illich’s criteria help measure deschooling practices for their commitment to “support personal growth rather than addiction”2. To reiterate, his criteria are, reference service to educational objects, skill exchanges, peer-matching, and professional educators. Based on what has been discussed thus far about deschooling we find the presence of these features in deschooling and can also see how blatantly some homeschoolers maintain schooling. Deschooling has the potential to instill a different ethics of self, identity, freedom, spontaneity, discovery, curiosity, etc., thus creating arrangements of power that are productive, not oppressive, and preserve individual freedom and autonomy. These arrangements or relationships must be considered not only on the level of individual-to-individual or individual-to-community, but also individual-to-content and individual-to-structure. This is central for Hern who suggests:

...deschooling is about relationships, and is the antithesis of professionalism. Genuine relationships are exactly what teachers are looking to avoid. It is what they call “unprofessional.” But if adults are willing to take the time to get to know the kids they are around really well, to spend large amounts of time with their daughters and sons, to listen carefully to their needs and wants, and to understand what they are capable of, then trust can’t be far behind3

Basing his model of relationships on trust implies that there is no inherent hierarchy in education, and can only be attained through nonhierarchical relationships.

Homeschooling Networks

Anarchists and deschoolers, as well as educational theorists, argue for the creation of networks, as opposed to institutions, that are temporary, autonomous, and nonhierarchical, and facilitate a variety of diverse modes of learning and community interaction1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Abowitz recognizes how “homeschoolers are forming informal networks for specialized study and activities–like writing groups or math clubs and forming associations, support groups, legal aid societies, publishing networks, and Internet sites to support homeschooling families and connect them with one another”1. This is reiterated by Olson who adds that “homeschooling networks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and self-sustaining”9. She goes on to illustrate how “many more mainstream, middle-class American parents and students themselves are beginning to see homeschooling as a way of conscientiously objecting to the wounding culture of schools. More and more people are opting out of school, and finding the alternative viable, attractive, and very rich socially, academically, and economically”9. In a similar thread, John Taylor Gatto wants parents and students to address their own needs, focusing on the needs that are not met or even addressed by schooling such as leadership and adventure, critical thinking and independence, and lastly self-initiative and creativity10. Illich’s criteria may set us on our way, but the need to include new characteristics of deschooling will become evident.

The first of Illich’s criteria is reference service to educational objects. The resources he is referring to include the materials in libraries, museums, and theaters, as well as opening the local community industries and services to individuals seeking to learn about things or processes in factories and farms2. This represents Illich at his most prophetic, foreseeing the possibility that technology, in a similar way to telephones, can connect not only people but also people and resources. The Internet is a virtual library that allows for access to countless materials, not censored by public schools or the State, at least in its most ideal form. This converges with Holt’s and Farenga’s conception of technology and education. Farenga states that “homeschooling can be seen as the logical destination for the convergence of education and technology customizable curricula, seminars in new educational techniques, educational TV, video-taped classes and lectures, Internet, CD ROMs, are all touted by some educators and homeschoolers alike as being more efficient education delivery systems than schools”11. This, combined with autonomy, enables self-disciplined students to learn independently yet effectively and meaningfully. Having a robust structure that allows for this type of learning is paramount for the proliferation of other freedom-based educational alternatives.

Illich’s second criterion is relationships that allow for skill exchanges. The network will provide a database of individuals that are willing to demonstrate their skills to others, the skills these individuals are associated with, and the conditions these individuals are able to share their skills. In some ways this is already happening in an organic way but needs to be developed further to create larger networks, allowing for a more diverse set of skills and a wider pool of individuals sharing and learning skills. Many homeschool networks provide these services internally to members of their networks or sister networks and center around parents or community members who are willing to share a set of skills. Morrison8 has also taken note of this characteristic, finding that families participate in the “4-H club, and they are also active in doing service projects, such as taking care of preschoolers, serving food at soup kitchens, and helping out at the animal shelter.”

The third criteria of Illich’s model concerns peer-matching or locating like-minded individuals interested in co-inquiring into a specific skill or topic. By finding a cohort of individuals, the skills available in the skill exchange network increases because any individual can serve as a potential skill-bearer or skill-seeker. The network has the potential to increase and amplify; however, Illich is aware of the tendency that the poor, the group who needs peer-matching the most will unlikely take advantage of such a practice2. This might become irrelevant for deschoolers who make conscious efforts to diversify their homeschooling network or learning web taking a more inclusive approach and averting any homogenizing effects. There is recognition of increasing diversity, both racially and economically, within deschooling networks12, 13.

In addition, hierarchies begin to be dismantled, a benefit for challenging the hidden curriculum, because we find that “other adults, and/ or children who become ‘teachers’ of [homeschooled] children are not just planners of activities for the children (although they can be). Rather, they are resources, facilitators, ‘mid-wives’ for children’s learning”8. Peretti and Jones recognize that “[schools] provide a functional environment where youngsters can associate on many different levels with equals, as opposed to teachers, parents, and other adults”14. It is interesting that Peretti and Jones express that only peers can be viewed as equals and, intentionally or not, reinforce educational hierarchies. This is an aspect of the hidden curriculum that is reproduced in schools, positioning children at the bottom and requiring them to blindly accept their status, or lack thereof. What is needed is a reconstruction of the teacher-student relationship, which skill-exchanges and peer-matching touches upon. Hern addresses this through the typical rhetoric of teaching and parenting styles, supporting “approaches to parenting which are neither authoritarian nor permissive nor authoritative, but egalitarian”3. Llewellyn5 shares this sentiment of equality between teacher and student or child and parent, fostering relationships built on trust. In addition to nurturing the direct relationships between individuals, the larger picture of this criterion demands rediscovering one’s local community to uncover peers and available skills.

The final criterion of the deschooling model is access to professional educators. This may be the most problematic of Illich’s features because in some ways it reintroduces teaching as a profession. He puts forward that the rise of the professional educator will coincide with the elimination of schoolmasters2. Illich does not equate professionalism with attaining degrees and certifications and instead suggests a more pragmatic structure where professional educators are identified by the niche they fill. Illich identifies two areas in which professional educators could prosper. The first concerns assisting parents with understanding and contributing to their children’s learning experiences2. The focus here is on having knowledge of human learning, in a form that allows for freedom and autonomy to flourish, not perish. For the most part, parents themselves are assuming this role and using the standard homeschooling texts of Holt, Farenga, Llewellyn, Hern, etc., as their professional guides.

The second concerns the learners themselves and the need for guides that will help to introduce educational encounters and offer a critical model of understanding and making meaning of these experiences2. The type of experiences and the disposition desired is determined by the individual learner who then tries to find professional educators who match their descriptions.

It is within the criteria of professional educators that we might find permissible levels of inequality but only in the sense that the relationship is such that one individual serves as a temporary guide who can encourage and facilitate learning that might not be achieved by an isolated individual. Llewellyn5 classifies these “adults” as teachers and tutors, role models, mentors, or other less concrete, more ambiguous relationships that, without compromising egalitarian ideals, still maintain a degree of hierarchy; a non-oppressive power relationship. Most importantly about these professional educators is the nature of the relationships they build with learners that can be traced back to philosophical traditions in Ancient Greece. Citing Aristotle, Illich defines how these learning experiences are based on friendship, trust, and leisure2. Todd May offers concerns for radical politics that apply to models of deschooling by “[looking] at an arrangement of power, [and asking] whether it is creating something bad for those who are subject to it”15. This suggests that the power relationship that is present in any educational encounter carries with it an opportunity for the hidden curriculum to reemerge and taint such an encounter.

After reviewing the previous criteria there are at least two concerns that are brought to light. Using the model loosely, not dogmatically, will allow for the tampering of the model and usher in improvements to the deschooling model. The first criticism involves the myopic focus on schools. Although Illich argues for the centrality of public schools as the dominant manipulative institution, we now have other equally manipulative institutions. It may also be the case that schools do not hold this unique totalitarian power. Instead the power may have been redistributed to other institutions. Deschooling must take on the project of deschooling these other manipulative institutions and create convivial alternatives within them. The second concern is a way for parents and learners to maintain the suspicion of and participate in the deconstruction of the hidden curriculum.

George Wood finds it “unreasonable for schools to be singled out as central among such socializing institutions as the family, the media, the church, and other ideological apparatus”16. Schools are not solely responsible for maintaining the social order as there have emerged new institutions that reify the hidden curriculum which must be considered and included in deschooling practices. These new institutions include mass media, the workplace, the home, the family, marriage, democracy, parenting, etc.3, 5, 7, 17. Other institutions are present and critical homeschoolers, aside from using a new model of teaching and learning will also need to establish ways to critique media, marketing, politics, technology, etc. Critical homeschoolers must be wary of all institutions and evaluate their manipulability or conviviality. Hern wants “to encourage deschoolers at every level to take the analysis and impulses that led them to reject traditional schools and apply them to the wider community. I want people to look at hospitals and cities and eating and houses and sex and city halls and shopping malls and community centers and everything else with the same critical eye they bring to bear upon school”3. He is pushing it into all institutions physical/conceptual, explicit/ implicit and asking for the same rigorous critique, rejection, and renewal. Parents, with the help of professional educators, will need to develop strategies that enable deschooling these other institutions in the same way that homeschooling can challenge compulsory schooling.

In addition to opposing new trajectories of oppression we also need more rigorous practices to finding our way out of schooling. We may need new tools and structures that will allow for a more complete deschooling of all manipulative institutions, in particular, the hidden curriculum. The new social identity requires new skills which must be distilled into deschooling practice. Within the unchallenged hidden curriculum we find patterns of “[capitalism], racism, sexism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and classism [which are] systems of oppression that anarchists resist”7. All of these are a deep part of schooling and to such an extent define the experience in schools. For this reason, it is not enough to homeschool or even to unschool. An anarchic deschooler must dismantle these systems of oppression; these manipulative institutions and “pay much more attention to ‘missing standards’ such as positive emotions, love of learning, initiative, creativity, and persistence”18.

Deschoolers require and are advancing a different set of skills and resources than their schooled counterparts. The difference lies in the ideals of freedom and autonomy, but more specifically, on self-discipline, motivation, and persistence that are inherent in the deschooling model. As Illich suggests, “[the] ideal way of life would obviously be to a much greater degree a do-it-yourself life, in which, individuals and small groups took more responsibility for meeting a much wider range of their own needs, rather than concentrating on one specialty and depending on a wide range of other specialists”19.

Creating Autonomy

Homeschooling and deschooling, although not directly located within the anarchy discourse, represent a way that anarchy might make some progress while nobody is looking, so to speak. This may be a positive thing, given the current global hostility toward homeschooling and the complete lack of understanding and sensationalism surrounding anarchy. If deschooling were to intentionally define itself as anarchic, deschooling youth, deinstitutionalizing mandatory education, and deinculcating neoliberal hidden curriculum, it would be viewed as far more radical and would warrant accusations of corrupting the youth, unraveling the social fabric of democracy, and possibly even be categorized as an insurgency, or worse, terrorism.

Deschooling faces similar misunderstandings and resistance as anarchy. The positive definition of anarchy, “a society based on cooperation, social justice, community participation, and mutual aid,” resembles the positive definition of deschooling which focuses on an individual’s relationship to the knowledge she actively acquires and to the local community, with a propensity for creativity and self-discipline20. More simply, in deschooling, learning is without the imposition of the authority of the master or the hidden curriculum of the State or the market (i.e., the public or the private). However, just as with the volatility of the term anarchy, and the negative definition that follows, that of “lawless disorder, violence, oppressive individualism, and chaos,” deschooling too can be perceived with similar fear and hostility, from the individual who has embraced the hidden curriculum as the means to happiness and achievement, to special interest groups who have much at stake with institutionalized education and the current trends of charter schools, vouchers, and for-profit schools, and finally the state, which in many ways education reifies20. The fear stems from the desire to remove authority from the public or private definition of education and recover a third option to pursue more autonomous learning experiences, overcoming public and private rhetoric.

Illich was aware of the controversy surrounding any discussion of “radical alternatives to school-centered formal education,” just as any serious, informed argument in favor of anarchy is represented sensationally by the media21. In this respect, anarchy and deschooling couple together nicely because they are up against the same misunderstandings and resistance but also share a radically humanizing potential. If, as Ward suggested, there might be unconscious efforts toward anarchy, and unschoolers are unconsciously manifesting these anarchic tendencies, the cause might be better served if we are patient and allow for the movement to become self-aware and find its own social identity and anarchic voice to announce its arrival into radical politics, social change, and education revolution. Abowitz recognizes that “[on] the one hand [counterpublics] function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics”1. This is something that will define the future of the homeschooling movement and whether the deschooling fringe can make its unique voice audible in wider and wider circles; first, other homeschoolers, then educational policy makers and beyond. Abowitz1 suggests that the educational counterpublics will be defined by its fractured overlapping structure, and to some extent this will represent the topology of deschooling, but more important is not the structure of the counterpublic itself, but its structure as it relates to wider and wider publics. Deschoolers are able to elude the dichotomy of public or private and are able to avoid being reabsorbed into broader publics as long as they stay true to their origin of disenchantment and desire to create a new social reality. However, an anarchistic interpretation of deschooling allows us to see the features that prevent it from being classified as public or private and also suggests a distinct form of a counterpublic that Abowitz proposes. The anarchist capacity of deschooling may lie, as Richard Kahn suggests, “in our scholarly capacity to opt-out of the excited drive to reconstruct education once again in the hope of a better world and to recognize the programmatic suffering of our institutionalized existence as students and teachers”22. We cannot theorize and design for humanity, we can only practice humanity. And if humanity is not present in obligatory schooling then the only places it has potential to creep up is in deschooled learning spaces.

We can only live these changes: we cannot think our way to humanity. . . . The many models which will develop should give each one of us an environment in which we can celebrate our potential–and discover the way into a more humane world. . . . We must build in hope and joy and celebration.21

[1] Abowitz, K.K. (2003). Civil society and educational publics: Possibilities and problems. In G. Dimitriadis & D. Carlson (Eds.), Promises to keep: Cultural studies, democratic education, and public life. New York: Routledge Falmer.
[2] Illich. I. (1970). Deschooling society. New York: Marion Boyars.
[3] Hern, M. (1998). Deschooling our lives. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
[4] Ward, C. (1966). Adventure playground: A parable of anarchy. In L. Krimmerman & L. Perry (Eds.), Patterns of Anarchy: A collection of writings on the anarchist tradition, 397-402. New York: Doubleday.
[5] Llewellyn, G. (1998). The teenage liberation handbook: How to quit school and get a real life and education. 3rd ed. Eugene, OR: Lowry House.
[6] Holt, J. & Farenga, P. (2003). Teach your own: The John Holt book of homeschooling. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
[7] DeLeon, A. (2006). The time for action is now!: Anarchist theory, critical pedagogy, and radical possibilities. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies. 4(2).
[8] Morrison, K.A. (2007). Unschooling: Homeschooling can provide the freedom to learn. Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. 20(2), 42-49.
[9] Olson, K. (2009). Wounded by school: Recapturing the joy in learning and standing up to old school culture. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
[10] Gatto, J.T. (2003). Against school: How public education cripples our kids and why. Harper’s Magazine, 307(1840), 33-38.
[11] Farenga, P. (1998). Homeschooling: Creating alternatives to education. Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society 18(2), 127-33.
[12] Nichols-White, D. (1996). Dinosaur homeschool. In M. Hern (Ed.), Deschooling our lives, 72-75. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
[13] Kleiner, C. & Lord, M. (2000). “Home school comes of age.” U.S. News & World Report. 129(15), 52-54.
[14] Peretti, P.O. & Jones, E.L. (2001). Limitations of deschooling as a viable model. Education. 102(4), 377-80.
[15] May, T. (2009). Anarchism from Foucault to Rancière. In R. Amster, A. DeLeon, L. Fernandez, A. Nocella II & D. Shannon (Eds.), Contemporary anarchist studies: An introduction of anarchy in the academy, 125-35. New York: Routledge.
[16] Wood, G.H. (1982). The theoretical and political limitations of deschooling. Journal of Education 164(4), 360-77.
[17] Falbel, A. (1996). Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No, thanks. In M. Hern (Ed.), Deschooling our lives, 64-68. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
[18] Wheatley, K.F. (2009). Unschooling: An oasis for development and democracy. Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 22(2), 27-32.
[19] Watt, A.J. (1981). Illich and anarchism. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 13(2), 1-15.
[20] DeLeon, A. (2008). Oh no, not the “a” word!: Proposing an “anarchism” for education. Educational Studies, 44, 122-41.
[21] Illich, I. (1969). Celebration of awareness: A call for institutional revolution. New York: Doubleday.
[22] Kahn, R. (2009). “Anarchic epimetheanism: The pedagogy of Ivan Illich.” In R. Amster, A. DeLeon, L. Fernandez, A. Nocella II & D, Shannon (Eds.), Contemporary anarchist studies: An introduction of anarchy in the academy, 125-35. NY: Routledge.

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