Ivan Illich questions how our schooling mixes process and substance

by Mr. Sheehy

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. 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. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

It strikes me that many of our school purpose statements (and more prominently for listeners of NPR, the tagline for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), which often trot out how we are trying to help students live “productive lives” belie how right Ivan Illich is in the opening paragraph of his book, Deschooling Society. Productive for productivity’s sake? What are we producing? What is the point in being “productive”? Have we become so fascinated with the idea that it’s not the journey but the destination that we’ve transferred the idea to say it’s not the product but the productivity? It’s not how good the paper is, but how hard we’ve worked on it? It’s not how good the teacher is, but how much professional development she’s undergone?