Embedding education outside manipulative institutions: A reflection on Ivan Illich, schools, and public libraries
I have a love affair with libraries. Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, our library was, perhaps, more of an artifact than a lending institution, but I liked it anyway. Since it shared the property line with my school, our classes visited the library once a week and checked out books from Peggy Ward, the librarian with a British accent, which of course increased my artifact-impression of the place.
In eighth grade our long term substitute teacher must have misread the requirements of the class she was teaching, because she made us write 10 page papers on a local history topic–a challenge for high school students, I would think–and we had to use the holdings in a locked area of the library’s basement. That basement was everything you’d imagine a hundred year old New England library’s basement would be–dark, a bit damp, with a chained off area. By now my imagination has augmented the scene so much I picture an arched doorway and iron gate, but I suspect this image is a bit spurious.
Also in our town was a small college, and my friends and I often studied in its library, using their more substantial collection for our research papers and taking advantage of early versions of InfoTrac (that was where I learned to use microfilm). I felt particularly scholarly when occupying a study room or a private desk by a third floor window, and I was grateful that the college checked out books to locals like me.
I can’t say I checked out that many books from those libraries–my parents bought me a lot of books and I was awfully busy chasing balls around playing fields to need any more–but there and everywhere I have moved, I have benefited from the library. These were places where I retreated for quiet study and places where I conducted research. In Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the library was beautiful and gave me a place to go outside my one bedroom apartment. I’d hang out with the homeless guys, reading in the sunshine of a well lit reading room. In Wheaton, Illinois, the library owned a collection of paintings and prints you could check out, and my friends and I decorated our apartment from this collection. In Petersburg, Alaska, the library contained no room for sitting and hanging out, but the librarians had created a quality collection highlighting local topics, and there I discovered one of my favorite books of all time, Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau.
I could have easily forgone these library experiences and I am sure most of my fellow residents in each place never utilized the library. But that’s okay; to my mind these libraries were the jewels of each of these communities, both for the services they offered and for the manner in which they offered them.
Allow me to contrast my library experience with my experience of school–an experience colored particularly by my time as a teacher. Some of the great objections I have to school involve its insistent, inflexible, and institutional qualities. I realize I can argue myself into a hole with this line of reasoning–five minutes after deciding that compulsory schooling is a great evil of our culture, I’ll pull back to my starting point and reargue for the existence of mandatory school. But I must insist that even though I tend to argue myself into pretzels, the manner of mandatory education for which I’d argue would most definitely not resemble the system we possess now.
Too frequently in our system I recognize what Ivan Illich describes persuasively (and frighteningly) in his book, Deschooling Society. School, to Illich’s view, is a manipulative institution, of the type “which tend to be highly complex and costly” and “in which much of the elaboration and expense is concerned with convincing consumers that they cannot live without the product or the treatment offered by the institution” (55). If this does not describe school, what does? My school employs counselors, and while one of their duties is to watch over students’ emotional well being, their primary duty is to convince students to make good choices–staying in school and working hard in school being the first choices, always.Similarly, we teachers must be concerned most primarily with graduation rates and attendance, and we are instructed to build relationships with students so that students will want to stay in school. To assist us in this effort, we parade data before students to let them know how much more money a high school graduate makes than a drop out and how much more a college graduate makes than a high school graduate (the college grad’s income is currently projected as 65 percent higher than a high school grad). We as teachers are taught to share with our students before each lesson “learning targets” which show students in “student-speak” how what we are doing in class will benefit them (that is, why they “cannot live without the product”). And, by natural fall out, each teacher has become an expert in explaining and defending the relevance of their curriculum, which suggests we engage in apologetics almost as frequently as in instruction.
These are only the most obvious strategies for convincing students to stay in school. Less obvious are the entertainment incentives built into the schooling culture: sports, activities, facilities. Too frequently I hear colleagues declare that activities like sports are the only reason many students come to school. Should this not alarm us more than it does? Amanda Ripley’s recent article in The Atlantic examines how little it raises our ire. Instead, the argument is presented as a simple justification for maintaining the activities’ budget, a budget that grows at each level of school. Says Illich, “Expenditures to motivate the student to stay on in school skyrocket as he climbs the pyramid. On higher levels they are disguised as new football stadiums, chapels, or programs called International Education” (42). It makes me uncomfortable to consider my own undergraduate alma mater, which built a sports complex, science building, and student center in the ten years after I graduated.
Counter to the manipulative institution, Illich describes a “convivial” institution, which is marked by “spontaneous use” (54). People use these kinds of institutions “without having to be institutionally convinced that it is to their advantage to do so” (55). His examples include things we would not normally even consider institutions: sidewalks, telephone link-ups, sewage systems, drinking water, parks. His last example, parks, brought to my mind that great institution I began this article praising: the public library.
Where Illich would place the public library on his spectrum of institutions, I am unsure. Perhaps he would look at my own library’s advertising budget and website and declare it impurely convivial, but it is so far removed from the compulsory nature of the school that I cannot place it anywhere near the manipulative side. To my mind, the library is the archetypal alternative to a high cost education, (the high cost education being one whose value, aptly described by Illich, is usually “a function of the number of years he has completed and the costliness of the schools he has attended”). I find the archetype most simply and memorably expressed in Matt Damon’s film Good Will Hunting, when Will argues with a snobby Harvard student in a bar and rebukes him by insulting his overpriced schooling: “The sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that . . . you dropped 150 grand on a . . . education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”
Such a line, while hyperbolic and embedded in a movie to play upon popular perceptions of privileged classes, should haunt public educators. Schooling our society is costly, but creating access to knowledge is not. In my city of about 80,000 people, our library accounts for five percent of the city’s annual budget. For five percent of the general fund, community members acquire a place to meet and study, access to the internet, and books containing any information or cultural expression they desire (the collection currently holds around 153,000 volumes, but between inter-library loan and the library’s willingness to purchase books its patrons request, the collection is clearly unlimited). The very mission of the library reveals its desire not to compel community members, but to assist them in the pursuits they choose: “anticipate needs, build relationships and communities, and connect community to a global world.”
The school district, by comparison, requests that taxpayers fund a budget 74 times larger than the library’s. Its annual general fund alone requires 32 times the library’s entire budget. Surely such comparisons are unfair if we read from them that the school district is spending money unwisely and the library is a picture of fiscal restraint, but that is not what I imply. Nor do I imply that we should abolish schools and simply maintain a library. Instead, I would suggest that the cultural model of a library, a knowledge service, is by its nature a cheaper and more efficient educational endeavor than a school.
I’m a biased observer, to be sure. In fact, I am as biased an observer as one can be, particularly as the nature of my relationship with the library has changed from my early years. Of the 35 books I read last year (a number that includes seven audiobooks), 29 of them were books I borrowed from the library. My wife and I are conducting our children’s education at home, a pursuit that allows us to choose a topic–say, the Civil War–and then raid the library’s collection for everything they have. At any given time my wife is likely to have upwards of 70 books checked out. How many public school children can dive into a pile of 35 books on the Civil War when they study it in school? One of their favorites is a series called, You Wouldn’t Want to Be… The titles in the series cover the Civil War, World War II, Medieval Europe, and more. They’re not books we’d buy ourselves, but for a one time read amongst a number of other things to read on the same topic, they’re wonderful. On the institutional side, children in school are usually restricted to a textbook’s retelling of events, which amounts to little better than reading a dictionary. Is that the school-teacher’s fault? Absolutely not. Her school’s budget (if she were teaching in my neighborhood) is already 89% of the library’s budget–how can she possibly ask for more for the 23 students in her class? The school, existing in the system we have created, is responsible for much, much more than supplying learning tools to students, and that’s part of the inefficiency I suggest is present in the system and part of the complexity Illich describes.
The library possesses great potential for how we might reconsider education in our communities. Who is to say I could not conduct a class on writing, offered to the general public and conducted in a meeting room at the library? The class could target not students compelled to sit and listen to me regardless of their interests or motivation but instead anyone interested in writing better, be they young or old and their motivation for improvement professional or personal.
I do not for a second believe we as a community could banish our schools and simply lean on the library to provide education, but I do like to envision alternatives for education for our students, and I see no reason why the library couldn’t become the center around which such an education could rotate. Take a little pipe dream I developed out of a few of Illich’s other ideas (ideas I’ll refrain from summarizing here), where public high schools as we know them cease to exist and instead a dozen students are assigned to a secondary tutor. If I were that tutor, I could take students to the library and help them coordinate their own course of study, selecting books and reading materials chosen for each individual and meeting the goals of each student and their family. Institutionally, the library would fill the students’ and tutor’s needs even as it now exists, as it is prepared and flexible enough to meet the changing needs of its community. The school system, on the other hand, cannot stand for the plan I have just mentioned. Its curricular insistence and institutional inflexibility belie what Illich describes as a manipulative institution.
Juxtaposing the library and the school system is an exercise that strikes me as worthwhile, since both claim education as inherent elements of their primary mission, but each goes about pursuing that mission in wholly different manners. The beauty of the library, for me, has always been what it offered and the cost at which it offered it. It offers access to resources for the acquisition of knowledge, space in which reflection and discourse can take place, and it costs the community a relatively small amount. (It’s worth noting that this says nothing about how well the library serves the members of its community currently living in low socioeconomic conditions.)
Where do these reflections lead? In one sense, to no where in particular, as I know few folks who are interested in restructuring the entire school system. Yet it strikes me as worthwhile to envision a better way of learning and, where possible, to seize the opportunities available to improve the quality of our lives. Such is one more reason why my wife and I have grasped for our own children’s education home schooling, as we see that their education is better served by the convivial institution of the public library than the manipulative institution of the public school system.