Ivan Illich – Deschooling Society

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Ivan rages against the machine. He rages so much that the book might as well be considered the pioneer of Rap Metal with how angry it is. Has intellectual writing ever been so energetic, so kinetic? The medium of text isn’t very good with emotions. It is, after all, just ink on paper. It can explain an idea, but the sensory experience of taste and touch, the emotions of anger and sadness can never be summed up with words. Deschooling Society is an expressive book.

The comparison to the political ‘rap’ metal band (Zack cannot rap for shit) doesn’t end with simply raging and machines. Rage Against the Machine made impressive noise that was fun as it lacked insight. Anyone reading the band’s lyrics will only hear some frustrated dude screaming about taking the power back and how we should settle for nothing. These are great lyrics for rock shows, but they mean nothing. Illich’s situation isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

His paragraphs are often a series of attacks without much explanation or defining terms. Without defining terms, you cannot have a sensible discussion. Every word is just a collection of syllables or symbols until you attach meaning to it. If you don’t explain what you mean by ‘learning’, what are you discussing? Illich operates in the realm of the abstract. He doesn’t talk about physical objects like rocks or guns or tables, which are easier to define.

Many concepts we use everyday aren’t defined well. Schools are a perfect example of how warped our concept of ‘learning’. I agree with Illich that schools don’t cause learning, but I never understood what Illich meant when he was talking about ‘learning’. When Postman attacked the education system, he had an idea of what ‘learning’ should be. In general, ‘learning’ for Postman is finding meaning in data. That’s why he provided some narratives that schools can adopt. For him, knowing a bunch of equations isn’t learning but just gathering data.

In fact, it seems Illich’s ideas about what learning is, are close to what schools say about learning. He claims schools must provide people resources for information, but is it enough? We’re currently living in the age of information. The internet doesn’t have all the info you need, but you can use it to track down enough.

Yet are we learning? Are we being flooded with intellectuals and philosophers making breakthroughs everyday thanks to all that information available? It’s not enough for information to just be available. You can’t publish a book that contains an essay about history, an essay about psychology and some sport statistics. Connecting pieces of data is the actual process of learning. It’s what separates active organism, which observe their environment and react to it from passive ones. The octopus realizes he can push the lid off or use a stick to beat a shell. The squid doesn’t.

Then again, Illich’s gripe isn’t so much with schools themselves as with institutions. Talk about being able to connect pieces of data. Illich has some interesting things to say about institutions, especially the idea that some create the demand for their product. What he says about our reliance about institutions is especially important.

We do rely on institutions a little too much. How many of you met friends through places that are not work or school? When I talk about how harmful schools are, I often hear about how school is important because it’s where you meet friends. Yet how deep can these connections be when the main common ground is an institution? What connects people are shared experiences, common ground and chemistry. Some of it institutions can create, but it says a lot about our society when we have a hard time meeting people outside workplaces or schools.

Some institutions are necessary. I wish he’d gone in-depth about why hospitals are so wrong. Medicine is a serious subject. There should be authority figures in it, because screwing up in medicine means causing often irreversible harm. Imagine if an uncertified doctor performed a surgery. We have institutions like hospitals to make sure only the experts perform difficult and dangerous activities. Yes, they are trustworthy. Imagine a doctor screwing up a surgery so bad that the patient dies. Can the secret be kept?

Illich admits not all institutions are the same. He offers a scale which includes on one side institutions that promote activity. These institutions provide services, but the client has a lot of options and can quit or stay any time. They’re toolboxes the client can run with. Authoritarian institutions punish and force clients to stay. They give them something to consume, but the client is more passive.

That’s an interesting thing to explore that Illich doesn’t. He’s too busy ranting. If institutions aren’t all the same, then you can’t create several groups and be done with it. The military and the schools are both fucked, but for different reasons. If Illich wanted to show that authoritarian institutions are problematic by nature, he needed to go more in-depth into why they fail. He needed to present many examples and show why despite the differences their effect is overall bad.

His ideas about ‘learning webs’ are important. He may not define what he means by ‘learning’, but his ideas how to do it are useful. He offers more social, more open ways of educating and teaching. The most important idea here is the web itself. Illich proposes a computer (nowadays it’d be an app) where people can insert their subject of interest and then connect with others who share the same passion. No, the internet hasn’t provided this yet. Reddit is too impersonal. Facebook groups are messy. Illich doesn’t talk about a message board but a private chat. His program would encourage people to meet to explore their subject further, not just discuss it on the internet.

He’s a bit too ahead of his time. If he were alive today to see how message boards rise and fail, I’m sure he’d either taken the initiative or write a more detailed essay about this. As it stands, the idea is buried here. Someone should run with it. I should nag my programmer friends and hopefully it’ll spawn copycats. It’s so simple, but so brilliant. Offering an easy platform for people with the same interests to talk to each other.

The last chapter is ridiculous and a little insulting. All that praising of a primitive men reeks of the Noble Savage cliche. The problem with praising or condemning the primitive is that we don’t know exactly how they lived. We imagine them as peaceful or in harmony with nature or living perfect lives, but that’s just the Fall of Adam story without the Jewish stuff. Besides, if the primitive life was so good why did the primitive ended it? Why did they build fires, invent writing and used tools? If life was so good for them, they wouldn’t starve for change.

As a critique of schools, Deschooling Society is disappointing. It shows a bit of the economical side and has a less spiritual approach than, say, Dumbing Us Down. Illich has some insight and good ideas. His critique of the general nature of institutions is needed when discussing schools. Although Neil Postman wrote a great book, he didn’t consider deschooling. Sadly, Illich is too excited over his ideas to explain them coherently, to slow down and define his terms. There are building blocks to take from here, but this isn’t going to revolutionize your philosophy of education.

3 institutions out of 5

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Clutch – Psychic Warfare

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Clutch are, what, 24 years old now?

That’s a very old age in Rock & Roll, especially when your music is about driving rock. Most bands burn out or get tired of rocking. They take the stage, get the girls and lose the frustration that makes for good loud music. Even the best turn artistic. Monster Magnet rediscovered Psychedelia and Local H flirted with Progressive Rock as soon as their started moving units.

Clutch never had that artistic bent. They were all about riffs and catchy hooks. You could lump them up other dumb Hard Rock like Drowning Pool and Nickelback. The only difference between them and Clutch is that Clutch had better hooks and and outsider’s perspective.

Clutch were outsiders, and still were. For all of their rocking and rolling, they had weird lyrics that were poetic as they made little sense. Neil isn’t a big rock star out for the sex and money. He’s a weirdo who likes turning up his weirdness loud.

That makes them an almost perfect band. Combine the hooks with the odd lyrics, and they sound more badass than anyone else. This also gave them a glass ceiling. They were so focused on just kicking rock songs that they will never make a masterpiece. If there was some hope in the past they might knock one out, it’s all gone on Psychic Warfare.

It’s a confusing album that will only make sense depending on what comes after. It’s either the sound of a band giving up and not even trying to make a “Mice and Gods”, or it’s the sound of a band being comfortable in their place and just having fun.

The first tracks rock hard and got the energy, but none of the hooks. They’re driven by sound with the melodies as an afterthought. “X-Ray Visions” isn’t sure what the melody for the hook is. If it wasn’t for Neil’s brilliant lyrics and charisma, the song would’ve been boring to death. “A Quick Death in Texas” is the only chorus that sticks, and would’ve been just another good song on Robot Hive/Exodus.

Clutch may be giving up, but every song is performed with enthusiasm. Clutch sound happy in their place. Neil sounds like he’s happy to spit big words like ‘dynamite’ and ‘telekenetic’ on “X-Ray Visions”. In another band’s hands, it would run out of steam in 30 seconds.

The second best song here is “Noble Savage”, and it’s where the band (again) declares how rock and roll is their life. It doesn’t have a melody, but the band sounds so energized that it’s convincing. Neil might be 43 years, but no one sounds better than him at capturing the appeal of rock and roll. It’s about having fun and letting out your weirdness. Other bands try to convince you they’re having fun by singing about how much sex they have. Neil has a wide-eyed approach that makes “Decapitation Blues” sound more fun than them. That one is about neck damage from headbanging.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Clutch are more interesting in performing live than writing songs. These songs are more about loudness and energy than melody. They’ve been rocking weird for 24 years. How much left do they have to say? Still, if they perform these songs with the energy it promises it means Clutch should keep going. If it’s a sign of things to come though, maybe they should stop. They’re still a melodic rock band, and a good live show is hard to make of bad songs nobody wanted to write.

3 noble savages out of 5