Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Imaginaries and Deschooling

  • Jon Igelmo Zaldívar
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_384



From a perspective gained over the 50 years since they were first formulated in the 1960s and 1970s, deschooling theories may be studied as a direct rejection of underlying paradoxes in the modern social imaginary. The initiators of this pedagogic school of thought focused their attention on the discourse generated by modern education centers and the impact it had on broad sectors of the general public. The central thesis that united the different advocates who developed their ideas under the deschooling umbrella was that both education and the teaching-learning processes were threatened in a world where States structured their education systems on the monopoly held by schools.

Theoreticians of deschooling saw education as a way to ensure social order by means of the mutual benefit of its participants. This led them to denounce the monopoly that traditional education institutions held on education and learning. In their most well-known texts, they decried schools as places that generated social problems rather than being places where they were solved. This criticism of schools and universities – institutions that were the torchbearers of modern society’s highest aspirations – caused unprecedented commotion in academia in the 1960s and 1970s. The impact was similarly notable on many of the social movements that at the time considered educational institutions as places for solving the main challenges faced by society.

It is worthwhile to note how the ideas developed in the 1960s and 1970s by writers such as Ivan Illich (1926–2002), John Holt (1923–1985), Paul Goodman (1911–1972), and Everett Reimer (1910–1998) continue on in theories of education in the twenty-first century. The works by this generation of authors act as theoretical underpinnings for new pedagogical approaches in the twenty-first century that show the possibilities of creating organized spaces for teaching and learning beyond the school. Such approaches are now reconsidering deschooling theories in the context of the online society in the wake of the Internet revolution, the modern liquidity, the crisis of capitalism in 2008, the ecological crisis, and the disrepute of representative liberal democracies. It is therefore of great interest to analyze not only the main lines of criticism that Illich, Holt, Goodman, and Reimer expounded in their works but also the genesis of the discourse structured by this generation of authors as well as the way they made use of linguistic conventions that were laid out 50 years ago.

Cuernavaca (Mexico): A Landmark for Deschooling

Even a cursory look at theories of deschooling must take into account the undertakings in Cuernavaca, Mexico, specifically at the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) between 1963 and 1976 (Cayley 1992, pp. 202–204). Founded by Ivan Illich, this center acted as a meeting place for important intellectuals interested in opening up lines of economic, cultural, political, and social criticism that were both necessary and possible in the second half of the twentieth century.

Illich’s leadership was key to the way in which CIDOC evolved as a space for thought. Founded in the shadow of the training programs for missionaries of the Catholic Church, by 1970 the center had become an international gathering point where avant-garde intellectuals and politicians came to study, do research, and converse. Critical study of modern-day institutions was the starting point in the analyses and reflections emanating from Cuernavaca. Broad sectors of the antiestablishment social movements in Latin America took part in its activities. The center reached out to intellectuals from the newly emerging counter-hegemony and counterculture sectors that were turning the region into one of the most outstanding political testing grounds in the world. There, they came up with genuine alternatives to institutional development and progress. CIDOC was home to exploration of and debate about radical options to such an extent that a reversal in the predominant societal trends of the time was deemed to be unavoidable and imminent.

In the summer of 1967, Reimer and Illich began their systematic and radical analysis of the school system. One year later, in 1968, Reimer started an 8-week seminar that he taught at CIDOC called Alternatives in Education. From July 15 to September 1, 1968, both men established a set of periodic meetings. Holt participated in Reimer’s Alternatives in Education seminar at Cuernavaca as well. Along with Holt, many other educational philosophers in American critical pedagogy, such as Martin Carnoy, Joel Spring, Edgar Friedenberg, John Ohlinger, Jonathan Kozol, George Dennison, and Jerome Bruner, took part in the seminar and publications that were organized in Cuernavaca. Together, these critics formed a generation of pedagogues that held the work of Paul Goodman as their intellectual model. Goodman himself also became a frequent collaborator in activities at CIDOC.

The lines of discussion raised at the Alternatives in Education seminar often led to the publication of different texts that clearly reflected the critical approach being taken in Cuernavaca. In 1968 in CIDOC Cuaderno 45, two of Reimer’s texts were published in Spanish: La educación descarriada I and La educación descarriada II (“Education Gone Astray I” and “Education Gone Astray II”). In September 1970, the CIDOC Notebooks collection published the book The Dawn of Epimethean Man and Other Essays by Ivan Illich. In 1971 and 1972, CIDOC published four more issues featuring texts that had been discussed in the seminar as well as ones written from lectures after 1968. The title of this collection was Alternatives in Education, which was released in four issues (numbers 74, 75, 76, and 77) in the CIDOC Notebooks collection. This same collection also published four of Holt’s papers: “A Letter Advocating School Resistance,” “Summerhill and Beyond,” “A Commentary About the Magnitude of the American Educational Establishment, 1960–1970,” and “Reformulations: A Letter Written after Two Weeks in Cuernavaca.”

Criticism of Schools and Alternatives to Schooling

It is important to situate the starting point of criticism against prevailing educational institutions as proposed by the theoreticians of deschooling. For participants in the Alternatives in Education seminar in Cuernavaca, for example, egalitarian schooling of the population en masse was economically unfeasible. All over the world, it was evident that the funds spent on schooling were never quite enough to meet the expectations of parents, teachers, and students. In the 1970s the USA was regarded as proof that no country was wealthy enough to afford a school system capable of satisfying the demands that the system itself created. Thus, it was argued that radical change was needed in the discourse on education to acknowledge that the whole endeavor of schooling was economically absurd.

In addition to the economic strand in the theoretical approaches of authors such as Illich, Reimer, Holt, and Goodman, there were psychological and social elements as well. These authors found schooling to be socially paralyzing and intellectually disempowering. They believed that one of the main problems created by the ever-growing schooling of society was the inability school-educated people displayed in being able to imagine a world without school. This could be seen in how completely unable those who attempted school reforms (politicians, educators, academics) were to value any learning process achieved outside the traditional confines of school. With their values institutionalized by planned and technically constructed processes, members of modern-day society were socialized to believe that the “good life” consisted in having institutions for the purpose of defining whatever values they and their society believed were necessary. Indeed, the ethos of institutional insatiability was the defining feature of modern-day societies.

Furthermore, deschooling theorists held that education possessed a subversive potential that was mitigated by schooling. They argued that any society that hoped to make each individual’s human experience and consciousness-raising the center of its development should find in “education” a way to overcome the “training” that took place in the classroom. A desirable goal was a society where everyone had equal opportunity to become educated. However, for them the problem was that schools had already taken over most of the funding available for education. Illich pointed out that the first article in a Declaration of Human Rights appropriate for a humanistic society should be based on the State not decreeing any law establishing compulsory education, on the grounds that no ritual could possibly be obligatory for all.

The conception of learning underlying the deschooling approach starts from rather romantic notions. These theorists considered the widespread belief that most knowledge resulted from teaching to be a fallacy that encompassed school systems. In contrast, deschooling theorists argued that people acquired most of their knowledge outside the classroom. Learning came about casually and was the human undertaking that least needed any third-party involvement at all. They noted that even the most intellectual learning was not the result of programmed instruction.

As an alternative to schooling, a number of different ways were conceived of for regaining control of the means of education. In that regard, Illich’s book Deschooling Society (1971) and Reimer’s School is Dead (1971) developed road maps to speed up the deschooling process. In his book Freedom and Beyond (1972), Holt, too, posited theoretical bases for a possible alternative to the spread of school systems. What united these authors was that each developed an alternative that upset the traditional pedagogy then being deployed in school systems. According to conventional schooling logic, resources in education were administered on the basis of the curricular goals of the teachers. What proponents of deschooling advocated was to do the opposite, that is, to develop approaches to learning that let the students gain access to any educational resource that could help them define and achieve their own goals.

The Context of Deschooling: Between Progressive Education and the Counterculture

One of the hallmark models for deschooling is progressive education. However, unlike the pedagogical proposals of representative authors from the progressive movement, advocates of deschooling discarded from the start any possibility of merely reforming the existing institutions. Consequently, by analyzing the linguistic conventions used by deschooling and that in turn emanate from the contemporary social imaginary, we find a clear continuity with progressive pedagogy in matters of active learning and the internationalization of pedagogic renewal. The schism with the framework of formal educational institutions, however, goes back to similar arguments from political protest movements against the economic, political, and cultural system of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in the West.

In their main works, theorists of deschooling emphasized experiential learning or “learning by doing,” critical thinking, development of social skills, democracy, looking to the future for ideas about how to structure present-day education, and using the interest of the child as a mainstay in the teaching-learning process. All those aspects bear witness to the continuity with progressive education developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More precisely, it can be said that the main influence was the ideas of John Dewey and, in particular, his conceptualization of the subject who learns from a pragmatic perspective. The main difference deschooling theorists make with progressive education has to do with the possibility of transforming educational institutions. Thus, whereas Dewey saw the feasibility of school reform and the constitution of schools as a form of community life, authors such as Illich, Reimer, and Holt insisted on school institutions’ intrinsic inability to be reformed. To them, the only possible option was the immediate elimination of school systems altogether.

This idea of a radical split and elimination of the institutions that acted as barriers to progress and development must be studied as a plausible response in the context of late twentieth-century thought. This was a time when a sense of decline took hold in Western society in the aftermath of the Second World War. This feeling of crisis bears close relation with political, cultural, and economic questions of the age. In politics, it was a time of deteriorating relations between the Cold War powers. International politics then became further reduced to two opposing fronts, and nearly every country in the world found itself on one side of the battlefield or the other. It was a time in which there was little room for nuances in an official field of tremendously polarized ideologies.

From the economic point of view, industrial production underwent a slowdown in growth. Symptomatic of this trend is the fact that in the late 1960s, the prestigious Club of Rome questioned the bases of the development model of international markets that had witnessed soaring production and yields. In fact, the Club of Rome was foreshadowing the energy crisis that would grip the world in the early 1970s (Meadows et al., 1972). The Yom Kippur War in October 1973 was a clear example of how dependent the world economy had become on fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

On a cultural level, in the very heart of the West, different movements were afoot that would shape the counterculture movement. The underpinnings of this trend lay in their criticism of the patrons who had governed the artistic world and its officialdom for most of the twentieth century. Cultural liberation, breaking away from the official framework, and seeking out new ways of experiencing art, the body, technology, and nature are all an expression of a feeling of distance with respect to the structures and institutions of the past and with the predominant notion of authority at the time.

This is therefore the philosophical setting that made it possible to theorize a radical line of criticism of educational institutions. The writings of authors such as Illich, Reimer, Goodman, and Holt must be read as a response to this context of political, economic, and cultural relations. Here is where their radicalism finds its fundamentals and breaks away from the institutions of the past.

Deschooling Theories in the Twentieth Century

Research conducted in recent years has shown that, even though the basis of criticism against educational institutions was the common denominator shared by the different authors of deschooling, there were in fact a number of important nuances in how they focused their criticism and what objectives they hoped to achieve. Many of those nuances surfaced in works published by these same authors in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, Illich’s criticism of how modern notions of education perverted learning – a line of argument he especially developed in the texts he published after Deschooling Society (1971) – is not the same as the need Reimer found in his only book, School is Dead, (1971) for freeing education from the monopoly of schools and other educational institutions. Similarly, questioning of the role of the school as pedagogical structures was not the same as the advocacy of unschooling or homeschooling as featured in John Holt’s works from the 1980s, and nor was it the same as the countercultural criticism presented by Paul Goodman in the books he wrote to analyze the question of education and its institutions from a libertarian perspective.

Bearing in mind the above in terms of the divergences in thought among this generation of writers, we still find at least one aspect they had in common: they all discerned the need to explore the disregard for modern-day Western institutional school systems in the late twentieth century. From this perspective, schools, studied as institutions in charge of supplying education, were a key piece in the web of institutions that formed a macrostructure claiming to guarantee the provision of services that covered the needs of individuals in society. Thus, in their convergent criticism of schools, Illich, Reimer, Holt, and Goodman were among those who believed it was possible to combat against the psychological paralysis, social disempowering, cultural uprooting, and economic inequality with which the modern world was threatening large segments of the population. In the end, what advocates of deschooling called into question was the educational discourse that had located schooling as the main institution responsible for educating the population at large for their own good ever since the end of WWII.


It may be broadly concluded that by the 1960s and 1970s, the big, absolute truths, like the big, absolute institutions (and the latter above all because they legitimize the former), had begun to become questionable. As a result, the idea of public institutions as a means of mass emancipation began to decline. There was, therefore, an opportunity to articulate a theory of suspicion on the three fundamental aspects of modern educational discourse: its structure as a meta-story, its link to social progress, and the fostering of individual emancipation. In consequence, schools, and the education provided in them, could now be challenged with a certain amount of support from significant fractions of society.


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  2. Holt, J. (1972). Freedom and beyond. New York: E. P. Dutton.Google Scholar
  3. Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  4. Meadows, D. H., et al. (1972). The limits to growth. New York: New American Library.Google Scholar
  5. Reimer, E. (1971). School is dead. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Psychology and EducationUniversidad de DeustoBilbaoSpain