Questions from Webster University students Bob Galloway and Shannon Ostermueller
The questions concern the value of and the implementation of deschooling and the question of who gets to control edu-credits were that system to be used?

Replies from Bob Corbett

Students Bob Galloway and Shannon Ostermueller have raised two questions/objections to Illich that raise very serious puzzles. I want to address them to some extent and invite others to add responses as well

Bob Galloway raises a cluster of questions which relate to switching from credentialing (processing) to achievement (deschooling in other words) in Illich. He worries, among other things that:

Shannon Ostermueller raises a set of questions dealing with younger children and what sorts of control could it be expected would be given to them.

I will address the issues here, not the direct questions they ask.

To the first question set.

I will try to defend the notions that:

  1. Illich has erred to think the line between process and product is so clear, but that despite some areas of blurring, and of the psychological likelihood of a "leaking" between the two, there is serious substance to what would be the social implications of a deschooling process.
  2. That there is a fundamental difficult moral and social CHOICE to be made between valuing processing as opposed to substance.

My arguments are these:

A part of the confusion between process and substance is that people are generally very confused about this and ASSUME that processing implies substance. That is to say, they do in fact want substance, but they think that processing (credentialing) is either the best way to do this, or at least an adequate way to do this, or that it is a way which protects individuals from arbitrary treatment, among other sorts of assumptions.

Yet, even in our use of credentials were already act in ways that reflect some doubts about these assumptions. Not doubts at the conscious and reflective level, but we often display behavior that exhibits these doubts.

Let me take an academic example, but in order that I not get into sensitive matters concerning local institutions, let me use as my example England. England has hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions of higher education. They grant certificates and those certificates open doors to employment and so on, and this is because people ASSUME that if you are credentialed you are at least reasonably competent. However, if two people are applying for some position and one has credentials from Oxford or Cambridge, two of the world's most famous institutions of learning, and the other has credentials from South Cornwall Junior College (if there were such an institution, which I doubt), and even if SCJC were accredited and all, there is little doubt most people would assume different things about the two candidates BASED ON SOURCE OF CERTIFICATE ALONE. What does this say? There is some assumption (true or false we don't yet know) that someone getting a credential from Oxford is somehow better prepared than one from SCJC.

The point here is two-fold:

  1. There is an ASSUMPTION of quality (achievement) about the Oxford grad versus the SCJC grad which is taken to be important. (A hidden value of achievement is revealed)
  2. There is no objective ground of that quality. (The fallacy of credentials is re-affirmed.)

Now, my argument is that the issue is not quite as clear as the Illichian view suggests.

Over time we can have learned a good deal about the two schools, especially Oxford. It has a history of having produced a significant number of high achievers in many fields and many of them were indeed learned and demonstrated this in practice. It can be shown to have high standards of both admission and rewarding achievement WITHIN its credentialing system, and so on. Those things could well be shown to exist.

Thus it might well follow that there is a statistically better chance that of any two candidates, the Oxford grad would be better. Note, that does NOT tell us this of the two particular candidates in question. The irony of statistics is that while they tell us something of an aggregate number, the statistical odds for any given candidate are 50-50. Thus the logical mistake of assuming the Oxford candidate is to better prepared.

But is it a mistake? We face two options:

The similar issue could be made now between the Oxford grad and a person who had not graduated from anywhere: a self-educated person, or some one trained outside the credentialing system. Again, if no further details were to be used: choose the Oxford-certified person. But, if one wants true quality, dig deeper and don't assume the credential as decisive, as Illich would recommend.

There is another issue. Even in gathering data on QUALITY, processing data slips in. It is not always so easy to get away from. I wonder about these two candidates, so I call their professors and ask about their ability in physics. Both professors tell me actual achievement things about the person: This candidate, at our institution did these astonishing things in the lab…. and names them. That is not processing. That's real achievement we can evaluate. But here's the rub: Oxford professor is a famous scholar and author of important books on physics and a Noble prize winner and so forth, and the prof at SCJC is someone we've never heard of. Now we're back to stage one. Is Oxford prof a better judge because of processing reasons or substantive ones? Certainly the Oxford prof has ACHIEVED more in physics. But, is the prof a better judge of talent and achievement in a student? The prof's REPUTATION leaks in. It's not so clear.

And so it goes. The two set of criteria are not so obvious to separate in many cases, yet the credentialing/processing stuff often leaks in, being ASSUMED as evidence of substance when it may not.

All that having been said, I am defending Illich's claim that if we:

then, subtle confusions or not, we have a much better chance of finding and rewarding genuine substance than not. But, the distinction is just not as clean and clear as Illich suggests.

That brings us to Bob Galloway's second puzzle: why choose substance or achievement at all?

At first it might seem obvious. As I've tried to show above, even in rewarding credentialing we are mainly BELIEVING we are rewarding achievement, even if we're not. The belief may well be a mistake (and I still support Illich in believing that it OFTEN is), but it still reveals a bias toward achievement even in those making the mistake.

Yet there is more here too. A part of the attraction to credentials in our world is this: there has been a documented history of bias not related to achievement (and also not related to credentials). There have been biases in relation to women and people of color, just to take two obvious areas of bias. We can find numerous cases of where two people have the same level of credentials, yet white males are chosen often over females or persons of color. Thus, to protect people from these irrational biases, legislation and social pressure have come in to use more "objective" measures. Credentials are quite objective at one level -- that is, you have it or you don't. The value of Oxford's credential vs SCJC credential is not so obvious, but nonetheless, runs the argument, the protection of the individual against systematic biases of the society is more important than the ability of agencies to maximize their search for their favorite candidate, who, again, may or may not be the best qualified, but may just have the favored gender or race.

Thus there are social battles over:

This is all very complex. There is a case to be made for valuing the general advancement of social justice in a society more than the advancement of pure talent or ability in the society.

Part of the measure is over the objectivity of measuring devices. The argument runs that if society allows subjective measures too high a place, they will be abused and become tools of continuing unjust social systems of systematic bias. Thus, there is a desire to substitute so-called "objective" measures for less objective ones.

However, here is where Illich becomes a profound challenge to the current society. He dramatically denies that credentials are anything like the objective measures they are valued as. The reply to this seems quite weak, yet maybe true. It would be to say: yes, these credentialing measures are not very good, but they are better than any current alternative, thus the greater good of social justice over rewarding achievers demands we choose this flawed measure.

Here we come to something EXTREMELY fundamental and not addressed much by Illich. What is to be the highest social value: some notions of societal good, such as social justice for all, or the good of the individual, rooted in some raw notion of achievement? Again, the question is posed as a dramatic either/or.

Virtually everyone would say: we don't want such an either/or. Yet Illich would point out that our current "schooled" society does favor the societal goods over the individual goods in clear ways that even recently past societal values favored the individual good over the social justice goods.

Part of the debate is to what is the fundamental meaning of human existence and society. Part is a judgement as to what is in the long-term best interest of the society.

We are in a time, reflected by the schooling values, in which the place of the individual and individual achievement for the long-term good is regarded as a lesser value than the advancement of notions of social justice and the elimination of systematic biases. (Yet, ironically, in our capitalist economy the reverse of often true. The distribution of wealthy, power and privilege in society is much more rooted in the radical individualism of capitalism and the measure of achievement is, in fact, dollars.)

I am not here going to take a stand on these issues. However, I think it is fairly clear that Illich leans toward a view that says:

This is both the assertion of a fundamental value, and the support of a measure of long-term outcome which, of course, cannot be fully verified (not could its opposite). One must make choices at this level.

Which leads to Shannon's question.

Shannon recognizes that the logical implication of Illich's deschooling and especially the notion of edu-credits, is a great deal of choice for the individual. Yet, much education (formal and informal), even most, is expended on the young. Who will make these choices?

Clearly Illich rules out two replies:

This seems to leave two realistic possibilities:

Illich is rather silent on this.

I'm not going to delve too deeply into this since here, but hope to treat it in different essays. I'll just assert a position whose careful argument I hope will follow before too long.

We assume the young are "children." Note that I make a distinction between

What is this distinction? I think "child" is the assumption of a basic incapability of the young person to handle important life choices, make responsible decisions and control one's life with adequate responsibility.

To be a young human is simply a fact of age, and doesn't yet imply all these handicaps and incapacities.

With Illich and most observers and child psychologists, I will grant that the vast majority of contemporary children (at least in advanced societies) are in FACT children. I deny that they are children by NATURE. Rather, I argue (of rather, will be arguing soon) that they are children because the social institutions like schooling, are such that they are effectively reduced from being humans capable of responsibility to being "mere" children.

We'll have to see how strong that argument is.

However, just suppose with me for a moment that I can demonstrate this thesis. Then what? The thesis will not suppose that the young human, fresh from the womb, can fly airplanes. Rather, the thesis will be much more humble.


What time frame do I have in mind?

We were to have open social institutions which rewarded achievement, and children encouraged by parenting toward freedom and independence (more about that later), then I strongly suspect full responsibility IN FACT could be achieved by many young humans as early as 9 or 10.

Thus, in such a world, a third sort of right would have to be given to the young to have (or EARN) freedom over their own edu-credits by the ages of 9 on up, and, if the criterion were DESERT, then maybe never getting it if they did not demonstrate this capability in performance. There are many people today, from the legal age of 18 to 101 who are no more actually competent to run their lives than are most 8 year olds. I also suspect from performance observation that there are millions, perhaps billions, on earth who would most happily give up those freedoms to be "taken care of" in paternalistic ways, and in fact effectively do this. Think of the millions of so-called "citizens" in our country who take virtually no serious participation in the democratic process of running the country (and I'm not talking about the utterly trivial minimal act of voting, but of SERIOUS responsibility for their society).

Have I whetted you appetite and perhaps astonished and enraged some of you, I would ask that we hold the bulk of THIS discussion until I can get something up on the nature of the young human.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett