A Constitution for Cultural Revolution

Ivan Illich


During the decade just past we have gotten used to seeing the world divided into two parts: the developed and the underdeveloped. People in the development business may prefer to speak of the developed nations and the less developed or developing nations. This terminology suggests that development is both good and inevitable. Others, especially protagonists of revolutionary change, speak of the ``Third World'' and wait for the day when the wretched of the earth will rise in armed revolt against the imperialist powers and shift control over existing institutions from North to South, from White to Black, from metropolis to colony.

A vulgar example of the first assumption is the Rockefeller Report on the Americas. Its doctrine is aptly summed up by President Nixon: ``This I pledge to you tonight: the nation that went to the moon in peace for all mankind is ready to share its technology in peace with its nearest neighbors.'' The governor, in turn, proposes that keeping the pledge might require a lot of additional weaponry in South America. The Pearson Report on partnership in development is a much more sophisticated example of the development mentality. It outlines policies which will permit a few more countries to join the charmed circle of the consumer nations but which will actually increase the poverty of the poor half in these same countries: because the strategies proposed will sell them ever more thoroughly on goods and services ever more expensive and out of their reach. The policy goals of most revolutionary movements and governments I know - and I do not know Mao's China - reflect another type of cynicism. Their leaders make futile promises that - once in power for a sufficient length of time - more of everything which the masses have learned to know and to envy as privileges of the rich will be produced and distributed. Both the purveyors of development and the preachers of revolution advocate more of the same. They define more education as more schooling, better health as more doctors, higher mobility as more high speed vehicles. The salesmen for United States industry, the experts for the World Bank, and ideologues of power for the poor seem to forget that heart surgery and college degrees remain beyond the reach of the majority for generations.

The goals of development are always and everywhere stated in terms of consumer value packages standardized around the North Atlantic - and therefore always and everywhere imply more privileges for a few. Political reorganization cannot change this fact; it can only rationalize it. Different ideologies create different minorities of privileged consumers, but heart surgery or a university education is always priced out of range for all but a few: be they the rich, the orthodox, or the most fascinating subjects for experiments by surgeons or pedagogues.

Underdevelopment is the result of a state of mind common to both socialist and capitalist countries. Present development goals are neither desirable nor reasonable. Unfortunately antiimperialism is no antidote. Although exploitation of poor countries is an undeniable reality, current nationalism is merely the affirmation of the right of colonial elites to repeat history and follow the road traveled by the rich toward the universal consumption of internationally marketed packages, a road which can ultimately lead only to universal pollution and universal frustration.

The central issue of our time remains the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. This hard fact is often obscured by another apparently contradictory fact. In the rich countries the poor expect a quantity and quality of commodities beyond the dreams of Louis XIV, while many of the so-called developing countries enjoy much higher economic growth rates than those of industrialized countries at a similar stage of their own histories. From icebox to toilet and from antibiotic to television, conveniences are found necessary in Harlem which Washington could not have imagined at Mount Vernon, just as Bolivar could not have foreseen the social polarization now inevitable in Caracas. But neither rising levels of minimum consumption in the rich countries nor of urban consumption in the poor countries can close the gap between rich and poor nations or between the rich and poor of any one nation. Modern poverty is a by-product of a world market catering to the ideologies of an industrial middle class. Modem poverty is built into an international community where demand is engineered through publicity to stimulate the production of standard commodities. In such a market, expectations are standardized and must always outrace marketable resources.

In the United States, for all its gargantuan prosperity, real poverty levels rise faster than the median income. In the capitalstarved countries, median incomes move rapidly away from rising averages. Most goods now produced for rich and poor alike in the United States are beyond the reach of all but a few in other areas. In both rich and poor nations consumption is polarized while expectation is equalized.

During the decade now beginning we must learn a new language, a language that speaks not of development and underdevelopment but of true and false ideas about man, his needs, and his potential. Development programs all over the world progressively lead to violence, either in the form of repression or of rebellion. This is neither due to the evil intentions of capitalists nor to the ideological rigidity of communists, but to the radical inability of men to tolerate the by-products of industrial and welfare institutions developed in the early industrial age. In the late sixties attention has suddenly been drawn to the inability of man to survive his industry. During the late sixties it has become evident that less than 10 per cent of the human race consumes more than 50 per cent of the world's resources, and produces 90 per cent of the physical pollution which threatens to extinguish the biosphere. But this is only one aspect of the paradox of present development. During the early seventies it will become equally clear that welfare institutions have an analogous regressive effect. The international institutionalization of social service, medicine, and education which is generally identified with development has equally overwhelming destructive byproducts.

We need an alternative program, an alternative both to development and to merely political revolution. Let me call this alternative program either institutional or cultural revolution, because its aim is the transformation of both public and personal reality. The political revolutionary wants to improve existing institutions - their productivity and the quality and distribution of their products. His vision of what is desirable and possible is based on consumption habits developed during the last hundred years. The cultural revolutionary believes that these habits have radically distorted our view of what human beings can have and want. He questions the reality that others take for granted, a reality that, in his view, is the artificial by-product of contemporary institutions, created and reinforced by them in pursuit of their short-term ends. The political revolutionary concentrates on schooling and tooling for the environment that the rich countries, socialist or capitalist, have engineered. The cultural revolutionary risks the future on the educability of man.

The cultural revolutionary must not only be distinguished from the political magician but also from both the neo-Luddite and the promoter of intermediary technology. The former behaves as if the noble savage could either be restored to the throne or the Third World transformed into a reservation for him. He opposes the internal combustion engine rather than opposing its packaging into a product designed for exclusive use by the man who owns it. Thus the Luddite blames the producer; the institutional revolutionary tries to reshape the design and distribution of the product. The Luddite blames the machine; the cultural revolutionary heightens awareness that it produces needless demands. The cultural revolutionary must also be distinguished from the promoter of intermediary technology who is frequently merely a superior tactician paving the road to totally manipulated consumption.

Let me illustrate what I mean by a cultural revolution within one major international institution, by taking as an example the institution which currently produces education. I mean, of course, obligatory schooling: full-time attendance of age-specific groups at a graded curriculum.

Latin America has decided to school itself into development. This decision results in the production of homemade inferiority. With every school that is built, another seed of institutional corruption is planted, and this is in the name of growth.

Schools affect individuals and characterize nations. Individuals merely get a bad deal; nations are irreversibly degraded when they build schools to help their citizens play at international competition. For the individual, school is always a gamble. The chances may be very slim, but everyone shoots for the same jackpot. Of course, as any professional gambler knows, it is the rich who win in the end and the poor who get hooked. And if the poor man manages to stay in the game for a while, he will feel the pain even more sharply when he does lose, as he almost inevitably must. Primary school dropouts in a Latin American city find it increasingly difficult to get industrial jobs.

But no matter how high the odds, everyone plays the game, for, after all, there is only one game in town. A scholarship may be a long shot, but it is a chance to become equal to the world's best-trained bureaucrats. And the student who fails can console himself with the knowledge that the cards were stacked against him from the outset.

More and more, men begin to believe that, in the schooling game, the loser gets only what he deserves. The belief in the ability of schools to label people correctly is already so strong that people accept their vocational and marital fate with a gambler's resignation. In cities, this faith in school-slotting is on the way to sprouting a more creditable meritocracy - a state of mind in which each citizen believes that he deserves the place assigned to him by school. A perfect meritocracy, in which there would be no excuses, is not yet upon us, and I believe it can be avoided. It must be avoided, since a perfect meritocracy would not only be hellish, it would be hell.

Educators appeal to the gambling instinct of the entire population when they raise money for schools. They advertise the jackpot without mentioning the odds. And those odds are high indeed for someone who is born brown, poor, or in the pampa. In Latin America, no country is prouder of its legally obligatory admission-free school system than Argentina. Yet only one Argentinian of five thousand born into the lower half of the population gets as far as the university.

What is only a wheel of fortune for an individual is a spinning wheel of irreversible underdevelopment for a nation. The high cost of schooling turns education into a scarce resource, as poor countries accept that a certain number of years in school makes an educated man. More money gets spent on fewer people. In poor countries, the school pyramid of the rich countries takes on the shape of an obelisk, or a rocket. School inevitably gives individuals who attend it and then drop out, as well as those who don't make it at all, a rationale for their own inferiority. But for poor nations, obligatory schooling is a monument to self-inflicted inferiority. To buy the schooling hoax is to purchase a ticket for the back seat in a bus headed nowhere.

Schooling encrusts the poorest nations at the bottom of the educational bucket. The school systems of Latin America are fossilized deposits of a dream begun a century ago. The school pyramid is a-building from top to bottom throughout Latin America. All countries spend more than 20~per cent of their national budget and nearly 5~per cent of their gross national product on its construction. Teachers constitute the largest profession and their children are frequently the largest group of students in the upper grades. Fundamental education is either redefined as the foundation for schooling, and therefore placed beyond the reach of the unschooled and the early dropout, or is defined as a remedy for the unschooled, which will only frustrate him into accepting inferiority. Even the poorest countries continue to spend disproportionate sums on graduate schools - gardens which ornament the penthouses of skyscrapers built in a slum.

Bolivia is well on the way to suicide by an overdose of schooling. This impoverished, landlocked country creates papier-mache bridges to prosperity by spending more than a third of its entire budget on public education and half as much again on private schools. A full half of this educational misspending is consumed by 1~per cent of the school-age population. In Bolivia, the university student's share of public funds is a thousand times greater than that of his fellow citizen of median income. Most Bolivian people live outside the city, yet only 2~per cent of the rural population makes itto the fifth grade. This discrimination was legally sanctioned in 1967 by declaring grade school obligatory for all - a law that made most people criminal by fiat and the rest immoral exploiters by decree. In 1970, the university entrance examinations were abolished with a flourish of egalitarian rhetoric. At first glance, it does seem a libertarian advance to legislate that all high school graduates have a right to enter the university - until you realize that less than 2 per cent of Bolivians finish high school.

Bolivia may be an extreme example of schooling in Latin America. But on an international scale, Bolivia is typical. Few African or Asian countries have attained the progress now taken for granted there.

Cuba is perhaps an example of the other extreme. Fidel Castro has tried to create a major cultural revolution. He has reshaped the academic pyramid, and promised that by 1980 the universities can be closed, since all of Cuba will be one big university with higher learning going on at work and leisure. Yet the Cuban pyramid is still a pyramid. There is no doubt that the redistribution of privilege, the redefinition of social goals, and the popular participation in the achievement of these goals have reached spectacular heights in Cuba since the revolution. For the moment, however, Cuba is showing only that, under exceptional political conditions, the base of the present school system can be expanded exceptionally. But there are built-in limits to the elasticity of present institutions, and Cuba is at the point of reaching them. The Cuban revolution will work - within these limits. Which means only that Dr.~Castro will have masterminded a faster road to a bourgeois meritocracy than those previously taken by capitalists or bolsheviks. Sometimes, when he is not promising schools for all, Fidel hints at a policy of deschooling for all, and the Isle of Pines seems to be a laboratory for redistribution of educational functions to other social institutions. But unless Cuban educators admit that work-education which is effective in a rural economy can be even more effective in an urban one, Cuba's institutional revolution will not begin. No cultural revolution can be built on the denial of reality.

As long as communist Cuba continues to promise obligatory high school completion by the end of this decade, it is, in this regard, institutionally no more promising than fascist Brazil, which has made a similar promise. In both Brazil and Cuba, enough girls have already been born to double the number of potential mothers in the 1980s. Per capita resources available for education can hardly be expected to double in either country, and even if they could, no progress would have been made at all. In development-mad Brazil and in humanist Cuba, waiting for Godot is equally futile. Without a radical change in their institutional goals, both ``revolutions'' must make fools of themselves. Unfortunately, both seem headed for manifest foolishness, albeit by different routes. The Cubans allow work, party, and community involvement to nibble away at the school year, and call this radical education, while the Brazilians let United States experts peddle teaching devices that only raise the per capita cost of classroom attendance.

The production of inferiority through schooling is more evident in poor countries and perhaps more painful in rich countries. The 10~per cent in the United States with the highest incomes can provide most of the education for their children through private institutions. Yet they also succeed in obtaining ten times more of the public resources devoted to education than the poorest 10 per cent of the population. In Soviet Russia a more puritanical belief in meritocracy makes the concentration of schooling privileges on the children of urban professionals even more painful.

In the shadow of each national school-pyramid, an international caste system is wedded to an international class structure. Countries are ranged like castes, whose educational dignity is determined by the average years of schooling of its citizens. Individual citizens of all countries achieve a symbolic mobility through a class system which makes each man accept the place he believes to have merited.

The political revolutionary strengthens the demand for schooling by futilely promising that under his administration more learning and increased earning will become available to all through more schooling. He contributes to the modernization of a world class structure and a modernization of poverty. It remains the task of the cultural revolutionary to overcome the delusions on which the support of school is based and to outline policies for the radical deschooling of society.

The basic reason for all this is that schooling comes in quanta. Less than so much is no good and the minimum quantum carries minimum price. It is obvious that with schools of equal quality a poor child can never catch up with a rich one, nor a poor country with a rich country. It is equally obvious that poor children and poor countries never have equal schools but always poorer ones, and thus fall ever further behind, so long as they depend on schools for their education.

Another illusion is that most learning is a result of teaching. Teaching may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. The strongly motivated student faced with the task of learning a new code may benefit greatly from the discipline we now associate mostly with the old-fashioned schoolmaster. But most people acquire most of their insight, knowledge, and skill outside of school - and in school only insofar as school in a few rich countries becomes their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives. The radical deschooling of society begins, therefore, with the unmasking by cultural revolutionaries of the myth of schooling. It continues with the struggle to liberate other men's minds from the false ideology of schooling - an ideology which makes domestication by schooling inevitable. In its final and positive stage it is the struggle for the right to educational freedom.

A cultural revolutionary must fight for legal protection from the imposition of any obligatory graded curriculum. The first article of a bill of rights for a modern and humanist society corresponds to the first amendment of the United States Constitution. The state shall make no law with respect to an establishment of education. There shall be no graded curriculum, obligatory for all. To make this disestablishment effective, we need a law forbidding discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum. This guarantee would not exclude specific tests of competence, but would remove the present absurd discrimination in favor of the person who learns a given skill with the largest expenditure of public funds. A third legal reform would guarantee the right of each citizen to an equal share of public educational resources, the right to verify his share of these resources, and the right to sue for them if they are denied. A generalized GI bill, or an edu-credit card in the hand of every citizen, would effectively implement this third guarantee.

Abolition of obligatory schooling, abolition of job discrimination in favor of persons who have acquired their learning at a higher cost, plus establishment of edu-credit, would permit the development of a free exchange for educational services. According to present political ideology, this exchange could be influenced by various devices: premiums paid to those who acquire certain needed skills, interest-bearing edu-credit to increase the privileges of those who use it later in life, advantages for industries that incorporate additional formal training into the work routine.

A fourth guarantee to protect the consumer against the monopoly of the educational market would be analogous to antitrust laws.

I have shown in the case of education that a cultural or institutional revolution depends upon the clarification of reality. Development as now conceived is just the contrary: management of the environment and the tooling of man to fit into it. Cultural revolution is a review of the reality of man and a redefinition of the world in terms which support this reality. Development is the attempt to create an environment and then educate at great cost to pay for it.

A bill of rights for modern man cannot produce cultural revolution. It is merely a manifesto. I have outlined the principles of an educational bill of rights. These principles can be generalized.

The disestablishment of schooling can be generalized to freedom from monopoly in the satisfaction of any basic need. Discrimination on the basis of prior schooling can be generalized to discrimination in any institution because of underconsumption or underprivilege in another. A guarantee of equal education resources is a guarantee against regressive taxation. An educational antitrust law is obviously merely a special case of antitrust laws in general, which in turn are statutory implementations of constitutional guarantees against monopoly.

The social and psychological destruction inherent in obligatory schooling is merely an illustration of the destruction implicit in all international institutions which now dictate the kinds of goods, services, and welfare available to satisfy basic human needs. Only a cultural and institutional revolution which reestablishes man's control over his environment can arrest the violence by which development of institutions is now imposed by a few for their own interest. Maybe Marx has said it better, criticizing Ricardo and his school: ``They want production to be limited to `useful things,' but they forget that the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.''

[from: Ivan Illich: Celebration of Awareness. London: Calder & Boyas, 1971.]