04/12/2012 05:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2012

Are We All Deschoolers Now?

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) has long been one of my favorite thinkers. His 1971 book, Deschooling Society, is a classic in the canon of "alternative" educational theory, and the source of one of my favorite quips on education:

"Equal educational opportunity is, indeed, both a desirable and a feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church."

This quote reflects Illich's main argument in Deschooling Society: When the process of education becomes dominated by formal institutions and their accompanying bureaucracy, it is inevitable that citizens will mistakenly (and to their great detriment) equate educational-seeming "treatments" (i.e., many years of school) with educational outcomes (i.e., genuine learning).

Illich advocated for the dismantling of educational institutions and, in their stead, the establishment of informal alternatives, like lending libraries for prohibitively expensive equipment and an educational match-making clearinghouse. His idea of the latter seems so anachronistic today: A service to whom learners of any age could send a snail-mail letter, detailing their current topics of interest, and be provided in return with the contact info for learners with similar interests, for the purposes of arranging a meet-up!

For at least the past decade, we have seen the rising influence of informal channels of education. Internet users have largely by now visited, or at least heard of, Wikipedia and the Khan Academy -- websites that provide a wealth of information for the person who wants to educate herself.

Illich would certainly be pleased with these online developments, but he didn't argue that everyone needs to become a total autodidact. Happily, more social and cooperative forms of informal education are also picking up speed. Skillshare helps to connect the people who want to teach things with the people who want to learn them, no postage required. And hackspaces (such as these in Manhattan and Brooklyn) don't merely provide tools, they also provide community.

But, all of this informal education is taking place right alongside the same old expensive, ineffective, innovation-resistant, and sometimes even inhumane educational practices that we've been stuck with for generations. Are we approaching the technological, social, or economic limits of informal education? Or is there reason to believe that various aspects of informal education will continue to suck the wind out of institutionalized schooling's sails?