Deschooling Religious Education, in Six Claims

1. Compulsory schooling came to the United States in the 18th century, during the Whig “common school movement,” built on the Prussian model that was founded after the advent of the Prussian research university. The first compulsory schooling laws were passed in the late 1850’s, in New Hampshire and New York. A lot of that movement was motivated by a defensive belief that parents could not be trusted to raise their children. This is where the legal concept of in loco parentis came from.

2. Compulsory schooling is what we today refer to when we use the term ‘schooling’. Today’s school is an institution — along with the prison, hospital, and other facilities meant to house and (re)form humans — unique to modernity, the era we live in. In part, these secular places tried to replace the positive role of the Church and the family. Suffice it to say that when most say ‘school’ today, they are not referring to a generic school, they are referring to a compulsory one.

3. Many, many people have resisted this idea, since its earliest manifestations, although very few do today. In the early 1970’s perhaps the clearest opposition to schooling was published by Ivan Illich, in a short book titled, Deschooling Society. Unlike many of his trendy unschooling devotees, Illich understood that “deschooling” was not a reform aimed at present day schools, and certainly not an alternative homeschooling anti-curriculum. More ambitiously, deschooling was aimed at society at large. For Illich, deschooling was a critique of the modern institutionalization and objectification of the human person and human communities, through the lens of the compulsory school, extending into every facet of modern life.


It stands to reason, then, that (1) compulsory schooling is a historically recent and modern invention, (2) the ordinary language of “schooling” today refers to the modern institution and its counterparts, not some generic family resemblance of that term, and (3) Illich’s idea of deschooling is a social critique, first and foremost, not a proposal for shutting down primary schools or starting an anarcho-libertarian homeschooler’s fad.


4. The Catholic notion of education is classical. It builds on Plato’s noetic and holistic ideas in the Republic. It is inspired (Spirit-filled) and ensouled. It an ontological idea we find in Augustine that puts knowing under the authority of becoming and becoming under the primacy of love. The Ordo Amoris, the Order of Love: it leads toward God and, therefore, toward mystery. This is mystagogy. Unlike pedagogy, mystagogy is not reducible to head or intellect. It cannot be conveyed through a cognitive or behavioral psychology. This is why a truly Catholic education does not require a school and a truly Catholic school cannot submit itself to the norms of the modern compulsory school.

5. The modern logic of schooling is all about pedagogy, built on a notion of learning that operates from the head down. It was build to produce docile learners. This is where the language of “learning outcomes,” “mastery goals,” and other pedagogical jargon comes from. (This is the engine presently driving Common Core and all it’s predecessors.) All of these mechanisms were tailored to fit and justify the compulsory school. The theory of knowledge and mind that supports these ideas follow a model that sees the process of knowing as purely cognitive and behavioral and good for an industrial economy. This modern logic of schooling is, on a Catholic analysis, false.

6. You can find thriving Catholic communities, past and present, where there are no classes or classrooms. No schools. Usually, you will find this among the very poor. I’ve seen them in Mexico and visited others in Latin America. In these communities, the church itself (which may be quite bare and even ugly to look at) is the only common classroom, the liturgy, prayers, homily, music, community life and tradition and story — and the domestic churches in the homes of the faithful — are the catechesis. Families are not perfect, but they work at it. Literacy is not required. Only dwelling and being — living together in faith. It would be false to say that these communities lack “religious education.” It may even be true that these communities have a much deeper religious education than many schools, secular or Catholic, have. As Pope Francis teaches us, we have much to learn from the poor.


There is fundamental gap between the secular idea of pedagogy, delivered through modern schooling, and the Catholic idea of mystagogy, delivered through a religious education that can exist where two or more are gathered. In a church, in a van, in a bar — even in a school!

There is no place where grace can be excluded. There is no despair; there is no presumption.

Deschooling religious education, then, is a fundamental reordering of education according to its essential religious principles, which opposes both the modern institution of schooling and its logic of pedagogy. In the former case, schools can certainly work but other forms of gathering are viable, too, the modern school has no monopoly over education. In the latter case, we must replace pedagogy with mystagogy if we are to educate religiously, and the poor can show us how to do this better than Matthew Kelly or I can.


For more on mystagogy, read Dr. Leroy Huizenga’s fine essay on the matter at The Catholic World Report or go to Mass. Read this post in French, here!

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