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Ivan Illich

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Ivan Illich (1926-2002)


Illich was born in Vienna to a Croatian father and Jewish mother and had Italian, French and German as native languages. Illich was a student at the Piaristengymnasium in Vienna from 1936 to1941, but was expelled by the occupying Nazis in 1941 because his mother had Jewish ancestry (his father was a Roman Catholic). He learned Serbo-Croatian, the language of his grandfathers, then Ancient Greek and Latin, in addition to Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, and other languages. He went on to study histology and crystallography at the University of Florence. At this point he decided to enter and prepare for the priesthood. and went to study theology and philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in the Vatican (from 1942 to 1946) and medieval history in Salzburg  In 1951 he completed his PhD at the University of Salzburg (an exploration of the nature of historical knowledge). He wrote a dissertation focusing on the historian Toynbee and would return to that subject in his later years. . One of the intellectual interests of this period was a developing understanding of the institutionalization of the church in the 13th century - and this helped to form and inform his later critique.


In 1951, he was assigned as an assistant parish priest in New York Cityafter which he was appointed in 1956, at the age of 30, as the vice rector of the Catholic University of Ponce in Puerto Rico. It was in Puerto Rico that Illich met Everett Reimer and the two began to analyze their own functions as "educational" leaders. He spent only four years there, being forced out of the university in 1960 because of his opposition to the then Bishop of Ponce's forbidding of Catholics to vote for Governor Luis Munoz Marin (because of his advocacy of state-sponsored birth control).  While still committed to the Church, Ivan Illich was deeply opposed to Pope John XXIII's 1960 call for north American missionaries to 'modernize' the Latin American Church. He wanted missionaries to question their activities, learn Spanish, to recognize and appreciate the limitations of their own (cultural) experiences, and 'develop assumptions that would allow them to assume their duties as self-proclaimed adult educators with humility and respect' In 1959, he traveled throughout South America on foot and by bus. Then, in 1961, he founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC), (or Intercultural Documentation Center) at Cuernavaca in Mexico, ostensibly a research center offering language courses to missionaries from North America and volunteers of the Alliance for Progress program initiated by John F. Kennedy.

But he still wished to counteract the involvement of the Vatican in the "modern development" of the "Third World." He was appalled by both the liberal and conservative rhetoric that accompanied the emerging tide of global industrial development and viewed its the Church Missionaries as proponents of industrial hegemony and cultural imperialism - an ongoing neo-Colonialism - and, as such, an act of "war on subsistence." He tried to teach missionaries dispatched by the Church to identify themselves instead as guests of the host country. In this sense, he was a major figure in the imerging Liberation Theology movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His intent was clear: 

"Upon the opening of our centre I stated two of the purposes of our undertaking. The first was to help diminish the damage threatened by the papal order. Through our educational programme for missionaries we intended to challenge them to face reality and themselves, and either refuse their assignments or - if they accepted - to be a little bit less unprepared. Secondly, we wanted to gather sufficient influence among the decision-making bodies of mission sponsoring agencies to dissuade them from implementing." (Celebration of Awareness 1973)

After ten years Illich was called to Rome for questioning about his oppositional work, due in part to a report from the CIA. He resigned his priesthood in 1969 to avoid the conflict between his work his superiors, and having previously resisted the Vatican's insistence that he close the CIDOC or resign from it. His theorising of the de-institutionalisation of society was by now becoming very clear and focused. He wrote a book chronicling the negative effects of schools - Deschooling Society (1971) and anothers: Celebration of Awareness (1973) and Energy and Equity (1974), a critique of energy production and consumption. These were followed in 1976 with Medical Nemesis - a critical study of the medical profession and the medicalisation of culture. In Tools for Conviviality (1975), he extended his concerns about the medical profession to critically analyse the issue of professionalism in toto, providing a more general exploration of his concerns and suggesting some possible standards by which to judge 'development'.  In this latter work, he echoed the concerns of Freire about the role of the expert in indigenous and rural communities. His solutions were also similar to Freire's (an emphasis on mutuality, human-scale technology etc.). His thinking (in 1971) was far-reaching, anticipating or present dilemmas with claritiy and precision. His words resonate down the years, anticipating the current environmental crisis by a good 40 years: 

"I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which woill enable us to be spontaneous, independent yet rel;ated to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle  which only allows to make and unmake, produce and consume - a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletiona and pollution of the environment. The future depends more on our choice of institutions which support a life of action rather than in developing new ideologies and technologies." (Deschooling Society 1971)

 His opening statement was extraordinarily clear and its intent unmistakable:

"Many students, especially those who are poor, know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is therefore "schooled" to confuse teaching from learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imaginationnis "schooled" to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for natiuonal security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocatinjg more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question." (Deschooling Society)

Yet his critical theories extended beyond a mere analysis of the present education system. He saw attempts to reform State education as pointless:

"Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries."

Like Freire, he also proposed informal learning networks as a means of liberation and emancipation. As his understanding developed, he began to realise that the institutions themselves were the problem, and his analysis then extended to other institutionalised systems - particularly Medicine (Medical Nemesis) and Institutions in general (Disabling Professions). He realised that the Institutionalisation of learning led inexorably to the institutionalisation of everyday life - to what Fromm would call Alienation - the excision of conviviality from everyday life. For Illich, the institutionalisation of education creates the conditions for the institutionalisation of society, and conversely that the de-institutionalisation of everyday life requires the deinstitutionalisation of education. 

Deschooling Society is much more than just a critique. It proposes alternatives, and its remarkable prescience even anticipates the development of the technologies that will render them possible:

"The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity."

That he did not really live long enough to witness the extraordinary explosion of networking capabilities unblocked by the Internet that now exist is ironic, though no doubt he was astute enough to realise this potential. 

By the mid 1970s, he (and the Centre) had achieved widespread popularity, largely through the publication of Deschooling Society (1971) and his other books. He was particularly popular in France where André Gorz had published his Tools for Conviviality in Les Tempd Modernes, along with several other of his writings. He travelled widely as his popularity grew, and also befriended Erich Fromm , who wrote the "Introduction" to Celebration of Awareness (1973). (Fromm also lived in Cuernavaca for a while). He reamained popular in France throughout the 1970s. However, his influence declined after the 1981 election of François Mitterrand as he was considered too pessimistic at a time when the French Left took control of the government.

But he was nothing if not reflexive and internally consistent. In 1976, concerned by the success (and subsequent creeping institutionalisation) of the CIDOC he shut the Centre down with consent of its other members. In 1977 he published Disabling Professions with  several co-authors - extending the theories of Medical nemesis to the system of professionalism as a whole

In the 1980s and beyond, Ivan Illich continued to travel extensively, mainly splitting his time between the United States, Mexico, and Germany. He held an appointment as a Visiting Professor of Philosophy, Science, Technology and Society at Penn State. He also taught at the University of Bremen. But his popularity waned. The Right accused him (incorrectly) of covert Marxist leanings, while the Left found his criticisms of the Welfare State and State Education to be elitist. After his death, the Guardian Weekly made the point well:

"Best known for his polemical writings against western institutions from the 1970s, which were easily caricatured by the right and were, equally, disdained by the left for their attacks on the welfare state, in the last 20 years of his life he became an officially forgotten, troublesome figure (like Noam Chomsky today in mainstream America).

But he was steadfast in his critical reasoning, and was not about to surrender to those whom he saw as the problem. As  his friend Peter Berger noted:

"It is easy to see why Illich’s ideas resonated well in the cultural climate of the time. But he disappointed, one by one, most of the groups who first believed him to be one of them. Catholics were irritated when he criticized missionaries in Latin America as cultural imperialists. The counterculture discovered that he found repugnant many if not most of their proclivities, from drugs to promiscuous sex. He upset the left when, after a visit to Cuba, he described the Castro regime as an odious tyranny. And feminists were deeply offended when he argued, some years after “Shadow-Work,” that women had been better off in traditional societies in which they devoted themselves to the life of the family. Illich was a genie who could not be kept in any bottle. Like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, he was a “spirit who ever negates.”(Remembering Ivan Illich

During his later years, he suffered from a cancerous growth on his face that, in accordance with his critique of professionalized medicine, was treated with traditional methods. He regularly smoked opium to deal with the pain caused by this tumor. At an early stage, he consulted a doctor about having the tumor removed, but was told that there was too great a chance of losing his ability to speak, and so he lived with the tumor as best he could. He called it "my mortality". (Wikipedia). He died suddenly in Bremen in December 2002. 

Illich has left an indelible stamp upon our understanding of Institutionalisation, Alienation and the need for community praxis. As Peter Berger saw it:

"There are, I think, two threads that run through Illich’s opus from the beginning. There is a radical critique of all aspects of modernity, grounded in a profoundly conservative view of the human condition. And there is a deep respect for what Illich called the “vernacular”-the wisdom of ordinary people and their ways of coping with life".

These dual concerns led him to steadfastly unpack and reveal the contradictions in some of the most popular beliefs, ideologies and mythologies of our times.  After his initial surge of post-1968 popularity waned, and the conservative ideoalogues of both Left and Right turned their backs on him, he continued to write prolifically and couurageously - trying to bring home the message that we are in deep planetary trouble and that only we - not our institutions - can save us. As his friend Fromm wrote in the "Introduction" to Celebration of Awareness:

"(He) a man of rare courage, great aliveness, extraordinary erudition and brilliance, and fertile imaginativeness, whose whole thinking is based on his concern for man's unfolding - physically, spiritually and intellectually. The importance of his thoughts... lies in the fact that they have a liberating effect on the mind by showing new possibilities; they make the reader more alive because they open the door that leads out of the prison of routinized, sterile, preconceived notions."

 As the Guardian Weekly noted in his Obituary, 

"This position (of faded popularity after 1980) obscures the true importance of his contribution. His critique of modernity was founded on a deep understanding of the birth of institutions in the 13th century, a critical period in church history which enlightened all of his work, whether about gender, reading or materiality. He was far more significant as an archaeologist of ideas, someone who helped us to see the present in a truer and richer perspective, than as an ideologue." (Guardian Weekly Obituary)

I only met him once, when he came to deliver a seminar to the Faculty at the School of Architecture at Berkeley in (I think) 1972. My colleagues and I numbered about fifteen, and were seated around a large conference table while Illich stood at the blackboard, talking and drawing diagrams to illustrate his words. We all listened respectfully, but after about fifteen minutes I began to realise that I didn't understand the highly abstract monologue that he was delivering. So I raised my hand and said:

"Dr Illich", I said, "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I have the feeling that you are not really here! Where are you?"

An eternity of silence and  disapproval filled the room as my colleagues glared at me. Ivan Illich looked at me quizzically, broke into a smile and responded:

"You're quite right! I'm not here at all! I'm preparing a lecture to present at the University of San Francisco tomorrow." He put down the chalk, sat at the table and asked, "What shall we discuss?".

The seminar turned out the be an extraordinary exchange of ideas.

For a truly excellent synopsis of Illich's life and work together with access to the eTexts of Deschooling Society, Energy and Equity, Tools for Conviviality and other writings click here.

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