Deschooling our World

A quick google search will learn you that Ivan Illich is back. Illich was a severe critic of the institutionalization of society. His work reached cult status in the seventies of the twentieth century. From the later eighties on, when the richer part of the world was enjoying the benefits of what we now call the financial bubble, it was as easily forgotten, as well as dismissed as outdated, leftish utopism. Now that we apparently haven’t arrived at the end of history, and the struggles for a better life for a larger part of humanity are returning to their former intensity, he is back. Conferences are being held which refer back to his works on the institutionalization of schooling and on healthcare, as well as to his critical books on modern economy and our relation to the environment.

Ivan Illich was a rare independent thinker. His position as a Jesuit priest and the minimalist life style he had chosen to go along with it (he wandered the world with little more than two bags containing his belongings) gave him independency with respect to many worldly powers. In as far as the church to which he belonged played her own role as worldly power he criticized her so consistently that he had to give up speaking as a church person. Besides being independent in his thought, he also embodied a modern version of homo universalis, ignoring the pressure to specialize in some one science, and using his great intellect in trying to grasp what he could from various fields – combining them to try to understand the problematic aspects of our modern way of living.

This brought him for example to calculate the ‘real’ velocity of motorcars, by bringing all the energy and time lost in producing the energy for driving them, building roads, etcetera into the equation – which showed them not to be much faster than our feet. Consistently he walked on many of his travels in South America, making miles for weeks after one another. This reminded me of those intellectuals of the Middle Ages, like Thomas Aquinas – who travelled on foot from Naples to Paris to Cologne in service of his intellectual work, and who didn’t seem to have lost much time in doing so, in view of the amount of written pages he left behind. It might be that walking helps to get one’s ideas clear more easily than being in the bustle of motorized traffic.

The book that made Illich famous was his 1970 Deschooling Society. As it goes, his utopian prophecy of learning outside the walls of schooling institutions has in reality taken on different dimensions, but it surely makes sense to see much of what happens, qua learning, through the internet as a materialization of it. I think he would have approved of all the labour of love put into a place like Wikipedia, for instance, as a possible realization of his idea of ‘learning webs’ (his expression, fourty three years ago). More useful for our times than his utopianist views, is, I think, the critical part of his work. It had perhaps even more prophetic power, as he thought through the consequences of institutionalization with great clarity. Who would not think that the below words were freshly written just recently, now that we struggle with the fact that putting more money in schools or healthcare doesn’t improve the quality of these institutions.

‘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 allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.’

Withdrawing money, however (which he hoped would be beneficial) does not do so either, however. We have to ponder the negative effects which professionalization and institutionalization have had in nearly every aspect of modern life anew, and figure out new possible solutions. We should try to move away from throwing our money in the bottomless pits of professional management, and think through how one can restore responsibility to people with real life’s experience, in a responsible manner. This would require to think through how we recognize prudence, care, wonder and wisdom where people show these, and shift some of the weight of decision making to where they are shown. This might provide some answer to the pressing need for roots of our present world, and make this world less prone to lose what individuals laboriously invested in it in another air bubble.

Ivan Illich lived from 1926 to 2002. His work was not only informed by his scholarly training, but also by his life’s experience, as his life was uprooted early through nazi-powers which declared him to be a ‘half-jew’, making his mother flee from Austria, where Illich was born, and move to Florence, where they survived the war years. In later life he travelled and worked mainly in both Americas as well as in Europe.

I cited from his book Deschooling Society, Marion Boyars, New York, 2002 (reissue of the original publication of 1971). The book can be read online too:

  1. I like your balanced plaidoyer for Illich, whose booklet some time ago very much impressed me. I agree that we must critically watch the managers. But it seems also wise to try to understand why they have so much grown in number. I have the suspicion that there is a philosophical reason for this, as well. Managers are there to put wonderful ideas into practice. They are mediators. So, undoubtedly, they are able to translate the ideas of Illich as well into practices.
    Should not we, therefore, simply accept their existence, precisely because of all wonderful ideas? In the name of Illich, and against him?

  2. Thanks, Anton, for your comment, and for your kind words in favor of the managers. I do however see that the system which puts so much decision power on their shoulders tends to dismantle the feeling of responsibility of all the others in the system, the teachers, the nurses, the technicians, etcetera. This makes for a lot of disfunctionality in society, and loss of happiness…

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