It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Illich on iTunes

In the USA, anyway, Ivan Illich has made his debut in the iTunes store. Available for downloading as electronic books are two titles by David Cayley: Ivan Illich in Conversation and The Rivers North of the Future. They are priced at $12.99 and $11.99, respectively. The downloads are formatted in Apple's iBooks format and are viewable on the iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch.

Notably absent from the electronic book listing is Illich's In the Vineyard of the Text. (Amazon doesn't sell this title as an electronic book, either.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Sitting on the floor

A 2009 thesis titled “The Separation of Shit and State, Water Sovereignty and the New Commons in Cuernavaca, Mexico," describes an undergraduate's experiences meeting and studying with some of Illich's collaborators.

One of the thesis's more interesting sentences:

It is rumored [Illich] spoke as many as fifteen languages, and never sat in a chair, as he believed they made you less mobile.

Actually, we specifically remember seeing Illich sitting in a chair, the one time we met him, in early 1985, but we also remember being surprised to see him sit on the floor while others were in chairs. It was a remarkable sight, his long legs crossed or stretched out in front of him. How limber he is, we remember thinking, almost child-like, sitting down there like that. ("I'll have two," he said when our host, a minister, offered up a cold six-pack of not-particularly-good beer in cans.)

Barry Sanders recalls seeing Illich sitting cross-legged on a couch. And there are accounts of Illich's university seminars in which he often sat cross-legged on the table around which everyone else was in a chair.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Words as part of the Gross National Product

In 1980, Ivan Illich published in CoEvolution Quarterly a three-part essay titled "Vernacular Values." Its parts - 'The Three Dimensions of Social Choice,' 'The War Against Subsistence,' and 'The Imposition of Taught Mother Tongue' - made up the heart of a 1981 book, Shadow Work. "Vernacular Values" is available for reading on the Web, complete with Illich's letter explaining to CoEvolution (and Whole Earth Catalog) editor Stewart Brand what he was up to.

But as we've just discovered, a predecessor to that third section of the essay on vernacular values was published in 1978 by John Ohliger, a friend of Illich's and fierce critic of adult, aka lifetime, education. A short piece called "The Waning of the Vernacular" appeared in the first issue of Ohliger's newsletter, called Second Thoughts, revealing some of Illich's thinking as he struggled to develop a history of scarcity. That essay is available online here. Noting its 2004 copyright, we take the liberty of reprinting it here.



Language has become expensive. A lot of money is spent on it today. It is spent to decide what shall be said, who shall say it, how and when, and on deciding what kind of people should be reached by the speaker or writer. Words are a large but hidden category of the national output measured in the Gross National Product. Most of the words that are designed and pronounced at high cost are meant to be parroted. They are meant to imprint the thought and the speech of vast numbers of people. Tax money and corporate dollars are spent to finance adult education classes and school programs where people are taught to speak and read as they should. We spend money to make the poor speak a little more like the wealthy, the sick a little more like the healthy, the layperson a little more like the professional. We spend more and more on many professional jargony lingos taught in college and adult education programs; just enough to make the students feel dependent on the psychologist, the physician, or other experts. Thus education is to a large extent language instruction but it is not the sole public enterprise that attunes the ears and tongues. For instance, the purveyors of television entertainment and TV commercials, government agency heads and corporate leaders employing large bureaucracies, also work toward these ends.

Energy accounting, barely thought of ten years ago, has now become an established practice. It's relatively easy today to find out how many energy units have gone into growing, harvesting, packaging, transporting, and merchandising one edible calorie of bread. Language accounting is still in the future. The economic analysis of contemporary language would certainly not be possible unless we knew roughly the amount of money that was spent on the speech of each person. Mere per-capita input alone would not, of course, tell us enough. The poor, for instance, might be much more talked to than the rich, who can buy silence. But each paid word addressed to the rich costs much more than that addressed to the poor.

However, even without access to detailed language economics I estimate that the dollars spent for oil imports pale before those spent on American speech. The language of rich nations has absorbed huge investments. In poor countries, of course, people also speak and listen, but their languages haven't yet been capitalized. For the moment I'm restricting my comparison of capital-intensive everyday language and the language on which no money is spent to just one question: Does the structure of language itself change with the rate of investment? I think it does.

Taught everyday language lacks precedent in pre-industrial cultures. The current dependence on paid teachers and "models" for ordinary language is just as much a unique characteristic of industrial economies as is their dependence on fossil fuels. Both language and energy have been recognized for the first time in this generation as world-wide needs. Traditional cultures subsisted mainly on sunshine, captured mostly through agriculture. Equally these cultures subsisted on language absorbed by each individual through his or her roots. The blabbering of infants, literally the speechless, crystallized into the language of concrete persons whom the learner could smell, touch, love, and hate. Colloquial language was never taught; speech comes naturally to human beings.

Language until recently was nowhere the product of a design; it was not paid for and delivered like a commodity - in a word it was "vernacular" - home bred, home spun, home grown, home made.

When I contrast taught language -or the industrial idiom - with vernacular language, I draw a line of demarcation somewhere else than linguists do when they distinguish between the everyday language of the elite and dialects spoken in different regions or by poor people. Elite language is not new; language as a commodity is.

In the case of taught language, as opposed to vernacular language, the key model is the professional speaker - somebody who does not say what he means, but who recites what a script writer was told by the agency head that an executive committee has decided should be said. Taught language is modeled on people paid to declaim with phony convictions texts written by others. The vernacular is engendered by intimate inter- course among people who say things to each other, face-to-face. Vernacular is absorbed by roots that grow from each individual into the environment in which he or she has an "abode." Taught language is fed through screens, pacifiers, and other media constructed by language engineers.

Of course, even in industrialized countries all language isn't completely taught yet. Only machines can communicate without any reference to the vernacular. But a resistance that sometimes becomes as strong as a tabu makes it difficult to recognize the difference between capitalized language and the vernacular or colloquial usages that are still outside the economy. It is the same kind of inhibition that makes it difficult for us to discriminate fundamentally between transportation and locomotion by metabolic power, between a home cooked meal and a TV dinner. Are not the terms used, the distances covered, the calories ingested the same in both cases? Under some circumstances they might be, but this conclusion does not make the two activities comparable beyond the material measures. The difference between vernacular learning, movement, or food and that which is overwhelmingly a commodity goes much deeper. What has made the world modern is the correlation of basic needs to commodities rather than to vernacular activities. What has made technology industrial is the application of scientific progress to commodity production rather than to vernacular competence. What has made life as we know it today is the socialization of work through the administration of inputs and outputs, rather than through small group consensus on satisfaction.

This prevalence of commodity related basic needs is a common factor which underlies the growing dependency in all contemporary societies on lifelong compulsory instruction(language or otherwise). Compulsory instruction, slowly but surely, unless deflected by convivial politics, could turn vital vernacular learning toward the knowledge monopoly of superindustrial inculcation.

I have read an early draft of Second Thoughts and commend it to your attention. I hope all who share a desire for the worthwhile future described in the draft proclamation will join in some of the activities suggested there as a possible first step toward the creation of a truly convivial politics. Perhaps if we all so engage, individually and collectively, ten years from now protection from compulsory adult education will be considered more important than the “right” to more access to instruction in order to guarantee equality for all persons.

But this kind of political inversion is only conceivable if the present monopoly of economics over values can be effectively challenged. The balance of these two dimensions needs to be restored. As my contribution toward that goal I have above shared with the readers of Second Thoughts some of the tentative conclusions of my most recent thinking. I welcome comments and criticisms sent to me c/o Basic Choices, Inc.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Revisiting 'Deschooling Society'

While browsing eBay for a car stereo recently, we saw for sale a book we'd not been aware of: When Schools are Gone, A projection of the thought of Ivan Illich, written by an Australian named Michael Malkin and published in 1976. A seller in Australia is offering the book for AU $15.90, or about $17 U.S. Over at Amazon in the U.S., four used copies are selling for prices that range from $29 to $103.

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Google Books lists this title as one that it has scanned, but it enables only limited searching of the text.

We couldn't resist seeing what else we might find out about Malkin and his book. Not much, as it turned out, but the book's title did bring us to another quite interesting item that also is new to us. It's a paper, "Revisiting the critiques of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, by Jon Igelmo Zaldívar, at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. (This institution, Wikipedia reveals, is one of the oldest in the world, its origins dating to 1293.) In 2010, Mr. Zaldívar published a paper in The International Journal of Illich Studies, about Illich's conflict with the Vatican.

Mr. Zaldívar's Deschooling paper, published last year in the International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education looks at the "articles, book reviews, books, and unpublished theses written by scholars from the United States, Germany, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Russia, Argentina, and France, which offer various reactions to Deschooling Society." After briefly reviewing Illich's early life and the founding of CIDOC, the paper looks at the publishing history of the essays that make up Deschooling. It then goes on to look at how the book was received, citing numerous reviews and reactions. The author finds "a clear division in all these approaches to Illich’s thought … those who were against schools and those who defended educational institutions."

Alchemy and Education

One of the more intriguing items cited in this article is a dissertation presented in 1973 by William Ideson Johnson at Ohio State University. The dissertation is available in PDF format here. As Mr. Zaldívar describes it:

On this research, the author had the support of John Ohlinger [sic], an expert on Illich’s works and his intellectual experience. Ideson [as Zaldívar refers to Johnson, consistently] developed an interesting approach to the influence of alchemy in Amos Comenius, one of the most important figures of modern pedagogy. The goal of this project was to focus on the influence of alchemy in shaping the modern concept of education. Of particular interest on this research is that Ideson [sic] understood how Illich’s thought had changed throughout his career, as seen in different texts written before and after Deschooling Society.

(The proper spelling is Ohliger. Likewise, the Zaldívar paper gets the name Dana L. Stuchul wrong in the main text, though not in its bibliography.)

He doesn't mention it in Deschooling, but Illich would explain later that he saw a strong parallel between faith in the educational process as a way of deliberately transforming and "developing" the raw, unformed human being into something better and the alchemist's attempts to transmute base elements into gold.

Not mentioned by Mr. Zaldívar are a few items that strike us as relevant to any look at the reception and after-effects of Deschooling. One is a 1976 book (or pamphlet, as Illich would have called its 63 pages), Imprisoned in the Global Classroom, that he wrote with Etienne Verne. It consists of two essays, one by each man. (Verne can be seen on YouTube discussing "la vitesse - propos du Ivan Illich," en fran├žais.)


The other is Illich's 1988 paper, "The Educational Enterprise in the Light of the Gospel," which is available as part of David Tinapple's extensive Illich archive. Here, Illich is concerned largely with power. He compares teachers working in the Chicago ghetto to Oskar Schindler working against heavy odds to save his Jewish workers from the Nazis. (In 1988, the Schindler story was known mainly through a somewhat obscure book that Illich summarizes for his audience; the movie Schindler's List was still years in the future.) Illich also discusses Robert Jay Lifton's study of Nazi doctors and of the clownish, anarchistic ways of Jesus. In fact, this paper is one of the most explicitly religious essays of Illich's that we've seen, citing chapter and verse and discussing the Gospel in detail. This may put off some people in education circles, but it does hint at some of the most important thinking of Illich's, thinking that informs all of his work, even if only tacitly.

Anyone interested in learning more about Illich's post-Deschooling thoughts on education would do well to look at Ivan Illich in Conversation and The Rivers North of the Future, both based on interviews conducted by David Cayley. In both, Illich provides useful insights into the thinking that led to the Deschooling essays and how he came to realize that he'd missed some important developments in that book. And, they might also look for a transcript or recording of his 1986 address to the American Educational Research Association's General Assembly, discussed by Ms. Stuchul here. There, Illich pleaded for more research into the history of compulsory schooling and talked about Orwell's analysis of human language getting turned into coded "communications." And more.


Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.