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, May 28, 2012

Harvey Cox remembers Illich

'"R-r-read me the last three sentences you have written." It was the summer of 1968, and the voice, slightly accented, with the trilled "r," issued from a tall figure in a brown and gray serape lying prone on the floor of my small study at the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Dutifully, I read for Ivan Illich, the founder and director of "CIDOC," the most recent scribblings on the book I was then writing. Then he responded. His comments, as usual, were apt and dazzling. He could conjure historical analogies out of the air, suggest alternative phrasing, pose probing questions.'

So begins an obituary and appreciation of Ivan Illich that we stumbled onto recently. We actually had seen this piece back in 2003, shortly after Illich died, but we'd forgotten about it. It's written well - by Harvey Cox, a Harvard theologian perhaps best known for The Secular City, published in 1965 - and offers some interesting observations of the man and his reputation and of the vibrant scene that arose around CIDOC.

Of Cuernavaca in the 1960s, Cox writes: "The outdoor cafes around the lovely old piazza with its central gazebo and refreshment stands provided only one of the many venues reminiscent of the crackling atmosphere along the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris."

There was a decided buzz about Cuernavaca, especially among young countercultural types, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They arrived in droves, with their backpacks, jeans and recently purchased serapes and sandals. They thronged the boarding houses and inexpensive hotels. Some wanted to learn Spanish, and the center had an excellent language school. Others just wanted to hang out. All wanted to warm themselves in the already legendary glow of Ivan Illich and the cluster of intellectual enfants terribles that surrounded him. But many soon became disillusioned.

Illich, whose ideas on education--spelled out in his 1971 book De-Schooling Society--were indeed revolutionary, had utterly no patience with academic slackness. He couldn't abide people who used language--any language--sloppily. He hated empty chatter. He was just as critical of hippy laxity as he was of the moralistic smugness and rigidity of his own church. The young people climbing off the rickety buses may have expected a merry prankster, but instead they found an old-world aristocrat with a hawk nose and piercing eyes who made stringent demands on them, and whose stinging critique of bureaucratic modernity arose from his love of tradition rather than from some Haight-Ashbury version of doing your own thing.

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