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 21, 2011

Illich as a young priest in Manhattan

Ivan Illich left Europe for America in 1951, aiming to pursue post-graduate studies at Princeton University. The plan was to work with a rich collection of materials pertaining to the practice of alchemy in the Middle Ages. One of Illich's earliest and most important teachers, the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain, held a post at the Institute for Advanced Studies, just down the road from the university.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in New York City, however, Illich quite literally took a radical turn. Instead of settling in Princeton, 50 miles to the south in central New Jersey, he took the 'A' train to northern Manhattan. And there, for the next 5 years, he would serve as a parish priest, paying most of his attention to the neighborhood's burgeoning population of Puerto Ricans. And it was this ministry, writes Christopher Shannon in a 2004 essay, "The Death and Rebirth of Ivan Illich," appearing in a Web publication called Books & Culture, "that provided the intellectual foundation for all his subsequent writings."

While visiting family friends in New York, he would later tell interviewers, Illich had heard from an African-American maid about mounting tension between the city's blacks and the many newly-arrived Puerto Ricans. Curious, Illich visited a then-thriving Puerto Rican street market in East Harlem and very quickly, these Caribbean immigrants struck him as more fascinating than medieval alchemists. The market was La Marqueta, originally a gathering of Italian-owned pushcarts that eventually consisted of nearly 500 vendors crammed into five buildings situated beneath the elevated railroad tracks running up Park Ave. between East 111th and 116th streets.

BE0806132009 12 07 163633137240

[Photos, from top): Bettman/Corbis (1968);; NY State Archives]

Puerto Ricans had moved to the city in large numbers during WW2, many of them to work in jobs previously held by men and women fighting overseas. After the war, many of these new workers stayed on, but in New York City, they didn't fit the typical immigrant mold, as would soon be portrayed so memorably in the Broadway musical West Side Story. From the song "America":

Boys: I think I go back to San Juan

Girls: I know a boat you can get on

Boys: Everyone there will give big cheer

Girls: Everyone there will have moved here

Because New York was only a few hours' flight from the Caribbean, Puerto Ricans didn't necessarily consider the mainland their permanent home, as had most of their European predecessors, whose journey involved many days on a ship. What's more, their ways of living were new to New York. In, Puerto Rico, daily life was spent mainly outside, in a sunny clime and mostly around, not within, small, relatively flimsy homes. (Why build permanently in the face of frequent hurricanes?) But now, their eating, socializing, and playing games, and their children playing so openly out in front of apartment buildings was not always appreciated by their New York neighbors.

Using his connections with the New York diocese under Cardinal Spellman, Illich managed to get himself posted to a church where he might serve these newcomers as well as learn more about their culture. He was named an assistant priest at Incarnation Parish, located on St. Nicholas Ave. at 175th St., practically in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. Here is the church as seen in 1957:


Incarnation had long served a flock of fairly conservative Irish. Washington Heights, as the neighborhood was called, also had become home to a fair number of Germans, many of them Jews who'd fled to America before the world war. (Among them, as we recall, was the family of Henry Kissinger.) Eventually, Illich's mother would move to this neighborhood, too, and spend her last years there. (Interestingly, in light of Illich's enduring interest in the Middle Ages, The Cloisters, a marvelous museum devoted to that era, is in this neighborhood, a few blocks to the north of the bridge on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River.) Like many NYC neighborhoods, Washington Heights saw many of its residents eventually leave, but they took with them many memories, as seen here. (The neighborhood is largely Latino, now, but last we visited, a few Irish bars were still operating and in the park that surrounds The Cloisters, German was still to be heard occasionally.)

Illich's time at Incarnation is recounted with much color by Francine du Plessix Gray in her 1970 book, Divine Disobedience. She recalls how the pastor of Incarnation, a Monsignor Casey, thinking that the name Ivan sounded "Communist," insisted that his new curate call himself John Illich.

John Illich's energy and devotion at Incarnation became legendary, Gray reports. One of his colleagues there told her that "living in the same parish with John Illich was 'like riding a Piper cub with an atom bomb under the seat.' Illich climbed stairs three at a time and never walked through the rectory, but swept through it like a tornado. He rose earlier, questioned more, worked harder for the Puerto Ricans than any man in the diocese. ... The Puerto Ricans idolized him ... he was Mr. Puerto Rico, their Babe Ruth."

In 2003, we came across a memoir of growing up Catholic in Washington Heights in the 1950s, by a Richard O'Prey. (This memoir no longer exists as we found it, but it has been archived in the Wayback Machine, an archive of old websites. Mr. O'Prey also seems to have published it in book form.) He recalled Illich as an erudite priest - though it appears he may have misremembered Illich's story about fleeing pursuers of some sort; if Illich was forced to escape anyone, it was likely the Nazis:

Father Ivan Illich, a fugitive from the Iron Curtain, was the final
member of the staff at Incarnation. Father Illich spoke heavily accented
English, but he was reputed to be an intellectual. In later years, he
would prove that assertion by writing several books on education and
Church reform. In the early 1950s he contented himself in saying Mass
with a piety and deliberation that went far beyond his peers. No one
could accuse him of garbling his Latin or hurrying the rubrics of the
Mass. His account of eluding border guards and escaping the Iron
Curtain, was fascinating. It also humanized the conflict that we heard
about in Europe. For his bravery and audacity, he won our respect and

Here is what appears to be the New York Times' first mention of Illich, in March, 1953:

Illich NYT 1953Wedding

Serving society couples, we imagine, was only a sideline. Illich's main accomplishments were in and on behalf of the Puerto Rican community, which still, if unknowingly, celebrates his remarkable efforts almost 60 years later. Illich was instrumental in bringing that struggling community into the fold of the wealthy, Irish-dominated New York diocese. Caribbean and Latin American Catholics celebrated their religion quite differently from Europeans, singing different songs, interpreting the images and lives of certain saints quite differently, and even understanding the hours of the day in a different way. (Illich understood that it was too much to expect islanders to arrive for Mass "on time" with the same precision that most New Yorkers took for granted.) Unlike many of his fellow churchmen, Illich actually bothered to learn the Spanish language - very well and incredibly quickly, Gray reports. The diocese sent him to a Berlitz course downtown, but Illich breezed through those lessons and found the best language training to be simply mixing with his parishioners out in the streets. (It helped, we imagine, that he already knew Italian.) Equally important, he made a point of getting to know the culture of Puerto Rico, from his parishioners and by spending summer vacations on the island, owning a shack there and traveling its rural byways on horseback and by foot.

It was during one of these visits that he learned of a man who would be tremendously influential. This was sociologist Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., whom we've written about here recently. As Mr. Shannon tells it in his "Death and Rebirth" article, which reviews a collection of essays published in 2002, The Challenges of Ivan Illich, Fitzpatrick helped greatly to further Illich's education. With a degree from Harvard, Shannon writes,

Fitzpatrick was among the first generation of Catholic priests who saw immersion in secular learning as essential to the task of making the Church relevant to the modern world. [...] Though educated to the highest European standards in history and philosophy, Illich actually knew little of modern social theory; Fitzgerald modestly takes credit for introducing Illich to the works of Durkheim, Weber, and the other great writers of modern sociology. [...] On one of his visits [to P.R.], Illich learned of Fitzgerald as the only other New York-based clergyman to go to Puerto Rico to study the cultural background of the immigrants. Back in New York, Illich and Fitzgerald struck up a friendship and began to collaborate on a variety of innovative pastoral projects.

Shannon sees the Illich-Fitzpatrick partnership working in ways that differed significantly from other Church-led social-reform efforts of the time:

Against the assimilationist ethos of the early civil rights movement and anticipating the Second Vatican Council's endorsement of "inculturation," Illich argued that the Church could best serve the newly arrived Puerto Ricans by helping them to sustain their traditional liturgical and devotional practices in their new environment. Unlike the progressive, "social justice" Catholicism of the late 1960s, Illich saw culture, rather than economic inequality, as the starting point in the pastoral care of the poor. [In Challenges, Illich collaborator Lee] Hoinacki notes Illich's academic training in the history of liturgy, and argues that Illich "understood … that the most ominous expression of secularization in the West was … the decline of liturgy, the routinization and emptying out of religious ritual in the churches." The liturgical lens through which Illich read modernity may account for the difficulty so many secular intellectuals have had in understanding, much less accepting, his social critique.


At the heart of Illich's pastoral vision lay the conviction that ministering to the poor requires not so much service as presence. Illich sought not to help the poor, but to be poor. Being poor meant many things, from the biblical ideal of the poor in spirit to a more anthropologically informed notion of cultural poverty, or the abdication of one's cultural assumptions in order to immerse oneself in the life of the poor. Fitzgerald and Illich sought to embody this ministry of presence in their first collaborative outreach project, El Cuartito de Maria, or The Little House of Mary. Illich arranged for Incarnation to rent an apartment in one of the tenements heavily populated with Puerto Rican (potential) parishioners. Women from the parish volunteered to watch and play with children so that mothers could work or run errands, but the purpose of the project was neighborly rather than vocational. Illich insisted that establishing personal relationships with the immigrants was a more important ministry than any program of material or spiritual uplift.

"By the standards of 1950s social work," Shannon explains, "El Cuartito de Maria did not do much to improve the lives of the poor, but then that was never Illich's intention. Much to the confusion of his church colleagues, and later his secular interlocutors, Illich rejected not only the idea of improvement, but the very language of doing and making, both of which he saw undermining authentic human relationships in the modern world."

From what we've read, especially in The Rivers North of the Future, where Illich elaborates on the parable of the Good Samaritan, this observation rings quite true. Authenticity in relationships - true friendship, as he might have put it - is precisely what Illich idealized in opposition to the "liberal fantasy" of treating and understanding people as mere instances of a class that experts view as needy of professional therapies and services. The idea of Illich rejecting "the very language of doing and making" is not one we've heard before, but it does seem to resonate with Illich's idea of foregoing power in favor of informed, contemplative, fully aware impotence.

We recently came across Fitzpatrick's side of the story, as related in his own book The stranger is our own: reflections on the journey of Puerto Rican migrants. A good chunk of this book is available via Google Books, and on page 16, we read of the two men's first encounter:

In the spring of 1953, I was sitting in my office in Keating Hall when Father William Lynch, S.J., then editor of Thought, the Fordham University Quarterly, came into my office. He said: "There is a young priest in my office and he would like to meet you. His name is John Illich." ... And so I met the man who was to have a profound influence on me and on the Church during my generation. I walked into Father Lynch's office and I was immediately struck by the appearance of the man: tall, exuding energy and tension, and intense in conversation. "I followed you all over Puerto Rico," he said, "and I read the report you left with Bishop Davis. You are the one person I wanted to meet when I came back." [...] He then described for me his whirlwind month in Puerto Rico. It was far different from mine during which I was accompanied from door-to-door of prominent people, introductions arranged ahead of time. Illich walked over miles of rural roads, took to horseback, visited towns in remote mountains and crowded urban barrios. In his conversation with me, he began to comment on the customs and culture of the people. For a person who was neither an anthropologist nor sociologist, his perception of the culture and lifestyle of the Puerto Ricans was remarkable. I said to myself, "This is a man I want to keep in touch with." We talked for almost two hours, during which I learned many things I had not known about aspects of Puerto Rican life. After he left, Father Lynch asked me, "What is your impression?" I don't know what it was that prompted me to say it; I know nothing at the moment of Illich's background. I replied, "Bill, he reminds me of some of my brilliant Jewish intellectual friends. I wonder if there is something Jewish about him!" Years later, I was to meet his mother and learn that she came from Sephardic Jewish ancestry. She had become a Catholic to marry Illich's father and she remained a devout Catholic until her death.

Fitzpatrick also recalls the creation of what he calls El Cuartito de la Santisima Virgen, or "The Little Room of the Most Holy Virgin": Illich "encouraged a group of the young women to fix up the apartment with pictures and items reminiscent of Puerto Rico, and just be there to allow the children and mothers to come by, to mind the children when mothers went shopping; in brief, to create a familiar, neighborhood place where the people could gather with no formality, but which was carefully organized by the young women. ... It was a remarkable example of receiving the Puerto Ricans as our own, in a situation where they were very much at home among their own. After Illich left Incarnation parish and went to Puerto Rica (November 1956), the interest faded and eventually El Cuartito disappeared."

Fitzpatrick recalls working with Illich on a "slide show" to help migrant workers in New Jersey "in their social and religious life. Illich conceived of an arrangement of slides depicting experiences of the farm workers, and a cassette which would provide an explanation for the workers of the experiences depicted in the slides. We worked very hard on this. I wrote the text for the cassette. ... At the last moment, it never came off. ... It was a brilliant Illich idea which, for some reason, was aborted." (We imagine that Fitzpatrick probably meant simply a tape recorder, not a cassette, for the latter had yet to be invented.)

Illich's real triumph regarding the city's Puerto Ricans - and the New York diocese itself - was the San Juan Fiesta. As Fitzpatrick describes it, this was a celebration in honor of the patron saint of Puerto Rico. It had begun in 1953 and continued for two years in St. Patrick's Cathedral, down on Fifth Ave. "Illich said this was ridiculous and that a fiesta like this should be held outside with processions and civic celebrations." And so, in 1956, the event was moved to the Fordham campus, up in The Bronx, complete with a large procession and Mass celebrated by Cardinal Spellman - a key backer of Illich then and when he had moved on to Mexico - and even a sermon given by Spellman in Spanish. Thanks partly to Illich's touring Puerto Rican neighborhoods with a sound truck, some 30,000 people showed up for this event - a good ten times more than had been predicted by one church official.

This event made Illich nothing less than a hero within the diocese, for he had managed to bring off a rapprochement between the Puerto Rican flock and the Irish-led diocese in way that surprised both sides. In fact, this yearly event continued to be held year after year, every June 24, more or less, and it continues today, more or less. It's now known as the Puerto Rican Day Parade and it's held in June on Fifth Ave. by Central Park.

Illich's triumph led to his being named as vice-rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. And his taking that post, Fitzpatrick recalls, seemed to be appropriate, given South America's increasing importance to the U.S. and the Church and the potential for Puerto Rico to serve as a bridge between the two continents. Here is how the New York Times covered the news:

Illich NYT 1956

As anyone who has read much about Illich knows, his time in Puerto Rico was fertile yet stormy. Spellman visited the island and thanks to Illich, was received with thousands cheering his motorcade's entry into San Juan. It was in Puerto Rico, too, that Illich and Fitzpatrick co-wrote (with a William Ferree) a book called Spiritual care of Puerto Rican Migrants, which is available for viewing on Google Books (Google sells this book in electronic form, too, for $10.) It also was in P.R. that Illich had his first close look at - and serious doubts about - compulsory schooling, a line of thinking that eventually led to Deschooling Society. (Someone named Anandita Bajpai did their master's thesis in 2008, at the University of Vienna, about The Catholic Church as an Education Provider in Puerto Rico 1948-1960; it's available online in PDF format. The thesis advisor: Prof. Dr. Martina Kaller-Dietrich, the author, in 2008, of a biography of Illich.)

And it was in Puerto Rico, too, that Illich ran afoul of Church authorities when he publicly argued against their plans to start a political party opposed to birth control. Illich believed the Church had no business getting involved in politics, especially at a time when there was so much controversy over a Catholic (John F. Kennedy) running for president of the U.S. The resulting controversy led Illich to leave not only his university post but the island of Puerto Rico itself. Working with Fitzpatrick, he selected Cuernavaca, Mexico, as home for the Center for InterCultural Documentation, or CIDOC, which would remain there until its voluntary closing in 1976.

Interestingly, while Incarnation's own website cites the church's role in the history of Puerto Ricans in New York, it makes no mention at all of either John or Ivan Illich.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Illich in Bali - on art, gender, and education

"In 1978, I spent a week in a village on the island of Bali. I dropped into a small place, off the beaten track, and arrived there at just the right moment, on the one August moon of the century when the earth is purged of every last dead body. In all the cemeteries men rooted through the soil digging up their ancestors. Some pulled out white bones, while others unearthed still-mouldering corpses. The women stood there to take charge of this prize. They washed the ancestors in firewater, wrapped them into packages of cotton cloth and bound them together with paper streamers. Altogether it was a festive affair.

"I had found a room in the village headman’s second household. We became acquainted and I learned that he truly reigned over the community. During the Indonesian bloodbath of 1967, he had had 217 people shot, ‘enemies’ he called them. Now, twelve years later, he did his duty and financed their appropriate cremation. Proudly he pointed to the bales of cotton and the sacks of sugar that he was donating for the occasion. In Bali it takes many yards of cloth and many pounds of rice cake for a dignified end.

"From the balcony of his secondary wife’s house, I watched the road on which the dead were making their last trip; from the cemetery they were carried to their home for a visit, and after a short stay the heavy catafalque was brought to the river, down where the pyre was ready. During the few days I watched, about three dozen processions danced by. They all moved to the traditional sound of the gamelan. However, the processions were of two very different kinds: only a few were led by living gongs; the rest danced to synthetic music. Two profoundly different things were going on down there, on the road winding through the rice paddies, two things as different as those which the shoptalk of educators confuses under the term, ‘process’. And I find myself unable to use the single term, ‘product’, to designate their respective outcomes. My first task, therefore, is to make the distinction between intransitive life and a transitive process, between the art of living (which always includes the art of suffering and of dying) and art which I can recognize as a product. I know that the distinction is difficult to make in modern languages. Nevertheless, it is an obvious and ominous distinction."

So begins a remarkably journalistic and stylish essay by Ivan Illich, delivered to a gathering of art teachers in 1981, in Rotterdam. We're excited to have just discovered the existence of this paper, which as far as we can tell has evaded Illich's bibliographers. Its title: "Arts Education: Process and Product." Originally published in the Journal of Art & Design Education, it's available from something called Wiley Online Library. (That Illich's work appears in a journal about art education fits a pattern, of sorts. During the early 1980s, we'd often browse New York City's better, more eclectic magazine shops, confident we'd find some new essay of his. He appeared in a short-lived journal called Democracy, for instance, and in The Progressive, and perhaps in others.)

Illich continues: "Down there, coming out of a bamboo grove, half a dozen funerals danced as tradition had always demanded. They came with a big drum, suspended on sticks between the two bearers; they came carrying five gongs, each of a different size, and swinging bells. I could not distinguish the orchestra’s sound from the steps of the dancers, nor from the swinging of the dead body in its catafalque. It was all one event which I watched, making one effect with the art work of the paddies and the gods of Bali, dressed up for the occasion in grey and white chequered aprons. What happened there was one intransitive event. Only the bifocal lenses of a systems analyst could project into this occurrence a distinction of process and product. And the ordinary agglutinative speech of Indonesia is even less fitted than our inflected languages to make such a distinction."

Process and product, it turns out, are the themes of this art teachers conference, which has invited Illich as its keynote speaker. He goes on to explain that as he sees it, the traditional "art of living" involves neither process nor product. And he contrasts that with the modern way of education. "Education is an ERSATZ as much as prostitution or the police," Illich writes. "The less of these a society has, a society needs, the better off it is."

He recalls a week's vacation in Bali - with a friend named Franca - and his search for the "double ikat," a special kind of tie-dyed cloth that had become quite rare by that time and that he sees as "a supreme expression of vernacular art." He goes on to tell his audience about his memories of the art teachers he met years before in Puerto Rico, where he'd helped to run the educational system. "One thing I learned is to have an immense respect for the art teachers," especially those teaching in poorer schools. "Who were they, these strange people? More often than not, they were women. They taught elementary classes, and their pupils looked forward to the art class. These women gave the impression of cultivating their pupils’ art of living rather than teaching them. And in every instance I can remember, the colleagues of such an art teacher looked at her askance, and considered her a nut to be tolerated, if not a criminal whose influence on the children ought to be counterbalanced."

Illich moves to explain that the "art of living never has been a human art. It is not an art which modern man can practice. It has never been a genderless art. The art of living has always been ‘gendered’. ... The art of living and the art of being part of a gender coincide. As the vernacular ikat is woven of warp and weft, so each vernacular language is woven of two kinds of speech: the speech of men and that of women. Only the foreigner hears a common ‘language’. The speech of men is learned by boys, that of women by girls; they are very often quite different from each other."

And this helps to explain why it is that so many art teachers observe, with great sadness, their young students losing their interest in painting, and drawing, and sculpting just as they approach puberty - "a break, a drying up, a loss of confidence, a shrivelling." These children, Illich argues, are dealing with the fact that the initiation ritual that once affirmed the gender line separating men and women has been turned inside out. "What is now called puberty is the inverse of what was formerly an initiation ritual. With puberty, male and female children are both supposed to become equally human. Both are supposed to be equally productive workers, to compete for the same genderless jobs, producing the same genderless commodities to meet the same genderless needs. Puberty means the mere sexual maturity of economic neuters. And all too often the art teacher supports this process." [emphasis in original]

"Education," Illich writes, "could be defined as the process by which young people are trained into genderless competence for genderless work, as the process by which men and women are forced to look at their own reality through the genderless telescopes of their tutors, or considered as the process through which men and women are ‘humanised’, turned into humans, made into people, true men. Therefore, education can be seen as the process whose product is ‘modern man’, even though half the species is and remains, at least vestigially, of the female sex."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Illich on "alienation" - 1973

We've just found another paper by Ivan Illich that, as far as we can tell, is not listed in any of the more-or-less official bibliographies of his work. From 1973, it's entitled "An expansion on the concept of alienation." The paper appeared in The Journal of Social Philosophy for January of that year (Vol. 4, Issue 1), which Wiley made available online in 2008.

We've not yet seen the paper in its entirety, but it starts off, at least, as a somewhat dismayed reaction by Illich to the reception of his book Deschooling Society. "As the hidden curriculum moves out of the darkness and into the twilight of our awareness, phrases such as the "deschooling of society" and the "disestablishment of schools" become instant slogans," he writes. "I do not think these phrases were used before last year. This year they have become, in some circles, the badge and criterion of the new orthodoxy. Recently I talked by amplified telephone to students in a seminar on deschooling at the Ohio State Ujniversity College of Education. ... "

More from the first page: "The [Marxist] concept of alienation cannot help us understand the present crisis unless it is applied not only to the purposeful and productive use of endeavor, but also to the use made of men as the recipients of professional treatments. ... Schools have alienated man from his learning. He does not enjoy going to school; if he is poor he does not get the reputed benefits; if he does all that is asked of him, he finds his security constantly threatened by more recent graduates; if he is sensitive, he feels deep conflicts between what is and what is supposed to be. He does not trust his own judgement and even if he resents the judgement of the educator, he is condemned to accept it and to believe himself that he cannot change reality. ... Today, it is relatively easy to get wide agreement on the fact that gratuitous, compulsory schooling is contrary to the political self-interest of an enlightened majority. ... Proponents of recorded, filmed and computerized instruction used to court the schoolmen as business prospects; now they are itching to do the job on their own. ...

Here is the facsimile of the opening page that Wiley makes available online:


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Speaking of "empty liturgy"

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times writes today about a new app for the iPhone that's designed to help Catholics prepare for the confession box. The software walks a person through a questionnaire based on "the Ten Commandments, your examination of conscience and any 'custom sins' you might have." Thus, women get asked about abortion, men about masturbation. Once his or her sins have been enumerated, the parishioner can consult these findings during confession and make their time with a priest more efficient.

Writes Dowd: "At least we know now that Nietzsche was wrong. God isn’t dead. His server may be down though."

Illich in Italy

One of the more intriguing organizations we've come across in our travels around the Web is La Scuola Popolare di Musica Ivan Illich, located in Bologna, Italy. Many musical performances filmed there, many of them featuring fairly free improvisations, can be found on YouTube. On the school's MySpace page, we find this description:

"Since 1992, the Ivan Illich Community School of Music (SPMII) in Bologna has proposed music courses for everybody: children, the youth and the elderly, those who wish to play and to sing together with others, those who have never touched a musical instrument, those who want to become professional musicians, those who want to improvise, those who want to make and listen to music untied by genres and those who want to have a good time learning. In addition to the individual instrument courses, the SPMII offers laboratories of ensemble music, practical workshops, classes for children as well as a choir and an orchestra. It has always paid particular attention to the music of oral tradition and to the music of improvisation and research. Weekly, the school presents lecture-concerts, open meetings of improvisation, films, debates and parties. SPMII and the park of Via Giuriolo 7 are places of musical and social interaction, a self-managed and libertarian space where people meet in a friendly environment. We are waiting for you…"


The school's main website is written in Italian, which we don't read, but look as we might, we can't find any text there that might be an explanation of how this school got its name. We can imagine, though, that Illich's notion of deschooling might have inspired musicians to found an alternative musical school, one aiming to teach anyone who wants to learn how to play music, and not necessarily using the traditional conservatory method or canon. As we've mentioned here, Illich's thoughts on education inspired composer Christopher Small to write a book in the 1970s called Music, Society, Education that in turn inspired people such as Peter Gabriel and David Byrne in their mining and developing the world music scene.

We can only guess at what Illich accomplished in Italy, France, and Germany - not to mention Spain and Mexico - whose languages he spoke fluently and where he was deeply respected. As might be expected, there is an Italian website devoted to him. There, we find a paper by Matthias Rieger, a Bremen friend and musician, entitled "Ascoltare la musica con le orecchie di Ivan Illich." Our computer Englishes this phrase as "To listen to music with the orecchie [ears] of Ivan Illich." (Somehow, we don't think Illich would have liked to see papers like this read in computer-translated form, so we'll refrain and give it our best guess.) The paper seems to have been presented by Mr. Rieger at the inauguration of something called the Centro di Documentazione Interculturale della Scuola per la Pace [Intercultural Documentation Center of the School for Peace?]. What appears to be a set of papers relating to Illich and presented at this forum in 2003 are available on the Web (PDF), in Italian. (A few days later: We've just noticed that some of these papers are available in English at the Pudel site, out of Bremen. There's even a poster for the conference in Bologna.)

Illich himself seems to have delivered at least one lecture in Italy that, as far as we can tell, has yet to appear in English. Barbara Duden refers to such a paper on page 16 of "Ivan Illich, Beyond Medical Nemesis (1976)," her 2003 overview and appreciation of Illich's work during the last two decades of his life. Evidently, Illich delivered a lecture at a Bologna symposium called “Sickness and Health as Social Metaphors." Ms. Duden writes that the paper was published in Le Monde Diplomatique for April 1999 and that an English translation was set "to appear in a collection of essays." Elsewhere, in a comprehensive bibliography of Illich's work, we've seen this citation:

Illich, Ivan (1998I): And do not lead us into diagnosis, but deliver us of the pursuit of health. Bologna, October 24th 1998, English Version of the Opening Lecture of the symposium on "Salute e Malattia". (The 'I' included with the date indicates that the item is written in Italian.)

And another bibliography states this:

Illich, Ivan (1998): "And do not lead us into diagnosis, but deliver us of the pursuit of health."

Bologna, October 24th 1998, English Version of the Opening Lecture of the symposium on 'Salute e Malattia'.

En Francais: "Ne nous laissez pas succomber au diagnostic, mais délivrez-nous des maux de la santé."

'Lezione magistrale' dÍvan Illich au Syposium de Bologne: 'Maladie et santé comme métaphore sociale', 25 au 28 octobre 1998.

In Italiano: "Non indurci in diagnosi, ma liberarci dai mali della salute."

Lezione di Ivan Illich nel Simposio di Bologna il 25. Ottobre 1998.

The Guardian's obit for Illich ends with this paragraph:

He was able to finish a history of pain which will be published in French next year, as will his complete works. His last wish, which was to die surrounded by close collaborators amid the beginnings of a new learning centre he had planned in Bologna, was not realised. (emphasis added)

We've read (in The Challenges of Ivan Illich) that Illich considered the Italian edition of Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis , as published in the 1990s, to be the definitive version of that text.

Meanwhile, we've always wondered what Illich's tastes in music were, if any.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Recalling Illich

A Canadian website called Philia, A Dialogue of Caring Citizenship, makes available an essay recalling a warm and surprising encounter with Ivan Illich. The author is Sam Sullivan, the mayor of Vancouver until 2008, who visited Illich at the home of Jerry Brown, then mayor of Oakland, Calif. He writes good:

Toward the end of the three days I asked some of [Illich's] devotees if I could ask him for a photo together. Most thought this was a bad idea. One said, “You have seduced the seducer. He loves you and I wouldn’t push that relationship any further.” Another said that perhaps his feelings about technology might be the reason he has rarely been photographed. I was disappointed and it probably showed. As we were saying goodbye, Ivan insisted I tell him what was on my mind. After a moment’s hesitation I blurted out, “Ivan, I really wanted to ask you if it would be too much ... or maybe I shouldn’t ask ... or – really, Ivan, what I really want is, could we have a picture together?”

His eyes brightened and he said, “Of course!” But he wanted a good backdrop. ...

Illich used the old Greek Philia to describe the kind of neighborly friendship and truth-seeking that he advocated as the best antidote to the modern world's disabling professions and disembodying systems. We take it to mean conviviality, as Illich famously used that word, and then some.

"We believe there are countless opportunities to enable people who have been isolated and marginalized to flourish in dignity and take their place as full citizens," the Philia site states. "In fact, we are confident that welcoming their diverse contributions is the principal catalyst for nurturing vibrant communities for all of us.

"We are inspired by a range of thinkers and activists who are examining how changes in society reflect on culture and history. We're collecting stories of a new way of living to provide glimpses of a better future. And we're developing consensus among influential leaders in society about how we can shape more vibrant, hospitable and resilient communities."

Sullivan maintains his own site here.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Charles Taylor on Illich

We mentioned the other day that a five-part radio program featuring David Cayley in conversation with philosopher Charles Taylor is scheduled for broadcast later this month on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s Radio One channel. Mr. Taylor, who wrote the forward for Mr. Cayley's book The Rivers North of the Future, has written about Illich's idea that the modern world and all its needy persons consuming and competing for the scarce outputs of various service institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) can best be explained as a corrupted working out of the Christian Gospel - namely, in a book called A Secular Age. It has just come to our attention that what appears to be a good part (and possibly all) of the passage in that book that addresses Illich is available on the Web, here. It provides a good summary and interpretation of Illich's analysis of modernity and its roots. (We're not sure, though, what the person who has posted this book excerpt is up to, as he states on the same page that "it is eminently possible to consider Ivan Illich to be a bona fide nutter.")

Friday, February 04, 2011

More from Mr. Cayley

David Cayley surely is a name familiar to anyone who has taken Illich seriously since the late 1980s. A producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s radio program IDEAS, Mr. Cayley has created two 5-hour-long radio shows devoted to Illich (and a lesser-known hour-long tribute to Illich broadcast shortly after his death), and written two books related to those shows. He became a close friend of Illich's and was his main interlocutor in the later years of his life.

At the end of this month (Feb. 28 - March 4), we've just learned, Mr. Cayley will present a 5-part program called The Malaise of Modernity: Charles Taylor in Conversation. Mr. Taylor, of course, contributed the perceptive foreword to The Rivers North of the Future, expressing thanks to Mr. Cayley for bringing forth that final, resounding statement of Illich's thought: "Illich, in his overall vision and in the penetrating historical detail of his arguments, offers a new road map, a way of coming to understand what has been jeopardized in our decentred, objectifying, discarnate way of remaking ourselves, and he does so without simply falling into the clichés of anti-modernism." Mr. Taylor also writes about Illich, at some length, in a recent book, A Secular Age.

CBC describes the upcoming program so:

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor is Canada's best known and most widely read contemporary thinker. In books like Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, he has attempted to define the unique character of the modern age. He maps the fault-lines in our modern identity, and points to both the pitfalls and the promise of our condition. Charles Taylor has also been active in politics, having run four times for Parliament during the 1960s. IDEAS producer David Cayley surveys Taylor's thought in a series of extended conversations.

Ideas is broadcast weekdays at 9PM Toronto/Eastern time, on CBC Radio One and at several other times during the day over the Sirius Satellite Radio system. Radio One also broadcasts "live" on the Web, and makes certain of its shows, including many (but perhaps not all) Ideas programs, available for on-demand listening after their original broadcast dates.

In any case, we look forward to listening to these conversations with Mr. Taylor, when they're aired. And we'll likely record them, too. (Shameless but well-deserved product plug: We use Rogue Amoeba's superb Audio Hijack Pro software to record all our Web streams, and other audio, too.) And, if these conversations lead to a book, as has happened with previous interview subjects (Illich and Northrop Frye, for instance), we'll probably read that, too.

Meanwhile, we might point out two previous multi-part radio series of Mr. Cayley's that are still available as podcasts: In 24 parts, there is "How to Think about Science," and in 14 parts, "The Origins of the Modern Public."
The former features hour-long interviews with thinkers who study science itself - what scientists do, what scientific knowledge is and how it's used, the history and philosophy of science, the underlying assumptions of modern scientific thought and procedure, and so forth. We've only recently caught up with this series of programs, in the form of podcasts, but we heartily recommend it. Each program is devoted to one or two thinkers. And as the list of interviews reveals, a number of Mr. Cayley's subjects have worked closely with Illich, though they don't actually speak about him in these interviews: Barbara Duden, Silya Samerski, David Abram, and Sajay Samuel.

These programs may be listened to in streaming format from CBC's website or downloaded as MP3 podcasts from the iTunes store or via this helpful blog.

How to Think About Science

Episode 1 - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer

Episode 2 - Lorraine Daston

Episode 3 - Margaret Lock

Episode 4 - Ian Hacking and Andrew Pickering

Episode 5 - Ulrich Beck and Bruno Latour

Episode 6 - James Lovelock

Episode 7 - Arthur Zajonc

Episode 8 - Wendell Berry

Episode 9 - Rupert Sheldrake

Episode 10 - Brian Wynne

Episode 11 - Sajay Samuel

Episode 12 - David Abram

Episode 13 - Dean Bavington

Episode 14 - Evelyn Fox Keller

Episode 15 - Barbara Duden and Silya Samerski

Episode 16 - Steven Shapin

Episode 17 - Peter Galison

Episode 18 - Richard Lewontin

Episode 19 - Ruth Hubbard

Episode 20 - Michael Gibbons, Peter Scott, & Janet Atkinson Grosjean

Episode 21 - Christopher Norris and Mary Midgely

Episode 22 - Allan Young

Episode 23 - Lee Smolin

Episode 24 - Nicholas Maxwell

Easily our favorite discovery in this series has been Simon Schaffer, a professor in the philosophy of science at Cambridge University. He has both a gift for explaining his topic and a great sense of humor. He points out, for instance, that both Newton and Leibniz, each of whom seem to have invented the calculus independently of the other, both have biscuits named after them. Video and audio of Schaffer speaking about various subjects are well worth looking for: at Cambridge and Stanford University, on YouTube (Mr. Schaffer has anchored some BBC TV shows about science), and on an erudite BBC radio show called In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg (available as a podcast from BBC or via iTunes.)

The other of Mr. Cayley's programs, about the shaping of the modern public, also is available on the Web and in podcast form. It is essentially a series of interviews with Canadian and American academics involved in a research project overseen by McGill University, in Montreal. "Publicity was once the exclusive property of men of rank," the CBC website states. "They alone, by virtue of their stations, could make things public. During the 18th century it became meaningful to talk about 'public opinion' as something formed outside the state. Today anyone with a Twitter account can make a public. In this series IDEAS producer David Cayley examines how publics were formed in Europe, between 1500 and 1700, and how these early publics grew into the concept of 'the public' that we hold today." We look forward to listening to these programs, as well.
(At first glance, this topic of the "public" brings to mind the idea of the attention economy, which we first heard about in the mid-1980s from Michael H. Goldhaber. Goldhaber points out that while the world is awash in "information," the amount of attention that people can pay to that information is quite limited. Attention is a scarce commodity, as Illich might say. And so, an economy of attention is already underway, with different kinds of attention - mass audiences paying attention to stars and vice-versa, for instance - being traded back and forth. Much of the "PC revolution," Goldhaber points out, has had to do with providing people with ways of gainign attention for themselves: Powerpoint, desktop publishing, bulletin boards and now, Facebook and Twitter. Goldhaber goes so far as to predict that "the attention economy will eventually replace the money-industrial economy, in all variants, including capitalism.")

"CIDOC was a magic place"

A seemingly complete, 15-page chapter of Dr. Martina Kaller-Dietrich's 2008 biography, Ivan Illich (1926-2002); Sein Leben, sein Denken [his life, his thought], is available on the Web as a PDF download - here. It's written in German, which means that we, as non-speakers, are, alas, unable to make much sense of it. But we have connections, as they say, and we are trying our best to arrange for an informal translation.

Dr. Kaller-Dietrich is a professor at the University of Vienna. She's deputy head of the History Dept. She's also on the editoral board of The International Journal of Ivan Illich Studies.




Here is her book's table of contents, with page numbers:


Einleitung 2

Zur Methode 10

Forschungsstand 13


1 berufen– Entwurzelung, Flucht, Gelübde 15

1.1 Kindheit und Jugendjahre in Wien 16

1.2 Ausbildung in Italien 24

1.3 Intermezzo in Salzburg 26

1.4 Seelsorger in New York 29

1.5 Erziehungsreformer in Puerto Rico 36


2 empört – Bekenntnis, Zweifel, Zerwürfnis 42

2.1 Die Allianz für den Fortschritt 43

2.2 Gründung des Centro Intercultural de Documentación in Cuernavaca 49

2.3 Illich vor dem Heiligen Offizium 60

2.4 Schlussstrich unter die Causa Cuernavaca 68

2.5 Pacem in Terris: Medellín und die Rebellion von 1968 70

2.6 „CIDOC was a magic place“ 86


3 berühmt: Entschulung, Expertenherrschaft und Kontraproduktivität 101

3.1 Illich öffentlich 106

3.2 Politik und Freiheit 112

3.3 Illich und die Frauen 121


4 leibhaftig – Lehrer, Freund, Christ 139

4.1 Die Verderbnis des Besten 139

4.2 Sinne und System 144

4.3 Pionier des Un-Sinns 148


5 Illich heute lesen? 153

Literaturverzeichnis 155

Quellen 165

Anhang: Die Schriften am Zentru 166

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

"Eco-pedagogical dictatorship," or deschooled commons?

We've recently come across a rarely-seen paper by Ivan Illich, one that's new to us and definitely worth a look by anyone interested in Illich's thought. "Eco-pedagogics and the commons" is from 1983, when he was still working on what he called his "history of scarcity," and it shows him at his penetrating and sarcastic best.

The paper is downloadable in PDF format from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. It was published as an item in a newsletter put out by the Swiss-based International Foundation for Development Alternatives.

This paper provides a good basis, we'd say, for thinking critically about the situation currently facing the U.S. and other industrialized nations. They are confronted with mounting unemployment, stagnant economic growth, and impending disaster from climate change. They are, in a way, highly-developed nations looking for their own shot of "economic development" medicine, as it were - the kind of medicine they have been hawking to other, less-industrialized nations for the past many decades. For years, they did their best to mold other nations to their way of intensive commodity consumption, but now, as Illich was seeing signs of all those years ago, the counter-productivities of industrial tools and systems are overwhelming all nations, not just the poorer, "less-developed" ones.

In a way, Illich's paper of nearly 30 years ago anticipated President Obama's call last week - a call that by now is heard ad nauseum from politicians of every stripe - for more education and more science and more "innovation" as the way to solve these global-scale problems. Even as public schools fight cutbacks, college tuition skyrockets, and more students give up and drop out, the calls for "more education" gain both volume and frequency. The value of not only high-priced law degrees but even 4-year college degrees are now being seriously questioned, regularly and in high-profile venues. Wasn't it Illich who once wrote that as the cost of education rises, society will eventually reach a point where it can no longer afford to reproduce itself? Arguably, we are seeing signs that we are approaching just that asymptotic limit. Obama was unable even to sketch out how he might fund all the new educational consumption he calls for, but to a technology-mesmerized public, it sounds like a bet that's a sure winner: More education = increased innovation = stronger economy = more jobs = more consumption = more economic growth. What Illich warned of, though, was not only the expense of delivering educational services that get consumed in schoolrooms. In this paper, as elsewhere, he warns of a world where education is everywhere - "designed into the environment," as he puts it, here. Isn't that we see now, what with information and instructions radiating from the Web and its zillion screens and programmed into practically every digital gizmo we encounter, from mobile phones to desktop computers to remotely-controlled signage on the highway? The more virtual the world, the more "education" will need to be consumed and the more widely and continuously that consumption will need to take place.

Illich, in 1983:

… Education I associate with some kind of swimming lesson in which pupils are trained to keep afloat in an ever rising tide of bits, a flood that has long ago lifted them off the ground of personal meanings. As the pupil is taught how to handle, ever more skillfully, the onrush of information, even his desire for grounding in a meaningful system is eroded.

Education, as manpower qualification, is an enterprise by which people are disciplined for competent performance of work which remains meaningless to them. More recently, education, as training for clientage in the service industry, for computer use and for consumption, is an enterprise that teaches people to content themselves with meaningless lives off the job. In both ways education is a means to make people adjuncts to economic growth. But this economic growth will not come and if it comes it will be of an entirely symbolic nature. If the word ‘development’ is to survive, it must now acquire a new meaning. So far it has meant more energy intensive goods and more professional service. Both types of growth have reached their asymptote, not so much because their externalities have become intolerable, but because they have become counterproductive. At this point, development can only mean a change-over from growth to a steady state. However, what steady state shall mean depends entirely on the way in which we interpret the present.

Typical for this moment in Illich's intellectual inquiry, the paper seeks to highlight the differences between a world of markets and economics, all rooted in the assumption of scarcity, and a traditional, vernacular world based on the notion of commons. "The theme of my lecture," Illich writes,

is the bond that constitutes E & D as I shall call education and development when they are considered as a couple. I cannot pursue the origins of this bond back into romanticism and enlightenment, but I can touch on its history since 1945. I am interested in the bond because it is becoming an evil of an unrecognized kind. I am also interested in this bond because I believe that the assumptions which made it possible have now ceased to exist.
I will first deal with two ways to view the non-economic costs of progress: externalities and counter-purposive function, that appear both in education and all other major economic sectors. For simplicity's sake I will usually use transportation as the counterpoint to education. I will then call attention to the assumption of scarcity that is common to both sides. Then only will I deal with the history of our couple [E & D] and the danger it now gives rise to: highly repressive eco-pedagogical policies.

No book ever got published with the title A History of Scarcity, but Illich's project, started in the late 1970s as he began winding down his public activism and turning to a study of the history of modern certainties, yielded many interesting pieces of writing, like this one. Another from that time, "The Social Construction of Energy," was first published - in English, at least - one year ago by a Harvard journal called New Geographies. In this "new" paper, Illich describes yet more social construction:

Education and Development are both social construction enterprises. Each creates that new kind of space which it then furnishes. Education creates the inner psychic void which demands to be outfitted and then monopolizes the production of its scarce furniture. Development redefines the outer world as "the environment" - a word now used to designate the container for scarce resources in which we live. Together E & D are the catalyst which synthesizes the two into that commodity intensive reality within which we think and move.

Illich argues that economic growth has reached its asymptote, thwarted by rising counter-productivity and the computer making many jobs unnecessary. And inevitably, there is a shift among planners to explore and even lay plans for some kind of "steady state" as an alternative. But then, there is a choice to be made: either continuing with the assumption of scarcity in all things including, most insidiously, education and knowledge, or attempting to recover the commons - "the reconquest of the right to live in self-limiting communities that each treasure their own mode of subsistence," as Illich puts it.

We've been working our way through the paper, enjoying its many observations. We imagine the paper will be of particular interest to those interested in transportation. Whether it's miles-per-hour or miles-per-gallon, the entire discussion about transportation assumes a world of scarcity. "Most people now alive have acquired [this assumption] during this generation," Illich writes.

Take as an example, transportation. A large part of all those still alive were born auto-mobile. They had only their feet for moving about. Culture defined their range, but within this range they had almost unlimited access to each other. Getting from here to there did not depend, most of the time, on a resource which was scarce, which you could not get if I got it. This is totally different for us. We have created a world in which we have to be moved, in which we have to consume "passenger miles". And these are always scarce - if I get there, I compete with you for a seat. We belong to the human subspecies of homo transportandus. In the same way we belong to the sub-species of homo educandus. Once everywhere almost everything that people needed for everyday life they learned because it was meaningful to them and had proven useful. Now, we are constantly taught what is meaningful, from a perspective which is not yet ours, and we are taught things that, we are told, one day will be useful to us. And we are taught only as much as we are able to pay for, or society is rich enough to give us. Education as a result of teaching, is always a commodity, a service and as such is scarce."

Ultimately, as it always was, Illich is concerned with the plight of the less powerful - the world's poor, that is, who are getting force-marched into a world of ever-escalating consumption. Increasingly, they cannot afford the scarce commodities that have replaced the commons on which they once depended. These are the people who once collected wood to cook their food but now must buy electricity, those how who used to walk but now must pay for bus tickets - and schedule their activities to the bus's schedule, as well. Illich writes:

We can continue in the illusion that our most basic assumptions about human nature and society are somehow "natural" - that, without knowing it, all cultures share them with us. If we do this, we shall continue to assume that all cultures, in some way, provide education for their young and that everywhere people live off scarce products. In this hypothesis, both education and commodity dependence have always been the condition of man and it makes no sense to transcend them.

If we remain prisoners of this mind-frame, the development of a steady state society will require an unprecedented intensity of education and management. Only a hitherto unimagined degree of sober production, toil in consumption and mutual policing will make survival possible. Only life-long teaching, designed into the environment, can possibly provide that much "education". Re-reading Skinner might prepare us for this scenario of an eco-pedagogical dictatorship.

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