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.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Mother Jerome

A Web page devoted to Mother Jerome, Ivan Illich's friend and collaborator, can be viewed here. She was born Melanie “Muska” von Nagel in 1908, in Germany. She entered the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis, in Hartford, Connecticut in 1958, and died there in 2006. According to this biographical page, which is part of the Abbey's own website, she had quite a life. And the Abbey itself looks to be a lively place.


Illich wrote his paper, "The Scopic Past and the Ethics of the Gaze" (available at the Pudel site in Bremen), he states, "after discussions with Barbara Duden, Mother Jerome, O.S.B., and Lee Hoinacki." Matthias Rieger, a collaborator and friend in Bremen, talks at some length about Mother Jerome in his paper, "The disembodiment of the utterance" (also available from the Pudel site). We've always assumed that Illich's 1989 paper, "Posthumous Longevity, An open letter to a cloistered community of Benedictine nuns" (also at Pudel), was addressed to Mother Jerome. "Dear Mother Prioress," it opens. But we may be wrong about that. (Can anyone help?)

Under the name Muska Nagel, she translated the works of Paul Celan, who was possibly Illich's favorite poet.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Medical Nemesis redux

We just saw this in The New York Times, August 27, in a blog called The Well Column, and it made us think of Medical Nemesis:

Overtreatment Is Taking a Harmful Toll

When it comes to medical care, many patients and doctors believe more is better.

But an epidemic of overtreatment — too many scans, too many blood tests, too many procedures — is costing the nation’s health care system at least $210 billion a year, according to the Institute of Medicine, and taking a human toll in pain, emotional suffering, severe complications and even death.

“What people are not realizing is that sometimes the test poses harm,” said Shannon Brownlee, acting director of the health policy program at the New America Foundation and the author of “Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer,” a 2007 book.

“Sometimes the test leads you down a path, a therapeutic cascade, where you start to tumble downstream to more and more testing, and more and more invasive testing, and possibly even treatment for things that should be left well enough alone.”

Have you experienced too much medicine? As part of The New York Times’s online series The Agenda, I asked readers to share their stories. More than 1,000 responded, with examples big and small.

The article continues to examine many instances of overtreatment. More than 140 readers posted comments. Of course, Illich's concern was not so much over-expenditure on medical care but the harm and extra suffering that the medical system causes those in its care.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Eugene J. Burkart, R.I.P.

We're deeply saddened to learn that Gene Burkart, a devoted and articulate reader of Ivan Illich, died this past Saturday. Gene visited CIDOC in the early 1970s and years later got in touch with Illich and his circle at Penn State. He worked as a lawyer in Waltham, Mass., mainly representing immigrants and other have-nots, as he put it. He was hoping, we understand, to see a gathering of the Illich crowd at Penn State this year, the tenth anniversary of Illich's death.

Gene contributed a piece to The Challenges of Ivan Illich with the title, "From the Economy to Friendship: My Years Studying with Ivan Illich." We recommend it as one of the better responses to Illich that one can find, dealing with the essential question: What should I, what can I, do with the knowledge and awareness of the world that I have obtained through Illich's work?

His essay is available for reading here, at the website Scribd. It opens with a quite remarkable anecdote about Gene's first encounter with Illich at CIDOC in 1973. He had gone to CIDOC quite enthusiastically but soon found Illich to be arrogant and hypocritical, a "phony … enmeshed in his own cleverness." But then, while giving a talk to an audience seated on a porch at CIDOC, Illich turned to look at Gene, who was far off to the side: " … he did not know me. I wondered, Had he sensed my anger? He continued speaking, all the while looking intensely at me, as if he really wanted me to understand what he was saying. I returned his gaze and although I did not understand a word he said, I felt the confusion of my thoughts and feelings inexplicably lifted from me. In those few moments I had the experience of intimately seeing this person, Ivan Illich, for the first time; I then knew he was someone I could trust. But I would not have a direct conversation with him for many years to come."

"I found myself in a quandary," he writes further on in the essay. "If all economic activity has a corrosive effect on society, how is one to act ethically? Modern life is tightly bound up by market relations. Illich contrasted the economic with premodern ways of living he called subsistence or the vernacular. He proposed a 'modern subsistence as an alternative to economics as a way to break the cash nexus.' But, I wondered, where were the examples? I knew that many of those who had attempted to live outside the economy in the back-to-the-land movement failed. I admired the success of the Amish but felt no calling to their way; further, I had friends and family I did not want to leave. Also, being married, I could not just force my ideas on my wife. What could I do? Was there no way out?"

"I eventually concluded," Gene writes, "that the best way to understand Illich's work is as a detailed study of the myriad and varied barriers to friendship that exist in modern life."

"Friendship does not lend itself to an accounting, to economics," Gene finishes his essay. "The only way I can hope to show my gratitude [to Illich] is to strive to be for others the kind of friend Ivan Illich has been to me."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Illich on Television

Here is a pair of photos made of Ivan Illich on television. He was appearing with John Holt. The photos appear on a site devoted to Holt's work. (Specifically, here.) We're not sure what year this was, but our best guess is the early to mid 1970s, when both men were in the news for their criticisms of the educational system.



One thing 'Deschooling' missed ...

… is the increasing use of schools as marketing channels for corporations trying to reach new generations of potential customer.

OK, this kind of thing was not going on when Illich wrote his book, so he can't be faulted for "missing" it. But look at what's happening as schooling "goes digital" and turns into a battleground fought over by traditional textbook publishers and now, reports the New York Times, media companies, too:

… And then there is the Walt Disney Company. It is building a chain of language schools in China big enough to enroll more than 150,000 children annually. The schools, which weave Disney characters into the curriculum, are not going to move the profit needle at a company with $41 billion in annual revenue. But they could play a vital role in creating a consumer base as Disney builds a $4.4 billion theme park and resort in Shanghai.

This is from a news story titled, "Media Companies, Seeing Profit Slip, Push Into Education." The story states: "Conventional textbooks for kindergarten through 12th grade are a $3 billion business in the United States, according to the Association of American Publishers, with an additional $4 billion spent on teacher guides, testing resources and reference materials. And almost all that printed material, educators say, will eventually be replaced by digital versions." The fight to capture the spoils is underway.

Using teaching materials as a way to market brands and branded products to young children is nothing new, of course. A few years ago, a textbook was published that taught children to count and do simply arithmetic in terms of Cheerios, a donut-shaped breakfast cereal. Apple and Microsoft have long been slugging it out in the market for school computers, too. Many brochures and textbooks supplied by corporations are used by cash-strapped high schools to teach other subjects, such as personal health. Marketing wisdom has it, of course, that if a brand manages to make a strong impression on people when they are young, they will quite likely to remain loyal to the brand as they grow older. Hence the billions spent on marketing to pre-teens and teens, albeit mostly outside of school.

If nothing else, using branded textbooks and developing branded schools fits into Illich's general observation that school is where children learn to be consumers. And the use of such teaching materials seems inevitable as the pressure for educational reform mounts, school budgets shrink, and society doubles down on education as a way to help "make America more competitive in the global economy." There is a kind of desperation in the air and corporations are more than glad to step in and help out, and to use the situation to their own ends, as well. It helps, too, that there is a growing call to privatize more of public schooling as a way to slash costs and make it more effective.

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