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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.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Illich and the f-word

In 1970, Illich's thinkery in Cuernavaca, CIDOC, published a book (CIDOC Cuaderno 57) with the title: Formative undercurrents of compulsory knowledge: Some comparative historical observations on learning and school. The co-editors were Jordan Bishop, a liberation theologist, and Joel Spring, a professor of education at CUNY's Graduate Center.

Perhaps that title strikes you, even if only subliminally, as suspect. If so, you win a cigar. If not, look again. (Alas, the book is out of print and, as far as we can tell, not available in a used copy, either.)

This reminds us of an anecdote that Ivan Illich used to relate to his audiences in the early 1970s. On one recording we've heard, of a talk given at UC Berkeley's Newman Center, it went like this:

Let’s distinguish two sets, two different levels of radical analysis of the educational system. One is, recognize what schools really do.

Now, all over the world, schools school.

There is a titter of laughter in the audience.

I’ll never forget when I first realized what this means with a group of Black Power leaders in Chicago some three years ago, and suddenly somebody said to me, “You know, yeah, you’re right, schools are made to school you." And I understood that schools are made to school you, and everybody laughed when in the afternoon they showed up with buttons saying, “School you.”

Illich and his audience have a good laugh at this and then, he continues:

You cannot go to school for a year without believing that, without learning at least one thing, that the society as it is considers that it would be better if you had gone on to the second or the third year.

Therefore, the people who drop out -- the concept of drop-out is also a beautiful one -- who drop out of the school system are already deeply schooled. They are schooled into their inferiority. ...

In another talk, recorded around the same time, he tells the story as follows:

School is losing its legitimacy. The very great danger, about which we finally now get a lot of people to consent with us that it exists, is that we seek new devices for education.

There is an enthusiasm, a recognition, a first early recognition that the school system as it stands doesn’t work, … uh, five, six years ago, seven years ago and people rushed out to find other ways of schooling up their neighbors.

I’m using that word because in a black community, once, somebody said, “Yeah, school, yeah, you’re right, school is made to school us". And I understood that school is made to school us. So in the afternoon, I understood what they had said when they all showed up with buttons, ”School you.”

Now, people rush out …

Again, Illich chuckles and there is much laughter from the audience.

Excuse me, this just what happened … that’s the reason why Deschooling Society has really a different meaning and I am very surprised that nobody caught it. But Bob Silver of the NY Review of Books crossed out that line. I usually don’t allow an editor to touch my manuscript but when it comes to good taste, I defer to Bob Silver.

Illich laughs with his listeners and continues:

Now, the real danger at this moment is that we seek new ways of educating people for an environment in which school has lost its legitimacy, therefore more effective, more efficient, more subtle ways of education can be financed and become acceptable. For instance, teachers can escape the classroom and bother us like mosquitos all during our lifetimes, just as doctors now can tell us all day long what we have to do. …

We have to say, we cringe when hearing Illich, of all people, adopting here a fairly lame imitation urban black voice to quote the African-Americans.

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