Do educational institutions make people stupid? Do medical institutions make people sick?
Such questions may at first glance seem preposterous, but they were raised in all seriousness a few decades ago by Ivan Illich, and strongly argued in his books, Deschooling Society (1971) and Medical Nemesis (1975). In both cases his arguments stem from his overarching belief that as institutions become too large and too centralized they end up doing the exact opposite of what they are intended to do. Over the subsequent decades, we’ve seen mounting evidence that Illich was correct in his assessments. In our attempts to improve efficiency, eliminate uncertainty, and get more done in less time, we have allowed everything to become too big, too rigid, too fast, and too centrally controlled. In the process the individual has become ever more helpless and alienated and more dependent on impersonal institutions that are being corrupted by their power and inherent conflicts of interest. As Illich argues, we have become slaves to our institutions and our myths about who we are and how the world works. George Bernard Shaw spoke similarly in declaring that all professions are “conspiracies against the laity.”
Ivan Illich (1926–2002) was a Catholic priest, theologian, philosopher, and social critic, who became famous in the 1970s and 80s, and although his fame may have faded a bit in recent years, his ideas and works have been, and remain highly influential and are now more relevant than ever. Notable in this regard are such resources as The International Journal of Illich Studies, the upcoming, The Philosophy of Ivan Illich: An 8-Week Course, being offered by Nina Power, PhD, and a brand new book by noted journalist and broadcaster, David Cayley, titled, Ivan Illich:An Intellectual Journey (2021).
Cayley has followed the work of Illich since the 1960s, and in 1989 he visited Penn State University where Illich was then teaching, to record a series of interviews that were then used in a five part series in Cayley’s Ideas program that aired on CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Company). That series titled, “Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich,” was comprised of one hour segments that included biographical information and comments about Illich and his ideas by others who knew him. The series is now available online and can be accessed here.
I became an instant admirer of Illich and his work in the early 1980s after reading both of the above mentioned books, as well as his prescriptive work, Tools for Conviviality (1973). In the latter he points out what Wikipedia calls “the institutionalization of specialized knowledge,” and “the dominant role of technocratic elites in industrial society.” Illich argues in favor of “appropriate technology” and the reacquisition of practical knowledge and simple tools that empower people and help to build community. In short, he calls for a general deinstitutionalization of society and a reconceptualization of what it means to be human.We have, by and large, internalized the belief that we are, in Illich’s words, “poor, sick and ignorant,” and in need of institutional services to remedy that situation.
In August of 1989 I had the honor of welcoming Illich to give a presentation at the 8th Assembly of the Fourth World and Decentralist Congress that was held in Toronto, Canada. As President at that time of the School of Living, the sponsoring organization, I served as moderator of the event which also included presentations by such insightful thinkers and activists as Leopold Kohr and John Papworth.
Both Cayley and I have taken Illich’s insights to heart in our personal responses to the ongoing crisis of civilization and to its latest manifestation, the “pandemic” and official reactions to it. Cayley’s sentiments are expressed in his recent post, Concerning Life, in which he delves deeply into Iliich’s expressions of what the word “life” actually means and what Illich meant when he said that life has become “an idol” and “a fetish.” He and I seem to share the view that the concept of life has been distorted in the public mind as Christendom, and religious institutions in general, have tried to accommodate with a materialistic civilization that is now unraveling.
For me it comes down to this: Life is more than breath and pulse, flesh and blood, muscle and bone. The fear of death inhibits true life which is more than physical, it is spiritual– free, adventuresome, and spontaneous and open to unknown possibilities. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25). And this, from a more secular point of view states the same essential truth: Life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die. –W.H. Auden.
God grant that I might find the courage to push through my fear of death, embrace my destiny, and choose to truly live.
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