CONVIVIAL GURU: Ivan Illich is dead. I'd like to write more about this sad development sometime soon, and perhaps I will, though it's not a project I'd take up lightly. A radical with a reactionary streak -- or was it the other way around? -- Illich married a brilliant critique of bureaucracy and the professions to a disturbingly static view of the world. This outlook was a closely woven whole, which in many ways made things worse. If, like me, you found yourself profoundly influenced by his work yet just as profoundly alienated from some of his most basic assumptions, it was no simple matter to say you bought into this much Illich and left the rest aside: figuring out exactly where you parted company with the man required a very careful parsing of a very dense analysis. In retrospect, this parsing was one of the most rewarding intellectual experiences of my life.
One common critique of Illich held that his ideas were too abstract to be useful in practice. But at their best, they opened the door to thinking much more practically about social problems than before. The evidence lies in the hands-on work of Illichians ranging from Gustavo Esteva to John F.C. Turner to John McKnight, men whose ideas and accomplishments are a welcome contrast to the dead hand of the development bureaucracies.
The first Illich book I read was Deschooling Society, and to me, it's the best of the lot. Its opening paragraph is still one of my favorite passages in modern political literature:
"Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby 'schooled' to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is 'schooled' to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve those ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question."