Saving Ivan Illich

Sometime in 2006, I wrote a long and rambling blog entry on Ivan Illich’s Deshcooling Society, which I had just read. Here are the highlights:

Deschooling isn’t as good a read as [John Taylor] Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education, but Illich does a better job of presenting his ideas than Gatto does. The problem of mass industrial society, for Illich, is that we human beings have created systems (school is the example he uses because it is upon school that all other institutions and systems of mass society rest) that are fundamentally anti-human. That is, the logic of the system triumphs over the logic of the individual human being. For Illich (if I understand him correctly), the mass society, brought about by industrialism, needs to manage individual human wants, to ensure that there is enough demand for the goods and services produced by industries and mass government. The health of the economy, and continued economic growth, as well the position and power of the state, all depend on the management of demand. That management takes the form of both coerscion (law) and persuasion (advertising as one example), but the goal is to make sure that human beings are incapable of managing themselves (either as individuals or as voluntary collectives) and must rely on professionals to manage their needs and wants. School fits in becuase it creates demand for “instruction” and substitutes teaching for actual education, and is also the template by which human beings are made a part of the “system” of mass society and taught to learn their place and function — mainly as consumers of services and products — within it.

But my biggest problem with his recommendations is that they appear to have actually gotten traction among reformers and communitarians, people who did these things on top of school, not instead of school. That’s not Illich’s fault, of course. But I’m having a hard time finishing the book because it has stopped reading like a revolutionary tome and has become just another piece of silly futurism gone awry. (Think Toffler’s — or was it Naisbitt’s? — much heralded and very silly paperless office.)

Now, someone at the time suggested I real Illich’s 1988 speech on education in Chicago, The Educational Enterprise in Light of the Gospel. Because Illich makes suggestions at how to reform education, there was plenty to be co-opted in the essay — and much was. However, Illich takes no prisoners in the 1988 speech, and is a great deal more uncompromising in this essay. Which is good.

I want to call your attention to the experience of successful avoidance of imputed needs and their professional management. This ethos of avoidance is founded in the American ideal of the selfmade man. It consists in the enjoyment of the liberty to refuse compliance, to drop out and forego one’s rightful share of costly service. I choose this neglected subject because I believe that the poor deserve special consideration when they act in this way.

The great majority of all Chicago children who leave school before they graduate are Black or Hispanic, and slumbred. By the time they drop out they have been badly mangled in soul and body. Understandably they refuse further care after intensive remedial programs have forced them to acknowledge their incompetence to succeed within the system and to make it into society at large by those routes which their teachers approve of. For the rest of their lives a school record will dog them relentlessly. But these dropouts, in another way are also privileged: In school they have learned to fake almost anything, and to see the school system for what it really is: a worldwide soulshredder that junks the majority and hardens an elite to govern it. They recognize the schoolsystem as an evil, no matter how good or evil, effective or pleasant some schools might be for their pupils, and all schools, occasionally, for some kids. The reflective dropout learns to laugh about the pious platitudes praising modern education, when the enterprise which organizes it is by its very nature an instrument which compounds their truancy with psychological, social and economic discriminations.

American pluralism has a beautiful but limited tradition. Its enormous variety of educational, medical and ecclesial systems witness to it. But this pluralism has limits. Only in the domain of religion is the constitutional protection of the nonchurched atheist taken seriously. This society is gravely threatened unless we recognize without envy sublimated into grudge that dropouts of any description might be closer to Huck Finn than the church or the schoolgoers. I will now first explain why I want to speak about the dropout in the context of Christian salvation and then why, at this time in history, the school-dropout has even worldly wisdom on his side. I want to motivate Christians, who can claim a privileged understanding of evil to become leaders on behalf of the civil liberties of the Chicago dropout.

… or this …

… Jesus was an anarchist savior. That’s what the Gospels tell us.

Just before He started out on His public life, Jesus went to the desert. He fasted, and after 40 days he was hungry. At this point the diabolos, appeared to tempt Him. First he asked Him to turn stone into bread, then to prove himself in a magic flight, and finally the devil, diabolos, “divider,” offered Him power. Listen carefully to the words of this last of the three temptations: (Luke 4,6:) “I give you all power and glory, because I have received them and I give them to those whom I choose. Adore me and the power will be yours.” It is astonishing what the devil says: I have all power, it has been given to me, and I am the one to hand it on – submit, and it is yours. Jesus of course does not submit, and sends the devilcumpower to Hell. Not for a moment, however, does Jesus contradict the devil. He does not question that the devil holds all power, nor that this power has been given to him, nor that he, the devil, gives it to whom he pleases. This is a point which is easily overlooked. By his silence Jesus recognizes power that is established as “devil” and defines Himself as The Powerless. He who cannot accept this view on power cannot look at establishments through the spectacle of the Gospel. This is what clergy and churches often have difficulty doing. They are so strongly motivated by the image of church as a “helping institution” that they are constantly motivated to hold power, share in it or, at least, influence it.

Malcontents are often posed the question: “If you think everything is so bad, why don’t you propose some changes?” I have found a fairly simple answer: “I don’t want to give anyone any ideas.” This essay saves Illich as a thinker for me.