Ivan Illich was an Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and "maverick social critic" of the institutions of contemporary western culture and their effects on the education, medicine, work, energy use, transportation, and economic development.

In 1961, Illich founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC, or Intercultural Documentation Center) at Cuernavaca in Mexico. Throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, CIDOC was part language school and part free university for intellectual hippies from all over the Americas. Illich’s real intent was to document the participation of the Vatican in the ‘modern development’ of the so-called Third World. He viewed the rising tide of global industrial development as a form of industrial hegemony and, as such, an act of ‘war on subsistence’. He sought to teach missionaries dispatched by the Church not to impose their own cultural values and to identify themselves, instead, as guests of the host country.

After ten years, critical analysis from the CIDOC of the institutional actions by the Church brought the organization into conflict with the Vatican. In 1976, Illich, apparently concerned by the influx of formal academics and the potential side effects of its own ‘institutionalization’, shut the center down with consent from the other members of the CIDOC. Illich himself resigned from the active priesthood in the late 1960s, but continued to identify himself as a priest.

The book that brought Ivan Illich to public attention was Deschooling Society (1971), a critical discourse on education as practiced in modern economies. Full of detail on contemporary programs and concerns, the book remains as radical today as it was when first published. Giving examples of the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education, Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements. He argued in favour of educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each person to transform each moment of his or her living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.

Two years later, Illich published Tools for Conviviality (1973) in which he generalized the themes that he had previously applied to the field of education: the institutionalization of specialized knowledge, the dominant role of technocratic elites in industrial society, and the need to develop new instruments for the reconquest of practical knowledge by the average citizen. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but 'modernized poverty,' dependency, and an out-of-control system in which humans become worn-down mechanical parts. Illich proposed that we should "invert the present deep structure of tools" in order to "give people tools that guarantee their right to work with independent efficiency."  This book attracted - and continues to attract - worldwide attention.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>