An Invitation to Ivan Illich

An enemy of conventional wisdom and a sage against the machine

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In a half-filled auditorium on the campus of Pennsylvania State University, Ivan Illich spied a friend. Though it was time for him to begin his remarks, Illich, one of the 20th century?s leading philosophers, leapt off the stage and knelt in front of a small boy named Krishna who had come to the lecture with his mother.

The former Catholic priest and deliberately itinerant scholar with degrees in theology, history, and chemistry - the intimidating author who has enjoyed infuriating ?experts? for several decades by questioning what he calls their ?socially constructed certitudes? - came down to Krishna?s level so he could look him in the eyes when he spoke.

The moment was typical of Illich, a man who has often bucked academic protocol. Unwilling to associate himself with any one institution, Illich splits each academic year between guest professorships at Penn State and in Bremen, Germany, and spends the remaining months in a Mexican village outside Cuernavaca working on various writing projects. Illich, who speaks 11 languages and has studied a vast range of subjects for his dozen books and many essays, is as intent on avoiding the physical constraints of institutions as he is on keeping his distance from much of the research pursued there. In his words, he?s not interested in ?spending too much time with particle splitters, wave mechanics, discourse deconstructionists, and their ilk.?

This independent, piercing intellect has been brought to bear on some of contemporary society?s most sacred cows. Over the years, Illich has called for the ?deinstitutionalization? of education, transportation, religion, and medicine, arguing that such institutions are a ?corruption of the best which turns out to be the worst.?

In his 1971 book Deschooling Society (Harper & Row), for example, he takes on compulsory education, which is, in his view, more like a compulsory lottery: A few win but more lose, and because most people expect schools to lead to an education, good jobs, and success, those who drop out or fail to come up with the winning numbers (grades) are stigmatized for the rest of their lives. Just as cruel, argues Illich, is higher education, which is geared more to reproducing privilege than to inspiring scholarship and forming democratic citizens - killing curiosity and stupefying students in the process.

Twenty-five years after Deschooling Society?s radical critique of the way American schools ?reflect, prop up, and reinforce prevailing forms of discrimination,? fights over the cannon and multicultural curricula seem kind of silly.