An Invitation to Ivan Illich

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

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.

In Tools for Conviviality (Harper & Row, 1973), a
broad examination of the institutions that dominate modern life,
Illich outlines both a philosophy and a social critique of
technology, Illich elaborates the major themes of this exceptional
work in several subsequent books. In Energy and Equity
(Harper & Row, 1974), he argues that high energy consumption
inevitably overpowers and degrades social relations, while
addiction to speed – cars, planes- is a debilitating and ultimately
dehumanizing social disease. Medical Nemesis (Pantheon,
1976) explores the history of concepts like ?health care? and
proposes that the medicalization of health beyond a certain point
is actually counterproductive and ?sickening.?

In his 1982 book Gender (Pantheon), Illich attempts to
show that sexism is the inevitable condition of industrial society,
which deforms the ?dyssymetric complementarity? of men and women
into a ?legally engineered equality? – creating a world not of men
and women but of competitive economic beings. In such a world,
argues Illich, the majority of women will always lose out
economically. Needless to say, Gender did not endear him
to feminists.

His most recent book, In the Vineyard of the Text
(University of Chicago Press, 1993), holds a mirror to the past and
explores Illich?s beloved 12th century in order to
contrast the way we read today with the way a dear friend of his –
a monk, Hugh of St. Victor – experienced the art of reading 800
years ago. In fact, Hugh was the subject of Illich?s speech at Penn

Speaking to an audience consisting mostly of friends and a few
academic colleagues, Illich announced the imminent end of the
university as we understand it, a place of learning based upon the
book. He cautioned that a certain type of reading skill was
disappearing – in effect, a physical intercourse between reader,
printed text, and the world beyond. Hugh delighted in the written
page, savoring words from line to line like grapes picked from the
monastery vineyard. (Illich informed us that page, or
pagina in Latin, derives from espalier, the
trellis on which grapevines are grown.) Reading for Hugh was a
physical activity as well as a search for wisdom. It was a way of

In contrast, said Illich, reading today is veering off ?in the
direction of masturbation in hyperspace.? According to Illich, when
the sensual, textural, actual book-as-body goes, so goes a
vital, human form of interaction. What?s wrong with a little
fooling around in hyperspace? Illich didn?t say, but by the time he
had finished his story about Hugh?s feast of words, hyperspace
seemed like a virtual wasteland. Illich, an elegant man of 68 with
a lilting accent derived from the German, French, and Italian he
spoke at home as a child, left the final denunciation of Progress
to the poets, ending his speech with these lines: ?The sweetest
things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far
worse than weeds.? Though he hadn?t attacked technology or even
higher education, a radical critique of modern techniques of living
and learning hung heavily in the air.

In David Cayley?s Ivan Illich in Conversation (Anansi
Press, 1992), Illich says, ?I often have the impression that the
more traditionally I speak, the more radically alien I become.?
This may be true. In an age that assumes the perfect word for a
poem can be found by accessing WordPerfect, or that genetic
engineering is part of a natural order, Illich?s insights may no
longer make sense. In a society that has gotten used to standing on
its head ? preferring the drum machine to the drum, for example, or
the Discovery Channel to a slow walk in the woods ? it may be
impossible to embrace a man who still uses his feet.

Hugh?s story is a classic example of the way Illich often
illustrates his complex thinking. In the past, he has often made
use of the vivid stories and characters of Greek myth as handrails
for unfamiliar, even disorienting, philosophical territory. In this
same way, a contemporary story involving Illich and his friend and
collaborator Lee Hoinacki helps explain the essential impulses
behind Illich?s life work.

In 1993, Hoinacki, also a former priest, decided to take
Illich?s advice and make a thousand-kilometer pilgrimage to the
Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela ? a destination of European
pilgrims since the ninth century. In honor of the decision, Illich
retrieved a pair of sturdy walking shoes from his closet and
presented them to his friend.

Illich remembers when he bought those shoes, in 1973, the day
Chilean president Salvador Allende was killed: ?When I heard the
news of Allende?s death, I remembered that the last time I had seen
him we had had an argument. I told him he should be riding his bike
to work and he had said that the president of a country doesn?t do
that sort of thing, and besides, it was too dangerous to ride out
in the open like that. I had replied, ?Wouldn?t it be better to be
killed on your bike than in your office???

The day Illich bought his shoes, Allende?s term as a
democratically elected socialist president ended with a gunshot to
the head, in the president?s office.

The walking shoes, which had been used only rarely in the 20
years, fit Hoinacki perfectly. But pilgrimages are a test of the
soul as well as the body, and on the very first day Hoinacki
remembers looking up toward the steep mountain pass still blanketed
in snow and thinking he would never be able to make it through ?
much less all the way to Santiago de Compostela.

He leaned against a rock and concentrated on the thousands,
perhaps millions, who had already passed by this spot. He
concentrated on the great mystery of faith that led these pilgrims
into northern Spain, and the great mystery of friendship that led
him there.

Hoinacki says he must have lost consciousness; he does not
remember making his way up to the pass. The next thing he knew, he
was walking down the other side ? a great mystery to him to this
day ? and realizing he could complete the pilgrimage.

At its simplest, this is a tale about the exceptional use of
unexceptional tools: a pair of simple shoes. It also offers a
window into Illich?s long-standing opposition to ?development.?
When Illich challenged Allende to ride his bike to work, he was
asking him to use alternative forms of transportation that were
naturally adapted to his nation?s circumstances and resources. A
tireless detractor of development policies that ?institutionalize
the values? of technological society and impose on poor nations
expectations that could never be met, Illich saw that Allende?s
pedaling could have legitimized if not glamorized a ?No! Thank you?
to the Alliance for Progress? Peace Corps as well as the
International Monetary Fund ? two organizations he has often
criticized as agents of development at its worst.

The story of the pilgrimage is also about discipline, suffering,
and ?walking the walk.? Granted, these are odd concepts today. In
the age of quick fixes, self-help, and instant gratification, even
the word pilgrimage sounds quaint, anachronistic. Why
tramp a thousand k?s when you can drive to the music store and buy
Chant by some Benedictine monks and have a religious
experience in your living room? Both Hoinacki and Illich would
consider this question absurd.

The story also offers the briefest glimpse of Illich?s strong
but complicated religious faith. Though Illich remains a devout
Catholic, his bond with the church has almost always been strained.
This tension, which culminated in 1968 when Illich was called on
the world?s biggest carpet, the Vatican?s, had been in the making
almost from the day of his ordination in 1951.

Illich?s work with Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem between 1951
and 1956 led him to criticize the American church, which he said
was imposing its values on minority groups. Later, as vice rector
of the Catholic University in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Illich took aim
at the educational system he was charged with running.

But it was as founder and director of the Center for
Intercultural Documentation in Mexico that Illich really started
ringing alarm bells in Rome. An intensive language school and
training center for U.S. priests, nuns, and brothers on their way
to Latin America, the center, known by its Spanish acronym, CIDOC,
was also the meeting ground for the dissident intellectuals and lay
religious workers, who were encouraged by Illich to question the
founding assumptions of volunteer programs for the Peace Corps to
Catholic missions. Described as a think tank for radicals, CIDOC
ran counter to everything the politically conservative church held
sacred. After several years of ?success,? Illich was summoned to

Illich refused to defend himself ? inside or outside the
Vatican. Within the year he had resigned as an ?employee? of the
church-as-institution ? as what he has called an ?It.? But he has
never stopped viewing himself as a humble servant of the church as
?She,? a familiar and beloved place of beauty, truth, awareness,
and mystery.

Finally, and perhaps fundamentally, the story of those simple
shoes is one of friendship. Illich is deeply, irrevocably committed
to his friends. He will do everything he can for them ? give love,
guidance, comfort, and a sense of community ? but he cannot and
will not help them avoid life, which for him is not separate from
pain and suffering. The shoes helped Hoinacki make the journey but
did not insulate him from either the elements or his own inner

Illich notes that today people ?surrender themselves to
atrocious debaucheries of images and representations in order not
to see.? In an age that denies death and deforms reality, simple
acts of kindness, personal relations bound by friendship,
are celebrations of sense ? the embrace, the kiss, the face-to-face
conversation ? in a sense-less world of artificial intelligence and
electronic communities.

In 1973, the same year Allende died, the same year he bought
those shoes, Illich published Tools for Conviviality. In
his introduction, Illich clearly states his belief in the
importance of friendship and its crucial component,
self-limitation: Today, the idea of ?austerity? has ?been degraded
and has acquired a bitter taste,? he notes, but for Aristotle and
Thomas Aquinas it gave rise to the ?disciplined and creative
playfulness? that formed the foundation of friendship. He argues
with Aquinas that austerity is a ?virtue which does not exclude all
enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or
destructive of personal relatedness.? In this sense, friendship and
self-limitation are inextricable halves of the good life.

But self-limitation as Illich understands it is in direct
opposition to currently fashionable ideas like self-help,
self-management, or even responsibility for oneself and the
environment (all of which he dismissively calls ?liberation
psychology?). One doesn?t renounce gas-guzzling cars or nuclear
power in response to ecomail that solicits funds while it
encourages ?sustainable development? of the ?global community?
(oxymorons to Illich). One doesn?t embrace a circumscribed
lifestyle, a ?convivial? life in which individual freedom is
realized in personal inter-dependence, out of an abstract sense of
?responsibility? or an imposed ?ought,? but because one wants to
stand with those who speak, simply, of decency.

This sense of friendship has been the guiding principle in much
of Illich?s writing, just as it has been a guiding force in his
life. At times, it has been the cause of apparent contradictions,
as his philosophy confronts the day to day: For example, at a
friend?s request for his presence Illich will get on a plane ?
something he condemns in his writing on transportation. Or he will
use a microphone, out of friendship, though he despises the way it
destroys the intimacy with his audience.

In the end, what drives Illich is deep fellow feeling and a
drive to explain a few last things, even as pain from a large
growth on the side of his face ? which he refuses to have diagnosed
or treated by what he views as an inhumane medical industry ?
transforms his days into an endurance test.

In a society ravenous for pop stars and cultural icons, even
intellectuals can fall prey to the cult of personality. Though the
people in Illich?s universe are clearly devoted to him, there is
nothing of the cult in the air. Sezer GONCUOGLU, whose husband
teaches at Penn State, said she spends two months each fall in
Illich?s seminars and ten months waiting for his return. Sezer, who
is Turkish, described a ritual she grew up practicing: As a child,
whenever she met an elder, she was expected to kiss that person?s
hand and then touch the back of that hand to her forehead. It was a
sign of respect.

She had forgotten about this ritual until she met Illich. One
day, after weeks of anxiety, Sezer greeted her teacher in the
traditional Turkish manner. Illich absorbed the grace of the
gesture, then in turn kissed Sezer?s hand and placed it on his
forehead. Without disrespecting the spirit of her action, Illich in
his reciprocation denied any imbalance of feeling. An incredibly
decent thing to do.

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