Theologian, educator, and social critic Ivan Illich (born 1926) sought bridges between cultures and explored the bases of people's views of history and reality.
Ivan Illich was born on September 4, 1926, to Ivan Peter and Ellen Illich in Vienna, Austria. His father came from an aristocratic and Christian family; his mother's family was Jewish. His childhood was spent growing up in the homes of grandparents and wherever his parents might be at the time. His father's career as a diplomat politically protected the Jewish members of his family during the 1930s; yet Ivan was classified as "half-Jew" in 1941 and his family secretly fled from a Hitler-controlled Austria to Italy. In Florence at the age of 15, his father and grandfather having died earlier from natural causes, Ivan began taking care of his mother and younger twin brothers.
He entered the University of Florence where he majored in chemistry. At the age of 24 he graduated from the University of Salzburg with a Ph.D. in history on the work of the popular historian Arnold Toynbee. He prepared for the priesthood at the Gregorian University in Rome and became ordained in 1951. It was here that he met Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher, who was to become his mentor and lifelong friend. Through him, Illich discovered the ideas of Thomas Aquinas and built a Thomistic philosophical foundation for understanding the world.
Stretching the Limits of the Priesthood
In 1951 Illich came to America hoping to study at Princeton University, but his interest quickly changed. On his first day in New York he heard through casual conversations about large numbers of Puerto Ricans migrating into other ethnic neighborhoods. After spending a couple days observing and visiting with them he asked to be assigned to a Puerto Rican parish. In his ministry he sought to make them feel at home in their new country by reinstituting their cultural and religious traditions. He sought to have Spanish materials made available to the children. His popularity among the Puerto Rican community grew and after just five years, in 1956, at age 30 he was made a monsignor and accepted the position of vice-rector of the Catholic University at Ponce in Puerto Rico.
During the decades of the 1950s and 1960s Illich continued his work within the church, yet his commitment often brought him into conflict with those in and outside the church who had different agendas. While in Puerto Rico, and later in Mexico, he threw himself into the study of education and was outspoken in his criticisms of formal schooling. He ridiculed the notion of development in U.S. programs such as the Peace Corps, believing that such volunteer programs damaged not only the people in Latin America but the volunteers themselves. He claimed that the Alliance for Progress was an alliance for the middle classes, and he questioned the motives of missionaries who came to him for further study. He refused to withdraw support from a politician who advocated birth control. He withdrew from his role at the Vatican Council in protest over its political timidity. In essence, he sought de-institutionalization of the church. In 1967 he was summoned to Rome before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He refused to answer their questions. Six months later Rome moved against him with documents he claimed were cribbed from U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reports leaked to the Holy See. At that point Illich voluntarily suspended himself from the priesthood, although he never resigned nor was he removed from the priesthood. He insisted that neither his faith, morals, nor theological views were at variance with the gospel and that they were orthodox, even conservative.
Awakening People to New Possibilities
Recognizing that Puerto Rico was perceived largely as a U.S. puppet, Illich moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1961 and established there the Center for Intercultural Documentation. The focus of his work remained unchanged as he sought to establish a bridge linking the two Americas and to train individuals for religious work in Latin America. By the mid-1960s the institute through its research seminars was attracting worldwide individuals concerned with social and economic issues. Illich viewed the center as a place for free, committed, and disciplined intellectual inquiry, yet many participants viewed it as an unstructured forum for political expression. Although still attracting students and economically sound, the center was not accomplishing its original purpose. Therefore, in 1976 it was closed.
The next several years Illich traveled and studied oriental languages and culture with the dream of writing the history of Western ideas in an oriental language. Subsequently, believing the task to be too great, he returned to an old intellectual home, to the study of 12th-century philosophy. Here, while teaching at the University of Marburg in Germany, he sought to find a fulcrum for lifting contemporary people out of their socially-constructed, conventional perspectives and out of a worsening world situation. He sought to enable them to understand how their commonly viewed reality (what is taken for granted or as certain) was historically constructed and can be changed. In the early 1990s Illich taught part of the year at Pennsylvania State University and continued to reside in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Illich became known as a brilliant satirist and critic of contemporary institutions. In the early 1970s he called for a reexamination of existing social institutions. For example, he argued that schools are a lottery in which everyone invests but few win. As a result of perceived failure, those students who don't succeed in schools are stigmatized and suffer discrimination. In contrast, he proposed to correct this unjust situation by de-schooling society and thereby making it impossible to discriminate on that basis. Later, his thought penetrated to new depths when examining the professions, particularly the medical profession and how it leads individuals to become dependent and to assume less responsibility for their own lives.
In the 1980s Illich's thought shifted and again reached new levels of analysis. He stated that changes in our current situation can be attained if individuals "awaken" to the fact that each person's understanding or perspective of his or her world, a world that each of us takes for granted and as certain, is seen as being formulated and handed down over the centuries. Such conventional perspectives lock individuals into certain solutions and prevent recognition of new ways of living in the world. For example, in his work ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind he shows how our way of thinking has made three shifts throughout time. The first shift that changed our ways of seeing resulted from the introduction of the alphabet. A second shift in our thinking came in the 12th century with the development of the written page as we moved from an oral public and a spoken reality to a written reality and a literacy paradigm. And finally, the computer and word processing have created a new watershed of change in which our thoughts were increasingly arranged more by the logic and efficiency of a technical tool than by the natural meanings embodied in a live discourse and spoken tradition.
Further Reading on Ivan Illich
An extensive six hour interview titled Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich was broadcasted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1989. Transcripts and this highly informative dialogue can be ordered from Ideas, P.O. Box 6440, Station "A", Montreal, Quebec, H3C 3L4.
A major political article by Francis Duplex is Gray, including biographical information, "Profiles," appeared in the New Yorker (1969). A discussion of Illich's writings was in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 10. Articles critical of his view included "The 'Deschooling' Controversy Revisited: A Defense of Illich's 'Participatory Socialism," by Carl G. Hedman in Educational Theory (1979); "Towards a Political Economy of Education: A Radical Critique of Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society" by Herbert Gintis in Harvard Educational Review (1972); and "Illich, Kozol, and Rousseau on Public Education," by Jonathan Kozol in Social Theory and Practice (1980). A selected list of major works by Illich which trace the development of his thought included: Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, introduction by Erich Fromm (1970); De-Schooling Society (1971); Tools for Conviviality (1973); Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health (1975); and ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, with Barry Sanders (1988).