Author of Deschooling Society
My Teacher, My Genius, My Saint
Ivan Illich was born in Vienna to an aristocratic Dalmatian family. He had tutors, never went to school, not till he did his PhD. The young doctor joined the priesthood. The Church opened every door for him.
It was commonly assumed that he would make a beeline for Vatican diplomacy: the elite Church. But no: Illich had heard that the hardest possible role for a priest in the Twentieth Century would be to serve a parish in an Irish neighborhood in NYC.
The Church sent him off to a parish in Manhattan, on Washington Heights.
Unbeknownst to the Church, no more omniscient than Illich ever credited it with being, that neighborhood was no longer Irish but solid Puerto Rican!
The young Illich spoke way more than a dozen languages, but Spanish was not among them! So he took himself to Berlitz, immersed himself, and came out fluent after several diligent weeks: highly important in view of what is to follow. But more on that later:
Step back a moment, share my conception of the world as complex: multiply experienced:
Every one of us has a unique set of experiences: the eldest is treated well by his father, the fourth daughter is used as a slave, Bob loves his mother, Betsy takes her for granted, Judas is looking for an angle …
Pipa lives in a world where God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world: she has Christmas morning to herself, works in a factory every other night and day. Pipa’s world is simple, innocent, happy; Browning’s world, the alert reader’s world, is complex! ironic, contradictory, bewildering …
Illich was Pipa and Browning!
I want to offer my Illich:
My “biography” will be part personal, not variorum: I may leave out features that another would centralize, but I’ll emphasize something another might miss.
By the time I encountered him he spoke (and read, intelligently) eighteen languages. Famous for streamlining the learning of Spanish, that Romance language had been recent in his garland of acquisitions. Then he started on the Asiatic languages: I have no idea how many of those he added: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese …
I’ll add to this, edit this, scrapbook-style, keep checking back, you never know which edition you’ll find revealing.
I first encountered Ivan Illich through his NYR article Why We Must Abolish Schooling. I didn’t leap at it the instant my subscription delivered it. I thought it was a joke, someone pretending that a Tolstoy character had authored a diatribe against school. I already loathed school, never had not: what could such a joke teach me? Boy, was I wrong.
But before I instantly drown in content let me expand on something importantly tangent to language:
Chaucer, Shakespeare wrote great English: their native spoken language. Conrad wrote great English, learned as an adult. I hail Illich as one of the greatest writers of English, or any language, because of the clarity and importance of his thought.
In the 1960s, when Illich was the most famous priest in the world (not counting the Pope), JFK and the Pope made an alliance. Illich was a Christian who took mission seriously: he didn’t like the idea of people smug in one culture going to the Third World and displaying contempt for the parishioners. He founded CIDOC: in Cuernavaca, after walking South and Central America looking for his spot. The Church agreed to pass the missionaries through Illich’s hands, let him teach the priests and nuns Spanish: local Spanish, casual Spanish; not make-you-cringe-with-inferiority Spanish. Illich’s CIDOC guaranteed fluency in six weeks, had no failures! (Plenty of drop-outs; no failures!)
The Church defrocked him. Should have surprised no one. The Temple crucified Jesus: what’s new?
My university simply interrupted me. To this day I know of no one who knows what I was trying to say!
The plagiarized, perverted internet of the Pentagon isn’t about to fill it all in!
The rug pulled from under them, Illich and his priests and nuns and brethren, pooled their pennies, had very few. Well, said, Ivan, “I’ll write a book!” And thus appeared Celebration of Awareness.
But I’ll reference what Illich said to Hugh Downs: paraphrase:
The US goes to Peru, tells Lima, we’ll give you some trucks, GM. We’ll advise you on road construction:
Illich explained: the trucks are more destructive than if the US had given tanks: and had bombarded the church!
The church is one building; the roads and traffic can bankrupt the environment, destroy the culture …
Downs invited Illich back, wanted to hear more; Joe Garagiola looked pure malice: Illich was not mentioned again! Downs looked like he’s just come out of surgery: had his liver yanked while he was awake!
Gee, well what should we do? if we don’t bury them under roads, addict them to trucks? (What should we do with Asian people if we don’t bomb them?) Leave them alone! Get out of their way as they figure things out for themselves.
(We’ll never meet God if all airwaves are filled with the rants of bigots.)
And people still agree to send people to school! Pretend innocence while pk and JQ are jailed!
Till 1970 my heroes were artists: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis. Shakespeare, ee cummings. Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright. Jesus, of course.
Not Plato, not Saint Paul, not Kant. I wanted the music.
Illich though put it all together!
More on that as we go.
I’d been sort of dreaming about the internet since 1960. My dreams were emerging as short stories by the later 1960s: electronic banking coordinated by space satellites, open, non-judgmental organizing of public information …
Illich’s NYR articles, the first followed by two additional, then the whole published as Deschooling Society, 1970.
(I merge essential pk as of 1970:
(I’d wasted a half a dozen years on my doctorate, actually teaching college was a huge disappointment, the same years had not lead to my university or my students resonating with my reading of Shakespeare: Gulliver can’t tell Lilliput about London, it doesn’t matter how well Gulliver speaks.
The hell with Shakespeare, the hell with my society, the hell with career: don’t waste the castrati’s time singing about his potential, you’ve already wasted his potential. No, I wanted help Ivan Illich raise an actual internet: digitize things, offer public voluntary data bases, compile a real consumer report, eliminate the experts, by-pass them. Make digital simulacra available to the public, cheap!)
I wrote Illich a fan letter, he wrote back immediately. I said I wanted to help: he sent me off on my own.
What I think he should have done was make sure all his fans knew what I was up to, made sure his friends in the Church made sure I had office space, working phones, secretarial help, a mainframe connection …
Illich never attended school; but was connected to a university, to get his PhD: : on Arnold Toynbee! History, a kind of a science.
Fellow Illich disciple John Quintero raged at the NY Times obituary for Illich. So did I. So did Jerry Brown. But why in our schooled world should we expect the Times to be honest? truthful? accurate?
Note: the FBI arrested me in 2006, destroyed my meagre business, recreated me not as poor, but destitute!
Other cops jailed John Quintero! still have him!
Jesus was crucified, Peter, Paul followed. We get our misinformation through churches.
Somehow Illich was brilliant anyway! Actually communicated this or that fragment, to more than two people.
I wish I could someday see if I have.
Note: Illich’s internet, especially as expanded and extended by me, was a tool against Big Brother: like Colt’s gun was a tool against the bully. But the bullies took the Colts: and utterly defeated the intended beneficiaries.
At Illich’s memorial service in Bremen, 2002, Quintero had prepared a paper on my contribution to the offering of a deschooled internet. But John never delivered the paper: changed his mind, said the atmosphere wasn’t what he expected. I think Illich himself died without ever having understood my expansions, extensions. He envisioned cybernetics but didn’t really see it. So: all we have is perversion. And obstructions.
stop back, comment dammit
I’ll read in K.’s old Illich files, spin subjects off, make this a menu …
Next I launch an Illich Scrapbook, organize, improve later.
2013 12 22 I’ve been promising to transcribe what I can still find of my correspondence with Ivan Illich, basically 1970 to 1979. I wanted to start with my favorite letter of his to me, but I haven’t been able to find it. Understand, the guy chained to the wall of the dungeon shouldn’t be expected to be a perfect librarian for the kleptocracy that’s hung him in chains: still, I try very hard to save such papers. Well, I just found a letter from Ivan dated 1979, but damn it, I can’t find the important one: of 1973 or so. (Neither of us dated hasty notes in those days.) But: the good news is: I’m still looking, maybe getting somewhere: I’ll find them soon; or never.
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