Ivan Illich’s Toe

ivan-illich-350Other than my stint in the army, the first time I had ever been outside of Los Angeles for more than a week was in the spring of 1971 when I visited Cuernavaca, Mexico for several months.  Bored as hell I gravitated to el Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) – a think tank founded by that Ivan in 1961. Illich was a guru who warned against the First World’s the imposition of its cultural values on Latin America, founding CIDOC to train priests and nuns to think of themselves as guests and not the saviors of the poor.

Like almost every intellectual hippie of the time, I was anxious to listen to Illich, a radical priest who was in hot water with the Vatican for his criticism of Western culture. Born in Vienna to a Croatian Catholic father and a Sephardic mother, Illich spoke at least eight languages and had a doctorate.

Part of his mystique was that he had worked as parish priest in a poor Puerto Rican New York neighborhood. At 30, he was appointed as the vice rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. Controversy followed him, and he resigned from the priesthood. He had come to the attention of the Vatican through Opus Dei.

Illich’s publication of Deschooling Society (1971), a critical discourse of public education, moved him to the eye of the storm. According to Illich, universal education through schooling was not feasible, and he said de-institutionalizing education was starting point in de-institutionalizing society.

Schools, according to Illich, confused process and substance. Students were “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, and success with a diploma. According to Illich, they schooled the students’ imagination to accept service in place of value. His solution was to get rid of the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge were efficient and benevolent.

Illich called for collaborative learning. Admittedly, Illich’s hyperbole created a storm with approval of libertarians of the right and left who interpreted him they the way they wanted to.  The value of Illich was not his theory; he was not a scientist but a thinker, a philosopher. He contributed to awakening the intellectuals’ cultural consciousness to the insidious effects of institutional dependency.

Illich’s dragon was the monopoly of the schools of education that in turn blinded poor people and gave them the illusion that schooling was the answer to their problems. The objective of schooling thus became the acquisition of material goods in order to increase their consumption.

According to Illich, schools served a function similar to that which the established church once played in claiming a monopoly as the repository of society’s myths. Illich distinguished between skill acquisition and humane education. Only by deschooling society would we be able to eliminate hierarchies and the mass production of education.

As an educator I was not enamored with the idea of eliminating schools. I had spent most of the sixties fighting for better access to education for minorities, and for me it was a question of who controlled the schools. Illich’s vision at the time seemed too utopian.

About this time, Illich sauntered into the CIDOC’s courtyard. He was wearing black cotton pants, a white guayabera, and sandals. But the only thing I saw at the time was his big toe; it was enormous. The crowd of a couple of hundred people went wild. “Ibán!” “ee-bán!” They shouted, “Ibán, what is knowledge?”

It all began to come together with his next book Tools for Conviviality (1973), which continued the theme of specialized knowledge and technocratic elites in an industrial society. Illich boldly called for the reconquest of practical knowledge. “The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but ‘modernized poverty,’ dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts.”

Illich argued that we needed convivial tools; people had become the servants of machines. The book put Illich at the forefront of critical pedagogy along with Paulo Freire.

Illich attacked the do-gooders and their paternalism. In this book, Illich uses phrases such as “The altar of science,” explaining “Many shamans and herb doctors familiar with local diseases and remedies and trusted by their clients had always had equal or better results.”

According to Illich, “medicine has gone on to define what constitutes disease and its treatment.”  Convivial Tools were a means for individuals and communities to take back control over technologies, which had been monopolized by professional elites.

Convivial was defined as the degree of a person’s control over a tool. People controlled a telephone but not television. Building homes was at first a convivial tool, but with the rise elite of housing contractors and strict building codes a person lost the option of building his own house in his spare time.

Ultimately, Illich was concerned with people’s freedom to be creative; he insisted that creative activity required the use of tools, which can be controlled by the individual using them. Her mastery and control of the tools  “Tools foster[ed] conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.”

Over the years I have related more to Tools for Conviviality than Illich’s other works, although my admiration for him has grown. I can think of many theoreticians but very few pure thinkers.

This week I begin another semester. I am often asked how my present students differ from those of 44 years ago. That’s where Tools for Conviviality comes in. My classes are overwhelmingly first-generation university students, three quarters are Latinos, and almost all are working class. Every semester I ask them how many can use a sewing machine, keeping in mind the pedal powered Singer that we had when I was growing up.

When I first asked the question, over three-quarters raised their hands. Last semester the number fell to two and that included me. Only two knew how to sew buttons on their shirts or blouses, and none had ever darned a sock. These were all routine when I was growing up.

On some Sundays I go out and watch immigrants hit the garage sales, picking up perfectly good clothes often almost new. A button is missing, or a zipper is jamming. They take the piece of clothing, put a button on it or a zipper, wash, starch and iron it, and give it to relatives back home.

When I was a child we would go downtown and window shop. My aunt would sketch the latest fashions, and if she liked a dress she would buy a pattern and a piece of cloth and make it. Today my students buy a blouse for $35 that they could make for $2.00.

My rumination about Illich’s toe was triggered by a conversation that one of my colleagues had with a part-time instructor. Apparently the latter was miffed about our fight with the administration over the privatization of the university. She responded that why make a big deal about it, we could do nothing about it.

rudy acunaThe part-time instructor thought of herself as educated, after all she had read Michel Foucault in grad school. But I guess she cannot appreciate or hear the chants of “ee-bán!” or admire his huge toe, and perhaps that is why she does not know the definition of the word “struggle.”

Rodolfo F. Acuña


  1. jackrabbit says

    Still think I have some cuadernos around from the 1960s work of CIDOC — and it is as true now as then that if you don’t organize for power then you aren’t going to go anywhere or change the world. Illich teaching on education was to redefine the world so that the malcriados can re-see their world as one that they can change and make better through organization that is the basis of power and social change. The cult of the individual and individualism in our society puts a break on significant action and leads to a feeling of powerlessness and alienation.

  2. JoeWeinstein says

    I’m not sure what’s supposed to be the difference between a truly honest and adequate ‘theoretician’ and a ‘pure thinker’, but never mind. The main thing is: Rodolfo, thank you for these memories and reminders. I saw Ivan in person only once – when he gave a talk on the UCLA campus in the late ’60s. As to you, to me too his messages get ever more impressive. The potentialities of the Internet for distributed and ad hoc active learning would likely have delighted Ivan – and they vindicate his visions as both practical and prophetic. His messages drew inspiration from and urgency for Latin America but they apply rather universally, not just in ‘poor’ countries but in all countries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *