Ivan D. Illich - Deschooling Society & Tools for Conviviality. Are we ready to listen?
Ivan D. Illich
Ivan D. Illich, 1926 - 2002
Ivan D. Illich died in 2002, age 76. Austrian born, he was an academic, a philosopher, an anarchist, a sociologist, a catholic priest, an activist, a reformer, and for many, an inspiration and source of hope. Like many great thinkers, especially independent thinkers, he was ahead of his time. But the modern world needs his ideas now more than ever before.
A personal note
Ivan Illich wrote his two most influential books, Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality, during my University years, 1970-74. I was aware of them through friends in Social Sciences, but I was a Physical Scientist with a long tough reading list of my own. We had lots of good arguments about his ideas, after class in the beer bar, but that's as far as it went. Later, when I'd completed my formal education and started work, I found I had time on my hands and began reading what I wanted to read, in those days, mostly Philosophy, Science and Music. Then by chance I saw Ivan Illich interviewed on TV and was captivated by his intellectual courage and huge enthusiasm. So, next day, I bought his first three titles and started reading.
Please note - what follow are not meant as book reviews. I am writing in Doha without access to my library, simply remebering his ideas and musing on their applicability to modern society.
Celebration of Awareness by Ivan D. Illich (1971)
Illich's first book in English is, like many first books, mainly a collection of earlier essays and papers. It has the feeling of a voice crying in the wilderness, and the title piece, Celebration of Awareness, is very much Illich's personal manifesto. It is refreshing and inspiring, but doesn't deliver a very coherent message. Rather, it leaves you feeling, this is someone to watch. He's about to do something. Which he did, and in the same year, with...
Deschooling Society by Ivan D. Illich (1971)
Illich was concerned about the development of the Third World. He was also unenamoured of aspects of First World development, in particular, over-industrialisation and over-institutionalisation. He passionately believed in universal education, but not through universal schooling. He saw schools as harmful of child development in many ways:
Schools institutionalise children, conforming them and preparing them for First World workplaces that may be locally inappropriate or may simply not exist.
The school curriculum itself is an agenda for producing people to service and maintain existing institutions of society and to restrict as well as disseminate knowledge.
Schools in their nature produce failure as well as success, where failure, by definition, is measured against the school's criteria.
Illich also observed, controversially, that childhood itself, meaning dependent childhood, is a construct of the modern schooled society which removes young people from the real community for the daylight (working) hours, thus ensuring that they become totally dependent on society until the prescribed leaving age.
Before you rush for the comments box and start talking about the evils of child labour, bear with me - Illich was wholly opposed to enforced child labour too, though he was in favour of the traditional socialisation of children through helping in the work of family and community. As mentioned earlier, he simply would not equate education with schooling, which he considered one of modern society's sacred cows.
Perhaps also pause to consider the thousands of 21 year old lost souls graduating from our western colleges, largely unemployable, with degrees in, say, media studies which nobody wants, no real life experience at all, and a debt of $100,000. What were you saying, Ivan, 40 years ago??
Illich saw that communications technology was fast becoming cheap, lightweight, and available. He proposed "learning webs" (in 1971!) working through local libraries and community centres, but globally interconnected, with access to all educational resources. He further proposed "peer networks" whereby anyone could enter their identity and interests and be connected to like-minded people anywhere in the world. He wanted to remove pedagogy from education and replace it with "empowerment" (though I don't think he used exactly that word).
Remember, too, that Illich was not talking about knocking down schools in London and New York. He was talking about not repeating the mistake throughout the underdeveloped world. In such areas, instead of building schools and "creating dependent childhood", he was in favour of providing access to education through learning webs.
Tools for Conviviality by Ivan D. Illich (1973)
In this book, Illich is still exploring Third World development. His underlying themes are: avoiding the mistakes of the First World, avoiding domination by First World institutions, empowering (my interpretation) local communities and individuals. But his focus has moved from Education to Technology. And in a brilliant and unprecedented insight, he gives us a new standard against which technology should be measured - Conviviality.
Conviviality, as commonly used, means joviality, especially in company. But the deeper meaning of the word is simply "living together". Illich's measure of the success of a technology is the extent to which it reinforces community. By contrast, a failed technology is one which brings alienation and disempowerment.
As an example, in an area where there are only rough tracks and donkey carts, you can introduce basic bicycles, bicycle carts and slow-moving (bicycle speed) motorcycle trucks. All of these can negotiate the tracks, and all can be maintained, with a few basic spares, by the local blacksmith, given a little training. They help the community and are truly convivial. But the 'family saloon' car, if introduced indiscriminately, is no help at all. It isolates the owner. It cannot be maintained locally. It (not the community) requires the tracks to become roads. Roads require compulsory possession of land and demolition of property. This is a very difficult area, because we do need transport and we do need communication. But Illich's yardstick of conviviality is at least as valid as the yardstick of corporate profit, especially where the corporation is centred in another town, country or even continent.
My thoughts on Conviviality - a Tale of Two Cities
From this point on, though I hope Ivan Illich would not disapprove, I am going to stray from his original Third World 1970s agenda and talk a little from hindsight and from my own experiences. And to give this some focus (because I could ramble forever) I'll talk about two cities I know pretty well, having lived and/or worked in both. They are Doha (Qatar) and Amsterdam.
Doha, where I live now, is in a process of manic expansion, rather like its near neighbour Dubai. But this is not intelligent expansion. It is funded by virtually unlimited oil money. Conviviality isn't given a thought. Consumerism (next to, or perhaps even ahead of, Allah) is God. Buildings and streets are never refurbished. They are simply bulldozed and replaced, with high-rise attrocities, often so shoddily constructed that their own useful life will be about twenty years. People drive around in 5-litre Land Cruisers, getting nowhere fast, because the traffic build-up is wholly out of control. Absolutely no thought is given to the pedestrian. New roads will be left with sand and rubble by the side for a year or more. Because rich people don't walk anyway and the poor don't count.
But speaking of the poor - Doha's neglected inner city areas are "home" to large ex-pat communities of workers living (amid 17% inflation) on about $200 per month. Less, in fact, because they send money home. How do they survive on so little? Answer - Conviviality. The barber, where I would have to pay 20 riyals, cuts hair "free" after work, on a wooden chair in the street, except that meanwhile someone else is mending his puncture "free" and someone else will give him rice and tea. Such possessions as these folk have are repaired, by each other and recycled within the community, just as would happen at home in Pakistan or Bangladaesh.
Amsterdam, in total contrast, is an old city. It was built quickly too, by the standards of the time, between about 1650 and 1750, and must have seemed the height of modernity in its day. The old city plan is like a D-shaped spiderweb of radial roads crossing concentric semi-circular canals. It has been called the Venice of the North, but probably by Venetians who didn't realise that Amsterdam is actually far more beautiful. I don't want to dwell on where the money came from to build this wonder. Slaves and Empire feature in the past of most great cities.
Instead I'll concentrate on development and transport. Within the old city, Amsterdam has maintained its buildings as far as possible and replaced lost buildings with new ones of compatible height and shape, so in effect the city lines are original. They have provided a comprehensive network of buses, trolley buses, underground trains, trams (road trains) and water buses (on the canals), so it is possible to travel the city freely and efficiently by public transport. They have discouraged private cars by the simple policy of not providing any parking. The very few who drive have private parking below their place of work, but it's not the norm.
Then there are the bicycles, thousands upon thousands of them. In China, as soon as you can afford to, you get rid of your bike and buy a motorbike or car. And the cities are suffering as a result. But in Amsterdam, people are affluent enough, but simply prefer their bicycles for getting around. And not just ordinary bicycles - pedal barrows for carrying loads, pedal buggies to take one or two children to school, recumbents, tandems, occasional unicycles - I even saw a string quartet cycling by on four bikes, the girl with the cello as happy as the rest.
And this, I hope you agree, shows that Ivan Illich's idea of assessing tools for conviviality is as valid in the developed First World as in the emerging Third.
My biggest concern is that the rulers and developers of the Third World seem intent only on rushing blindfold into bigger, faster, stupider like Dubai and Qatar.
Thank you for reading!
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