Rediscovering Ivan Illich

Where to begin with Ivan Illich - the topic of our Grounds for Thought discussion evening at Green Beanery on Tuesday, August 30.

A deeply radical thinker, Ivan Illich - a former priest - gained a sort of celebrity as a public intellectual in the 1970s but has largely fallen from view nowadays. The vivacity of his anti-institutional worldview, however, is with us still in influence and his themes continue to excite newcomers who find their way to him. 

Of those who do, many find Illich's work surprisingly in step with the current time. For example, younger generations who feel cheated by the ideal of compulsory education or who train for work that does not match the jobs they will take on, if they are able to secure work.

Whether it's through his critique of compulsory education and the production of knowledge (Deschooling Society, the text he is best known for), the "medicalization of society" (Medical Nemesis), the dangers of technologies that lock us into dependence and distance us from one another (Tools for Conviviality) - or any of the many other subjects he tackled - Illich was fundamentally concerned with human relationships at a basic level. His voice was, and remains, a champion of human freedom and dignity in an age dominated by social systems and structures that control our view of reality and sense of self and autonomy.

Joining him on that journey along the way was David Cayley, our presenter on Tuesday night, whose association with Illich over the years led to the CBC series Ivan Illich in Conversation and various books, authored by Cayley, that explore Illich's way in to understanding society. That way was borne of Illich's time in Puerto Rico as vice-rector at a Catholic university there, where he set to wondering whether compulsory schooling was serving people well. The answer to his mind was 'no' and an argument for the de-establishment of education led to Deschooling Society, published in 1971.

Was the church supportive of Illich's work as a social critic? Although, Illich strived to separate this activity from his priestly ministry, he was considered a dangerous figure in the church by none other than the pope himself (that being Pope Paul VI at the time). Illich also considered himself rather "notorious" and eventually stepped down from his duties as a priest to pursue publishing and lecturing at the height of his seventies' run of fame.

From a '70s must-read to a '80s afterthought, Illich fell out of fashion after the publication of Gender in 1982, the outcome of a series of lectures he gave at UC Berkeley. Denounced by UC Berkeley feminists, that text ensured Illich would continue his work without fanfare, something Illich was actually glad of, telling friends his time on the lecture circuit had left him feeling like an intellectual "jukebox".

Illich's public profile, however, grew again with the release of The Rivers North of the Future, a 2005 book authored by David Cayley on Illich's thoughts about the fate of the Christian Gospel, a project that greatly benefited from the endorsement of distinguished Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor would later devote a section to Illich in his investigation of A Secular Age in 2007 - described as "the academic event of the decade" and Illich's inclusion as "a curious addition to this already-curious litany".

Max Allen (of CBC Ideas), and host of our Grounds for Thought discussion on August 30, noted that Illich's Deschooling Society and Growing Up Absurd, by American novelist and psychotherapist Paul Goodman, had served as a strong influence on the behaviour and thought of "a lot of people in what's called the sixties". The impact of books like these that "came and went," he said, "actually never went" because their imprint is still felt today.

How did Illich's Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis change us? According to Max that change is "hard to point to" and has been realized in "a fuzzy way". David Cayley added that Illich's legacy is related to a growing disillusionment with authority. The readers Illich addressed at the height of his reach in the 1970s belonged to the "new church of schooling" and were believers in that church at the time, he said. They didn't cease to go to church after being exposed to thinkers like Illich, he continued, but they did cease to believe in it, which is largely "where we are now". In the case of medicine, Max agreed, saying: "The authority of the doctor is not the same as it was" and although the medical system remains pervasive and powerful, it is "treated more instrumentally, more cynically."


Ivan Illich died of cancer on December 2, 2002, aged 76, after living with a disfiguring tumor on the right side of his face for many years. As per his principles, Illich refused traditional treatment, not wishing to risk the toll it might take on his capacity for speech. He referred to the growth as his "mortality".


For a recap of our Grounds for Thought, July 26 event on the "Real Jane Jacobs," see here.

Our next event is set for Tuesday, September 13. See "Windy Lies" here for more information.

Lisa Peryman
Lisa Peryman


Lisa Peryman has worked with Greenpeace Australia and The Wilderness Society (Australia). She studied journalism in New Zealand and book and magazine publishing in Canada. Her background includes reporting and editing for daily newspapers and trade magazines, as well as creative copywriting for broadcast. Lisa is continuing her studies in Canada and currently works with Probe International as an editor and writer. Earnings from Green Beanery operations support the work of Probe International, a Canadian charity that works with citizens' groups around the world to protect their lands and their livelihoods. Probe International is a Canadian trust.