By the way, Ivan Illich

Great NMFS seminar meeting two weeks ago. Subject: Ivan Illich. Leader, Linda Tegarden, a prof from the Business School. Her disciplinary perspective helped us think about Illich in light of the very disruptive moment higher ed’s business model is facing just now. “Business model,” of course, signifies a lot more than it seems to–but Linda could tell you that much better than I could. Her particular specialty is entrepreneurship, so she had particularly keen insights to share.

As did the other participants, all of them. In fact, it was one of the most spirited and intense sessions in memory. One usefully uncomfortable moment came my way near the end. The conversation had led to a vehement moment of self-examination for all of us. As I do from time to time (read: over and over), I was making the deschooling argument with great fervor. At that, a seminarian just to my left turned to me and said, “well, what about you, Gardner? You’ve chosen to reform the system from within.”

If the conversation had a musical score, the indication at that moment would have read “G.P.” Grand Pause. “You’re absolutely right,” I finally responded. I thought back over all the debates on edupunk. (I was going to include some links there, but just a few moments of reliving that time were enough to bring me down, way down, so I leave the googling as an exercise for the reader.) I thought back over all the weirdly maverick ways I had adopted over my career–adopted? more like discovered, and fell into, and could not but claim–and how nevertheless I continue to be drawn to the academy (“like a moth to the flame,” one non-academic friend has said) and what at its best it represents and empowers. I flashed onto the deepest mystery of all: why someone who had felt like an outlier from near the beginning of grad school, and who had been continually frustrated with so much of faculty conversation and practice, would have found his way (of all places) into faculty development–which sometimes feels like trying to be a physician to other physicians, a tribe notorious for being poor patients. (And where my own imposter syndrome gets pinged incessantly.) (And where I am doubtless a wounded healer myself, on my best days.)

It was an intense moment, made more intense when another seminarian, full of curiosity and collegiality (seriously, I’m not being sarcastic here), asked, “yes, Gardner, and how did you end up in faculty development?”

So the second best part of the story above, for me, is that there was such a moment of intense self-examination (and self-articulation), and in the company of such smart, committed, and intensely sympathetic colleagues. The best part is that there were such moments that day for all of us in the room. It was a day in which “work is play for mortal stakes,” as Frost wrote in another context. It was an afternoon in which the room became a university, and that flame to which I am drawn, this idea of real school, burned with the intensity I sought long ago when this journey began.

And Ivan Illich was the catalyst. His chapter on “Learning Webs” in Deschooling Society led us all the way back into a shared moment of what is indeed best about the academy, and what we who work within it must indeed labor to preserve. A happy and convivial irony.

As a postscript, I note here one of the more striking insights in a chapter full of such insights. At one point, Illich takes up (I kid you not) the idea of gamification. Here’s what he writes, in the context of discussing a game called Wff ‘n Proof (I have this game at home, but that’s another story):

In fact, for some children such games are a special form of liberating education, since they heighten their awareness of the fact that formal systems are based on changeable axioms and that conceptual operations have a gamelike nature. (Emphasis mine.)

Two short clauses, and a fantastic opportunity for liberation. I think he’s right, and I could write a post or two just on those bits of extraordinary insight. But Illich goes on:

They are also simple, cheap, and–to a large extent–can be organized by the players themselves. Used outside the curriculum such games provide an opportunity for identifying and developing unusual talent, while the school psychologist will often identify those who have such talent as in danger of becoming antisocial, sick, or unbalanced. Within school, when used in the form of tournaments, games are not only removed from the sphere of leisure; they often become tools used to translate playfulness into competition, a lack of abstract reasoning into a sign of inferiority.

Such a delicate balance. Such an artful balance.

May I be permitted another connection? In “Ecology of Mind: The Sacred,” Gregory Bateson writes,

[W]hile it may be fairly easy to recognize moments at which everything goes wrong, it is a great deal more difficult to recognize the magic of the moments that come right; and to contrive those moments is always more or less impossible. You can contrive a situation in which the moment might happen, or rig the situation so that it cannot happen. You can see to it that the telephone won’t interrupt, or that human relations won’t prosper–but to make human relations prosper is exceedingly difficult.

Here I think Bateson refines and purifies Illich’s argument in Deschooling Society, at least indirectly. (I do not think they knew each other.) Illich’s argument can sometimes seem as if he’s got a utopian formula in mind that will make human relations prosper. All calls to revolution have something of this appearance in them, and one does well to be skeptical. Yet this is only part of the story. The other part is just what Bateson says. We can do our best to create situations in which the magic might happen and do all in our power not to rig the situation so that it cannot happen. Can we say that we have followed this path? Often it seems to me that we have done almost exactly the opposite, in the macrocosm of schooling, while the great teachers and students continue to demonstrate the possibility of flourishing–of magic–on the microcosmic level. How much better, though, to plant a healthy garden than to point to the brave flowers emerging from the rubble of urban decay as a sign that the system is working–as a sign of the “student success” we should strive toward. Perhaps I work within the system to reform it because I’m convinced that we can find that rich soil beneath the pavement, and should, as a way to demonstrate that the brave flowers knew something after all….

11 thoughts on “By the way, Ivan Illich

  1. I commiserate, immensely. Yet I find myself wondering “how can I know I won’t be more effective working outside of this system without trying it? If I don’t try it, am I not simply indicting a system whilst still personally extracting profit from it? And in my case as an administrator, not an educator, am I’m not even further complicit with the problem of the _business_ of schooling?”

    In any case, it’s funny that you should post this today as I picked up and re-read “Deschooling Society” last weekend. What strikes me (and I don’t want to single your post or your group’s reading out on this point) is how often people want to abstract Illich’s work out of his context as a radical Marxist. Like we can cherry pick the idea of “learning webs” but re-situate it in an institutional context and not challenge any of the other systems which structure our selves and relations to each other. Illich notes this all over the place, e.g.

    “The alternative to dependence on schools is not the use of public resources for some new device which “makes” people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment. To foster this style, attitudes toward growing up, the tools available for learning, and the quality and structure of daily life will have to change concurrently.”

  2. Gardner,

    As usual, a thoughtful self-effacing post. I think much the same way myself much of the time. I am a child of the academy (my father was professor so I grew up in a university) and I know the wealth of great people who are drawn to it and the brilliance that has emerged from the system over the last millennium. As a member of the factory-model version of academia I am also acutely aware of the problems of scaling the teacher-pupil environment to include a large percentage of the population. We are constantly barraged with difficult choices and opportunity costs for everything we do.

    We discussed Scott McCloud yesterday and the subject turned to Learning Analytics and the problems of figuring out the magic bullet for students to succeed. I pointed out that the solution was both simple and incredibly difficult (and economically untenable): One excellent teacher/mentor per student is about as close as you can come to guaranteed success (not 100% but closer than anything else). Of course, this is impossible. There aren’t enough excellent teachers out there and there are far more needy students than that model can accommodate.

    Ironically, de-systemtizing the learning process potentially takes students further away from that model. The academy is the best accumulation of teaching talent we have been able to devise as a society. Computers can’t replace that, only destroy it.

    Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the role of the human in the modern technology environment. Daniel Pink talks about a lot about “soft” skills as a guarantee against being replaced by automation. Teaching is one such soft skill. We just need to figure out how to get the automation out the academy and focus teachers’ efforts on those places where they can make the most impact and have the most relevance. To steal from Engelbart: Technology should “augment” this process, not replace it.



  3. As I experimented with teaching my first fully online course this semester, I was regularly assailed by the realization that my attempts at experimenting, at creating a genuinely liberal learning experience online, had inhibited my coverage of the content both in the online section and in my control face-to-face section.

  4. Steve,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. In a classroom you are constrained as well but it is far easier for a good teacher to compensate for that than within the constraints imposed by online learning. I’m not saying it’s not possible but the current batch of tools we have at our disposal are sorely lacking in creating effective learning environments – especially once you get past the one-off lessons. We all know that a sequence of Khan Academy videos, as good as they may be, do not make an effective course. It requires a teacher to provide context and to stimulate creative thought. The teacher is often sidelined by technology in most online environments. True teaching is a soft skill that can be enhanced by good technology but should never be eclipsed by it.


  5. I cannot help but wonder, Gardner, if it really matters much where one is situated in this endeavor as much as that you are engaged in it? On a systems thinking level, it is much too complicated to reduce to “you have to be inside or outside” to make a difference. It is an ecosystem, and even the notion of “changing the system” seems a bit overladen with impossibility to think on those terms, like it is just cause and effect.

    We need people inside, outside (even if those are real places)- and there is no “selling out to the man”. It seems like a setup for certain despair to have an ideal that considerations of the practicals of living- earning an income, providing food and shelter for self and family are wrong. It’s all in the balance between the things we do to maintain life and the ideas we work on a difference scale.

    Stop beating yourself up (yeah I know how cliche that sounds)- what you bring is a unique, and inspiring Gardner Campbell-ness that would be true no matter where you are situated in the system. We as people who care are bigger than the jobs we do or do not do.

    Your paraphrasing of Bateson on creating the potential for the “magic” standing toe to to with the power of negation rings a chord for me (maybe an A suspended fourth). It’s what I think of with the open internet (in the two way sense) being an potential engine of serendipity- it can be minimalized, negated with closed access, walls, or just removal.

    Its a way I had found paraphrasing my last talks on “Amazing Stories of Openness” – if you share your work, ideas, creations openly, it creates only a possibility that someone may acknowledge you, use your stuff in a book magazine, invite you to visit a new country, even maybe offer a job. No guarantee that your own Amazing Story will happen. But what can be guaranteed is that if you never share openly on the net, then you will never experience an Amazing Story.

    It’s a quasi act of faith.

    One that I believe in. That magic. Or just the idea that it *can* happen.

  6. the magic, not utopian, is like tango dancing. the conditions can be set up for the magic to happen, but if no one knows how to tango, let alone set for the conditions, then we are very poor academic capitalism will crush the last of it. that’s why deschooling is so urgent, while some people still know how to tango. a shame Tool for Conviviality wasn’t included. its a recipe for setting the conditions. likewise, A Pattern Language.

  7. I don’t know if Illich knew Bateson, as in drinking beer together, but he certainly knew of him. Illich was well-acquainted with cybernetics, which was on many people’s minds back in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. The two men were listed practically next to each other in the Whole Earth Catalog. Illich also was friends with Heinz von Foerster, one of the early cyberneticians.
    Later, however, Illich came to understand that cybernetics was antithetical to his way of thinking, and he tried his best to rid himself of its influences. He talks about this in general, and about Bateson specifically, in the forward to the 1995 re-issue of ‘Medical Nemesis,’ aka ‘Limits to Medicine.’ More on this here:

    Illich’s way of thinking? Illich was increasingly aware of the disembodiment of modern life, of how we moderns have lost our ability to experience the world through our own senses, our own flesh. Cybernetics tells us the world is merely a big set of feedback loops, systems defending themselves against other systems, contending for scarce resources, etc. Illich would, in later years, have none of that. (I simplify, but no much.) While some (Morris Berman) saw cybernetics as the means of re-enchanting the world, Illich saw it as a disembodied nightmare.

    You write: ” Illich’s argument can sometimes seem as if he’s got a utopian formula in mind that will make human relations prosper. ” His formula was this: friendship, philia. As someone close to him once wrote, “the best way to understand Illich’s work is as a detailed study of the myriad and varied barriers to friendship that exist in modern life.” (If you look in the forward to Tools for Conviviality, you will find Illich’s mention of a passage in Aquinas about friendship and how that concept informed his thinking.)
    Ultimately, Illich’s analysis and critique is rooted in the New Testament, in his understanding of the Gospel. It’s a somewhat radical and somewhat complicated argument, so I won’t attempt to explain it here, but I do recommend that anyone interested should read ‘The Rivers North of the Future,’ in which Illich explains the thinking and understanding that informed his work right from the beginning, even if he was too smart to explicitly name Jesus as his model, for fear of frightening everyone away. (The story of Jesus is, of course, all about the human body and its suffering flesh, which helps to explain Illich’s concern with the senses and effort to get beyond the lure of disembodied cybernetic concepts. Go to the doctor and he’ll tell you about your various systems and tell you how you ought to experience your body in terms of science that only he really understands; if you are pregnant, you are encouraged to experience your body via computer-synthesized ultra-sound images. And so forth.) Only at the end did he reveal this thinking in full, explaining, among other things, that the ‘Deschooling’ book is, in part, a thinly-veiled critique of the Church, with which he had recently (ca. 1970) had a falling out.

  8. Gardner, I think CogDog has it right (hello, Alan!). It may not matter whether one operates from within or from outside of the academy, as long as we have you around – to open those rusty doors to the ivory tower, and remind us that there is a vast and amazing universe to educate us and to be educated – if only we dare ask ourselves “why not?”

    Over Christmas, Denis and I spent a little time among some of the homeless men of the NRV. It was our church’s turn to host their roving shelter. The first guest to arrive fit the stereotype I had developed during my younger, urban years – inebriated, harmless, not fully present but rather reliving better days. I was caught off guard when the remaining men arrived – immediately seeking outlets to charge their cell phones and laptop computers. I couldn’t describe our guests as happy – they brought a decided air of melancholy – but they were engaged. I squelched the instinct to judge and forced myself to reflect on the fact that these men spent their severely limited resources on “technology” at the expense of any agency over where they slept or what they ate. They found a way to overcome whatever their disadvantages to stay connected, to remain part of the web. Our guests may have been homeless, but they refused to be marginalized.

    There I sat with my PhD and the realization that these homeless had access to almost all of the knowledge resources that I did – and for free. We could have discussed Illich if we chose. (Instead, we played gin rummy with Star Wars villains playing cards and listened to alternative rock.)

    I had fully expected our time with the homeless to leave me depressed and maybe a little guilty. But instead, I left with a vague sense of hope and a rare moment of appreciation for the revolution in learning (and yes, education) in which we are engaged.

    Regarding our guests, we fed their bodies and gave them shelter on a bitter cold winter’s night, and I’d like to think that a night spent in our lovely church offered something for their souls. But in other regards, society had not let these men down. They were connected, some even had jobs (so much easier to acquire with a phone and e-mail address). If even the homeless refuse to function outside of the web, whether they do so deliberately or instinctively, one can only believe that the academy will eventually be wise enough to follow suit.

  9. Two words: Institutionalized Ignorance
    Intellectual disease we all share : Not-Invented-Here

    If ‘integrity of substance and learning’ is not addressed during formative years, it tends to become reinforced and resident as ‘mere opinion’ without such integrity as one grows up. It is a matter, simply, of the material of routine education centering on the tools of society and civilization and not on that ‘material and its integrity’. Because of this, people enter society with religious, ethnic and ‘political’ opinions modified largely by personal circumstance -opinions of tenuous and essentially unimportant substance in quotidian life. Should one go on to higher education in the soft sciences of such material however -law, politics, economics et cetera, that tenuous integrity becomes part of the institutionalized opinion that has so far served to determine the nature and course of society and civilization -ergo ‘the human condition’.

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