Remembering Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich's life provides for me a special window on the twentieth century. Born in Vienna in 1926, World War II drove him to Italy. After the war he was ordained a Catholic priest. Then in 1951 he moved to the U.S., where he served as a pastor to Puerto Rican immigrants and then as Vice-Rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico galvanized an emerging criticism of economic development, and led in the 1960s to his founding the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, as an institutional base for the exploration of alternatives and radical reflection. By all accounts, CIDOC was a magic place. For visitors from all over Illich's charismatic spirit of engagement inspired many new beginnings. Accused by the Vatican of thereby becoming a scandal in the Church, Illich resigned his professional ministry, although he was never laicized or married.

It was from CIDOC that Illich published his most widely read books: Deschooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973), and Medical Nemesis (1976). In each case Illich identified the phenomenon of "counterproductivity": that is, the pursuit of technical processes to the point where their original goals are undermined. Public schooling, first conceived to advance learning, had become an impediment to real education. Advanced technological tools (such as telephones, cars, and television) were at odds with autonomous human development and the culture of friendship, which they once were invented and still claim to promote. High-tech health care was making people sick.

The correct response, for Illich, was a more disciplined and limited use of science and the invention of alternative, low-scale, technologies. Indeed, fearing that CIDOC itself might become counterproductive, Illich closed the center in 1976 to become a scholar without portfolio. This pilgrimage opened into a project in historical archeology that took its first full-bodied shape in Gender (1982), an attempt to recover those social experiences of female/male complementary obscured by the modern economic regime of sex. ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1988) carried historical archeology forward into the area of literacy, as did In the Vineyard of the Text (1993).

ABC and Vineyard that Illich and I met at Penn State University, where we both found ourselves teaching. For some time I had known Illich's work — as well as his inability to suffer gladly those whose ideas he considered foolish. I was thus surprised and intimidated when he telephoned and began abruptly with, "This is Ivan Illich. I have made great use of your work on the philosophy of technology and want to invite you to a living room conversation." The conversation was one in a series that eventually gave birth to Wolfgang Sach's Development Dictionary (1992).

As I discovered, Illich had taken CIDOC on the road. Wherever he could find a place to bring together a circle of friends, who could then convene in convivial but serious conversation — often around a table with pasta, a little wine, and a candle — he would settle for a few months and try to deepen his and others' reflections. These too were inspiring times. Quite frankly, I seldom lived up to the challenges he often placed on my plate.

I was equally frustrated by an inability to contribute to his work. I remember especially one talk he gave on "The Immorality of Bioethics" in which he attacked the professionalization of ethics talk. I struggled to help get the lecture written up, but never succeeded. He worked well with others, but somehow we were never quite able to collaborate in this ways. Yet his friendship remained an unexpected blessing, repeatedly inviting me to rethink even critical assumptions.

In the last decade of his life he increasingly questioned the notions of environmental responsibility and the new ideology of life. Calls for environmental responsibility were, he argued, just another excuse for advancing a technological management of the world, and even pro-life movements gave too much ground to science, when they defined human life as originating with a conception that could not be directly experienced. What was at work in history was a counterproductivity writ large that he fingered with a Latin phrase, corruptio optimi que est pessima , the corruption of the best is the worst. Contemporary attempts to better the human condition ultimately undermined their own ends. In the face of such temptations, one must seek out new forms of asceticism, silence, and withdrawal. Illich's own final withdrawal occurred quietly at a home in Germany, not that far from the Vienna where he began. To his friends, is left an effort to understand where he has gone.

Carl Mitcham is professor of liberal arts and international studies at Colorado School of Mines. He directed the Science-Technology-Society Program at Penn State and was founding director of the Philosophy and Technology Studies Center, Polytechnic University, New York. He is coeditor of The Challenges of Ivan.