thread about him came up on a message board where I post (Thom Hartmann), a flood of memories came back, and I went
back into my memories of my readings from the seventies, and I realized
what a subtle influence some of his ideas may have played into my own
thinking, some directly and some through the network of ideas that
floated through our discourse at that time.
It wasn’t so much
that he introduced the ideas to me personally, but that his own
developed thought, along with his links to others, like Jacques Ellul,
opened me to some expanded ways of seeing how what I was seeing at that
time in my own personal development (and I was in college on the GI
Bill at the time) connected to my growing concerns about institutions,
in general, in society.
It was a concern that had become starkly outlined for me when I was not long out of high school. One day I found myself looking out from a high barbed wired chain link fence enclosure surrounding boot camp. I was decidedly inside
looking out at a world that was as closed to me in many ways at that
moment as the notion of a free world is to a prisoner in jail. I was
about to go through a "ritual of passage" that was to transform me from
a civilian "person" to a military "person."
The very issue of
social personhood and roles in society was about to become starkly
etched into my neurons in that process. That etching made it possible
for me to begin to consider what it meant in an abstract way. Something
very different than the sort of knee jerk role playing that goes on in
every day life. One of the possibilities that comes from that change of
mental perspective is the ability to see that much of our relationships
are composed of abstract rules we take for granted.
A rite of passage
is a traditional social process that anthropologists who study and try
to describe the abstract structures of cultures have discovered to be a
common phenomenon across just about all cultures. That’s worth noting
because it indicates that it’s very human for us to realize that our
relationships are made up of rules, and that being conscious of those
rules is not just an academic endeavor, but one that humans have been
doing in their relationships undoubtedly through eons.
for me, was a very existential educative experience. Along with coming
to grips with the abstractions of the new rules which contrasted with
the old rules of a life I was leaving behind, I was being taught I had
to obey new rules as this new "person" in the process. The new rules
(specifically they are punitive
rules) included a "slightly" different set of legal definitions of my
individual rights from those I was taught about in our Constitution.
The new rules fell under what I discovered in a fairly thick book —
that I was issued to read for my very own — was called the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"Justice" being something of an oxymoron, I came to believe, when
contrasted with what I considered before that point in my life to be my
rights. These are all important existential and abstract learning
experiences and they can very much challenge anyone’s sense of being an
outsider, or a rebel.
I came to reflect on what I was learning
as my military experience wore on, and it occurred to me, young as I
was, that the difference between being inscripted, joining or being
incarcerated into a different institution, forget the name of the
instituion, rode on some very slight, razor thin differences in
abstract meaning for me at that moment. And from there, my whole
awareness of these forms (institutions) that I sort of took for granted
as the "what is" of life in what I had been indoctrinated to believe
was the land of the free, had some very sticky characteristics that put
the whole notion of freedom of action on my part into some realm of
doubt. I was beginning to open up to the very techniques for how
Jacques Ellul’s notion of sociological propaganda (which I wasn’t to
learn about until a few years later) actually takes place. Through this process I began to feel I was awakening from a dream.
by the way, is not something that is encouraged in the military.
Because doubt leads to the deconstruction of orders, and to the
grammatical rearrangement of a statement into a question. And from that
awareness, I began to look at all the different ways that doubt is
discouraged, sometimes openly, sometimes subtly, sometimes so subtly it
is (self) enforced before the doubt can arise.
So all that went
into my preparation for returning to civilian life, and had a lot to do
with why I went on to college to take advantage of the GI Bill — which
I loved, by the way, just to be clear, because I felt utterly free in
what I chose to study; while before I had come to revile the very
institution of high school, and in many ways, I still do.
that brings me back to my exploratory readings in the Seventies, some
of which I was networked into through my college courses, and through Ivan Illich.
I’ll just link two critical themes he wrote about related to my own
interest in institutionalism and this topic, which I’ll broaden
to simply "credentialism" because it’s a structural concept that plays throughout all of the hierarchical ordering that makes up an institution.
topics deal with the problems in modern society created by our very
immersion in social organizations I would generalize as "institutions."
Many have taken note of the concept. A whole genre of dystopian
literature has focused on it, and George Orwell’s name is only one of many
who have written well on the topic, and a name that might be easily recognized and associated with the very reasons for Ivan Illich’s life long efforts to make sense of the effects of institutionalism.
Kafka is famous for his dark take on the depersonalization of
bureaucracy on society.
From my own experience, I would hazard
to say that anyone who wants to consider themselves as taking an
outsider’s position needs to encounter this issue of bureaucracy and
institutionalism in some way. Ivan Illich was considered an epitome of
nonconformists. Not necessarily considered so by himself, but by those
he challenged with his ideas.
Ivan Illich died last year (3 years ago)…sigh!
By all accounts a man with a unique perspective on learning, he is best known for his publication Deschooling Society.
An itinerant academic, Illich traveled the world thinking and talking,
with little more than the clothes on his back and a few favorite books.
He fervently believed that schools, as social institutions, were simply
undermining people’s confidence in themselves and their capacity to
solve their own problems.
His central concern was that schools
had made learning a commodity, which they controlled. By marketing
learning and controlling access to it and certification for it, schools
made learning a thing not an activity.The possession of education
became the measure of a person’s worth in our society. Perhaps a little
extreme but it’s pretty close to the way some people view what they
achieve by going to school. Credentialism is as strong as ever despite
the fact that people have far more opportunities now to learn what they
want, when they want, from who they want, than Ivan had in the early
1920’s when he was born.
I’d like to note
that the very idea of commodification — if ideas have anything to do with
political dissent — has been explored by others in various ways, a most
recent and maybe well known example who comes to mind is Thomas Frank
with the conquest of cool and his anthology Commodify your Dissent.
In relation to the commodification of dissent, we might find some
interesting connections with the media uproar that’s been taking place
in town hall meetings over these health issues, and also note the
uproar over the issue of Obama’s message to students that’s raised such a ruckus along
similar lines. We might even begin to explore this whole area of sociological propaganda that Jacues Ellul and Ivan Illich have furrowed with their exploratory plows, and begin to see how people’s very dissent is an axiom of commerce and is an expression of a deeply entrenched global economic philosophy that has become the very form of their unexamined, angry lives.
IVAN ILLICH: A TRIBUTE
Illich, who died last month in Bremen, Germany, where he taught at the
university, won international recognition in the 1970s for his original
and still influential ideas about technical progress, health, work,
consumerism and human dignity. Everyone opposed to globalisation and
standardisation owes him a debt.