Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The search for Illich

A few weeks ago, I decided to visit the University of Canberra's library, to see what works they had in their collection by or about Illich. I'm sorry to report that they have less than 20 items, (Sorry, no URL to the result) compared to the 151 on Amazon, and "hundreds" listed freely on a key Illich fan page.
I've so far, of the 3 I'm interested in, 1 of them, Celebration of Awareness, has been lost. Of the two I have, (Gender and Imprisoned in the Global Classroom), Gender is in very poor shape with its cover falling away from its contents. Gender was last borrowed in 2008, Imprisoned in 2002. Deschooling was last borrowed in 2007, and UC has no copy of Medical Nemesis.

Why is this important?

Illich's critique on the consequences of institutionalisation, his questioning of the underlying values, and his proposed solutions to the problems he describes, are important because (from what I can tell) they remain unchallenged. Does this mean his critique is accepted? Are we then doing little to meet his challenges? Or is the lake of response and awareness simply further evidence of our loss of consciousness for his work?

Illich is (or was for UC) a pretty important author whose work is mostly available in print only. His intense criticism of many areas of UC subjects like Health, Education, Science and Government should be included in those Faculty's library collections at-least, I won't comment on the content of their courses. The small collection, the condition that its in, and the frequency of its use could well be a reflection of the relevance his work holds in today's understanding of knowledge in those subjects. I intend to ask unit conveners if Illich is included in their content or reading lists - it could just as well be that most people refer to the slim pickings of his work online. Going by my attempts to converse around Illich in the education sector generally, I suspect his work is no longer included, and that most people are ignorant of his contribution and his perspective, that our knowledge of him is near lost.

This situation, and the questions it raises about the breadth and depth of study going on at UC, relates to my earlier post reviewing a paper on academic capitalism. That paper argued for the need to constantly be aware of the consequences of our actions, and use those to question the values underpinning those actions. Illich effectively highlighted many unforeseen consequences of institutionalised education and health, and questioned the underlying values of those 'services'. Is the absence of Illich from our reading lists and resources, evidence that we are ignoring a critical voice for those consequences? Are we neglecting a full and honest look at ourselves? Or could it be that we've all just been there, done that, and Illich's critiques are not relevant? If so, where's the published rebuttals? I seem to have come a generation too late, so need to see the arguments again.. if there are any, because Illich to me is a beacon in the fog.. his work is important to us today, perhaps more so than it was in the late 20th Century.

The search continues...


Liddo said...

I have just finished reading some of his work - all be it through another publication - on professionalism and the demise of schooling for an education paper. Very interesting stuff. It does make me want to read more of his work.

houshuang said...

Yes! I discovered Illich in my undergrad, printed out "Energy and equity" in the university library and read it on the 1,5 hr public transit trip back home. I was hooked. Then read Deschooling society (which surprisingly reminded me a lot of the schemes I cooked up with my friend, when we were both 15 and anarchists), and Medical nemesis, which resonated powerfully with me, since my father passed away with cancer, spending his last years hospitalized and under strong medication...

This is also a strong argument for Open Access... This stuff should all be available online. I gave a talk in China where I used Illich's ideas to analyze the explosion of formal higher education... Online I found out that there had been a Chinese translation of Deschooling society made in Taiwan. but it is not available anywhere in China. I wish I could tell all the graduate students in the room I was, to go read him. But they are not able to. (At least the English text of that book is available online, but many others are not).

I think Illich has had a real renaissance with OER and PLEs and stuff though, if you do a Twitter search for Illich, his name is mentioned frequently.

I am also interested in anyone actually engaging with his ideas, I'd love to see rebuttals. I don't know enough about how his ideas were received "in the day" either.