At The Baffler, George Scialabba continues to write about the great American tradition of social criticism from the Left, and in particular about the post-World War II wave of critics: "C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, James Baldwin, Michael Harrington, Christopher Lasch, Jonathan Kozol, Norman O. Brown, Wendell Berry, Shulamith Firestone, and the authors of the Port Huron Statement, among others."
Most recently, Scialabba calls our attention to the late Ivan Illich—not to be confused with either the fictional "Ivan Ilyich" (a Tolstoy character) or with the late theologian Paul Tillich—who, Scialabba says, was "an idiosyncratic revolutionary," an exponent of "a politics of limits," and an advocate for "a Copernican revolution in our perception of values."
If Illich, who died in 2002, is remembered today for anything, it is for his first book, DESCHOOLING SOCIETY, which was published in 1971. Joining education reformers like Paul Goodman and John Holt, Illich went even further in his denunciation of organized education; as Scialabba writes,
[Illich] thought the educational system had no good reason to exist. It was, like every modern service industry, in the business of creating and defining the needs it purported to satisfy—in this case, the certification of experts—while discrediting alternative, usually traditional, methods of self-cultivation and self-care. The schools’ primary mission was to produce people able and willing to inhabit a historically new way of life, as clients or administrators of systems whose self-perpetuation was their overriding goal. Thus schools produce childhood, a phenomenon that is, Illich claimed, no more than a few centuries old but is now the universal rationale for imposing an array of requirements, educational and medical, on parents and for training people as lifelong candidates for credentials and consumers of expertise. 1
Scialabba sums up Illich's complaint: "It is not what schools taught that Illich objected to; it is that they taught...what school teaches, first and last, is 'the need to be taught.'"
Illich objected to far more than our regimented schooling. He was, more or less, "against everything," at least everything modern, including (or especially) the modern cult of expertise and professionalism:
Professions colonize our imaginations; or as Michel Foucault (whom Illich’s language sometimes recalls—or anticipates) might have said, they reduce us to terms in a discourse whose sovereignty we have no idea how to contest or criticize.
Like E.F. Schumacher and Kirkpatrick Sale, Illich emphasized the idea of "scale" ("human scale" or "natural scale") and resolutely opposed our infatuation with growth:
Illich proposed “a new kind of modern tool kit”—not devised by planners but worked out through a kind of society-wide consultation that he called “politics,” undoubtedly recognizing that it bore no relation to what currently goes by that name. The purpose of this process was to frame a conception of the good life that would “serve as a framework for evaluating man’s relation to his tools.” Essential to any feasible conception, Illich assumed, was identifying a “natural scale” for life’s main dimensions. “When an enterprise [or an institution] grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself.”
Scialabba ends by acknowledging Illich's ideological Achilles heel: like Lasch, Illich was no fan of modern feminism. Scialabba explains:
Any assessment of Illich’s thought requires at least a footnote about his curious, controversial late work, Gender (1983). Like many anti-modernists, Illich had an uneasy relationship with feminism. He thought about sexual inequality much as he did about economic inequality: its injustice was too obvious to need much arguing, but more money and power for women and the poor amounted to, in effect, better seats at the banquet table when all the food was unhealthy and unpalatable. He was, unlike most political and sexual radicals, disenchanted with money and power altogether. 2
Illich, in other words, wasn't against "women's liberation"; he simply opposed a false "liberation" that left women just as enslaved as men by modernity.
At this historical remove, it's difficult to gauge the impact of that cadre of postwar leftist critics to which Illich is linked; and for me, at least, it's impossible to sort out any attempt at objective evaluation from the nostalgia with which I regard them and that era. What I can say, though, is that those writers—Paul Goodman, Christopher Lasch, Ivan Illich, Michael Harrington, James Baldwin, Wendell Berry et al—shaped my thinking and my view of the world; along with the gospels and the work of Mark Twain (yes, I'm aware of the incongruity), they were my seminal intellectual influences. I'm proud of that and, to this day, I'm proud of them; and I'm grateful to George Scialabba for keeping their memory and their ideas alive.
1 As I recall, my own less articulate attempts to say much the same thing were met, back in my school days, with considerable disapproval—in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have used the phrase "cesspool of mediocrity".
2 A thorough-going disenchantment "with money and power" reminds me of someone else—a certain itinerant Galilean preacher who also had no time for talking about "sexual inequality" because he was after bigger fish (so to speak).