Category Archives: Illich

What makes a tool Convivial?

What does Illich mean when he describes a tool as convivial? How is a network of highways different then a telephone network?

At times, it seems to be about individual expressivity and choice vs institutional control, as in his description of the health care and educational systems. At other times it seems to be about power requirements, as in the comparison of the ox cart with the jet plane.

That said, telephone networks do consume more then human energy, and automobiles can be said to increase some individual freedoms. Or, are the two issues related when one includes considerations of inequality? But didn’t Illich say he was against strictly utilitarian logic?

In his world, shouldn’t everyone be free to make their choices about conviviality individually? In some sense, isn’t that what we are doing? Aren’t the values of corporations actually determined by consumers, or is it the other way around?

Finally, given his enthusiasm for the alphabet, libraries and the printing press, shouldn’t he be supportive of computing, as fundamentally a language machine? Or, is it really centralized, monopolistic provision of computing services that he would be against?

What humanity is Illich proposing be de-schooled?

Not the one I know. Apparently, everyone has the same inquisitive nature and intellectual goals of learning about the world that Illich does. Take a look around; most people are just interested in providing enough for them to make it to next month or in having “superficial” fun. His evidence must be anecdotal and sourced from within his academic bubble.


No doubt critical thinking should be emphasized more in education, but it taking place in an institution does not mean it is separated from society. An institution can be seen as representing the values of a society resulting from eons of dialog and debate to reach some objective sense of the good. However, we must be careful that the dialog is not stifled by the power of institutions. Though I don’t think people will self-organize into peer networks healthy for the dialog (re: fox new, et al.), I wonder what more schooling can do to foster connections outside of ones own interest or culture to further a “healthy” dialog that’s closer to reality – short (2 week) stints of: internships at local businesses, living with other families, etc…? How could technology facilitate this?

Some Questions on Illich

1. In the first reading, Ilich advocates for the enactment of laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of prior schooling, in the same way that we have laws against discrimination on the basis of race or sex. What would be the practical difficulties and potential implications of doing so? Would you agree with this course of action?

2. Illich envisions a network or service that provides an “intellectual match” program where people can find partners to discuss topics of mutual interest. Now that we have the technological capability of easily doing so, and have arguably implemented such a program in things such as bulletin boards, comment pages, etc., would you say that the implementation of this vision has born some success? If not, then why not – in what ways is Illich’s vision fundamentally different than the implementation that we have today? Or did he fail to consider certain societal factors that somehow affected the implementation?

Unless you have access to a loudspeaker . . .

you are now silenced.


Last week we learned that we are all oppressors and now we have learned that we are the beneficiaries of fundamentally useless institution.

Illich says what we have all been thinking since 8th grade, that school really isn’t for us after all.  Instead it is to solidify the values of the technocrats.  Sitting, nodding, giving respect to the teacher.  I mean, you have been to a KIPP school haven’t you?


I think where Illich loses credibility is in his bold turn to describe an inverse education system.  In it are very interesting roles that education should play, that can be contrasted with how it is used today.  This will make for a fun class as we take on khan academy Meetup and Global Village Construction Set ( .

Sure it is fun to poke fun at, but his critique of schooling plays out in many interesting ways. In charter schools that focus on testing and credentials as the only way to lift their students out of poverty, by conservatives who wish to abolish the department of education and by new-agey libertarians who believe in (and code for) the myth of the all powerful individual.


Worth considering.



The challenges of Illich

As others have already stated, Illich tonally was a challenge and a study in contrast. The articles were intriguing and infuriating… and beautifully written. I found the tone one I’d expect from an angry pedant — a stark contrast with his (various) messages of change.

I wonder about a few things. How did Illich address his own education, his tone, and his pedagogical imperative? How would Illich view platforms like Khan Academy, edx, webcasting, that are sometimes traditional academic discourses and other times something else?

Beyond that, I found his description of conviviality – ‘autonomous and creative
intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment’ – pretty interesting. I think communication technology can enable that ideal, but its obviously fraught with the intentions of its creators. I didn’t leave with a clear sense of where these technologies fit in Illich’s overall worldview. The readings were so intensely negative at times that my first instinct is to go with a less optimistic view of their potential as educational tools and convivial tools. That said, the more in depth, and seemingly calmer, description of convivial tools hints at possibilities for positive technological advancement.


I disagree with a lot of Illich’s ideals, and my immediate response to these readings has been full of negativity. But it is precisely because of this gut reaction that I’d like to step back and play devil’s advocate for a bit.

Illich writes about the disadvantages that poor children face, especially in a nation that places more emphasis on a good education from a good school. As a graduate of some of the “worst” schools in my hometown, I have first hand experience of how useless school prestige can be. Having grown up in a neighbourhood with many first-generation families (my own included), I know that a family’s situation has more influence on expectations of lofty career or higher education goals, than one’s educational history.

It is definitely true that “most people acquire most of their knowledge outside of school,” as Illich writes in Deschooling Society, as I have seen this occur in the lives of my friends and myself. Most, if not all, of the literature that has had profound effects on my life were not forced on me in a classroom, and of the works I was assigned to read, I remember very little. Though I “learned” French from the 5th through 12th grades, I never speak it besides the occasional franglais.

Even more striking is how much I have learned from every position I have ever held, even short internships. “Learning” in an educational environment can sometimes prove to be extremely inadequate preparation for application of skills on the job. I could spend years studying a subject, but without real-world application of knowledge, I would know nothing compared to somebody who had been working on simliar problems for the same amount of time.

If this is the result of an enforced education system, then why do students go on to complete bachelor’s degrees that may have no effect on their subsequent job, despite the expense? I have met many people who have graduated from university, then go on to build successful careers in positions that are not related to their subject of study. This article from the New York Times last year talks about some of the difficulties that academics have in finding work after quitting or completing an advanced degree. But I think the common theme in these situations, which the article points out, is that it is more difficult if your subject of study is in the humanities.

What does this mean for our future? If there were inherent problems with our educational system before, are they being amplified by an increased reliance on technology? Are poor families even poorer if they can’t afford a computer and an Internet connection, and are jobs scarcer if you can’t find one in the technology sector?

Ivan Illich was an Angry Man

Ivan Illich comes across as an angry man. From the first paragraphy of chapter 1 I could tell this guy was pissed. He sets up straw men and shoots them down. He makes wild unfounded accusations without data. He also appears to be a strict technological determinist. Frankly, I didn’t care for his style or substance much.

He weaves good narrative and suffers well from rhetorical charm. So I’ll focus on his parable of Susan Frank for my question, since that at least was entertaining.

Do Susan and Frank really exist as part of our present world? Or do you think that Illich meant Frank is our future if we to take in the ‘feeling’ of language? Can computers or technology really detach us so completely from our feelings?

Is this article evidence of an emerging Frank?

i’m reminded of that mark twain quote

I never let schooling get in the way of my education

(or something like that, i don’t really remember it)


often, we pay to partake in the kinds of “confusion” Illich describes as the primary function of formalized education as it’s practiced. in return, we sometimes receive the product we explicitly seek — education in educational context, health in health-care contexts — but often we simply receive the aesthetic and social benefits of its process — lecture halls, white lab coats, and so on. the benefits of process largely modulate the way their recipient feels and the way others view her.

are the social/personal benefits we reap from “process” without “substance” sometimes valuable for the psychological or interpersonal benefits they grant us? isn’t this sometimes what we’re paying for? isn’t paying to receive these non-content markers valid, and even required in human society?

where there is more than 1 person, there is meaningless fanfare 

it is not clear to me that the example of “casual learning” with language analogizes to all disciplines. some science implies we have some neural hard-coding that makes language human-learnable, whereas such structures may not exist for, say, linear algebra. in those kinds of domains, we probably need a human teacher and at least some degree of formalized interaction between teacher and student.

in interpersonal learning environments, is even it possible, from our armchair experience as human beings, to really eliminate contentless process from our teaching practices? isn’t contentless process something that emerges in all human interactions — from shaking hands to saying ‘whats up’ to getting married?


finally, a question about Tools for Conviviality:

Around [1913] a patient began to have more than a fifty-fifty chance that a graduate of a medical school would provide him with a specifically effective treatment [..] Since then medicine has gone on to define what constitutes disease and its treatment

abstractly, this is an example of the same fences/pastures/common phenomenon Illich discusses in Silence. by drawing boundaries and making definitions, the subject of these definitions and the areas within its boundaries become subject of the enterprises, the guilds, the owners. education is much the same way. what aspects of education currently lie within the fences of the formal institutions? what parts lie outside? are these parts (say, hacker communities) feeding on the commons, or are they making their own pasture, acting as their own enterprise?