Ivan Illich Essay

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Ivan Illich was a historian, theologian, and social critic who dedicated his life to understanding people and the joys and hardships that all humans share. He called for the disestablishment of compulsory education, arguing that it should be replaced with student-driven learning webs. This entry summarizes his life and contributions.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1926, Illich moved frequently in his youth. His mother was Jewish, so in order to avoid the increasing Nazi persecution in the late 1930s, he and his younger brothers sought refuge in Italy. It was at this time that Illich became a priest, choosing to devote himself to Christ and the Catholic Church. He studied theology and philosophy at Rome’s Gregorian University and later earned his doctorate in the philosophy of history at the University of Salzburg.

In 1951, Illich left Europe and came to the United States to serve as assistant pastor at Incarnation Parish in Washington Heights and later at an Irish-Puerto Rican parish in New York City. There, working with the immigrant Puerto Rican community, he became acutely aware of social justice issues and honed his talents as an activist. Working his way up the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, he was appointed as the Vice-Rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico at Ponce in 1955. During his tenure at the Catholic University, Illich’s primary responsibility was to introduce American priests to Latin American and Puerto Rican culture. This led to the creation of the Institute of Intercultural Communications. At this point in his career, Illich became increasingly critical of what he believed was cultural colonialism on the part of industrialized countries in North America and Western Europe.

After leaving Puerto Rico, Illich founded the Center of Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1961. At the Center, Illich undertook his first systematic critiques of the export to Latin America of materialistic, consumer-oriented capitalism by industrialized countries such as the United States. Although Illich’s faith never wavered, he became very critical of the Catholic Church as an institution. He saw the Church operating with very clear political, social, and economic agendas. He found this aspect of the institution to be contradictory to his vision of the true aim of the Church: to care for and love mankind. Because of his criticism of the Church, Illich was reprimanded by Catholic leaders. He was eventually granted a formal leave from the Church. As a result of Illich’s departure from the traditional priesthood, the Church ended its formal relationship with the Center as a place for training clergy.

However, the Center remained a force in the social justice movement and became an increasingly important center for community development and educational reform. Based upon seminars and workshops with Paul Goodman, Paulo Freire, Joel Spring, and others, Illich published his most influential work in the social foundations of education: Deschooling Society.

Illich’s two most influential works with respect to the social foundations of education are Deschooling Society and In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. In Deschooling Society, Illich argued for the disestablishment of compulsory schooling. Just as he felt that the Church as an institution was perverting grace and salvation, he felt that compulsory schooling was perverting learning and education. Illich was critical of what he believed were the hidden agendas associated with compulsory schooling, including social and economic stratification, intellectual dependence, and homogeneous modes of thinking.

According to Illich, school had replaced academic notions of lifelong learning with notions of control, accreditation, and uniformity. He believed in student guided education. He thought that what he called learning webs should be the foundation of one’s educational experience. Illich’s ideas about webs of collective knowledge were particularly prescient because he was suggesting something like the Worldwide Web and similar types of networked information sources.

Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon contributes to the social foundations of education with its historical analysis of technology and how it has affected literacy. Illich discusses the revolution of typographic literacy in the fifteenth century and the evolution from typographic literacy to posttypographic literacy. Illich’s talent for critical thought and analysis, coupled with his determination as an activist to make the world a better place, allowed him the means by which to deconstruct compulsory schooling and literacy. His impact as a theorist and activist continues to be felt.


  1. Illich, I. (1970). A celebration of awareness: A call for institutional revolution. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  2. Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Illich, I. (1992). In the mirror of the past: Lectures and addresses, 1978–1990. London: Marion Boyars.

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