Ivan Illich denounces the internet

Bob Corbett

From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 17, 1995

I am a fan of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society and several other of his works. Currently I have 10 students from a philosophy of education class online to experience what Illich wrote about in his 1971 book on deschooling, the concept of learning webs. One of the intriguing things about that book was his enthusiasm for tying people together who wanted to learn, and Illich’s prophetic notion that some day this might even be done by computer.

Thus it was a startling thing for me to discover that Illich now opposes the Internet and even denounces it, as he once denounced schools and the medical establishment.

The 1971 book, Deschooling Society attacks what Illich believes is a confusion between ‘credentialing’ and learning. He further charges that when we once institutionalised this distinction, we introduced a socially devastating notion into our culture – that process rather than product was the way to solve problems. Not learning and knowledge, for example, but attendance at a curriculum of study in a school.

To combat this institutional tendency Illich wants to ‘deschool’ us all. How will he do this?

He has several different solutions, but one is his concept of learning webs. These would be places where several things could go on. But mainly people were linked up for learning. Some of these things are quite familiar to us on the net:

  • In peer matching we would find ways to link up people who had similar interest, like reading and talking about some book.
  • He would find ways to link up learners and teachers, whether the teachers were teaching as volunteers or for pay.

And in all these learning webs, Illich saw a time when computers might help in the process. Though the main thrust of the learning webs as he described them in his book, were face to face meetings of people living in the relatively same geographic area.

However, in Illich’s view people would be tied together not on the basis of age or degrees, but on the basis of interest and levels of sophistication. 

Thus is was a great disappointment to me and surprise to read the article: “An Invitation To Ivan Illich”, by Marilyn Snell.

It is subtitled “An enemy of conventional wisdom and a sage against the machine.”

This article is in the Utne Reader, January/February, 1995 pages 93-96.

In a recent book of his, In The Vineyard Of The Text (University of Chicago Press, 1993) Illich presents one of his heroes, Hugh of St. Victor. In his praise of Hugh, Illich says: (in the Snell article) “He cautioned that a certain type of reading skill was disappearing – in effect, a physical intercourse between the reader, printed text, and the world beyond. Hugh delighted in the written page, savouring words from line to line like grapes picked from the monastery vineyard…Reading for Hugh was a physical activity as well as a search for wisdom. It was a way of life.”

Snell continues: “In contrast, said Illich, reading today is veering off ‘in the direc­tion of masturbation in hyperspace.’ According to Illich, when the sensual, tex­tual, actual book-as-body goes, so goes a vital, human form of interaction. What’s wrong with a little fooling around in hyperspace? Illich didn’t say, but by the time he had finished his story about Hugh’s feast of words, hyperspace seemed like a virtual wasteland.”

What possibly could lead Illich to such a strange view of the Internet? It is his concept of the place of face-to-face friendship in the world. (The March/April edition of Utne is devoted to the question of ‘community’ in cyberspace.)

Unfortunately Snell does not provide any decent account of Illich’s argument for his position, except to recount examples of how Illich keeps coming back to the cen­trality of face-to-faceness as a criterion of friendship, and how moving communications to an electronic forum destroys the concept of friendship.

I remain an ‘old school’ Illichian, and the Internet is like the radical dream come true. Here I commune with people whose age, educational background, colour, religion, looks, smells, living habits and whatnot do not sway me one way or the other. I read people’s words, and I make my decisions. I decide on the basis of the first few words they write, whether or not to continue, then whether or not to respond. It is a mode of communication that breaks down so many barriers.

I deeply regret to see my hero’s current stance, but nonetheless I am deeply indebted to Illich for his 1971 insights, they have been profoundly influential in the direction of my life since that time.

I do not think Illich is technophobic. In Deschooling Society he celebrates technology and indicates that one of his disagreements with other radicals critical of education is that they are often Luddites looking back to the ‘good old days.’ Illich wasn’t like that at all. But, has he given the medium a fair chance? I just don’t know, but I’d have to doubt it, since it is virtually inconceivable that anyone loving knowledge and people wouldn’t have a ball on this medium.

My Philosophy of Education class is just at the end of a three week ‘trip’ to the net (using my computer and my account – I will be a bit relieved when it is all over) and that group of ten people have just taken to it like ducks to water, and are extremely excited to get their own accounts (some of them will have to get computers first!). But, the ‘taste’ was all it took. As I see it that has to be most peo­ple’s reaction.

I do find more hope and more ‘unschooled’ inquiry and learning opportunities on the Internet than I’ve ever seen before, especially when one takes into account not merely the resources, but it is the psychological mind-set, the relatively anarchistic freedom to follow your own star. A theme I keep coming back to is the lack of limits placed by age, sex, religion, learning history, even looks, smells and social habits. On the Internet you are your words and ideas and there is a great freedom and motivation in that openness.

Bob Corbett, 1995, ‘Ivan Illich denounces the internet’, Taking Children Seriously 17, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 9-10, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/ivan-illich-denounces-the-internet/