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The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection
The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection

State University of New York Press, 2002
268 pp., $31.95

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by Christopher Shannon


The Death and Rebirth of Ivan Illich

A call to Christian conspiracy.

The passing of philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich in December of 2002 made little more than a blip on the radar screen of the American culture of critical discourse. Works such as Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, Energy and Equity, and Medical Nemesis established Illich as a leading voice in the radical rethinking of modern social institutions we have come to associate with the 1960s. But by the late 1970s, Illich began to see his countercultural star fall in the face of an emerging intellectual consensus all too willing to judge thinkers by conventional political categories of liberal and conservative. In an obituary oozing with a smug self-referentiality uniquely its own, The New York Times declared Illich's thought obsolete by citing the changing assessment of a Times columnist who had praised Illich in 1971, but by 1989 had declared that he had thrown out all his personal copies of Illich's books. Only slightly less condescending, Peter Berger's personal reflections in First Things tempered a similar intellectual dismissal by acknowledging a certain respect for Illich's personal integrity and an appreciation for his lifelong commitment to Roman Catholicism.

Illich's Christian faith may come as a bit of a surprise to those who knew him exclusively as a savage critic of modern education or through his environmental writing in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog. It nonetheless provides a revealing leitmotif running through the essays that make up The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection, edited by Lee Hoinacki and Carl Mitcham and published shortly before Illich's death. A kind of anticipatory eulogy, this collection of the essays by friends, colleagues, students, and admirers reflects in range, if not quality, the scope of Illich's intellectual career, suggesting that his road less traveled may yet provide some guidance for those who refuse give up on the search for viable alternatives to capitalist modernity. That Illich consistently ...

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