Thursday, March 27, 2003

Berger on Illich

Peter Berger has written a touching, thoughtful tribute to the late Ivan Illich in the March issue of First Things. Illich, for those of you who never read anything by him, was a wonderfully odd thinker, one of those resolute anti-moderns whose conservatism was so profound that he was embraced by the radical 1960s left. He attacked the dehumanization of the marketplace, the devaluation of traditional modes of work (in the home, on the farm, etc.), the modern public education establishment, the "medicalization of death" brought about by the professionalization of medical care and the creation of modern hospitals, and so on. When he passed away late last year, and old friend (and committed socialist) wrote me to give me the news, and we discussed him a bit. I commented that most everything found in Illich can also be found in such disparate figures as Wendell Berry and Michel Foucault (now there's an odd twosome); my friend responded by writing that "Illich's biggest strength was as a philosopher-essayist who took much of foucaldian and neo-marxist criticism and made it readable to an informed, critical "lay" audience...his ability to turn them into understandable and entertaining social criticism were unmatched." I think that's about right. If you ever have a chance to sit down and read one of his small books, like Deschooling Society or Limits to Medicine, do so: you probably won't agree with him, but you'll be a better person for having confronted his thoughts, as Berger eloquently attests.