Ivan Illich, Education, and The Good Life

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1972) exposes our assumptions that a degree is an education, that medicine is health care, that security is safety, that institutionalization of jobs in corporations, schools, and government creates our freedom. We’ve come to confuse degrees, medicine, jobs, and security for the good life.

When what we value, what we want, becomes institutionalized, our values grow frustrated, and what we want turns against us: “…the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery…this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities; when health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or ‘treatments.’”

It’s not a question of spending more money on education, but of a lack of respect (value) for alternative forms to institutionalized education: “Rich and poor alike depend on schools and hospitals which guide their lives, form their world view, and define for them what is legitimate and what is not. Both view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, learning on one’s own as unreliable, and community organization, when not paid for by those in authority, as a form of aggression or subversion.”

Modern segregation of family, church, job, and school leads to specializations of each, which in turn results in our feeling confined in each, able to do only one thing at a time. In “the medieval town…traditional society was more like a set of concentric circles of meaningful structures, while modern man must learn how to find meaning in many structures to which he is only marginally related. In the village, language and architecture and work and religion and family customs were consistent with one another, mutually explanatory and reinforcing. Education did not compete for time with either work or leisure. Almost all education was complex, lifelong, and unplanned.”

For Illich, the problem is that “members of modern society believe that the good life consists in having institutions which define the values that both they and their society believe they need.” A wise man, Aristotle argues in Nicomachean Ethics, is one who knows what is good for himself and for everyone else. What will happen to Education? Given our current confusion of wants, as Frank Sinatra sang, we may have to “just wake up,” and “kiss that good life goodbye.” And learning to live without our good life as we have come to know it just might be something we should want.

Emily Post’s Rhetorical Garden: A Field of Claims, Evidence, and Warrants

It’s too bad Emily Post was not a literary critic, for she was a whiz at rhetoric.

This is as close as she comes to lit-crit, but who can disagree? “There is no better way to cultivate taste in words, than by constantly reading the best English. None of the words and expressions which are taboo in good society will be found in books of proved literary standing. But it must not be forgotten that there can be a vast difference between literary standing and popularity, and that many of the ‘best sellers’ have no literary merit whatsoever” (chap. 8, para. 7).

Unfortunately, she does not give away the titles in her library, but her assumptions can be deadly: “It is difficult to explain why well-bred people avoid certain words and expressions that are admitted by etymology and grammar. So it must be merely stated that they have and undoubtedly always will avoid them. Moreover, this choice of expression is not set forth in any printed guide or book on English, though it is followed in all literature” (chap. 8, para 1).

If you are looking for an exercise to practice identifying claims, evidence, and warrants (and who is not?), take a look at Emily Post’s original Etiquette (1922). Get ready to frolic in a field of assumptions.

“Every house has an outward appearance to be made as presentable as possible, an interior continually to be set in order, and incessantly to be cleaned. And for those that dwell within it there are meals to be prepared and served; linen to be laundered and mended; personal garments to be brushed and pressed; and perhaps children to be cared for. There is also a door-bell to be answered in which manners as well as appearance come into play” (chap. 12, para. 1). And don’t we know it?

“But the ‘mansion’ of bastard architecture and crude paint, with its brass indifferently clean, with coarse lace behind the plate glass of its golden-oak door, and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation’” (chap 12, para 4). We’ve a rule in our place that offending mustaches must be swept clean by eleven every morning (save Saturday).

“Who does not dislike a ‘boneless’ hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one’s hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere. What woman does not wince at the viselike grasp that cuts her rings into her flesh and temporarily paralyzes every finger?” (chap. 3, para. 14).

It becomes increasingly clear why Emily Post did not go into literary criticism. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, study etiquette, or rhetoric, or grammar, or some such thing.” And Emily’s Etiquette is a work of fiction, and she is a stunning, literary star. Had she placed her cartoonish characters into any kind of plot, she could have been as good as P. G. Wodehouse.

Buckley and the hard work of writing

William F. Buckley, Jr. now occupies, we hope, a seat in the bleachers to the right of Home Plate. We’ve been looking through his Buckley: The Right Word. We were not surprised to find him weighing in on the reading crisis. This, from 1980: “The good news is that there are people around who are trying to discover why it is that American youth, year after year, are having greater and greater difficulty in expressing themselves. There are a lot of wisecracks readily available (“they have nothing to say”), but one tires quickly of them, and then genuine worry sets in” (p. 131). And having nothing to say did not dissuade John Cage, who said, in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it” (Silence, p. 109). Buckley finds fault with TV: “You can’t simultaneously spend four hours watching television and four hours reading good prose.” But he also acknowledges that any suspected blame does not seem to apply universally.

If any one fault can be ascribed, perhaps the sheer physical difficulty of writing, and writing correctly, must be to blame. We are looking for cause and effect, but can not find even correlation. The effete and elite are each stricken equally, as the case of the Harvard student, passing placement exams but sitting in Expos unable to write a sentence, demonstrates. Buckley is then thrown off base by the Dick Cavett caveat, “Why does it matter?” Then comes this thunderbolt: Buckley relates that William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, once told him, “I am afraid, Mr. Buckley, that you do not really know the proper use of the comma.” Buckley’s response: “If St. Peter had declared me unfit to enter the Kingdom of God, I could not have felt more searingly the reproach…” (p. 306). Things are as bad as they ever were because nothing has made things any easier.

Thinking about writing, and actually sitting down and doing the writing, are two different occupations. We can always start a book with a few chapters and claim a work in progress, even if we never pick it up again; but who benefits from this kind of deception? Buckley points to the hard work of writing: “Working on a novel, I like to write every day….On the other hand, don’t ever devote the entire day to doing just that….I’d like to see more novels not written by people who have all the time in the world to write them” (p. 285).

But if writing is hard work, “But how would the reader know?” Buckley asks. The answer to that question Toulmin gives us, arguing that the work the writer does not put in, the reader must. But in spite of the hard work, Buckley assures us there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. “Writing, if it’s done at all, has got to yield net satisfaction….I’m simply saying that writing is terribly hard work.” So he allows for distractions, change of pace and location, ancillary pursuits. He listened to music while writing: “Yes, I have the record player on most of the time.…I don’t play jazz when I write. I don’t know why but I just plain don’t. But I do when I paint” (pp. 290-291).

We do listen to jazz when we write, almost exclusively, but usually instrumental, no vocals, which can be too distracting. But what’s the one significant takeaway we want to emphasize with regard to the hard practice of writing? What do we want from writing? What do we expect? We must write most days to develop answers to these and other questions about writing and reading. Posts may be warm up exercises to the real work.

Buckley, W. F., Jr. (1996). Buckley: The right word (Harvest Book edition, 1998). New York: Harcourt Brace &  Company.

On Reading Well

In discussion last night we asked what makes for a good writer, what characterizes good writing, how do we recognize good writing. And so we talked about what makes good writing good. The discussion was lively, full of ideas, suggestions, and opinions. We stacked boxes of clarity in the back corner. Someone brought in bowls of mixed claims to snack on, and we helped ourselves to a refreshing punch from a glass bowl filled with assumptions.  

Then we asked what makes for a good reader, what characterizes good reading, how do we recognize good reading. And so we talked about what makes good reading good. But the discussion was chilly, quiet – only one light box of definitions, few suggestions, and thinly scattered opinions. The snacks ran out and the party seemed over. 

Writing is learned while writing, and probably in no other way. Memorization of all the many rules will not guarantee good writing. But we are not born pen in hand, fingers on a keyboard, or standing in front of an audience, our argument committed to memory and practiced. If bad writing is often the evidence of bad thinking, does bad reading result in bad writing? A good writer is a good reader. A good reader is a good proofreader. But what do we proofread for – for our own comprehension and understanding of what’s going on? But even if we can read something good with success, does it follow we can write something good with equal success? It’s possible that a good reader is, first, an imaginative reader, one who reads with imagination; but what do we mean by imagination, childhood wonder, or Wallace Stevens’s reading lamp (orange sun in his clear blue sky), the one unconcerned that we might not get it, for we may not even stop to think there’s something to get, that that’s what it’s all about, the other concerned with reality. Many of us fear writing – just as we might fear speaking before groups; do we fear reading in similar ways? How do we get over these fears?

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser says “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English” (p. 9). Then, without warning, he accuses the reader of being “someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds…” (p. 9). We suppose Steven Toulmin meant something similar when he said, “The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.” Nevertheless, much reading does require effort, supreme effort to read Stevens, to use one of his words, though of course Toulmin was probably not speaking of poetry, but even so, Stevens’s essays are just as difficult as his poetry; anyway, Toulmin also makes it plain he doesn’t want people using his ideas dogmatically, and another of what he calls his “mottoes” is “no theory is self-validating.”

We are working on keeping our posts short, around 500 words seems right for our purpose, but if we don’t get the right 500 words in the right order we find that what we’ve written often sounds too cryptic; nevertheless, we end now with the following, from A. W. Ward’s “Dickens”:        

“Dickens…perceived that in order to succeed as a reporter of the highest class he needed something besides the knowledge of shorthand. In a word, he lacked reading; and this deficiency he set himself to supply as best he could by a constant attendance at the British Museum. Those critics who have dwelt on the fact that the reading of Dickens was neither very great nor very extensive, have insisted on what is not less true than obvious; but he had this one quality of the true lover of reading, that he never professed a familiarity with that which he knew little or nothing” (p. 10).  

“Inasmuch as he was no great reader in the days of his authorship, and had to go through hard times of his own before, it was well that the literature of his childhood was good of its kind, and that where it was not good it was at least gay. Dickens afterwards made it an article of his social creed, that the imagination of the young needs nourishment as much as their bodies require food and clothing; and he had reason for gratefully remembering that at all events the imaginative part of his education had escaped neglect” (p. 4). 

Ward, A. W. (1882). Dickens. London: Macmillan and Co. p. 10. Digitalized by Google:

Olson, Gary A. “Literary theory, philosophy of science, and persuasive discourse: Thoughts from a neo-premodernist.” [interview with Stephen Toulmin] JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition 13.2 (1993): 283-310.