Ivan Illich was an influential theorist in the decade I was born. I had heard of his most famous work, Deschooling Society, and it had been recommended to me more than once I’m sure, no doubt because I homeschooled in the 6th and 12th grades. But I had only a passing awareness of the man and his work when I stumbled across Medical Nemesis, his critique of modern medicine and its role in society. I was thunderstruck. Reading Medical Nemesis I discovered a scholarly explanation and defense of the values I was raised with, ideas that I accepted and took for granted as just the way our family lived, yet ideas I was aware were and still are in fairly stark opposition to most people around us. Reading this book, I realized: my father and mother had read this and were influenced by it, and no doubt many of their friends, the parents of my closest and truest friends. This book shaped an important part of who I am, although I had never read it.
In any time and place there are a cloud of active ideas wafting around, some are elevated and canonized, some are cast down and ignored by the larger society, but those spurned ideas perpetuate through generations even after their originators and their books are long forgotten. Maybe I’m making a lot out of a simple truism. But like a lot of cliched proverbs or expressions, the depth of meaning doesn’t appear until you “taste the salt”, as the Malays have it. Des’ree was probably just heralding wisdom from her mother when she said, “Read the Books Your Father Read”, but I heard it from her first, and now I think I know better what she means.
A great deal of Illich’s work is available freely on the web.
A recent review of Illich’s ideas about technology in The Atlantic