The Prophet or the Madman

A good education should prepare one to see many sides of an issue and to see the complex nature of problems. Solutions, should they exist, come from seeing the good in things and building upon that, along with balance, patience, and so on.

It seems to me that about 95% of problems or questions should get handled in this fashion.

But the remaining 5% probably require none of the aforementioned qualities, but instead call for a prophet.  Some problems have such deep and destructive roots in society that only radical solutions suffice, and coming to these conclusions require a complete change of perspective not unlike repentance.  In such cases balance and moderation hurt more than help.

The problem with prophets is that they usually sound crazy.  They are entirely “unreasonable” and see nothing among us to build on.  They abhor compromise.  No doubt this explains why most of Israel’s prophets were dismissed as lunatics or dangerous subversives.

The fact that not all prophets deserve the title of “Prophet” adds to the dilemma.  God mandated harsh punishments for false prophets, who unnecessarily rile up/provide false comfort in addition to the far worse consequence of giving us the wrong view of God and our place in the universe.

If we took the Industrial Revolution as an example, we might expect a “reasonable” historian to take a standard cost/benefit approach.  On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution eventually ushered in higher wages and higher standards of living.  Medical technology improved and helped us lead healthier lives.  Mass production led to greater social and political equality.  On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution also disconnected us from nature and allowed us to mass produce destructive things like weapons and pollutants.  The regimentation of the factory led to regimentation of other areas of life.  Modern conveniences also facilitated longer working hours, which helped erode the family.  Some good, some bad, and the trick lies in deciding how to weigh the importance of each category.

Enter Ivan Illich.

Illich (a one time Catholic priest turned social critic) wants nothing to do with the above paragraph.  The Industrial Revolution, or in his phrase, “hygenic progress” has led to continuing impoverishment of all who drink from its waters.

Perhaps you think he means impoverishment of the soul, and then we can still perhaps argue that certain economic benefits outweigh that at least in some circumstances.

But no — he means impoverishment of the soul and economic impoverishment. Industrial society has made us poorer in every sense, which on the surface seems demonstrably untrue.  But nevertheless, he wants to burn it all down, if not physically, then at least in our whole approach to what lies around us.

Do we have a madman or a prophet?

I will say that having read his book Toward a History of Needs I’m not quite sure myself. He fits one criteria for having a prophetic voice — neither the political right or left knew what to do with him in his day.  On the imgresone hand, Illich heavily criticized market-based solutions as essentially imperialistic projects that in the end only benefitted producers.  On the other hand, he spoke just as harshly against the industrialized “do-gooders” of the left and their projects like the Peace Corp and The Alliance for Progress.  He saw both sides as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum — the same person with a different face, sharing essentially the same destructive perspective.

Illich’s main idea is that the “hygenic progress” of the last two centuries has not solved any problem mankind faces so much as it has created needs that have become mandatory for civilization. These “mandatory needs” continue to increase and drain both soul and wallet.  This favors not only producers but also, “anyone in the driver seat” (government bureaucracy). He cites many examples to prove his point, and we can add to those examples today.

Some of his examples (with hardly an exhaustive list) . . .

Medicine has become vastly more expensive over the last few decades without necessarily making us healthier. Pregnant women, for example, now have seemingly dozens of “mandatory” checkups involving expensive lab work to check on her health.  But babies are not measurably more healthy than they were 20-30 years ago.  These checkups did not come in response to a severe crisis, but as part of the logic of the “producers of health.”  Ilich also argues that most of the vast costs involving medical care for the elderly go more towards prolonging suffering than actually making us healthier.  Of course, this suffering in turn drives us back to the health producers.

Simple things like driving also fall prey to this logic.  In days of yore, you acquired driving skills more or less by osmosis and guided practice from parents.  Now prospective drivers need a certification from driving schools to prove their merit.  The fact that many who take courses from “driving schools” spend their time doing errands for the producer of the certificates should call for us to abolish the criteria altogether.  Instead, because we are a society of “hygenic progress,” we call for reform, not abolition, of such institutions, which bring in government bureaucrats once again.  The system continually empowers “those in the driver’s seat” literally and figuratively.

This dynamic impoverishes us financially by forcing us to pay for the certification and government authentication of our lives, and it also steals away time and personal initiative.  Citizens of “hygenic progress” societies will get boxed in continually.  We realize that one “must” have a car to survive in modern society (with the rare exception of a few cities), and the logic of car ownership has followed suit. No layman can repair their car anymore, which drives us toward complete reliance on the producers of car health.  Writing in the early 1970’s, Illich did not foresee the rise of digital technology.  Now, we “need” not just computers and internet, but cell phones and the like to “survive” the modern world.  Failure to keep up brings nebulous social penalties, along with more realistic drawbacks.  Who communicates by phone anymore?**

Education has gone through the same process.  Public education once was conceived as a free gift.  Now this gift is mandatory, with a mandated curriculum.  Initially the system called for you to stay through 8th grade, now one must stay until 16.  Of course, society’s demands for more pieces of paper to certify one as “educated” has increased. Now everyone “must” graduate high school to have any chance in society, and to get a “real job” everyone must go to college — though we know that many high school and college educations hardly dignify the name.  Now Master’s Degrees have become “required” in many professions.  Some of this might be acceptable if the certificates proved that you actually had a good education, when what it really proves it that you jumped through the required hoops.  The role of government oversight and financial enrichment of the producers of certificates (think of the growth of private companies in the standardized testing industry) again go hand in hand.

Of course not all want this outcome, but that’s just “the way it goes.”  I have an autistic son, and from time to time speculate on why autism diagnoses have dramatically increased over the last 20-odd years.  With the caveat that the question is complex and mysterious, part of me wonders if the increased regimentation in education makes those who lack the social skills necessary to navigate that world stand out in much bolder relief than previously.

Illich uses many more examples which I will pass over.  He astutely references the classical concept of “nemesis” from Greek mythology.  Nemesis served justice and punished hubris.  In the modern sense, nemesis stood for the punishment of a rash abuse of privilege.  In heroic literature the truly elite of society experience “nemesis” by going too far beyond the lot of mortals.  Now, Illich comments that nemesis has been democratized and no longer is reserved for rash abuse of a privilege.  Rather, “Industrialized nemesis is retribution for dutiful participation in society.”

At this point we may want to push back a bit.  Maybe the benefits of industrial society have plateaued somewhat, but if we do a before/after look since the start of industrialization, we see that life expectancy has gone up, and more people have access to more conveniences of life.  Who would want to return to pre-industrial living?  And while we can’t repair our cars, they do last a lot longer than they used to, which puts us back to the +/- calculus of the “reasonable” historian.  Some products over time became ubiquitous, but also cheap.  A perfectly good land-line phone, for example, costs no more than $15.  DVD players began by costing a few hundred bucks and now come at 1/10 of that price.  These examples seem to go against the idea that producers will get continually enriched at consumer expense.

I’m not sure how Illich would respond to these arguments, but I would guess that he would say that producers will continue to turn today’s luxuries into tomorrow’s “needs.”  And — they will continue to partner with government to make the needs mandatory — hence, good bye rabbit ears, hello to required conversion to digital.  DVD players are cheap, but look out for Blue-Ray, which will likely supplant DVD’s soon enough and start the cycle over again.

Of course prophets don’t just critique, they also offer hope and a way forward.  For Illich that means more creative and especially, autonomous action on the part of individuals.  We must escape the professionalization, the certificates of approval, and the commodification that governs modern lives.  We no longer make decisions — we have algorithms or rubrics to that for us.

However, a question remains — do we wish to be free? Do we even know what that means?  Would it matter if we did?  I am reminded of a passage in Machiavelli’s Discourses which captures the essence of the issue.  Are we a healthy body with a corrupt head, i.e. Rome at the time of the latter Tarquin kings? After the expulsion of Tarquin Superbus the Romans immediately had the ability to form a stable, successful, alternative government.  Or, has the whole body been infected, and cutting off the head will produce only more problems?  Much later in Rome’s history a new “Tarquin” arose in the form of Julius Caesar, but his death only made things worse for Rome — the whole body had become corrupt.

Illich also fails to discuss another question — is the situation he describes (if he correctly describes it — I am at least partially persuaded) a necessary or contingent consequence of industrialization?  If the latter, then we can work to change things.  If the former is true, then we need to pattern ourselves after the characters in many of Phillip K. Dick’s stories and go “through” the situation rather than running away from it, and find a spot of peace therein.

I suspect, however, that if Illich is correct, then we are living with contingent consequences of industrialization.  We can get pushed in certain directions but never off the road entirely.  While I would not call him a madman, nor would I yet call him a prophet.  He describes some of the technical reasons for our situation, but he fails to unmask the religious devotion that created this situation.  The key question, “What does industrial bureaucratic capitalism truly worship?” has yet to receive an answer.  Until we understand this, we will have no power to change our circumstances.  We need also to see that the situation Illich describes results not just from the confluence of bureaucrats and producers, but from everyone.  We “the people” cannot be part of whatever path forward may exist without acknowledging our own complicity.


*Hence his book Deschooling Society on the surface seems like a call to dismantle public education in favor of more market based approaches (the “Right” cheers).  But what Illich really calls for is that society “de-school” itself and fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between “school” and “society” (the Right and the Left look at each other quizzically).

**The confluence of the producers of society’s digital “needs” and government oversight continues with a vengeance with the rise of technology in education.  Now curricula get planned around the assumption that students have technology in the classroom.  Those who don’t will be given access.  The option to “drop out” — i.e., “I don’t want my child to have access to a tablet, phone, etc.” — doesn’t really exist.  Most teacher training now gets geared towards showing teachers how to better serve the god “Technology in the Classroom.”  All of this of course is “necessary” because we must “prepare students for the modern world.”  Meanwhile of course, we create the “modern world” via the use of technology in the classroom.  One hand washes the other.  This seems a similar argument to Hillaire Belloc’s The Servile State.

Mixed Messages

At this point in the school year different classes I teach touch on a similar theme . . .

Why did the French Revolution happen to such a nice guy as Louis XVI?

Obviously answering this question involves many factors, but one clearly is the problem of the mixed message and the tension that creates.  Louis worked hard to reform much of France.  He spent less money, he spent less time at Versailles, he believed in the power of science to transform the country, etc. etc.  In his excellent Citizens, Simon Schama points out that Louis’ scientific passions helped undo his regime.  He uses the example of ballooning.  Louis invited many not in the nobility to come to Versailles to witness some of the first hot air balloon experiments.  Again, we see Louis the nice, modernizing king at work. But as Schama points out, ballooning meant

  • The presence of “commoners” at Versailles, previously the exclusive stomping grounds of the nobility
  • The mingling of commoners and nobility
  • The commoners traipsing over the hallowed Versailles grounds to follow the balloon, ignoring traditional boundaries in the immaculately kept gardens
  • Absorption in the “boundary-free” nature of flight itself (this last one might be a stretch, but perhaps he’s onto something).

A few years later when the Estates General wanted to “modernize” and merge the three estates into one “National Assembly” dominated not by the nobility, but by the “everybody else,” Louis protested.  “That’s not how we do things.  We should preserve the ancient and inviolable traditions of France.”  One problem Louis had, however, was that he had been subtly changing those inviolable traditions.  He could not ride the tiger of the changes he helped bring about, and it cost him (and France) dearly.

A less overt, but no less impacting tension of “mixed messages” got introduced into Rome’s Republic ca. 200 B.C.  One can’t help admire the stability and effectiveness of Rome’s government from the founding of the Republic ca. 508 B.C. through the 2nd Punic War.  They had new elections every year, with new people in new offices most every year, and they thrived.  Part of the reason for this lay in the conservative nature of its society.  A society of farmers values stability and cohesion.  You see this cohesion demonstrated in this brief clip of how they fought.  In Rome’s prime, no barbarian horde of individual warriors ever stood a chance against a disciplined Roman maniple.

Naturally such a well-run state would have success and expand.  This expansion, however, threatened the very social cohesion that made them great in the first place.  The governing structure of Republican Rome had no idea how to navigate the dramatic change from its agricultural rustic roots to its “Mediterranean Empire” status, and even if they did, the Republic was built largely to prevent change. Rome grew great by preserving its identity through preserving their traditions.  This tension between Rome’s success and Rome’s identity helped lead to a century of intermittent civil war and the eventual collapse of the Republic between 44 and 27 B.C.

I have always enjoyed college basketball, and the men’s “March Madness” tournament is usually my favorite sporting event of the year.  I did not pay as much attention this year, partially due to business, and partially because watching college basketball has become much more a chore than I remember.  The pace of the game gets mangled by constant fouling (the Kentucky v. West Virginia game averaged more than 1 foul per minute of play), and constant timeouts (in televised games coaches get five timeouts plus eight mandatory tv timeouts).  While one might expect that constant fouling would mean more easy points in the form of free throws, in fact scoring is down across the board, no doubt due in part to the fact that no offense can ever establish a rhythm with continual game stoppages.

If this were professional basketball the solution would be relatively easy in the form of rule changes to make the game more entertaining.  But there lies the rub for the NCAA, because their sports don’t exist, in theory at least, for entertainment. The players are “student-athletes.”  They play the game to learn (hence, a mountain of opportunities for coaches to pound whiteboards and teach during timeouts), not entertain.  Charles Pierce lays some of this out expertly in his recent Grantland column here.  Pierce writes,

What’s fascinating to me, though, is not how to fix the problem [of scoring]; it’s how the problem doubles as the perfect expression of the current state of the NCAA and the amateur model itself. Because neither of college basketball’s twin personalities came into being spontaneously. They both exist by design, and whether the outcomes of that design are deliberate or not, the principles underlying it are deeply bound up with the contradiction at the heart of the NCAA’s idea of itself.

Here’s what I mean by that. Men’s college basketball has to be entertaining, because the NCAA, which derives most of its annual revenue from the tournament, wants it to make a lot of money. But men’s college basketball can’t prioritize entertainment too openly, because then the commercial motive would be obvious and would threaten the NCAA’s supposed reason for being.3 “We refuse to admit that we are selling it,” as Bilas recently said. This is how it’s possible to devote a tournament engineered for maximum fun to a style of basketball that elevates pseudo-moral qualities like instruction, teamwork, and sacrifice over carnal indulgences like, I don’t know, jumping, or the ball occasionally going into the basket.

The tension between basketball as revenue stream and the student-athlete model have been stretched to the breaking point.  The NCAA will have to make a difficult choice, and have boxed themselves in.  They can choose between . . .

  • Basketball is primarily entertainment/revenue driven and so we make rule changes based on that principle, which sacrifices the student-athlete principle, or
  • Basketball is about being a student-athlete and not money, and so changes will only be made that enhance the “student” aspect of the athletes.  Time-outs will stay, and money will disappear.

I suppose a third option exists, one the NCAA will likely take.  They will make rule changes, but under the cloak of improving the student-athlete experience.  They may believe this story.  Whether they believe it or not, they will increase the volume of their mixed message much further that I would think possible.  The NCAA as we know will be living on borrowed time.

One can say many things about Kentucky’s John Calipari, but his message is perfectly clear.