WAS IVAN Illich an inspired out-of-the-box thinker, or just plain wacky? A wide-ranging writer who was a Catholic priest for 18 years, he was never shy at overturning cherished ideas, rejecting the institutionalism of religion, education, medical care, scientific discovery and economic progress. His ideas attracted a cult following in the 1970s which, although whittled away by changing fashions, remains tenacious.
The publication in 1971 of his De-Schooling Society - which railed against mandatory public education and the institutionalisation of learning - brought his ideas to a wide public. "Most learning happens casually," he wrote, doubtless to the fury of many teachers, "and even most institutional learning is not the result of programmed instruction." He believed pouring money into programmes for the disadvantaged was a waste, arguing that the lack of stimulation in a child's home environment could not be made up for at school.
In Medical Nemesis: the expropriation of health (1975), he expounded his belief that the medical system - though not doctors individually - represented a threat to health. "I am deeply saddened by the willingness of people to be taken in by the idea that what medical schools produce, in any way, contributes to health," he once declared.
He attacked the scientific profession, believing science had simply usurped the Church, and scientists represented nothing other than a secularised priesthood. He was also fond of taking swipes at the transport system, especially the car, believing that no one needed to travel faster than the speed of a bicycle.
Illich's thinking was spurred by an extraordinary life that made him acutely aware of the tides in human affairs. Of mixed Croatian and Jewish ancestry, he was brought up in a multilingual environment (he claimed to know 14 languages and not to have a native tongue), was educated in three different countries, worked in several more and studied subjects as diverse as natural sciences, history, philosophy and theology.
Born to a father who claimed descent from Dalmatian royalty and a Sephardic Jewish mother, Illich was brought up in both Vienna and Croatia. He was forced to leave his Piarist school in Vienna in 1941 under Nazi race laws because of his mother's Jewish ancestry, and the family went to Italy. There, at the same time as supporting his mother and two brothers after the death of his father, he studied in Florence and at Rome's Gregorian University before returning to Austria and obtaining a doctorate in history from the University of Salzburg, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the historian Arnold Toynbee.
Ordained a Catholic priest in Rome in 1951, he seemed destined for a career in the Vatican diplomatic service or as a canon lawyer. But instead he chose to move to the United States, where he served from 1951 to 1956 as an assistant priest of a mainly Puerto Rican parish in New York's Upper West Side, championing the cause of Puerto Rican immigrants. He noted that Puerto Ricans in New York did not go to Mass much, because it started on time.
In 1956 he became Deputy Rector of the Santa Maria Catholic University of Ponce in Puerto Rico, which organised summer courses for North American priests due to work among Latin American immigrants. There he preferred to work with "pro-humanist, pro- independence people" and publicly questioned the channelling of money to universities when there was not enough to keep schools afloat.
He was forced out in 1960 for opposing the local bishop's edict forbidding Catholics to vote for a governor who advocated state- sponsored birth control. That same year he travelled across Latin America.
In 1961 he founded a centre for cross-cultural studies, in Cuernavaca, a small city 50 miles west of Mexico City. During the 1970s - after Illich severed its formal connections with the Catholic Church - his Centro Intercultural de Documentacin (Cidoc) became an internationally respected focus for intellectual discussion. …