Taking Freire and Illich seriously, or Icons and pariahs

John Ohliger

Basic Choices, Inc. P.O. Box 259598, Madison, WI 53725-9598, USA

Compiled for the 1995 Iowa Community College Summer Seminar

Go to John Ohliger's bibliography on Freire

Return to "Facundo on Freire" entry page.

This document is located on the

Suppression of dissent website

in the section on Documents

in the subsection on Facundo on Freire

Is it possible some thirty years later to recapture the excitement that flowered among those of us who discovered Illich and Freire in the late 1960s? Maybe you had to be there? But it was a fountain of at least two-fold hope.

First, those of us who had long searched for an honorable and open combination of healthy political radicalism and worthwhile adult education believed we had finally found champions of both who had the ear of the intellectual and political elite, as well as the attention of the general public.

Second, we believed we had found two authors who could be the focus and the fount of a broad exploration of the many important unanswered questions that their writings stimulated. At long last, we could carry on serious, but not dull, discussions of the meaning of education, of its place in successful basic change (political, cultural, and spiritual). We believed we could now search fruitfully for a fundamental approach to the relationship between person and group that would once and for all bring the two disparate perspectives together in a way that would enhance the value of both.

To further those goals we brought together all the writings we could find by and on them, attempted to interact personally with them with varying degrees of success, taught classes and gave speeches on them, wrote about them, and encouraged others to get involved in implementing their suggestions for action/education. We anticipated exponential growth in a critical explorations of the questions they raised which would, of course, involve criticism of their own answers to these questions.

Looking back some thirty years later, it is apparent we had at most only modest success. It's easier to say what happened than to answer the question "Why." By the early 1970s, Freire and Illich had parted political, but not personal, company and had gone their separate intellectual ways. Leftists and liberals now found it "politically correct" to turn Freire into an icon and Illich into a pariah. Coteries developed around both that formed a crust around their two personas. Few people wanted to take the time or make the effort to look at either of them as people in any sustained holistic way. At the same time both were in demand to serve as speakers at functions spawned by the growing, now giant, conference industry. In addition, some of us fell, maybe even jumped, into the trap of using their academic visibility as a club to beat over the heads of our more conservative colleagues.

Now, as the 21st century dawns it is time to get beyond Freire and Illich and return to the searches outlined in the first three paragraphs of this rumination. Getting beyond doesn't imply rejection. It just means we need to recognize how far we have to go to find effective paths to combining education and politics, person and group, in ways that don't turn them into the cruel jokes they are today.

The views of both men can still help in that search. But now perhaps our naive enthusiasm can be tempered with a sobering realization of just how tough the path is towards bringing together such separate strands of our existence without turning our lives into meaningless mush. But recognizing how tough and serious the work is should caution us not to fall into the same useless dogmas of the past that we adopted in the attempt to be practical. And it should caution us not to be too serious or grim about our task so we don't sink into depression because of its enormity. We shouldn't forget that life is also a gentle comedy. Perhaps the subtle touch will now replace the hidden hand?

Blanca Facundo deserves our gratitude for opening the gates of healthy exploration around the person, the ideas, and the actions of Paulo Freire. She has done her work in a way that is an example to us all. Combining the personal and the political as she did in her monograph, avoiding bureaucratic and ideological jargon to the extent she did, suggests a way for all of us to go. Those who rebuke her for turning private quarrels into public discussion should think again. The fresh air of open exploration of the issues in her monograph can only help in the search for firmer foundations for our work in the future. Now we can move beyond icons and pariahs to more healthy symbols in our stroll toward a better world. Those who believe the world has reached such an urgent state of emergency that strolling must be replaced with running, that discussions must be replaced with slogans, may actually be contributing to moving toward the emergency state that believe now exists. If there isn't time for friendly but vigorous conversations about these fundamental issues, then it is already too late.

Personally, I don't think it is too late. It may just be that the time is not ripe as it was in the 1960s. The intellectual breakup of Freire and Illich in the early 1970s may have been just one more sign that the political and cultural radicalism of the 1960s had come to an end. In my view, the 1910s were another time of this important unity. Those were the years when such important figures as Eugene Victor Debs, Emma Goldman, and John Reed were that decade's Illich/Freire symbols of hope (destroyed by the First World War and the so-called Russian Revolution).

Remember the song "Love and Marriage"? One line is: "Love and marriage, love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage." The same may be true of Illich/Freire. Illich emphasizes spontaneity, immediate experience, personalism: love. Freire emphasizes planning, group control, and institutions: marriage. It may have been the dynamic tension between the approaches of Illich and Freire that made them so valuable. Shall we look forward to a better time in the future when the unity of the 1910s and the 1960s will live again?