Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Learning for Learning's Sake

Ancient Roman patricians were proud of being able to enjoy "ocio", similar to leisure in English. It set them apart from plebeians engaged in "negocio", the negation of ocio – now the Spanish word for business.  Interestingly “ocio”, in a round-about way, is the root of “school” in English, as the place where lectures are given.  One aspect of ocio can be learning for the sake of learning.

I had the good fortune to experience three days of ocio last week at the Ivan Illich conference in Cuernavaca. Held on the 10th anniversary of his death, the conference covered the wide range of topics that this keen thinker and writer explored in his lifetime. 
Illich is mainly remembered for his writings on education, transportation, and medicine, but he also wrote about how modern society faces the challenges of growing population, limited resources, increasing concentration of wealth, governments' ever expanding control over our lives, gender issues, and the rights of indigenous peoples.  In each case Illich's point of view was very different from the mainstream.  

Illich identified the same topics of study in four important time periods in western culture. The first was ancient Greece and Rome. The second was Europe in the thirteenth century, a period which was important in shaping the Catholic Church and which saw the rise of institutions such as universities and religious orders. Then he focused on the industrial revolution and the modern times of the latter twentieth century. 

He criticized modern marketing institutions which “create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.”  He noted that an automobile owner in the U.S. in the 1970’s spent 1600 hours per year in the car or working to pay for the car and its upkeep. When dividing that cost by the miles driven, he found that cars were no more efficient than a peasant walking. He asked why we didn’t ride bicycles instead.

The conference organizers treated us to some of the more obscure topics Illich studied too, such as water, the acts of reading, and gazing.  

According to Illich, the ancient Greek concept of water was as an abundant crystalline purifier.  Today it has been reduced to H2O and sold as merchandise and is frequently a conveyer of waste. 

Before the advent of the printing press reading was usually done out loud in a gathering.  Words flowed together melodiously along with a good dosage of hand gestures and body language on the part of the reader.  Today we usually read alone, the words are independent of each other on the page, and body language has disappeared.  

An even more surprising topic was Illich's discourse on gazing or seeing.  Today we think of the eye as passive and receptive -- like a video camera receiving light.  The ancient Greeks maintained that when we look at someone our gaze goes out like an organ -- Illich actually used the phrase 'erectile organ' -- and touches what we look at.  In a sense making gazing a sensual event. When we close our eyes after staring at something bright we can see an after-image. This supports the idea of our eyes absorbing light. But if gaze isn't an organ going out and touching what we are seeing, how do we explain that feeling that someone behind us is staring at us?

For me the "Illich's Radical Humanism" conference was three days of ocio in its truest sense -- leisure and learning for nothing more than the sake and enjoyment of learning and questioning what we engage in during our daily lives.   However participants in their 20s remarked that they had not gotten anything they could use in their workplace or with which to further their studies.  I interpreted that as evidence that education itself has become expensive merchandise, even here in Mexico.   That was not a concern as recently as five years ago at the first of Cuernavaca's homages to Ivan Illich.  The nature of this conference was more along the lines Illich described when he referred to his study center in Cuernavaca, "free and powerless thinkery which can be squashed by its rising influence." 

I enjoyed a privileged seat in all the sessions as translator/interpreter from Spanish to English.  The translating equipment was rudimentary. Those requiring translation sat as close as possible around me on folding chairs.  My listeners had no headsets. I had no microphone. We quickly became an accepted group within the auditorium and head turnings and nasty stares by people in the audience ceased after the first session.  After particularly complicated presentations I found myself asking my little group if the translation had made any sense.  We had the good fortune of having Dougald Hine sitting with us. Five years ago he was working with the School of Everything in London. His extensive knowledge of Illich's work allowed him to give us a synopsis of each talk.

Many of Ivan Illich's essays and books are available free online.  His Wikipedia article lists his titles.  I encourage you to download some of them and enjoy some well-deserved ocio yourself. 

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