You, Me, Ivan Illich & Adolf Hitler

One of my new favourite quotes of the moment is “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying enough attention.” I’m unsure of its origin, which would appear rather slack of me, considering we are in the throws of the information age and I could simply type it – or slacker still, copy and paste it- into a search engine, yet I’m beginning to feel there’s no great need to know who exactly said that which moves you.

When I was a boy I used to cut out pictures from the National Geographic magazines that my parents had collected in the garage. I’d sit in there for hours scissors in hand, pouring over close to 20 years of magazines my parents no longer had a strong enough attachment to that would warrant them being mad if their son was to skim read them and cut them up. One of the more amazing realisations I had at the time was when I came across an article on Adolf Hitler. It wasn’t your usual article on he and his henchmen, or ‘the’ holocaust. It was an article that drew attention to the fact that Adolf was essentially a failed artist, a young man who’d been let down by the system that had given birth to him. His paintings, etchings, and drawings weren’t deemed fit for the particular school he wished to continue to attend. He therefore failed and, well… The rest is a history that has been painted so thick and hard in every direction it’s worn through the canvas and there’s a pile of murky paint collecting beneath it.

I make reference to this as within the article was a picture he had drawn, of a nude. I’m not so sure if it struck me because, being a young teenage boy I was naturally curious about the female form, or that this picture was indeed truly beautiful. Yet it struck me as oddly all the more beautiful knowing that one of history’s greatest monsters had created it. I understand that what I’m saying isn’t particularly popular, or even that ground breaking, but it was here that I now feel was when I began to understand the stymying nature of our education system, and our value system as a whole. By no means am I here to defend Hitler, or anything he stood for. I am however suggesting a possible ‘what if’ scenario. His pictures aren’t horrible, or offensive, or in poor taste. They’re just, sadly, not remarkable or dazzling or brilliant. They certainly weren’t good enough to get him into his desired art school. A school that, had they accepted him, could have very well changed the course of history. If not completely, then perhaps instead of the name Hitler being universally associated with evil doing, we may well be using some other Austrian name; Bauer, Kraus, Scholde, instead.

Adolf's pictures

So I can’t help but begin to wonder how many children due to misfortune were cast aside because of their lack of apparent and perceived brilliance? A certain brilliance and aptitude that, as many of us know, can take decades to grow and show itself. One of the great critical minds of our times, Ivan Illich (no, not the man from the Tolstoy story), has a great deal to say in regards to school. In fact he calls for a ‘Deschooling’ of society. A reassessment of how it is we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and he, as I’m inclined to agree, points the finger at compulsory, soul deadening school. The very same school that helps us articulate from a very young age what our society deems to be right or wrong, just or nefarious.

“Once people have the idea schooled into them that values can be produced and measured, they tend to accept all kinds of rankings. There is a scale for the development of nations, another for the intelligence of babies, and even progress towards peace can be calculated according to body count. In a schooled world the road to happiness is paved with a consumer’s index.”1

I’ll openly, albeit begrudgingly, accept that I too have been schooled. I too have accepted rankings and measures. I am forced to ask myself; ‘What subjects within the standard public school curriculum were either too narrow, or indeed already too deeply based on the sole purpose of indocrination for my young impressionable mind to make real sense of?’ Sure it’s easy to sit here now as I write this and expose myself to potential double think of; ‘Well maybe you’re just too much of a dumbass to comprehend the more intricate aspects of certain subjects?’ To which I’d have to agree. Yet the way in which they are taught in our modern system leaves much to be desired. Most of this is said as I myself am a “qualified” teacher, yet have found most educational institutions I’ve worked for and with nullifying, and restrictive in their approach to genuine learning.

If we wish to see, understand and make enduring use of our world wholly and for what it is; all at once a beguiling and be-witching kaleidoscope of ideological undercurrents and rips, infused with unyielding potential for creation and destruction, we must, as Illich suggests, collectively fathom schooling as an industry in itself.Remembering that school prepares for the isolating institutionalisation of life by teaching us the need to be taught, and once this lesson is “learned” we lose our given incentive to to grow independently.3

So what has all this got to do with me not remembering or bothering to reference correctly a favourite quote of mine, well I’m merely drawing your attention to the fact that we’ve often had our wings clipped. Clipped in large part I feel due to our own short falls in comprehending our own intellectual origins. And it is this clipping that has helped lead us to the deleterious situation we’re in now. If you’re unsure of the injurous economic, ecological, sociological, political situation we’re in I suggest turning off you television, stoping buying those newspapers and begin reading something that challenges your intellect, you may need to read out loud, find a reading buddy, and or even refer to a dictionary, but it’s well worth it. I assure you. As it’s looking more and more as though our individual ability to think is all we have left.

Or as Ivan writes it:

“As long as an individual is not explicitly conscious of the ritual character of the process through which he was initiated to the forces which shape his cosmos, he cannot break the spell and shape a new cosmos. As long as we are not aware of the ritual through which school shapes the progressive consumer – the economy’s major resource – we cannot break the spell of this economy and shape a new one.”4


You can find a free online copy of Ivan’s work Deschooling Society here


Illich, I, 1970, Deschooling Society, Marion Boyars, London & New York (p. 40)

Ibid, (p. 46)

Ibid, (p. 47)

Ibid, (p. 51)


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