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In the Mirror of the Past: Lectures and Addresses, 1978-1990 Ivan Illich.

This is a very wide ranging book which may spring-clean the contents of even a broad mind. Illich's thesis, if it may be called that, demonstrates how the roots of the Earth's malaise reach back to the mid-twelfth century. With his eye on the twelfth century he scrutinizes health, housing, schooling, literacy, technology, peace and ethical values. Those 'clear certainties' which guide our lives, he says, were unknown to people then. As an example, the word 'waste' did not exist. But by the twelfth century, only about a fifth remained of the forests which had covered most of western and central Europe.

Brought down to bare bones, this book is concerned with the restoration of vernacular vision, when peace was peace, before it became tainted with the distorted meaning of the Roman pax. Pax became pax oeconomica and led to absorption of 'subsistence-oriented cultures' by economic development. Illich believes 'that limits to economic development, originating at the grass roots, are the principal condition for people to recover their peace'.

The word 'vernacular', he explains, 'comes from an Indo-Germanic root that implies "rootedness" or "abode" which grew to be a distinction in language'. And he suggests that the vernacular in language should be extended to all aspects of life with 'a vernacular mode of being and doing', thus returning it to its golden mean. 'Also', he says, 'peace is as vernacular as speech... Peace is that condition under which culture flowers in its own incomparable way'. And how true of children! Illich is well known for his radical diagnoses in Deschooling Society. He says, 'The inapplicability of pedagogical concepts to the learning of vernacular language can be extended to other areas of learning'.

When he asked India's 'planners of the day', in 1978, why they did not follow the simple approach taught by Gandhi, they replied that it was very difficult, and that the people would be unable to follow it. That was because there would be no need for middle-men or a centralised system -- which had enabled Nehru to lead India in the way he did. In his speech, 'The message of Bapu's Hut', Illich was adamant that 'It should be very clear that the dignity of man is possible only in a self-sufficient society'. That belief was presumably the essence of what Gandhi had told Nehru. In 1997, it will be fifty years since India became independent of Britain. Between now and then, Illich's premise of self-sufficiency may be becoming a visible reality in pockets all over Britain, with people regaining their dignity. Lau Tzu said, 'By adhering to the Tao of the past you will master the existence of the present'.

In the Mirror of the Past is a book to be cherished for its erudition and stimulation.
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Author:Aitchtey, Rodney
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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