Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Remembering Lee Hoinacki: Friend and Collaborator to Ivan Illich.


I was saddened to hear that Lee Hoinacki had passed away on February 27th, 2014. For those who don't know, Lee was a former Dominican priest, author, professor of political science, and subsistence farmer. In 1960, he met Ivan Illich in Puerto Rico and became his close friend and collaborator. Influenced by Illich he raised his children unschooled.

I would like to honour his memory by sharing the podcast with you that we did at Radio Free School a decade ago.
It was called Remembering Ivan Illich: Lee Hoinacki on his life and work. Now let's remember Lee Hoinacki.
I want to include a little part of the excerpt here because, Hoinacki had an interesting perspective on unschooling. Read on.

How about yourself, I read that you started homesteading. Do you want to talk about that experience too?
I wrote a book on the subject. I thought, well Illich was talking about subsistence. He said the modern world was produced by the war against subsistence. That’s what he said, the whole point of modernity. And I said well, if that’s true would it be possible to live, that is to the extent that one could do it today, in a subsistence mode? Would it be possible to do that comfortably?  So my wife and I built this house ourselves.
Well, the first thing I think you have to decide is, if you want to live outside this economy is to get rid of electricity and phones. So we got rid of these things and then I found that one could live comfortably. One could live in beauty. Because people who saw our house said it was one of the most beautiful things they had ever seen.  One could do that and could survive.

I thought that I lived very well. I was selling my excess produce at the local farmers market and from that I could live. I was tied in to the larger economy because I’d have a pickup truck to get the produce to the farmers market and so on. So again, you don’t turn you r back on the question of the modern world but you try to live in it. And I wanted to try and see if we could do it enjoyably.
So we took our kids out of school and they sort of grew up sort of wildly there- on the farm.  It was a question of no school of any sort. It was kind of a totalitarian thing because they had no choice- they had to just do it because we did it.

I think that the point is that children growing up have to see what goes with what; that if you want water, it has to come from some place. The kids saw as we were working out ways to get water into the house--water to drink and for irrigation--and they saw that if you want to get rid of waste matter, or garbage how do you get rid of it? You don’t just flush toilets. We had no flush toilet. We had a composting toilet so they had to learn what went with what.
When we moved there, we were living in a tent, and we started building a house. We knew we had to get it finished by the winter because the winters there were cold. So we got enough finished to move in the winter.  So there was a roof over our head. Children growing up--what’s important is for them to know the connections; to know what is connected with now.
I see here, where I am living in Philadelphia, that people will turn on the hot water for example and just let it run.  Well you can’t do that. That’s a sin against the water and everything else. Or people who throw away garbage, or throw away food they are not eating. Well you can’t do that. The kids saw all that and I think they learnt from all that.

If I were to do it over again, I would do the same thing.  I would even be more lenient--less directive in terms of what they could or could not do.  I think John Holt is correct on that, he’s right.  I hadn’t read Holt at the time--that you let kids grow up like reeds, and they’ll grow up all right.

But the reason I would not encourage people to do this is that it was difficult.  We were out so far in the boondocks by ourselves, surrounded by a national forest. And so the little piece of land that we had in the forest, the kids could run all day in the forest, well, this is not what you can do in a city.  My wife and I had planned all this ahead of time; what we were going to do, where we were going to do it and that kind of thing. And so although we were serious--again it’s something that Illich would say--it isn’t something that has to be imitated or copied by other people. More like, there’s something that’s been done and perhaps I can do what I’m able to do, within my limits and my conditions and my situation. But I see this kind of exemplar in front of me.

For example, when I first went there, I had read Scott Nearing and I don’t think that one can imitate Nearing, but one could take that as a kind of exemplar of an ideal that one would hold before himself.

How did the children manage? How did they turn out?
Well, it’s funny. Our daughter is now 35 and she says, "I now understand what you were trying to do and I’m really grateful we grew up that way and I see the importance of it." And  she’s on a farm in Oregon. But she also picked up a PhD.  She’s a funny kind of person. The two kids are very different. Ben, our son, he refused all schooling of any kind.  In high school at the time of the divorce, he refused to do anything. We put them in high school because we couldn’t reproduce what we were doing there (because we were separated) and so my wife understood that. So she put Ben in a school that would be easy on people, no requirements. He took basket weaving type courses and things like that. I don’t know how he got a diploma and graduated from that place. But then he would have nothing to do with schooling from that day on after he finished that, to this day. But he gets along very well. They are very different, but they are also very much alike.

Illich? It’s very hard to say his influence because I met him in 1960 and I've live with  him for many, many years and my wife said, "What are you going to do when this guy dies because your whole life has been centered around him?"  I said well, I don’t know.  I get along very well. That is, I think I do. I’m glad that he’s dead because being close to him you see how he suffered so much, he was in pain.

I think that this new book that I've just finished every chapter is influenced by Illich in some way.  Right now, I’m doing various things. I’m working on projects to make his thought known which I think is not known as widely as I think it should be. The book is just one step in that process. And I give talks to try to articulate what he thought and what he stood for, and to make these ideas and his life better known.

I think that Illich’s books are important and as he said himself, you don’t read these books as you would a newspaper. I worked with him on a number of these books, some people would say trying to make them more intelligible but they are his ideas and they require some work to understand what he is all about.
I would say Gender, which I think is the most important book he ever wrote, is not reviewed. There is one review, an important review, but other than that it’s never mentioned in any bibliography and nobody reads it and no one know it. But it’s a theory of economics which if one were to take it seriously, would have to reinterpret what is called a social history of Europe.  And I think it’s powerful enough that it requires that kind of rethinking of what is called a social history of Europe.

His book on Tools for Conviviality is a theory on technology and no one has ever come near those 5 dimensions that Illich talks about there. The only thing they talk about in technology is the first dimension which Illich dismisses almost immediately. He says unless you have all five of these dimensions, unless you look at all of them, forget about it. Bits and pieces of people are saying all kinds of important things and saying all kinds of good things here and there, but I would just argue that I think Illich too, was saying something that could perhaps be taken into account.


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