To Hell with Good Intentions

Author

Illich, Ivan

Genre

Speech

Overview

An Austrian philosopher who founded the Intercultural Documentation Center in Mexico, Ivan Illich was known as a “maverick social critic” of contemporary Western culture. It is from this stance that Illich delivers his 1968 address at the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In his usual biting and sarcastic style, Illich's address, for whom his audience is a group of U.S. volunteers, depicts the dangers of paternalism inherent in voluntary service, but especially in any international service “mission.” Just as he brought American volunteers' motives, values, and capacity to ‘do good' into question in 1968, Illich equally brings volunteers' motives, values, and capacity to ‘do good' into question today. Is national and/or international service pretentious? Do we impose our own way of life on the people we serve? How do we serve people if we cannot communicate in the same language as them? Is this possible?

Full Text*

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Type

Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.

Themes

Connection and RelationshipDiversity and DifferenceFaith and BeliefImpact and OutcomesKnowledge and UncertaintyMotives and ValuesPoverty and NeedPower and PrivilegeServing and VolunteeringSocial and Political ChangeSpeech and ExpressionWork and Vocation

Big Questions

How do we connect with those who are different from us?How do we know the impact of our actions?Why do we reflect? What makes reflection difficult?Can selfish motives result in positive action?What is the appropriate response to privilege?Why do we serve?What enables change? What gets in the way?How does language define our worldview?What is the value of work for me? For my community?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Illich find the American volunteers' “work” in Mexico offensive?
  2. What do you think of Illich's claim that “there is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on”? Do you agree that there is no common ground ?
  3. Do you agree with Illich's claim that we should take responsibility for what is happening in American communities before we take responsibility for the greater world?
  4. Why does Illich repeatedly refer to the volunteers' work as a “vacation”?
  5. How do we serve people if we cannot communicate in the same language as them? Is this possible?
  6. Do volunteers serve primarily to receive?
  7. How can volunteers be trained to serve? What should this training entail?
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