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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Letter to the younger generation

At my stage of life, I sometimes get asked for career advice by some of the younger colleagues who have worked with me. I always find it difficult to know what to say since times and contexts (let alone individuals) are so different. And, as Oscar Wilde put it very aptly, "I always pass on good advice – it’s the only thing to do with it”! When I do try to answer – particularly in writing – I generally found that what came out was actually more helpful to me since I was forced to think about aspects of my life and its times to which I hadn’t given much attention. And I remember a couple of lovely books which were based on an older colleague writing to younger ones. The first "Lettres a une etudiante", was written by the French sociologist, Alain Touraine in 1974(and is sadly not available in English). I can’t at the moment remember the second author (it was probably C Wright Mills). But, in my Carpathian library, I have a marvellous book of reflective essays by the big names in European and American Political Science describing how they came to get involved in the discipline, who they worked with and were inspired by and how they came to write their various magni opi.

These thoughts came to me as I read one of Orlov’s papers - whose general ideas I presented yesterday. In this paper, chunks of which I reproduce below, he is trying to explore the implications of the bleak scenario he skecthes out for a young man. Let me first remind you of Orlov’s basic argument which he present on the basis of his living for significant periods of his life in Russian and the US and seeing the Soviet collapse at first hand.
• Despite the apparent ideological differences between the two countries, the SU and US the same industrial, technological civilization
• They have competed with one another in various destructive races - not only the arms race and the squandering of natural resources race – but in also the jails race and the bankruptcy race
• Both countries have been experiencing chronic depopulation of farming districts. In Russia, family farms were decimated during collectivization, along with agricultural output; in the U.S., a variety of other forces produced a similar result with regard to rural population, but without any loss of production. Both countries replaced family farms with unsustainable, ecologically disastrous industrial agribusiness, addicted to fossil fuels. The American ones work better, as long as energy is cheap, and, after that, probably not at all.
• the causes of the Soviet collapse are now clearly evident in the United States
• the Soviet Union had various features (state owned housing; concentrated urban systen; vegetable gardens; family support systemns; district heating) which gave its citizens a resilience in coping with the collapse of jobs and public services which the US completely lacks
• it is therefore all the more important people start to prepare for the worst scenario and alter their lifestyle (there was talk a year or so back of „resilience” being an important social feature)
• most contemporary American systems (justice; education; health) now operate disastrously and in the interests of the „fat cats”.

I gave a link yesterday to one of Orlov’s papers - Thriving in the age of collapse – and it is the final section of that paper which addresses the question of "What Can Young People do to Prepare for America's Collapse?" I've selected most of the text to give a sense of the tautness of his language and argument.
We have a three-tier generationally stratified middle-class society. At the top, we have a whole lot of happy, prosperous, self-assured old people, living it large, not willing for a moment to admit their complicity in impoverishing their children and grandchildren. In the middle we have a smaller number of their adult children, running themselves ragged, forced to delude themselves that everything is under control, just to keep up their spirits. And then there are even fewer young people, just coming of age, and, one would think, justifiably angry with the hand they have been dealt. Few of them are up to the Herculean task that has been set in front of them.
Consider “Steve,” who is 18 years old. He found out about Peak Oil after one of his on-line video game buddies sent him some links to Web sites, which he found deeply shocking. Now he is totally freaked out.
One of Steve's most severe and painful realizations, if he is lucky enough to have it, will be that he has been lied to all his life, more or less continuously, by his parents, his minders at school, and even, to some extent, his own peers. If he does not have this realization, then he will be doomed to see all that happens to him as the result his personal failings: his weakness, lack of talent, inability to fit in, or bad luck. Even if he does have this realization, he will find it difficult to live his life accordingly, because those who lack this realization, and deem themselves successful, will try to denigrate him as a misfit or a loser.
One part of the lie is that America is the best and getting better – land of possibility and so forth – and that he can achieve his dream, whatever it is, by being diligent, hard-working, and a team player. Of course, his dream must be an American dream – just like everyone else's, and involve a house in the suburbs, a couple of cars in the driveway, a couple of kids, maybe a cat and a dog, and lots of money in retirement accounts.
The other part of the lie is that Steve can live such a life and be free. He would be free - to make false choices. For breakfast Steve will have... stuff from a cardboard box with commercial art on it, excellent choice, Sir, well done! And in order to get around, he will have... a disposable vinyl-upholstered sheet metal box on four rubber wheels that burns gasoline, very wise, Sir, very wise! By choosing a prepackaged life, Steve himself would become a prepackaged product, a social appliance designed for planned obsolescence, whose useful life will be determined by the availability of the fossil fuels on which it operates.
That these are lies is plain for all to see: with each next generation, people are being forced to work harder and to go deeper into debt to maintain this suburban, middle-class lifestyle. About a third of them experience severe psychological problems. Also about a third of them do not believe that they will be able to afford to retire. The majority of them believe that they are not doing as well as their parents did.

Escape Plans
This society still has plenty to offer to a young person, provided that the young person is clever enough to know how to take advantage of it.
First of all, it is probably a bad idea to go straight to college. It is best to avoid getting sucked into that pipeline, which starts around the middle of senior year and ends with post-graduate indentured servitude of one sort or another. Apply to a couple of schools, strictly pro forma, to avoid suspicion. Having a high school diploma is important; the grades and test scores are somewhat important. Demonstrated excellence at one or two things is more valuable than a good average. Most important is learning the differences between your talents, you interests, and your expectations.

At this point in the game, gaining basic money-making skills is far more important, especially in the trades, such as landscaping, interior restoration, carpentry, house painting, floor sanding, mechanical repair work, and so on, because these are all jobs that can be done for cash. Avoid dangerous trades, such as roofing, abatement, and, in general, anything that involves toxic chemicals or dangerous machinery. Having some business skills is important too – knowing how to deal with bosses and customers and how to supervise people. The best approach is to work a series of short jobs – shorter than a year, learning a trade and moving on immediately, and always be on the lookout for special, unofficial projects. Think of regular employment as good cover, but not as the main source of income – and therefore best kept to part-time. Always job-hunting, switching and learning new jobs, will help keep your mind sharp. But be sure to read as well, and challenge yourself by reading difficult books – this will help you when you decide to go back to school.

Once you graduate, immediately become financially independent from your parents. Move out, and work on developing a good roommate situation. Go for the cheapest rent you can find by talking directly to landlords and offering to take care of security and maintenance. Pick your roommates carefully and try to get a cohesive group together, so that you can rely on each other. Do not accept money or other sorts of financial help from your parents. Do everything you have to so that if and when you decide to go to school, and file financial aid forms, you are not their dependent, and they are not expected to pay your college tuition or living expenses. If your parents require an explanation, it is that you care about them: you do not believe that their retirement will be enough to live on, and the money that would be swallowed up by tuition will help. If you have a system worked out for living frugally and making a bit of cash, on paper you can look penniless, which is perfect, because schools will confiscate all the money that you disclose to them. Be sure to always disclose just enough to avoid suspicion, and brush up on the laws to make sure it's all legal.

Higher What?
When thinking about attending a college or a university, it is important to understand what these institutions actually are. They are often called “institutions of higher learning,” but the learning is quite incidental to their two most important missions: research (government or industrial) and something known as “credentialing:” the granting of degrees. In many ways, it is a sort of extended hazing ritual, where the aspirant is required to jump through a series of blazing hoops before being granted access to a professional realm
Excellent teaching does happen, but more or less by accident. Professors are recruited and retained based on their publications and awards (to lend prestige to the school) and their ability to attract grant money. Much of the teaching is done not by the professors themselves, but by graduate student teaching assistants, adjuncts, and various other academic minions.

The human mind learns best through repetition and through applying knowledge, but college curricula are structured so as to avoid repetition, with each course designed as a stand-alone unit. Most of the learning takes the form of cramming for tests, and what is tested is not knowledge but short-term memory. By the time students graduate, they have forgotten most of what they have been taught, but with perfectly honed cramming skills, ready to brute-force their way through any further superficial tests of their “knowledge” or “competence,” to join the swelling ranks of America's credentialed amateurs.
For some students, the more prestigious schools offer a certain charmed quality: no matter how much they drink and how badly they do, they cannot flunk out. An echelon of tutors is summoned to guide their every mediocre step, all the way through graduation. These are the children of the elite, whose attendance at these institutions is more a matter of tradition than anything else. It makes no difference whether they learn anything or not: for their breed, the pedigree counts for a lot more than the obedience training. I have run across a few of these zombies with Ivy League diplomas, childish handwritings, speech peppered with nonsense syllables, and an attitude that never stops begging for a slap.

Fields of Mud
When choosing a field of study, it is important to keep in mind that there are disciplines that will abide and remain perennially valuable, while others are fluff. The sciences – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Zoology, Botany, Geology – will serve you well. Mathematics, Philosophy, Astronomy, and a foreign language or two will make you a better person. Literature and History are invaluable, but rarely taught well; if you cannot find a truly inspired teacher, teach yourself – by reading and writing, which are the only two activities these two disciplines require.
Then there are the pseudo-sciences: Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and Economics. They disguise themselves as sciences by employing experimental techniques and statistical analysis, and, in the case of Economics, a funky sort of math, but they are fluff, and are clearly marked with an expiration date.
Lastly, there are the conduits to the professions: Law, Medicine, and Engineering. They have little to do with getting an education, and everything to do with learning a trade, and, of course “credentialing.” In each case, the hazing is extreme.

The legal profession is already a bit overstocked, and, law being a luxury product, it seems unlikely that these graduates will be able to pay down their copious student loans in the new economy. Already many of them lack the option of becoming public defenders or taking on pro bono cases because of their huge financial burdens.
I have already said enough about medicine; but if Steve wants to be a doctor, there are some medical schools around the world that graduate real doctors, rather than technocrats who practice “defensive medicine” and shuffle paper half their day. After the extended sleep deprivation experiment they are put through as interns, they get to live in stately homes, fly to pharmaceutical company junkets, and play a lot of golf. That may change.

I am partial to engineering, having put myself through its rigors. It sometimes creates what I feel is a good sort of person – a bit stunted in some ways, strangely passionate about inanimate objects, but capable at many things and generally trustworthy. If Steve has exhibited the telltale tendencies – such as completely dismantling and reassembling various gadgets, and making them work perfectly again afterward – and if he looks forward to four years of scribbling out formulas under intense pressure, then engineering may be for him. Whether he will be able to earn a living by engineering is unknowable, but then engineers can usually find plenty of other things to do.

The Piece of Paper
It is often hard to tell ahead of time, but for a lot of people graduating may be quite pointless, while dropping out at an opportune moment may be quite advantageous. I know plenty of people who never graduated; they have been my bosses, my colleagues, and my employees. They often have an original perspective, along with an unusual depth of knowledge. Some of the best-educated people I have ever met have been dropouts: the self-educated poet Joseph Brodsky, for instance, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature, dropped out of grade school aged fifteen.

It is best not announce your intention to never graduate, but behave accordingly. While others are busy checking off boxes on their little curriculum planning sheets and suffering through pointless required courses with mediocre instructors, you can find out what you want to learn and who you want to learn it from, and take your time to learn it well. If a good project comes along, take it, take a leave of absence from school, then go back and study some more. Keep telling everyone that you intend to go back and get your degree. I know people in their late 40s who are still in good standing, always threatening to come back and finish their degree: people find them quite charming.

Earth, Revisited
The last, and possibly the most formative part of your education is for you to go and see the world beyond the borders of your country. Learn a language, then go and backpack through countries where you can speak it. Spanish is about the easiest language you can learn, and it unlocks a huge world, which offers a great richness of spirit, along with a level-headed perspective on all this gringo madness that you will have to learn to escape from.
You are at an age when parts of who you are – your outlook on life, your personality, your habits and your tastes – are still forming. There is no better way to gain a fresh perspective on the world – and on yourself – than to put yourself into an unfamiliar situation: new place, new culture, a different language. Who knows what you will find? It could be a new place to live, an acquired taste for leading a nomadic existence, or it could be a new peace of mind, a sense of self-sufficiency, or a unique perspective on life.
It is human nature to want to postpone making unpleasant decisions until the last moment, and we can do so with impunity, provided we leave enough options open for us to choose from. Every day that we live contentedly within the status quo, we restrict our options further and further, by making ourselves increasingly dependent on more and more systems over which we have no control, and on which we cannot rely. But there are also small, conscious steps we can take that break some of these dependencies, and create new options for ourselves. If we take enough such steps, then when the time arrives for a major, life-changing decision, we will be ready
. Tomorrow I hope to explore the question of how much of the analysis is relevant for Europe – and which countries here seem to be more reslient than others.

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