Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Salvaging Learning

The other day, courtesy of the public library system here in Cumberland, I had the chance to curl up on the couch with a copy of Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay’s survey of American conspiracy theorists, Among the Truthers. I’m sorry to say it was a disappointing read. Kay’s an engaging writer and the book has some good moments, but on the whole it was a depressing reminder of the reasons that the word “journalistic” has become a synonym for “facile and tendentious.”

This is doubly unfortunate, because the issues Kay was trying to raise are worth discussing. Over the last couple of decades, ordinary political discourse in America has been drowned out by a torrent of hatred and rage—there is really no other way to describe it—directed by people on nearly every part of the political spectrum against their perceived opponents. These days it’s become a commonplace of American political culture to insist that the world’s problems result from the deliberate malevolence of some group of people or other, whose intentions and historical role are portrayed with a degree of moral extremism that would make a third-century Gnostic gulp in disbelief. How many times, dear reader, have you seen blog posts and newspaper articles—we don’t even need to bring in the gutterslop that sloshes through talk radio these days—that flatten out the complex ambiguities of industrial civilization’s spiralling crises into an insistence that somebody or other is wrecking the world out of pure personal wickedness? This is the sort of thing I mean.

The bipartisan rise of this sort of hate politics in America, in turn, provides an exact parallel to the rise of the conspiracy theory movement that Kay tried to examine. Insist that George W. Bush was the puppet of a cabal of fascists plotting to conquer the world, or that Barack Obama is a socialist out to reduce Americans to slavery under a global dictatorship, and then it’s hardly a leap to go on to argue that Bush’s handlers masterminded the 9/11 attacks or that Obama is a Muslim illegal immigrant with a forged birth certificate. Argue for either of these latter, in turn, and you can use it to bolster your case for the limitless wickedness of your bête du jour.

It would take a book considerably more substantial than Kay’s to sort out the tangled roots of this twin pandemic of hatred and paranoia. For the moment, I want to focus on just one of the many factors involved, both because it’s not usually discussed in this context and because it’s deeply relevant to the project of this blog.

Every June, across America, a couple of million high school seniors go through graduation ceremonies in our nation’s public schools and receive the diploma that, once upon a time, certified that they had completed the general course of education proper to the citizen of a democracy. Nowadays, a sizable fraction of those graduates are functionally illiterate. More than half of them have no real notion how their government works and what the rest of the world is like, and have never had more than a passing glimpse of the major works of art, literature, and music that define America’s cultural heritage. All but a tiny fraction of them have never learned how to reason from premises to a conclusion or check the credentials of a fact.

I’m not at all sure how many of my readers outside the United States have any idea just how bad the state of education has gotten here. A pervasive philosophy of education that reduces its role to that of job training, cultural squabbles that have stripped curriculums of most of their meaningful content, reforms that made the careers of teachers and the finances of districts depend on standardized test scores and thus guaranteed that teaching students how to score high on those tests would be given priority over everything else, budget cuts that always get taken out of classroom expenses rather than administrative costs—well, you can do the math yourself. There are exceptions, but on the whole the public schools in America do a miserably poor job of teaching anything but contempt for learning.

Higher education is a more complex situation but, in some ways, an even more toxic one. Where the public schools trudge implacably onwards under the iron law of bureaucracy, colleges and universities have become an industry, governed by ethics no better than any other American business. It’s possible to get a good education from an American university if you’re lucky, smart and ruthless, but there are significant downsides to the experiment. The most important are, first, that the university system is more or less designed to leave you a quarter million dollars or so in debt by the time you finish your degree program, without the option of bankruptcy—college loans are federally guaranteed, meaning that the courts can’t discharge them—and, second, while the academic industry presents itself as a ticket to high-paying careers, the great majority of college degree programs don’t do anything of the kind. It’s been shown repeatedly that the vast majority of high school seniors who enter university now will never recover financially from the economic burden of paying off their student loans.

No doubt a case could be made, and no doubt it will be made, that the exposure to learning that comes from a college education is worth a lifetime of financial impoverishment. The difficulty with such claims is that the philosophy of education as job training that helped gut America’s public schools has done much the same thing to higher education, even in fields—such as the humanities—that sometimes claim to be exempt from the trend. In most of today’s American universities, despite a certain amount of lip service, humanities programs no longer fulfill their historic role of giving students a broad introduction to humanity’s cultural and intellectual heritage. Their focus instead is on the job training needed by future professors in one or another narrow subspecialty. Departments have to justify their existence in today’s academic industry by maximizing enrollment, however, and this means that degree programs in the humanities not only admit, but actively recruit, far more students every year than are needed to meet the demand for new professors of film studies, postcolonial literature, comparative history of ideas, and the like. That’s the reason why, as the joke goes, the first thing a liberal arts major says when he or she goes to work after graduation is “Would you like fries with that?”

Now factor in the multiple economic impacts of peak oil on a sprawling, dysfunctional collection of government bureacracies, on the one hand, and a corrupt and rapacious industry totally dependent on abundant credit and government loan guarantees, on the other. At the least, it’s a recipe for the end of American education as it’s currently practiced, and it’s not implausible that unless something else gets patched together in a hurry, it could mean the end of American education, period.

Like the rest of America’s bureaucracies and industries, education in this country got onto its current trajectory of metastatic growth in the aftermath of the Second World War, when oceans of cheap fossil fuel energy and the considerable benefits of global hegemony made no price tag look too big. When the wave of homegrown fossil fuel crested in the early 1970s, in turn, Americans—who even then were willing to blame almost anything for their troubles, other than the irritating unwillingness of the laws of physics to give them a limitless supply of energy—decided to double down and bluff, for all the world as though acting out the fantasy that we’d have plenty of energy and resources in the future would force the bluff to turn into reality.

The realization most Americans are frantically trying to stave off just now is that nature has called our bluff. That limitless new supply of energy most of us were waiting for hasn’t appeared, and there are good reasons, founded in the laws of physics, to think that it never will. In the meantime, our decision to double down has left us burdened with, among other things, a public school system and a collection of colleges and universities even more gargantuan and unaffordable than the ones we had before we doubled down, and a psychology of previous investment that all but guarantees that our society will keep on throwing good money after bad until there’s nothing left to throw. Politicians and ordinary people alike have taken to insisting, along these lines, that the solution to joblessness is to send people to college to get job training, on the assumption that this will somehow make jobs appear for them. To call this magical thinking is an insult to honest sorcerers, but it’s likely to be increasingly common in the years to come—at least until the bottom drops out completely.

Well before that happens, a system that’s already largely irrelevant to the needs of the present shows every sign of making itself completely irrelevant to the even more pressing challenges of the future. If anything is going to be salvaged from the wreckage, it’s going to have to be done by individuals who commit themselves to the task on their own time. To make sense of such a project, though, it’s going to be necessary to face a far more basic question: what, exactly, is the point of education?

That’s a far more complex question than it seems, because American culture has spent the last few decades at the far end of a pendulum swing between two sharply different understandings of education—and indeed of human knowledge itself. Call them abstraction and reflection. Abstraction is the view that holds that behind the hubbub and confusion of everyday life lies a fundamental order that can be known by the human mind, and accurately expressed by means of abstract generalizations—E=MC2, the law of supply and demand, the theory of evolution, or what have you. In an age dominated by abstraction, knowledge tends to be equated with these abstract generalizations, and education becomes a matter of teaching students to memorize them, apply them, and maybe add to the sum total of known generalizations.

Abstraction tends to predominate when civilizations are expanding. It’s a confident viewpoint, both in its faith that the human mind is capable of knowing the inner workings of the cosmos, and in its claims that its method for generating abstractions is applicable to all subjects and that its particular set of abstract generalizations equate to objective truth. Of course the faith and the claims run into trouble sooner or later; whatever method the civilization uses to determine truth—classical logic in ancient Greece, Christian theology in medieval Europe, experimental science in modern America—eventually ends up in paradox and self-contradiction, and the irreducible cussedness of nature turns the first elegant generalizations into clanking, overburdened theoretical machinery that eventually falls apart of its own weight. Meanwhile Utopian hopes of a society of reason and enlightenment, which partisans of abstraction always seem to cherish, run headlong into the hard realities of human nature: after Athens’ golden age, the Peloponnesian War and the self-destruction of Greek democracy; after the Gothic cathedrals and the great medieval summae, the Black Death and the Hundred Years War; after the brilliant trajectory of science from Galileo to Einstein—well, we’ll be around to see the opening stages of that.

That’s when reflection comes into play. Reflection is the view that recognizes that human ideas of the order of the cosmos are, in the final analysis, just another set of human ideas, and that the hubbub and confusion of everyday life is the only reality we can be sure of. In an age dominated by reflection, Giambattista Vico’s great maxim—“we can truly know only what we make”—takes center stage, and humanity rather than the cosmos becomes the core subject of knowledge. It’s not a knowledge that can be extracted in the form of abstract generalizations, either; it’s a personal, tacit knowledge, a knowledge woven of examples, intuitions, and things felt rather than things defined. From the standpoint of abstraction, of course, this isn’t knowledge at all, but in practical application it works surprisingly well; a sensitivity to circumstances and a memory well stocked with good examples and concrete maxims tend, if anything, to be more useful in the real world than an uncritical reliance on the constructions of current theory.

This is why Greek intellectual culture, with its focus on logic, mathematics, physics, and speculative philosophy, gave way to Roman intellectual culture, which focused instead on literature, history, jurisprudence, and ethical philosophy. It’s also why the culture of the high Middle Ages, with its soaring ambition to understand the cosmos by interpreting religious revelation in the light of reason, gave way to the humaniores litterae—literally, the more human writings—of the Renaissance, which focused attention back on humanity, not as an object under the not-yet-invented microscope, but as a subject capable of knowing and acting in a complex, unpredictable world. It’s by way of reference to those “more human writings” that we still call the characteristic interests of Renaissance culture “the humanities.”

Next week’s post will follow the most recent swing of the pendulum over to the side of abstraction, since that has to be understood in order to sort out what can be saved from contemporary science. Here, though, I want to spare a few moments for the almost completely neglected issue of the value of the humanities in an age of collapse. Modern American culture is so deeply invested in abstraction that the very suggestion that reflection, as I’ve defined it, could have pragmatic value as a way of knowledge seems ludicrous to most people. Still, given that we’ve landed ourselves in the usual trap that comes with overcommitment to abstraction—we can determine beyond a shadow of a doubt what has to be done, and prove that it has to be done, but we’ve become completely incapable of motivating people to do it—a strong case could be made that we need to pay more attention to that aspect of knowledge and culture that deals directly with human existence in its actual context of complexity and rootedness, an aspect that offers no general laws but many practical insights.

There’s another reason why it may be worthwhile to refocus on reflection rather than abstraction in the years ahead of us. As already mentioned, the partisans of abstraction have a hard time finding any value at all in reflection; Plato’s insistence that poets ought to be chucked out the gates of his Republic, John Scotus Erigena’s dismissal of core elements of the humanities because “they do not appear to have to do with the nature of things,” Descartes’ irritable condemnation of literary studies, and the fulminations of today’s scientific pundits against any dimension of human experience that can’t be measured on some kind of dial, all come from this habit of thought. Curiously, though, the reverse is rarely the case. In ages when reflection predominates, the sciences tend to be preserved and transmitted to the future along with the humanities, because the sciences are also products of human thought and culture; they can be studied as much for what they reveal about humanity as for what they reveal about nature. That shift has already been taking place; when the late Carl Sagan spun his compelling “We are star-stuff” myth for the viewers of Cosmos, for example, he was engaging in reflection rather than abstraction. Hs goal was not to communicate an abstract rule but to weave a narrative of meaning that provided a context within which human life can be lived.

The modern American educational system is by and large the last place on earth to try to pursue or communicate any such vision, whether undergirded by Saganism or some more traditional religion. Equally, though, as I’ve already pointed out, the modern American educational system is very poorly positioned indeed to deal with the impacts of peak oil, and the rest of the smorgasbord of crises the bad decisions of the last few decades have set out for us. The question that remains is what might replace it. What will come after the public schools is already taking shape, in the form of a lively and successful homeschooling movement that routinely turns out the sort of educated young people public schools once did; the replacement for what’s left of America’s once thriving trade schools is less well organized and defined as yet, but is emerging as craftspeople take on apprentices and people interested in a dizzying array of crafts form networks of mutual support. What we don’t yet have is a replacement for what the universities used to offer—some form of organized activity, however decentralized, informal, and inexpensive, that will see to the preservation and transmission of the intellectual heritage of our age.

What form such a thing might take is a challenging question, and one for which I don’t have any immediate answers. Still, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. The pervasive spread of paranoiac conspiracy theories in contemporary American culture, which I mentioned toward the beginning of this post, is only one of several signs that too many people in this country have never learned how to doublecheck the validity of their own thinking, either against the principles of logic—a core element of the cultural heritage of abstraction—or against that attentiveness to circumstances and human motives that comes from “more human writings”—a core element of the cultural heritage of reflection. The people who chant “Drill, baby, drill,” as though it’s an incantation that will summon barrels of oil from thin air, are doing just as poor a job of reasoning about the world and reflecting on their motivations as the people who use the unprepossessing individuals teetering on the upper end of our political class as inkblots on which to project their need for scapegoats and their fantasies of absolute evil.

Working out the first rough sketch of a replacement for the American academic industry won’t stop the incantations or the scapegoating any time soon, and arguably won't stop it at all. Many other forces, as I suggested earlier, drive the contemporary flight from the muddled complexities of civil society into a comic-book world of supervillains whose alleged malignity is so clearly a product of the believer’s need to find someone to blame. Yet the tasks facing those of us who are trying to get ready for the unraveling of industrial America, and the comparable tasks our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren will face, will demand plenty of clear, perceptive, well-informed thinking, guided both by abstraction’s useful generalizations and by reflection’s sharpened sensitivities. Doing something to salvage learning, while there’s still a chance to do so, is one potentially crucial way to help that happen.


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John Michael Greer said...

The fact that this week's post makes unsympathetic comments about popular conspiracy theories doesn't mean I'm interested in debating those theories with believers, reading diatribes about how wrong I am, etc. I did the research a while ago, and have other uses for my time now. There are plenty of places that would be happy to post tirades about how I'm obviously a tool of the evil space lizards, or what have you; this is not one of them, and attempted comments trying to pick a fight about conspiracies will be deleted. 'Nuf said.

Chris Balow said...

You hit very close to home on this one, JMG. My wife is two years into a Ph.D. program for School Psychology, which will essentially open her up for employment as an administrator (Principal, Superintendant, etc.) at a public or private school. Recently, the two of us have had discussions about how the future will shape up, and whether or not those administrative jobs will even be available to her when she has her degree in a few years.

Problem is, the both of us are graduates of the higher education industry, and her getting that high paying administrative job seems the only way for us to get out from under the mountain of debt we've accumulated in the process--as my liberal arts degree hasn't proved useful. The educational system is both jailer and savior, it seems.

Villager said...

This is certainly one of your best essays and it's heartening to know that another reflective mind puts paid to the idea that "job training" and "higher education" will solve our employment problems.

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, once you're in the belly of the beast, you don't have a lot of options other than to go on with it. I hope it works out for the two of you.

Villager, thank you. It's a source of wry amusement to me that people who claim to reject magic out of hand as impossible go on to insist that job training programs will cause jobs to appear, or that drilling wells guarantees the appearance of more oil, while the occultists I know dismiss such fancies as irrational!

Ainslie Podulke van der Stam said...

It strikes me that paranoia is, in a sense, itself the dawn of knowledge. It is curiosity grappling with ignorance. When there is great ignorance, there is fear. There is magical thinking. Eventually, if the process of learning is supported well, there is an organic intimacy with the reality of the situation, or something closer to reality. This can take either intuitive or analytical forms. This is one example of knowledge about the nature of knowledge that might be banked in such a project as you describe. As always, great post.

Sixbears said...

When I was 37 I had the good fortune to go back to college as part of a job rehabilitation scheme. Imagine having a whole college at your disposal and not having to pay for any of it.

For pleasure, I took classes from many different departments. Ended up with two majors in 4 years, neither of which puts much bread in my jar.

I had no illusions that college would make me more employable and enjoyed college for its own sake. I took classes from difficult professors because they make me think.

It during 1995-1999, a time when the Internet bubble gave the illusion of infinite growth. Soon after I graduated, the program that sent me to college was gutted. Even government programs have to deal with reality on occasion.

Before I went, I realized there would not be a job at the end. Between my age and medical history, my odds of normal employment were slim. Freed from that worry, I looked at college as something for personal development. It did me a lot of good, but it would not have been worth going into debt for.

It's easy to narrow one's view of the world, but much more rewarding to be open to other ideas. A good education experience opens the mind. The career track is a narrow job training focus. It robs the student of the chance to experience more.

I know my education was a fluke. Few students wandered as far from their majors as I did. They could not afford to.

Maybe in the end, education will go back to the basics: a teacher sitting on one end of the log and a student sitting on the other.

Apple Jack Creek said...

The Canadian educational system must be substantially different than what you have south of the border - logic, research skills, and critical thinking are core parts of the curriculum here, thankfully. I'm sure we still graduate our share of dolts and sheeple, but it seems to me that everyone at least has a chance to discover how to think and reason and learn. University educations are much more expensive than they used to be, making the return on investment for tuition much more challenging now. I have encouraged my son to pursue a trade (he wants to be an electrician, with a focus on alternative energy systems like solar and wind for rural homes like ours). He's not academically minded, though he is borderline gifted - he wants to be doing things with his hands, not reading more books and writing more papers, so a trade is perfect for him. If he were deeply interested in academic learning, though, we'd probably try to find a way to make it possible ... the future world will still need thinkers and writers and doctors and teachers, though he's far more likely to 'find his fortune' putting solar panels on cabin roofs than anything a university degree would prepare him for, so I'm quite relieved by his choice, to be honest.
I confess to being utterly baffled by American politics and all the shouting and noise. Canadians mostly ignore their politicians, it seems, and I couldn't even begin to guess who most of the people I know might have voted for in the last election. I do think that having a multi-party system helps with that - we actually have a spectrum of choices (well, in theory) and nobody expects that just because you believe in X this guarantees that you also believe in Y (as, oddly, seems to be the case with American politics).
I've no idea how one might go about repairing the political mess you've got down there .. I just hope whatever ailment has gotten into your system doesn't spread north. :S

Bashmu the Oracle said...

While I don't believe that either of the matters I'm about to present are actual solutions to the issues of modern education, they are at least, I believe, models tending toward the right direction.

In regards how university level/style education can be accomplished without climbing into the maw of the industrial beast, I present OpenCourseWare. This is a model of education by which university level course are presented digitally to be studied for free without credit. There are several colleges who are engaged in such activity, MIT being one with the largest selection of available courses that I've seen (including humanities). Similarly there are such institutions as Khan Academy or iTunes University which also provide a free digital education on a number of subjects.

Further, in the direction of trade-school equivalents, I submit the model of Western Governor's University. Also online, the entire school premise is to provide credit for demonstrated competence in the area in question. The cost is flat-fee, circa $2890 per six months, allowing the student to progress as quickly as s/he is able and potentially minimizing cost.

Unfortunately, though, neither of these address the fundamental issues of American systems of valuation. You can hand a person all the means to achieve a humanities education, but unless s/he feels that it's of worth to pursue, the effort is a wasted one.

walker said...

Great post. While I don't contest your observations about the failures of our educational system, I do wonder if there's not some generational bias reflected in your comments. Every generation seems to decry the thoroughgoing inadequacies of the next generation. It's perhaps worth noting that a large percentage of my grandfather's generation never made it to high school to receive the rather limited education offered to the class of 1918. Again, I'm not saying you're wrong, but maybe overstating the degree to which the education of the current generation of kids deviates from some sort of historical "norm" for this country. Which is pathetic.

Susan said...

I grew up in Detroit (actually in the downriver suburbs), and my Dad was an engineer with Ford. Many of my high school classmates got high-paying jobs as shop rats working on the line in Dearborn and Flint and River Rouge (just as their parents and grandparents had), and they did quite well with only high school diplomas. That was then...

It was enormously helpful that Detroit dominated the auto industry in the decades following World War II, as the industrial bases of Japan and Europe had been literally destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Of course, once the Japanese and Germans built modern factories they were able to eat our lunch beginning in the 1970s, and the Detroit I grew up in is now gone.

Now, programmers in Russia and call centers in India are eating our kids' lunches, and Doctors in the Philippines are reading X-rays from our local hospitals.

The more things change... Yes, we need job training to keep up with a changing world, but what we really need is to learn how to learn (and keep doing it for as long as we live), and how to think critically and objectively, which too many colleges are evidently not teaching any more (which may be why so many successful entrepreneurs dropped out).

I hated "lit crit" in my English classes in college; it was all just so much pretentious, pseudo-intellectual BS as far as I could tell. And don't even get me started about gender studies and all the rest of what passes for higher education these days. That's why I'm perfectly happy to let my son learn a practical trade like gunsmithing. He reads voraciously, and knows more about history than most of his teachers, and if he wants to learn something he goes to the library...

I think a case can be made that most, if not all, of the "reflective" knowledge that we can learn has been fairly well understood for centuries. The Bible (Old and New Testaments) and various other religious texts from other traditions contain a lot of wisdom (independent of all that God stuff). Virtually every modern novel and movie is merely a variation on a theme originally penned by Shakespeare hundreds of years ago.

All the people leaving high-tax states like Illinois and New York in order to move to low-tax states like Texas merely confirm what Aesop wrote about in the Fable of the Goose that laid the Golden Eggs: if the government squeezes too hard, those golden eggs just sort of go away. Aesop wrote his Fables about 2,400 years ago!

There's nothing new under the sun (now, where did I read that?).

Zach said...

The question of the preservation of the humanities during a crisis was addressed directly by C. S. Lewis in 1939 in his address Learning in War-Time:

"To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the weight of such eternal issues but not under the shadow of a European war would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the noise of our nerves and our mass emotions."

"If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."


Don Mason said...

Whi u say this???? i dont unerstand!!!! skools r good thay put smart stuf in r brayns so that we kan gro up too bee good liddle consoomerz so that wee wil kno what to bi when we go to tha maul so that we kan be like evreebodee else and its all cauz skools put smart stuf in r braynz!!!!!!!

Annd no i amm not a mo-ron!!!! i amm a collage granduat and i payd $300,000 forr mi degrees an wil bee a dett slaav forr tha rest of mi liif an wil nevar bee abul too deklaar bankrupttcee but that iz the merigan sistum the graytist kuntree on erthh!!!! YAAAYYY!!!! Meriga!!! YAAAYY!!!

Draft said...

I'm a bit disappointed in your premise / lead here because you're reaching for the "both sides do it" CNN style reasoning. That is it's easier to claim the nonpartisan mantle if you decry the problems at bipartisan without considering - to use the conspiracy theories you point out - whether the people involved are at the fringes or not. Of course you'll find people of any ideology who spout nonsense. But we expect more from our leaders. That is, what fraction of GOP congressmen expressed doubts about Obama's citizenship vs. what fraction of Dem congressmen expressed concerns that Bush or Cheney planned 9/11? If you look at the record, it's not even close - the GOP has entertained conspiracies and vitriol at a level far beyond Dems.

Of course, maybe you'll see this comment as just another example of the problem (and you might not believe this, but I'm a registered independent and find both parties wanting). Nevertheless, what I've written is true.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

As someone who used to be a proponent of 9/11 truth and other conspiracy theories, but have since changed my mind gradually over the course of years, it's been just the type of reflective thinking that you mention that has led me to change my thinking. Mostly it's been the study of human behavior, and the realization that the powerful classes likely follow similar behavior patterns as the rest of us, even if there's an over-representation of certain ambitious personality types, they're still human and follow human behavior patterns. When discussions of 9/11 are brought up now I just say that I don't know the truth of what happened on that day, and focusing on 9/11 isn't really going to do much to help our situation.

For myself, even back when I was more of a conspiracy theorist, part of me realized that many of them were unlikely, it's just that once you realize that society is going the wrong way, it was actually hopeful for me to believe that it was a small group of wicked evil people perpetuating the madness, and if we could just raise awareness of that fact and throw them out of power, the masses would choose a better choice. The reality is more depressing, that mass idiocy rules American culture. By self-reflection I have realized that I have a tendency to interpret malice from others in situations where stupidity is really to blame, because the level of stupidity is sometimes so unbelievable.

Although there are many different reasons for the popularity of conspiracy theories, I think the inability to come to terms with the mass stupidity around us is a reason that many intelligent people turn to demonization, and thus they project malice when it's really incompetence. The fact that differences in mental ability between people is a taboo subject certainly doesn't help the situation.

sofistek said...

I'm not sure it's that easy to dismiss all bloggers who may use terms like "evil" or "wicked". These are everyday terms and, like most language constructs, aren't necessarily used in the correct way. For example, a blogger may determine that one group of people appear to be working in a way that lessens the standard or quality of life for the majority, even though they seem to be intelligent enough to realise that this is what they are doing. Maybe it's not correct to call them "evil", since there is no absolute measurement of that, but sometimes the word seems to fit just fine.

Cathy McGuire said...

Another great post! I have chaffed against the huge number of people I meet who can’t seem to reason enough to see the gaping flaws in much of the hate rhetoric. It makes me want to volunteer to teach a class in rational thinking! However, having had years of the humanities, and remembering the novels I’ve read, I wonder if there hasn’t always been a large contingent of humanity that lack this ability. Dickens’ novels have many such characters; Dostoyevsky’s novels also (just to mention two). Authors writing of their own time usually seem to describe people who live lives of unexamined reactions to Life. There’s just so many more people alive, and with access to media, it might seem like it’s gotten worse.

Over the last couple of decades, ordinary political discourse in America has been drowned out by a torrent of hatred and rage—there is really no other way to describe it—directed by people on nearly every part of the political spectrum against their perceived opponents.

What I’ve witnessed is that many have gotten so fed up with the perceived lack of ability of the “other side” to listen that they are raging; feeling so very unheard that they’ve “upped the volume”. Unfortunately, the time for the kind of lengthy discussions that allow the reasoning that would hash out the various gaps in logic and perhaps lead to more understanding is not available. I don’t know how many times I start a discussion at a gathering and quickly realize that there is no way that in 15 minutes I’d be able to present my perceptions of a topic, let alone work through a bunch of differing views! I do remember one wonderful question posed by a conflict resolution specialist that can often get to the heart quickly, “What – other than being agreed with – will make you believe you have been heard by them?” Most people can’t answer that question! They equate agreement with “being heard.”

Nowadays, a sizable fraction of those graduates are functionally illiterate. More than half of them have no real notion how their government works and what the rest of the world is like, and have never had more than a passing glimpse of the major works of art, literature, and music that define America’s cultural heritage.

I’ve been reading pioneer interviews, and it certainly sounds like a large portion of those students didn’t have any of that, either – so what timeframe are you referring to? Also, my recollection of the grammar and high school curricula in past decades was that the emphasis was on memorization, not reasoning – that was supposed to be taught in college. But I will totally agree that education today is totally insufficient to prepare students for our culture or their adult lives.

educational system is very poorly positioned indeed to deal with the impacts of peak oil, and the rest of the smorgasbord of crises the bad decisions of the last few decades have set out for us

That’s true of the system, but individual schools are doing some really cool things. There are more than 200 Green Schools in Oregon, that are teaching kids to garden and then cooking the food for school lunches and composting the scraps back into the garden. They are getting kids to be in charge of saving energy, recycling everything that can be recycled- but also learning to use sparingly in the first place. Some schools have water-gathering systems, solar panels, have cut their garbage in half, have cut their electricity use significantly. And it’s the kids who have to come up with the plan and follow through. I have to believe some of that gets carried home, and carried with them as they grow up.

Les said...

Seems to me that in the winding down of any civilisation, there must have always been vast numbers of people unable to think critically or otherwise make useful contributions to the survival of whatever ideas one may consider useful going forward.
The main difference in this decline is the unrivalled ability for those with no clue to propagandise the others with even less of a clue, due to the technology available for idea transmission that does not require any clue to operate (and note, when I say “clueless,” I don't mean only “stupid,” I mean “stupid and/or wilfully ignorant of the real problems and willing to manipulate others for personal short term gain”).
In previous declines the clueless had no easy way to mobilise. No way to express their paranoia to thousands or even millions of others. They may have been thinking roughly the same things as today's clueless, but they did so in some degree of isolation. This gives critical thinking more of a chance, because the cacophony of the uncritical is not there to overwhelm it.
So, can we save critical thinking? Should we even try? Maybe the best course is to just hoard the bits we can and let mass communications die a natural death, after which the process is likely to get a lot easier.

On another topic entirely, harking back to last week's discussion, I've come up with a scenario for simultaneously increasing the efficiency and resilience of this blog. I suspect that you (JMG) are starting to spend significant amounts of your time moderating the discussion here. And this will burden will only increase over time. If it is possible within the blog software, it would be useful to have multiple moderators doing this for you, thus freeing up that time for writing the blog posts as well as books, lectures and the rest. I would think that there are a number of your regular readers who would be very good at this as well as willing to help out.

Well people? Who will put out a bit to help here?



Kate said...

We learn and become skilled through practice, yet there is little in our educational system that provides opportunity for the long hours of practice required to master even basic subjects.

Instead, we idealize theories of everything and expect to cram the depths of everything into a few short months of study in order to pass meaningless exams.

The real test is more likely to be how well the knowledge and understanding we gained in school actually applies to the realities at hand during the course of lives.

Joe said...


I'm working right now to establish a reading group based on the classical Trivium of logic, rhetoric, and grammar. The Trivium has gotten some renewed attention in the last hundred years, but if you're not familiar the three subjects formed the basis for medieval understanding: how truth flows from one statement to another, how statements are constructed into natural language, and how people use language to try to convince others about the truth of their statements.

I'm ultimately interested in helping to develop a model for group driven auto-didactism, to address the glaring flaws in higher education that you mention here.

But, it occurs to me that maybe the Trivium is primarily a basis for understanding and transmitting reductive knowledge. If so, do you know of an analogous "core" to the humanities?

R.E. said...

Howdy John:
I think the "educational" system starting back around 1900 or so (+ -)
was really the Industrial Slave Indoctrination system and remained so even into the seventies. That system did a lot of good for a kid (me) ONE GENERATION off a dirt farm in Claysville, PA. I never had to run a team of Percherons for hire (my father did) and the knowledge and sound science I gained IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS set the trajectory of my career into other less "primitive" pursuits.
I AM NOT SO SURE NOW IT WAS SO GREAT A "FAVOR". With the impending ECONOMIC adjustments of fossil fuel shortages occurring now and promising to ramp up,practical skills with draft animals and associated trades will probably rise to importance again. WILL THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS TRAIN US FOR THIS?


das monde said...

Still feeling free to jump in briefly. One question: How many people notice a flood of MK-Ultra and occult symbolism in today's pop music? It's not like that is unavoidably discussed "many times".

Regarding the educational system: Yep, it is on a junk drugs recipe to irrelevance. From inside, I do not see any obstacles for Saganian reflection. But what comes out as a political or pseudo-commercial output, is another question.

Permapoesis said...

Greer gold: "a depressing reminder of the reasons that the word “journalistic” has become a synonym for “facile and tendentious.”"

Gertrude Stein gold: "if you keep on doing newspaper work you will never see things, you will only see words"

Jason Heppenstall said...

I have to admit that I went to college for all the wrong reasons - and most of them involved the social life. But ending up doing a humanities course (it was the only course that would have me) probably allowed me to dodge a bullet, looking at it retrospectively. Friends who studied more 'hard nosed' courses are mostly now being slowly crushed by their mortgage burdens and fretting over the security of their jobs.

I was the first person in our family to attend university and my parents were proud of that fact. Nevertheless, I'll probably be the last, as I won't be encouraging my two daughters to attend unless it's for something practical that won't end up with them sitting on a mountain of debt and wisfully looking out of an office window wishing they had followed their interests rather than the dictates of short-sighted careers advisors.

Being myself somewhat autodidactic in nature I have never got on very well with taught courses. Perhaps that's the difference between self-learning and being taught. For me at least, having the freedom to toss an idea around in my mind while I go for a walk ends up with a far deeper understanding than I would probably have gained from being told the same thing in a lecture. There is also intuitive knowledge, of course, but this isn't often useful for the industrial system we find ourselves in and there is no section for it on the average CV.

As for news media, well I just shake my head. I seriously doubt the ability of any media with a readership/viewer numbers of more than a thousand to be able to engage with the important issues now facing us. Demonisation is their stock in trade and it is hardwired into their circuitry.

Anyone on a true quest for knowledge and reason will seek it out. That is what I intuit and that's why we are reading this blog and others like it!

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

John Michael, your posts just get better and better! Masterly stuff. As usual, I shall be linking this on as many other sites as I can.

I have one small quibble; and I take account of your first-place comment, with which I agree.

But can I just say: don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Not all conspiracies are figments of over-heated imagination. Perhaps you could have a private think about lumping in the question of who really did 9/11, and -- geopolitikally-speaking -- why, with the space lizards, and the Illuminatibergers' world-domination conspiracy.

There's an ocean of dreck, and deliberate black disinformation around the matter of 11 September 01, by now. And Mike Ruppert is probably right when he says that the window of opportunity to do anything effective and relevant about nailing the truth and the true perpetrators, and the question of why, has now closed conclusively.

But still, it jars me to see a thinker as unusually self-disciplined and perspicacious as you casually -- and may I say mistakenly -- lumping that real, made-in-America conspiracy in with the delusional ones.

Can I just offer that there are now some reliably high-quality places that you can visit, to see where a decade of courageous and high-principled volunteer effort has got in uncovering the truth which the official agencies charged with such responsibilities have so conspicuously failed to do -- or perhaps have evaded doing -- on the matter of 9/11. I can recommend Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth -- of which I'm a member -- as one such reliable place. I see what a workload you've given yourself. But a quick look at the current situation through their eyes might perhaps cause you to rethink?

And having said that, I'll now go along with what you posted in the first comment here, and say: 'nuff said.

Hwyl fawr Sion!

Pangolin said...

Currently higher education is a MacGuffin whose purpose is to keep the unwashed hordes from laying claim to their share of the nation/world's unearned income.

Mechanization and automation allow a small number of people to produce large amounts of consumer goods. Now that services are being automated even larger numbers of people face either idleness or competition for the remaining middle-class jobs. It's apparent that the energy decline is going to be accommodated not by powering down across the board but by throwing the lower classes off the rolls of energy users entirely.

Simply not having a degree will only be a viable option if you've somehow lucked into an occupation that cannot be done cheaper by robotics, software or third world serfs. It must also come with a relatively low cost of entry into the marketplace and it has to fit a real or perceived consumer need.

Good luck with that.

Tony said...

I think I have been one of the lucky ones when it comes to education, and possibly one of the last lucky ones.

I managed to attend math and science magnet programs through middle and high school, taught largely by PhDs with passions for teaching, many of whom railed against the county school system and actively fought it so that they could actually do their jobs and do them well.

I went on to major in genetics in college, but very nearly pulled off a double major in astronomy and threw in some Mesoamerican history and ancient astronomy classes for good measure, all at a wonderful in-state school with a scholarship that left me completely debt-free at graduation this May. I'm all set to start my PhD in the fall, studying something I'm passionate about (while setting myself up to participate in the campus farm and hone my salvage skills).

The gates seem to be closing behind me now though. It's as if I'm some action movie star, every institution I leave exploding behind me in slow-motion. The magnet high school has massively watered down its curriculum, and just fired three of its best teachers.

Even while I was in college it was clear the math program was a joke, and I only actually learned anything from later calculus classes because of my (genius) roommate who basically taught it to me, and there was more than one joke biology class amongst the good ones. The contents of the flood of pre-med students makes me fear a bit for the future of that profession. But it's already getting worse – the scholarship that paid my whole way already no longer exists, and the brand new University president scares me more than a little in his attitude towards the place...

I realize that my passion for science may, in future years, not be particularly well-supported by what remains of academia. I am fairly certain that my PhD research will be secure, but I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop and real academic/teaching jobs to become even harder to find than they are now. Even so, I have been seriously considering the potential value of a future involved primarily in education – I know for sure that by the time I ever reproduce, I will never be able to trust my children to any normal educational institution, and I've had some great successes with getting family members and friends to actually think...

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for your thoughts on the previous post. I reckon you are on the money. It's a game that's not going according to the traditional model established after WWII.

As to this weeks comment, I am a great believer in formal education, although I am biased on this subject holding both a university degree and post graduate qualification.

On reflection though, I would say that the education delivered to individuals is a reflection of societies aspirations and demands.

Interestingly enough before the early 1970's in Australia it was only the wealthy who could attend university - in both time and fees. University here is not like college over in the US as few people live on campus - campus is a place for learning.

In a spate of generosity, university education was provided free of charge between 1973 and 1988. After 1989 though, student loans were provided at very good rates by the government and are paid off through the taxation system. If you don't earn any income, you don't have to pay off the loan (it doesn't go away though). The only student loans making it into the six figure category would be medicine.

I gave a bit of history so that you can understand the differences in our cultures. Australia is a small country, so University here has always been vocationally based. It has never pretended to be otherwise. Research has generally been undertaken by government bodies such as the CSIRO - Universities are small time players.

Now having said all this, I work in a profession that requires both a degree and a post graduate in order to get an operating licence. I've spoken in the past about professional capture and here is a great example:

Also getting back to education as a reflection of societies demands and aspirations, older people in my profession entered the profession through an apprenticeship. To join the professional body, they paid a $50 membership fee. This was a very different experience to myself who sometimes has a mental image of myself as a rat in a tread mill and no matter how fast you spin the wheel, you're still in the same place. By the way the older professionals are still more than my equal.

On the other hand pursuing the education (which acts as a barrier to entry) also teaches you how to learn, how to reason, how to apply that learning (and reason) and also how to finish tasks. These are important life skills which seem to me to be in short supply.

You can see that the skills are in short supply because the community discourse has descended into catchy sound bites and messages of blame and hate. Emotions win over reason every time.

I don't worry about such things though because as the available energy reduces, the ability to spread these types of messages is reduced. Also people will start to have to worry about their day to day needs instead and if we survive, we'll all end up reverting back into the peasants that we actually are.



BC Richardson said...

Thanks JMG for another thought provoking post.

While I did go to university little wisdom was gained, that came thanks to mentors I was blessed with a interesting mix of a Druid, a scientist and a lawyer.


Mean Mr Mustard said...


I’m another one with a belated further education, having started work when I was 16. Back in ‘95, my then caring employer pressganged my whole department onto an Open University accounts course. I scraped the exam, but from that shaky foundation, went on to complete a Management Diploma. Part time distance learning, thankfully at little personal cost. And being only halfway to an MBA meant I wasn’t fully assimilated into the then fashionable mantras about ‘what gets measured gets managed’.

Still, the course was quite useful in replacing a general sense of unease into specific concerns about my own toxic corporate cubicle dweller environment. As another poster recently observed here, the Dilbert cartoons are based on solid (mis)management realities - and these strips even occasionally turned up in the course material. The best part of that course for me was motivational studies and people management, which prompted me to examine some of the literature on happiness and positive psychology. And the diploma probably got me a promotion a couple of years later, so It’s All Good, as some of you still claim over there.

My separate concerns about dependencies, from my disaster planner insights, led me to instantly ‘get’ the Peak Oil argument back in 2006. So, recently freed of my corporate shackles, I decided to go back to the Open University this year, to complete a course in Sustainable Energy. This time, I’m doing it for myself - I study nuclear science, I love my classes..! Trouble is the course material is ten years old, and in the ever changing energy scene, that’s a long time. Still, we can easily quote current sources, and it’s been good so far – for example, my essays have referenced Nicole Foss’ superb paper on the collapse of Eastern European Nuclear industry, and the OilDrum is always a useful source. At one point, my assignment deadline loomed large, but I was able to quickly write 1200 coherent words about the pros and cons of biofuels without referring to the textbooks, and still got good marks. That’s what an informal internet education can do for you.

Last week, the Open University announced they are about to dramatically increase course fees, owing to Government subsidy cuts being applied to all English Universities. My current course was around $1000, but for those not enrolling soon or continuing their education, that’s likely to be $4000. Ouch. Though, being currently enrolled, I do still have the option of carrying on a while to complete a bargain Degree. But that’s only going to be worthwhile if I can identify courses which are relevant to my future needs, as it’s really only a piece of paper now.

If I don’t pursue the degree, I’ll very happily settle for your excellent writings as part of my ongoing informal education, if I may. Along with Dmitry Orlov, Sharon Astyk, the Oil Drum et al. Though Jim Kunstler’s polemics - (...“deliberate malevolence of some group of people or other” ...? “insistence that somebody or other is wrecking the world out of pure personal wickedness” ..?) only count as entertainment.



Quos Ego said...

Dear JMG,

I think that The Archdruid Report is a proof in itself of the importance of Liberals Arts. The Peak Oil community is filled with angry, contentious and die-hard rationalist scientists that will jeer at you whenever you dare come up with anything (mostly philosophical or mystical arguments) that does not supervene upon their pragmatical world view where science is believed to explain everything.
In their own way, they are reproducing with a vengeance the paradigm they are fighting against, and it is really saddening to observe how subservient they actually are to the laws of the system.

The AR, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in history, philosophy and classical critique, which makes it so much above everything else written on the subject. Once you are aware of the problem of Peal Oil and deindustrialization, I fail to see the point of endlessly attempting to find more proofs that will support your worldview, just so that you can discuss lengthily (while always repeating yourself) how the world is going to the dogs, how we are all doomed, and above all, how horrible the human species is.

For being able to eschew this particular pitfall, you have my thanks.

As far as I am concerned, I am currently in college, in a double major in Liberal Arts, and I am completely aware that this will probably never land me a good high profile job. Still, since in the country where I live education is affordable and does not require for me to take a loan, I am doing it, if only for my own pleasure. I believe it is worth doing so, peak oil or not, change of paradigm or not, job or not. The knowledge I thus gain and the acquaintance I thus make are paying me back for my time with interest.

On a side note, have you read Jean Baudrillard? I think you would enjoy his musings on the technician society and its obsession with solving every secret there is.

jhughston said...

This post really resonated here. Could you please make some suggestions as to how to explore this topic further? Perhaps some author's or books that look at the subject in greater depth.

Thank you for your writing. Always enjoyable to have one's own ideas confronted.

phil harris said...

I too get bothered by counter-factual explanations of the world. It is only too easy for us all, and I include 'the educated', to try explain the world in the way we might try to guess what another person might be up to especially if they appear a threat. The amygdala is quick off the mark.

I am recently reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. What do you make of it? The powerful opening in New Orleans where she was following the hurricane, sets the scene. 'Wilful incompetence'? Or as one lady in the line remarked: "Evil". Perhaps this lady was right?
I checked a chapter where I knew the history: the "Thatcher" economic experiment in Britain. All Klein's history facts checked out. (And Thatcher did make a personal friend of General Pinochet.)
There are conspiracies out there; but which are the real ones? Just not the idiot popular ones cultists like to project?

Lizzy said...

"Reflection is the view that recognizes that human ideas of the order of the cosmos are, in the final analysis, just another set of human ideas" I'd never thought about that. I'd always assumed that there are Laws of nature, Laws of physics etc.

Thanks very much - a really thought-provoking piece. By the way, here in the UK the education system is floundering too.

Odin's Raven said...

Thanks. That was an interesting post. Synchronistically to your mention of Gnosticism and conspiracies, I came across this article about John Lash's version of 'green' gnosticism and cosmic conspiracy:

Regarding the increasingly bitter divisions and suspicions between Americans, I wonder whether this might presage another civil war.

Years ago I saw a story claiming that an American had time-travelled from the near future back into his own past, to collect supplies from the time when they were still abundant. Allegedly, on his timeline there will have been a civil war about a decade ahead, and the survivors will have a low opinion of their precursors.

At the time this struck me as being most improbable because there did not seem to be a sufficiently strong division which would precipitate a civil war, but now I wonder whether the emotional conditions are being set.

Of course, it's been remarked that people who are over-educated and under-employed form excellent tinder for a revolutionary spark!

Thijs Goverde said...

A wildly interesting post.
However, my mind did a double take when you mentioned a 'lively and succesful homeschooling movement'. I am not from the USA and I don't know any of the figures or statistics (except for what one can find on Wikipedia), but the impression I get is that a large part (maybe a third, if Wikipedia is correct) of the homeschooling movement - it is certainly the part that has drifted across the pond and is beginning to settle down here in the Netherlands - is formed by evangelical Christians who mainly want to shield their children from the 'evils' taught in public schools. Most notably the theory of evolution as well as all science leading to any understanding of the phenomenon of global warming.

If a third of the movement consists of people denying their children important knowledge or understanding, choosing the word 'succesful' as desciptive of that movement comes across as somewhat unfortunate.

In previous reflective corsi humanity's abstract knowledge could be passed on, I cannot help thinking, mostly because meaningful chunks of it could be understood (learned, taught) by one individual. Even if that one individual had to be Leonardo da Vinci.
Now, however, our abstract knowledge has gotten so vast that I fear only a large network of scholars, who trust each others expertise, can keep it alive.

Hard to organise that with home schooling.
I fear greatly for the fate of astrophysics, quantum mechanics, molecular biology etc etc.
Seems a shame to let all that stuff perish.
But no amount of green wizard tinkering is going to keep a Large Hadron Collider functional.

It's a sad thought that our descendants will never really understand what we did wrong.
We will become an Atlantean myth, it seems...

Stephen said...

The Education system is so broken it should be disbanded.

Jason said...

This post certainly makes sense, and I think we in the UK might not have been quite clear about the state US ed has reached -- we should be, considering I hear more or less nothing but the same direction mooted here now.

I'd be a little worried about lumping Plato in with Eriugena (whose name you misspelled BTW -- it means 'born in Ireland, Eriu) since the Republic case for banning poets was arguably on account of their unreasoned rhetorical persuasiveness to a doomed way, for whose abandonment Plato was arguing. A bit like banning Larry Niven now. ^_^ (Or Spielberg and Cameron.) Anyway Plato left the doorway open for poetry to justify itself -- it would have been strange if he hadn't, considering his own artistic gifts. What he meant was it had to take account of reality, in modern terms mundane sf for example. Forget the dream we know it all.

A question: if downslopes continue to value abstraction methods, would the ability to keep the 'humanities' in mind on the upslope not constitute one way of remaining in touch with reality -- seeing as how upslopes in the West normally seem to end up unsupported out in the middle of empty air, just like the abstractionist theories do?

It seems to me that Spengler would be a good example there, and since you mention Vico, so would anything perhaps that tried to see a pattern to events. I saw a DVD last night of Carl Jung memorably saying exactly what you are here -- and adding that the abstractionism removes vital context and understanding which anyone needs to ground him- or herself. As soon as someone says 'wait, I see a bigger pattern here' during a boomtime, it is as if they are ruining everyone's party, because on the upslope people seem to need to believe they are making the pattern rather than being made by it. That feeling then translates into 'we can keep making the upslope happen by incantation' later on.

Yupped said...

This one really hits home for me, since I’ve got three teenagers coming along right now. The first is in college now, studying social work. She wants to be a therapist and I’m guessing there will be plenty of customers, though payment may be in root vegetables or similar. The second is not too terribly interested in the traditional academic path, and wants to focus on agriculture or aquaculture or something similar (hurrah!). The third is younger but is showing an interest in alternative healing (promising). So we’ll see; but avoiding debt and maximizing practical skills is uppermost in our minds at the moment.

The local school system basically seems to be a college-resume stuffing operation, with a lot of focus on things that supposedly look good on paper but which don’t actually have much substance behind them. Another version of “let’s pretend”. The resulting kids are incredibly confident and full of self-esteem though; they’re going to be great at playing by the old rules, but I don’t think they will do so well improvising through all of the messes and break-downs they are going to face. I'm guessing a lot of our current teenagers are going to become masters in the school of hard knocks…

Texas_Engineer said...

You have summarized my thinking about the future of higher education very well.

As state budgets continue to be under pressure and more and more young people elect to not get under a crippling college debt I think we will see declining enrollments and pressure on operating budgets. The first sign will be decisions to selectively shut down campus buildings to save on the HVAC costs.

It will be interesting to see where the cuts happen first - in the academic area or in big time college sports.

Twilight said...

Understanding your comments on demonization and extremism in modern discourse, I really wish the phrase conspiracy theory would be retired. The phrase itself has become a tool for demonizing people and ideas, and for shutting down thought and discussion of ideas that are unacceptable for one reason or another. I've seen it lead people into positions so extreme as to state that people do not conspire, when in fact it's a very common human behavior – to recognize that is not to say you believe in space lizards.

I liked the theme of the tension between abstraction and reflection. I'm the son of an electrical engineering professor and an English teacher and artist. Dad is a theoretical guy into complex math, but I became a nuts-and-bolts circuit designer. However, I work naturally using an intuitive approach, and for a long time I tried to suppress this – it seemed out of place in an engineering environment and I thought it a liability. But as I grew older I came to recognize that there were advantages to combining intuition with analysis, and now I am comfortable with it.

So it is with abstraction and reflection. In recent years my interests have moved markedly toward topics considered to be humanities, and it has greatly enhanced my understanding of the world and what is happening. Some people focus on technical analysis of peak oil and rates of depletion, etc. I find this interesting and useful for determining where we stand, but I have become more interested in what the effects of these things will be upon humans and societies. Conversely I read articles from people who are very knowledgeable about politics and see what is happening in the world from that viewpoint exclusively. Their analysis ends up flawed because they don't see the energy and physical resource limitations that drive the effects they sense. As always, it seems to me that a position on the extreme of either abstraction or reflection gives a distorted view of the world, but it is in the balance of the two that one can find understanding.

Planner said...


The abstraction/reflection dichotomy you lay out is really thought provoking - did you recently come up with that or can I read more about it elsewhere?

The humanities are disdained in this country because, as you said, the only employment one can gain with that education is that of a 'sandwich artist' or some such. The fact is, reflection doesn't pay all that well. Most students realize far too late that no one will pay them to read Shakespeare under a dim light in a dusty room after they've received a diploma.

Abstraction however, well that's where the 'real' jobs are: specifically engineering. And the media is constantly reminding all of us that the US is falling behind India in math and physics.

Nowadays all education in this country is seen as employment preparation - and for good reason, as it's too expensive not to be. My understanding is that higher education in this country used to be available to only the very wealthy who had the free time to reflect. Perhaps this is a clue to the future of higher education?

Houyhnhnm said...


When you mentioned education as "an industry," I assumed you were referring to television as the core industry.

Like many, I see television as the most significant source of education for contemporary Americans. Only a few escape it, and a good many studies now point to this quick-cut, ad-driven industry as the main factor in hardwiring infant brains for short term thinking. The passivity of watching also kills off passion and the curiosity that inspires active inquiry, for example, reading. Meanwhile, advertising propaganda promotes material consumption as the measure of "success."

As far as I can see, much of the current mess in higher education simply reflects the effects of the mass media on the public. For example, journalism became a branch of infotainment with spin a prereq. I remember you once shrewdly referring to advertising on television as the accepted form of "magical thinking," so I assumed you'd start your analysis of the horrors of contemporary American education with a discussion of television.

Obviously, I was wrong.


Don Plummer said...

A year ago my wife and I attended our college class' 35th reunion. (She and I met during our undergraduate years; the school is a private liberal arts college once affiliated with a religious institution.) During the reunion luncheon, we heard from some of the trustees and then from the newly hired college president. We learned that he came from a business background rather than an academic one, and his talk to us was along the lines of using business and marketing strategies both to recruit new students and to retain existing ones. No mention was made of the value of a liberal arts education, once the central theme of of a liberal arts college president's comments.

I can think of no better example from my own experience to illustrate and support your claim that higher education has become an industry.

hawlkeye said...

The whole time I was growing up, I knew I was bound for college "to get a degree and thus a good job" so shaddap and drink the Kool-Aid.

And by the blessings of the gods or destiny, I attended a west coast university set upon a jewel of a campus, and did not have to go into debt to complete four years of a self-directed, liberal arts major in Environmental Studies. The place didn't even have grades at the time (1977-1981); students actually received "narrative evaluations" of their performance.

"But what are you going to do for a career when you get out?"

"I don't care; I'm learning some incredible things... it's not about the piece of paper, it's about what you KNOW..."

Small Scale Agriculture. Home Solar Design. Blacksmithing. Horticultural Curriculums in Primary Education (LifeLab, still going strong). Natural History of Everywhere. I was utterly immersed in profound learning, with neither concern nor clue as to where it would lead.

I now realize my university education was a fluke and exception to the norm as described here. I was in effect, pursuing the path of Green Wizardry all along!

In many ways, I'd sure like to re-create that amazing time for my own kids, and it's clear that won't happen by volunteering in their classrooms. More likely by taking them OUT of the classroom and re-writing the whole durn packet.

I'm glad I saved all my books, notes and hand-outs; good seeds all...

BruceH said...

The problems with our educational system began much farther back than the post-war period. In John Taylor Gatto’s” The Underground History of American Education” he traces the problems back at least another one hundred years. Here’s a few sample quotes:

“In New England and the Atlantic Colonies, where reading was especially valued, literacy was universal. The printed word was also valued in the South, where literacy was common, if not universal. In fact, it was general literacy among all classes that spurred the explosive growth of colleges in nineteenth century America, where even ordinary folks hungered for advanced forms of learning.”Page 31

“Looking back, abundant data exists from states like Connecticut and Massachusetts to show that by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100 percent wherever such things mattered. According to the Connecticut census of 1840, only one citizen out of every 579 was illiterate and you probably don’t want to know, not really, what people in those days considered literate; it’s too embarrassing.”Page 52

Actually, things have been going steadily downhill since Horace Mann took a trip to Prussian and came back to promote the idea of copying their system here in America , starting with compulsory schooling laws.

Education is a subject close to my heart. I went back to school in my mid-forties, when the US Department of Education was running TV ads to encourage more people to go into teaching due to anticipated teacher shortages in the mid-1990’s, to become “certified” as a teacher. After many interviews and no contract offers my brother-in-law, a school principal, told me the reason I wasn’t being offered a contract was because I had too many undergraduate credits (essentially two degrees in Biology and Geology) and they would have had to pay me more than someone fresh out of college with only 120credits.

Our educational system has been messed up for some time. The current system with its consolidated school districts, huge schools and reliance on the yellow bus to get kids there is physically unsustainable in an era of declining energy resources. Yet when the topic of education comes up, that simple fact is ignored. Usually when the topic of education does come up in everyday conversations it almost always mutates into a discussion about teachers and how much their paid. Any thought for the children quickly gets lost.

I am an active member of the Green Party and even their plank on education is basically indistinguishable from that of the Democrats. So I would very much appreciate somewhere down the line having you and your readers expand on what education should look like in the era of Salvage Industrialism and beyond.

Brad K. said...


The labels abstract and reflection bother me. But the concepts are very revealing. Thank you.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

As a product of higher education and one who still works in it, I go back and forth on how I feel about its role and purpose. While an undergraduate at a liberal arts college (as a computer science/geography double major), I was very much supportive of the idea of liberal arts education and broadening the mind. I went on to graduate school to get both MA and PhD degrees in geography (not computer science) in part because of this ideal.

While teaching at a similar private liberal arts college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during a time when I first began to grasp climate change (and the first inklings of peak oil, although at the time I didn't know it), my viewpoint began to shift toward the idea of more professional preparation that students should receive. The idea of needing more crafts people and people with more than book smarts only.

Working today as a registrar at a graduate school seminary, and therefore dealing with post-undergraduate students only, I've come to be even more in support of the idea of higher education being oriented primarily toward professional development of practitioners. With the economy as it is, and student-loan debt being the noose that it is and definitely will be, I believe people who do go on to post-secondary education need to make the most of that time and money. Currently to me that means practical training as making the most sense. Part of this notion I have goes all the way back to graduate school, when I began to see how esoteric much of the research that I saw going on around me seemed to be. Interesting stuff when you have the time to waste, but generally seemingly useless knowledge. And every now and then, when I think about rejoining the national academic geography society I used to belong to, I look at the indexes to their journals, and you know, nothing seems to have changed, and in fact the research for the most part seems even more esoteric and useless. I can certainly see your point about higher education being an economy of its own that needs to keep propping itself up. A lot of colleges and universities are going to be hurting when students can no longer afford to go to school.

But I am probably all wet and thinking too short term.

Orange Sky said...

Hmm. Lots to think about. I am a librarian in a small public library and I take comfort from our excellent print collection of non-fiction that supports self-sufficiency. Everything from canning and gardening to building straw bale houses is available, and fairly well used.

Recently, I had a patron come to the desk - and I assumed, from his appearance (middle-age male, factory uniform) that he would want to sign out a computer. To my shameful surprise (how could I make such assumptions) and delight, he was checking up a request for "Propaganda" by Edward Bernays. We talked a few minutes (one of the many pleasures of my job) about the documentary "The Century of the Self" and some related topics. So here is my hope - that the public library once again becomes 'the people's university' instead of the 'place for digital access and movies'.

This post gives me a good idea for election time - a display of popular books on informal logic, maybe paired with some of those ranting political screeds we get stuck buying by request.

Kirk said...

As an employee of a higher education institution, I've been thinking hard and soul-searching about this. I would offer that the fundamental educational unit is a mama grizzly and her two cubs, though one may substitute another favorite species. We home-educate our two daughters, and I expect to see more of that as the state-funded educational systems fizzle completely.
In the mean time, how do we keep higher ed even marginally relevant? Community colleges are more nimble, and can adopt curriculum changes, but classes need to fill. It's also a sad fact that credits need to transfer (for a while yet), so changes at a "lower" level are constrained by the bigger institutions which are extremely resistant to change. I hope that smaller colleges can give up the habit of following the big ones off the cliff, and break out into teaching what people really need to know. Trouble is, we may not have several months to get these changes past curriculum committees and boards of administrators!
Just looking for the right time to jump ship...

John said...

Back in the paleolithic period, when I went to school, the college I attended had a co-op program in which the eager engineeering student (me) could make just about enough during the co-op periods to pay for tuition and books in the next semester. That's how I put myself through college without debt and without leaning on my parents.

Sadly, tuition at that same institution is now several times higher that even the most highly paid co-op student could hope to earn. As a result, my son is attending a local community college which is much cheaper.

He's majoring in engineering too, but having a much harder time than I did, largely due to the poor instruction he received in math and science in elementary and high school. I'm helping him with it, but there is only so much I can do.

I encouraged him to major in engineering, not so much for the job prospects (which are still pretty good - so far), but for the knowledge he will receive about how the physical world works. If he comes away with a solid knowledge of statics, dynamics, the laws of thermodynamics and the other tools of the engineer's trade, I'll consider the money well spent regardless of his employment prospects.

GHung said...

Ouch! Trying to sort out how the education system in the US has arrived at this point always spawns one of those small back-of-the-head-aches which begs to be free to wreck the critical thinking required to even begin to understand this chicken or egg problem. Is our educational system a reflection of the overall hyper-complex system of which it is a part, or is our overall system, such as it is, a reflection of the devolution of our educational system? Scrambled eggs for breakfast this morning :-/

My stepdad was an English teacher, highschool principle, at one point acting superintendent of a major southern city school system (during the early days of racial integration, no less), eventually becoming Dean of Educational Administration, Educational Law and School Accredidation at a major southern university. Masters in English and Phylosophy; PhD, English Lit., Columbia. He also worked with the Governments of Haiti, The Dominican Republic, and Mexico, trying to help improve their educational systems. His life's work was to try and teach educators how to educate, and to create systems that permitted this. His primary obstacles were politics, complexity, and unrealistic expectations.

My mother was deeply into the mess that was early Special Education, learning how to teach the unteachable and educate those who the education system had given up on. A pioneer of Special Ed in the same large southern city's educational system, she eventually was able to transform the program in only one small primary school, going one-on-one with challenged kids. She was likely more successful at increasing the level of critical thinking in her students than the old man was in his. Her quiet techniques, repetition and patience became a model for special ed elseware.

My roles in this adventure in education varied quite a bit. My mother was constantly trying out this or that new test on me before integrating them (or not) into her program: setting a baseline, she said. I wasn't quite sure how to take that...

The old man paid me a few dollars each to pre/proofread theses and dissertations for his candidates. It was revealing how many errors I could find (I wish I knew now what I knew then. Use it or lose it, it seems.) While the constant stream of thought regarding many aspects of education was facinating (and enlightening), I thank my stars that my real dad was a natural born, and eventually trained, engineer. In no way was I going into the family business of education as several of my older sisters did.

The conclusion that both of my educator parents eventually came to was that education in this country was/is in deep trouble, and that the catchphrase "dumbing down" was itself a gross oversimplification. Standardization, 'mainstreaming', goals orientation, faux diversification, one-size-fits-all testing, mandates such as "No Child Left Behind", funding and competition, all had become the enemies of the process of actually producing adults capable of critical thinking.

The same school system in which my folks both worked, during much of their careers, is now embroiled in a scandal of changing kids' test scores to make them smarter. Go figure...

Maria said...

I've learned that if you have problem-solving skills, you don't necessarily need expertise in the issue at hand to get things moving forward. In my last job, for example, I would find the information needed to solve a complex problem with only a rudimentary understanding of the problem itself. Or I would throw out ideas until somebody with more knowledge in the area said "Hey, that might work." My superiors hated it because I (with no degree) came up with solutions far faster than they (some of them with multiple master's degrees) did. I would limit my problem-solving to my own work problems, but due to micro-management, I got on their nerves anyway.

These were the same people who circulated emails containing every conspiracty theory out there without doing a simple Snopes check of the facts.

I've been worried about my future because I had been convinced that something was fundamentally wrong with how my mind worked and I don't know how to pretend to be a linear thinker. Thank you, JMG, for restoring my faith that I can create a productive future for myself.

ruraldream said...

A thought-provoking post, as always.

One of the things I see is that the value of education, as well as the content of what is taught, is so thoroughly controlled as an enculturation device.

It seems that we (in North America) used to think that good citizens understood the structure of their government, and were able to make well-reasoned decisions, for instance, and that is what was taught in school. Now, it seems a good citizen is someone who consumes unquestioningly, and that is what is now instilled, to the point of allowing corporate advertizing in the halls and classrooms.

While I value my degree for the way it taught me how to study and learn, it has not had a huge impact on my employability. Luckily, in Canada at the time, degrees were not as onerously expensive as they are now. If a young person asked my advise today, I would direct them to vocational school or apprenticeship for employability (both short and long term), and to the library and internet for so-called higher learning. I don't believe those degrees are worth what folks have to pay for them, anymore, whereas a journeyman plumber or carpenter will have a better chance at making a reasonable living...

DennisP said...

JMG, I’ve been a reader for most of the past year, without commenting. You write well and are, if nothing else, provocative. It’s a refreshing blog.

I was a member of the university/college system for nearly all but the last 6 years of my life, going to college, graduate school, and then teaching for 30+ years in it. I think it was in my fist year of teaching, at the tail-end of the Vietnam era, when I was talking about human capital and a student stood up and declared “I am not a resource!” It rather took me aback, but years later I applauded him vigorously. Over the years I have seen the system swing ever steadily in the direction of job training while the “liberal arts” were continually deprived of resources. At my midwestern, mid-level university, natural resources and business were the two favored programs. (By the way, I taught economics.)

I can’t tell you how many times, when advising students, they would respond to my suggestions about possible course choices by asking “Will this help me get a job?” Now these were largely first-generation students coming from lower-middle class to lower-class backgrounds whose parents saw college solely as a source of job training. And we certainly had many contentious discussions among the faculty about the value of the liberal arts vs. job training. As far as many of my colleagues were concerned, they were just trade school instructors, albeit at a higher intellectual level.

Unfortunately, academics are fully as prone to fads as any group of teen-agers (read: political correctness fad over the years and academic excellence fads). And of course administrators are ever and always seeking to expand, and always to prevent the contraction of, their units. I’ve seen for decades the value of both abstraction (I’m an economist, after all) and reflection, the specific knowledge of time and place, as in farming and gardening (I have a large garden that I lovingly, sometimes scathingly, attend). But a balanced appreciation doesn’t seem to be the rule in academe: they swing from one end to the other and never should the pendulum sit in the balanced middle. And that phrasing, I know, reflects my abstract mode of thinking about the world, of wishing that we could all come together and reason our way to a win-win solution. Sort of like in Washington, D.C. right now. Hah!

DPW said...

I kept expecting to see "A Guide for The Perplexed" referenced here... Thanks to your tip a couple months back, I've been working through it and am just about done.

Schumacher's attack on materialistic scientism fits in perfectly here.

As does his four-fields of knowledge.

I recommend any of your readers to go pick it up and give it a read if they are interested in this type of stuff. I really enjoyed it.

Anyway, when it comes to MY continuing education and that of my children (if I have them some day), it will definitely be focused on self-awareness, awareness of the modes of perception (and the limits of perception), and awareness of how others see and interact with eachother (including yourself).

[That, and a little practical knowledge for the relative world ;) ]

Essentially, the three characteristics of traditional Buddhism...which just happen to show up in every other traditional wisdom teaching the world over...impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self.

Me thinks if our current leaders and citizenry had a bit more of that, we wouldn't have pushed ourselves to such a brink.

But that's not the way its gone. From the beginning...Locke, Winthrop, F'ing-Fathers...this nation has been about one thing: individual pursuit of happiness via the consumption of "things". We've been an outward oriented society from the beginning...with a few minor exceptions. The natural result is what we have here.

Better luck next time.

GHung said...

Perhaps a bit serendipitous that this should be posted today: The Corporate Education Act Becomes Law

"The first order of business after the passage of the CEA will be to close all of the existing “liberal arts” colleges in the country. As Senator Boner pointed out, the whole concept of “liberal” is passé, and “art” has nothing to do with good job performance. Instead, the CEA will ensure that all education is geared towards employment with America’s leading corporations, and graduates will have been properly trained and groomed to serve these corporate interests."

While you are over at, I recommend A Wicked Confluence:

"It’s all still phrased as a temporary down-turn; they have to call it that or fundamental questions would be asked. Even so, the most optimistic among us realize something is wildly wrong, even if they dare not give the feeling words.

We are the ones who will witness breathtaking change. Every history buff has an era they would like to have been witness to. Would anyone wish to observe our moment? Ours may be the most profound and rapid unraveling to ever color this globe."

The fringe gets a bit more crowded, day by day....

jeanette said...

Thanks so much for writing this, JMG. When I first began reading about peak oil some years back, it seemed that I couldn't stay long at any site without tripping over some discussion from 9/11 truthers or some other conspiracy du jour. In my experience, plotters are ontly intermittently successful in real life because real life throws up too many alternative scenarios to be successfully planned. A plotter might get a few wins, but most terrorists end up in jail or dead. Most planners of elaborate bank heists end up in jail or dead. The really successful people in life are opportunistic. They think on their feet and adapt to changing circumstances.

Indeed, I think the inability to deal with uncertainty is the most striking aspect of the modern mind. And the most puzzling. Even those devoted to abstraction must get into car accidents or have loved ones die unexpectedly. It's not exactly a secret that life is uncertain. I can only see the modern insistence that human life conform to a model as a form of insanity. You, though, are a voice of reason. Thanks again.

GHung said...

BTW, JMG, I hope your readers recognised my first link (above) as satire, though the second link certainly isn't.....

Kieran O'Neill said...

Regarding conspiracy theories and lack of depth in political thinking:
I think, over the past week, that the news has born that out. The budget crisis (arguably) and the tragedy in Norway (certainly) can be attributed to extreme polarisation on the political spectrum.

In fact, I think that polarisation links back to last week's resilience vs short-term returns theme. As a short-term election strategy it was extremely "efficient" to use intensely polarising advertising to gain the few middle-ground votes that make the difference. In the long term, as we are seeing now, it can make such a deep rift politically that the decision making parts of the government become paralysed.

Re: education

I'm not familiar with the abstraction/reflection dichotomy in epistemology, although it does seem to be referenced a little in the context of theories of teaching. Could you suggest some further reading explaining it in more depth?

DIYer said...

Thank you for another thought-provoking essay, JMG. Space lizards it is, then! (ha)

Seriously, this is one of the most convincing foundations to the theory of catabolic collapse. When presented with this material, many of us who have toiled away in a cubicle furthering some specialized piece of technical knowledge, most of us really, immediately think that this knowledge could never be lost. Some of it's in Wikipedia, right? The progress gods would never allow it to be lost.

But learning can be lost. When it is, the accompanying technology will be gone in a generation. And, although I'm one of those asocial nerds who never signed up for history or humanities classes, I can now see the importance of them as well. Mythology, as Joseph Campbell has pointed out, is the very backbone of human community.

Robo said...

Here in Rochester, NY, the Eastman Kodak Company was the largest local employer for most of the 20th century. Now Kodak is on the verge of extinction and the biggest employer is the University of Rochester. Their current tuition charge is $53,000 for each year of resident undergraduate study on a campus with 9700 students. Add to this the income from their large teaching hospital complex and you have some serious cash flow.

Last weekend I happened to meet several recent graduates of that University and was impressed by their energy, optimism and career focus. I was also impressed by the matter-of-fact way that several of them accepted the burden of their tuition debt.

Much like the current situation with the national debt, their chances of ever paying off this type of obligation are slim to none, given the way things are going.

So far, most of us are still pretending that a future of continued economic growth will allow the eventual discharge of these obligations. What will happen with the cash-flow of the University of Rochester and the United States when the pretending stops?

In the case of the USA, the Tea Partiers don't seem to realize that the operation of our current economic system depends on the continuous borrowing of money. By insisting on the establishment of a national debt ceiling, they are prying open the lid of Pandora's Box and hastening the demise of the very system they so fervently worship.

When that demise occurs, all those young University graduates will be left holding a very empty bag. The imagined future for which they have so arduously and expensively prepared will vanish before their eyes.

I hope they will have the time to recover from their shock and disappointment and acquire the real skills and attitudes that they will actually need.

My own experience in attempting to develop new practical skills in the face of rapid change is that the learning takes a long time and really can't be hurried. There is no iPhone 'app', Farmville icon or on-line video game magic that will substitute for putting in the years and learning from success and failure.

We need a new type of university to start the next generation on the path of learning practical skills balanced by the traditional humanities. A 'reflective' kind of institution, you might say. I suppose this cannot happen until we come to the collective admission that the old ways just don't work anymore. It also cannot happen if it costs the current equivalent of $53,000 per year to attend.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Regarding higher education becoming an industry:

Having studied (and been a teaching assistant) in South Africa and Canada, and having closely followed developments in higher education in the USA and UK, I have definitely seen this across the English-speaking world. Classes have been getting bigger, fees have been going up, and the staff to student ratio has been going down, leaving less time for teaching or evaluating critical thinking.

In South Africa and the UK, I don't think it's quite as bad yet, but in North America higher education is definitely regarded as a commodity, and universities are run as businesses. In my experience students here often come very close to having an attitude of "I'm paying good money for this degree, how dare you not give me an A for my paper?" and even good universities can feel like giant paper mills -- insert students and money in one end, get graduates and degrees out the other. What I found most disturbing was when the course coordinator for a second year level course I was TAing explained to me that, even in the most clear cut cases of plagiarism on the term paper, the most they would do would be to give the students an F. They were too scared of rich parents suing them to take the offenders through the university's official disciplinary process.

And I think some of the problem is that people do see degrees as being a gateway to better jobs, at many levels -- individual, policy maker, and, more importantly, employer. This isn't helped by a society in which entry level working class jobs pay less and less relative to the cost of living. And as undergraduate degrees become more watered down, the solution becomes more study. I'm not sure where it will end up, but this kind of positive feedback loop cannot end well.

It's also incredibly frustrating for those few of us getting degrees for the love of learning new things rather than for their value as a piece of paper. said...

In the near term I think that universities and colleges already understand that the ground model is too expensive; it's possible to reach a much wider audience with the internet and quintuple one's student population without the expense of buildings, maintenance, and utilities that go with them. Internet studies will expand far beyond what they already are, at least until the grid fails. What will happen in the middle term, when the ether based parts of the entities fail is anyone's guess.

In the long term, the idea of a university as a centralized institution where students go to learn has been with us at least since the 1500's when Cardinal Woolsey established Oxford. I think they will be with us for many centuries to come, albeit with smaller footprints, fewer professors, and an obvious cadre of wealthy patrons to support it and whose ideals will not be challenged.

divelly said...

1.My wife's brother was married to a woman who,at the age of 35 was pursuing her Women's Studies.She had never been employed as anything other than a waitress.Her goal was Professor of Women's Studies.
2.Conspiracies I follow for entertainment.Most are too complex to cohere or to remain secret for long.But explain how James Earl Ray,a semi-literate truck driver who never earned more than $50 in a week,made it to London,U.K. with a false passport and $10,000 in cash.
3.My daughter earned a degree in Biology and an M.S. in Nursing.Her first job started at $68K/yr.She now gets $80K plus OT.
4.The afformentioned brother-in-law went to a Great Books U(St.John's Annapolis0.He makes a living building timber frame multi million dollar homes.

Tully Reill said...

I found it quite interesting to see first hand the changes in our public school system over the years. My mother was in the first class of a newly opened school in Phoenix AZ in the 1950's, I attended the same school in the 1970's, and then my son was at the same school in the late 80's/early 90's. All three of us also attended the same High School.

From what my mother relayed to me, there wasn't a large deviation from the subject matters and methods that she was taught to what I was taught, but when my son was at these two schools I was continually asking him...and his teachers (some of them were there during my school years)...what were they teaching him and what was the educational purpose to most of it. IMHO, the "no child gets left behind" policy has done naught but put all children behind.

RPC said...

(Disclaimer: the following is an attempt at humor triggered by your initial post to this discussion!)

But isn't the official explanation of the events of 2001-09-11 also a conspiracy theory? And, if so, shouldn't it be relegated to the shelf with the others?

Bill said...

Nice post as always, JMG. It seems to me that the two sides of education might also reflect two sides of man's nature as well. I see man totally defined, today, by what he has rather than what he is. I bet that a return to a reflective education would foster a return to a measure of man based on personal attributes and social performance. We sorely need that to happen because man must divest itself of his need for stuff.

Robert said...

@ Rhisiart Gwilym

Suppose, just for the sake of developing an argument, that Mike Rupert’s window of opportunity has not quite closed, and that -- by some fluke -- absolutely conclusive evidence turns up that 9/11 was the work of some cabal within the federal government. Suppose, also, that perpetrators were then identified, tried, convicted and punished.

Would anything have changed afterward? Or would it still be business as usual in the District of Columbia? And would the trial and punishment of these conspirators alleviate any part of the predicament we find ourselves in these days?

I think it would not. I am confident that it would still be business as usual in D.C. The electorate would continue to reason and rationalize much as it does now, with much the same results politically. The future would continue to unfold much as it would have if the conspiracy had never been found out. Nothing would change!

So why waste time on the matter? Are there not more urgent tasks at hand?

Remember that we do not face a set of political and economic problems that might be solved (if only we could hit on the solutions). Rather, we face a predicament that must be gotten through. And getting through a predicament is a messy, inelegant process. Your satisfaction afterwards comes from sheer survival against all odds, much more than from knowing new truths about the past. You have learned “how to,” not “what.”

More generally, the Peter Principle and Murphy’s Law, taken together, make it highly unlikely that any complex, large-scale, long-lasting conspiracy can ever be successful.

Robert (mageprof)

Jonathan Blake said...

There's a lot in your post that I'm tempted to respond to, but I'll stick to just one.

Working in higher education, the sorry state of education is a frequent subject of reflection. It seems that the American education system struggles under at least one misapprehension: the idea that a diploma is a talisman that guarantees that our next generation will be competent, educated citizens who will prosper economically. We therefore seek to maximize the number of diploma holders.

In this pursuit, we've relaxed academic standards (while simultaneously making them impersonal and inflexible) and taken on the Herculean (but worthwhile) task of educating everyone. Consequently, by flooding the job markets with diploma holders, we've made it simultaneously difficult to earn a good living without a diploma and difficult to difficult to earn a good living with one. In other words, if nearly everyone has a diploma, it becomes economically meaningless.

A diploma might still be meaningful if we hadn't watered down the education that it represents. It might still be the signal of better prepared citizen. Increasingly, it isn't.

To end on a more practical note, I've heard the rule of thumb that you shouldn't borrow more for your college degree than what you expect your starting salary to be right out of college. (Of course, given the current job market, it makes you wonder what that salary would be. Minimum wage?) For undergraduate degrees, which college you attend doesn't seem to make much practical difference in your future earning power, so a prospective student should shop around for a school that charges a fair price for the degree they want.

John Michael Greer said...

Ainslie, I don't see paranoia as the dawn of knowledge but as its sunset. You don't see paranoid reasoning among kids who are just learning to think.

Bears, the best teacher I had wasn't employed in a teaching position, and though we didn't spend much time sittiing on a log, we might as well have done so.

Apple Jack, what's wrong down here is that America's empire -- the one we supposedly don't have and don't profit from -- is ending. The resulting doublebinds are driving the country stark staring nuts. I'd encourage Canada either to stay out of the empire business, or admit up front that you're in it for the usual reasons, and avoid the cant and hypocrisy that makes a straightforward discussion of how much America profits from its hegemony unthinkable down here.

Bashmu, since they depend on the survival of the internet, a hypercomplex and resource-intensive technology of the sort that's going away in the not too distant future, my take is that your proposals are actually heading in the wrong direction. Sorry.

Walker, one of the things that's harmed American education is the idea that everybody should get a diploma and go on to college. I've known a number of working class people whose education ended at eighth grade; they had a functional education, better than high school graduates have today, but nobody pretended that they were going to become intellectuals. It seemed to work.

Susan, that's an excellent point. Reflective knowledge doesn't "progress," as abstractive knowledge does -- or at least can. I think it's the attempt to make reflective knowledge fit into the abstractive model that produces a great deal of the pseudointellectual nonsense that fills so much space in universities today.

Zach, nice! That's not a piece of Lewis I've read; I'll have to look it up.

Don, the scary thing is that this reads like a Lolcat caption -- and I know people who write that way.

Draft, what you write is your own opinion, to which you're welcome. I've seen no evidence to suggest that the demonization of the other side I discussed is any less prevalent on the left than on the right.

Ozark, thank you. I'd guessed that that's a lot of what's involved, but it's useful to hear it from somebody who was into that.

wandrin wizard said...

First off, let me state that I have been a professor in the humanities for over a quarter of a century, and because I entered academe just around the time my field was becoming overcrowded, I have taught in a number of states while hoping someday for a tenure track position. So I can provide a fairly accurate "view from the trenches".

I can testify to some of what you have written. More than one dean has told me, after admitting that I rate highly with the students as a challenging professor, "Your idealism is admirable, but it's out of date. The modern university must be a business first to survive. When you focus so much on teaching your students, you aren't focusing on the fiscal priorities of the university." Giving an 'F' to a student who turned in only half the assignments is frowned upon because it might interfere with the retention of paying students for as long as possible.

However, while much of what you have written is quite valid, your comments about conspiracy theorists makes all too available an easy label to affix to anyone who disputes some of what you had written.

You wrote that there are two competing visions of education, and I can tell you from 25 years experience in academe that you are mistaken. There are three competing visions of education today: Abstraction, Reflection, and Indoctrination.

Before you label me as another one of those conspiracy nuts, take a look at the history of the notion of "loco parentis" and the writings of Dewey.

You've defined Abstraction and Reflection fairly well, so allow me to define Indoctrination as it would relate to the other two visions. Indoctrination is the view that holds that what matters is obedience -- to government, to tradition, to current norms -- and that both abstract investigation and reflective consideration are absurd, impertinent wastes of time.

Much of the difficulties in modern public schooling and higher education come from rival groups trying to utilize education for their own personal Indoctrination purposes.

Kevin said...

“we can truly know only what we make”

As an introduction to Vico's rhetorical mode of discourse, you could hardly have hit upon a happier choice in my case: for making things is what I love to do, and I find that making them does indeed appear to generate intimate knowledge of them.

The state of education in the United States today to me seems reminiscent of late imperial China, which also emphasized mindless rote testing, apparently to the eventual exclusion of any other cognitive activity. Not a good sign, methinks.

If I understand you rightly, it seems that reflective knowledge would tend to make a bigger place for the arts than the knowledge of axiomatic abstractions. For the latter has made all else subservient, and implicitly inferior, to itself, at least in its modern scientistic manifestation.

I wonder how reflective knowledge squares with the foundational philosophy of Leonardo's approach to investigating phenomena, which he consistently refers to in his notebooks as "la sperienza" - experience. Many might take this to mean something like "experiment," in the scientific sense, but I'm not sure he was operating in quite that way.

Susan said...

Here is another little bit of "reflective" knowledge that's been around for thousands of years, but which keeps needing to be re-learned by every new generation:

There really ain't no such thing as a free lunch.


"In the case of the USA, the Tea Partiers don't seem to realize that the operation of our current economic system depends on the continuous borrowing of money. By insisting on the establishment of a national debt ceiling, they are prying open the lid of Pandora's Box and hastening the demise of the very system they so fervently worship."

I'm not a member of the Taxed Enough Already Party, but I am in general agreement with their main goal of reducing the unsustainable growth of an out of control federal government. Yes, of course, the government depends on continued borrowing, just as virtually every farmer does, and most businesses do, and as most families do with car payments, mortgages, etc.

HOWEVER, at some point we (the farmers, businesses, and families) pay back those loans, or at least pay them down enough to be able to qualify for future loans at interest rates that we can afford. I suppose if I could print my own money I'd have a different attitude...

The reason the credit rating agencies are threatening to downgrade our credit rating is not because we cannot agree on raising our debt ceiling; everyone assumes (at least so far) that we will eventually come to an agreement and raise the ceiling. They are threatening a downgrade because even if we do raise the debt ceiling we'll simply be another couple trillion dollars in debt with no end in sight. What the market really wants is for us to demonstrate that we can live within our means, even if it takes years to get there.

After much debate, my husband and I finally came to an agreement to raise our family debt ceiling. We have decided to open up a new credit card account to enable us to continue making the minimum payments on all of our existing accounts, and to keep living in the style to which we have become accustomed.

Actually, we realize that we will need to open up a new credit account every year for the rest of our lives, in order to keep paying the accumulated monthly payments. Now, if we can just convince Chase and Capital One and Bank of America to actually give us these new credit cards we'll be all set...

provo said...

JMG said:

Ainslie, I don't see paranoia as the dawn of knowledge but as its sunset. You don't see paranoid reasoning among kids who are just learning to think.

I say:

But, isn't that why we call children "naive"? They believe anything authority tells them, and nothing that's too offensive.

Until I was in my 40's, I wouldn't even consider anything I felt would lead me into a "negative" worldview.

Now, there's nothing too negative for me to (at least) consider.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's an on-line academy which claims success in meeting student demands for good quality academic education in economics.They say they have mostly mature, intelligent and motivated students.

I suppose this is a lot cheaper than the amounts mentioned by other people. It seems an adaptation to changing circumstances. No petrol needed; but when the internet goes down and electricity is no longer available, further adaptation will be required. Medieval universities started with students sitting around a lecturer, and may go back to that. Of course, they were not trying to replace apprenticeships. Economic stringency may once again separate the hamburger flippers from the philosophers.

sekenre said...

JMG, what a wonderful article, thanks so much. This tallies very well with my own experiences. My parents dropped out of college in the 70's out of frustration with the lack of spiritual meaning in their studies. I also dropped out from University in the UK and have found that as a self taught Computer Scientist I am far more employable than my 'qualified' colleagues simply because I worked my way up from the lowest possible level and gained a lot of experience along the way.

My brother has a degree in Biochem/Oceanography and has not found employment in the 5 years since because it is an ordinary degree and not an Honours. He is going back to school to learn something more vocational.

On the subject of the decay of education, you may be interested in the following article by Dr Mark Tarver, an ex computer science professor in the uk: Why I am Not a Professor

On the subject of abstraction and reflection, I would recommend the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid which explores the emergence of intelligence by reflecting on abstraction and abstracting reflection! It's a very rewarding book if you enjoy puzzles.


Draft said...

JMG: It seems categorizing something measurable as opinion is weird. To wit, Nate Silver, not one to make such arguments without an understanding of the data, made exactly the same argument as I did above that conspiracy-mongering was far greater among the GOP. It would be nice for someone to do a detailed study of this...maybe some poor political science graduate student has examined every cable news appearance during 2009-2010 vs. 2001-2002 to produce the hard numbers. Anyway my point is that false balance is unhelpful (and is among the many problems with journalism).

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Well, I dropped out of Antioch College (which I hope to see reorganized in a more sustainable, er, resilient, form:) because I realized I could do what was going on at the campus just as easily in a space of my own. Without having to live in dorms, which I hated for my own personal resasons. I did work at the College Library and now I work at a Public Library. Working at a library has been the best education I could give myself for the past 11 years I've been with the Public Library. (I'm also very interested in the Sheneset Project in this regard.) I find that my readings in all manner of subjects have given me a better education... and I was able to pay off the debt from going to school for just a year and half, by getting a job straight away instead.

And now my wife and I have an older home, which we hope to get paid off as quickly as possible. Meanwhile many of my co-workers with college educations (who still can't ascend to a "higher" position than shelver, which is my position) are saddled with debts and regrets. Meanwhile I've somehow managed to forge my own path, having a show on the local community radio staion (it doesn't pay but offers greater rewards), and pursue my writing. I don't expect to get rich from writing in a time of resource depletion. My family has already learned to live with less, and we still have plenty to cut, while the Green Wizardry program, home economics and permaculture to work.

Libraries will definitely play a role in the future of education. If any of you are in the Seattle area on the weekend of December 10th & 11th please come see my talk on the "Library Angel & It's Oracle" at the Esoteric Book Conference.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Not so harsh, in my estimation. ;)

As I tell my students,"any fool can have an opinion, but it takes reason and factual evidence to make it a worthwhile opinion."

I like the abstraction/reflection swing, but of course I always want to make any swing be more like the taoist folding/unfolding of yin and yang, so that abstraction and reflection influence each other and contain the seeds of the other even as one appears to hold sway.

I also notice there's some other dichotomizing going on among the comments here: college for "useful" disciplines or college for academic subjects?

Your last question about what will happen to higher ed is something I think about often--I believe that advanced courses of study, whether abstract or reflective, require structure and formality of some sort. Many subjects can't be just picked up, but require experts to guide the students, a place to do the learning in, and time to learn what needs to be learned. (Of course this does not really describe large portions of the university system.)

Just today I found out that I will likely receive a small stipend next academic year to conduct workshops for other faculty members.

The workshops are to be about greening the curriculum--taking full account of peak oil, climate change, etc., and challenging participants to change their curricula to reflect these realities, so as to help our students be able to adapt to our descending future. Of course the sponsoring college consortium calls it "our sustainable future" and says we're preparing our students for green jobs--but the people involved are very clear-eyed about what we face. Community colleges throughout Illinois are engaged in this project.

All comments most interesting, as always.

Beren Khagan said...

My view, on the degradation of education in America, is this is the playing out of Joseph Tainters theory of societies solving their problems by increasing complexity.As complexity has increased over the past sixty years due to industrialisation and its social, economic, environmental, and political side effects, there has been an increased need for more and more capable "administrators" to manage the system. This is particularly the case in its most complex area, the corporate sector, especially finance. The demand for more highly educated "administrators" has had a large part in driving higher education expansion, as well as emphasising job training over the humanities, e.g. MBAs instead of the Classics. We are now probably witnessing the diminishing returns on the hyper complexity constructed to keep the corporate sector upright, and can expect to see higher education contract to the point where what it provides is useful to society again. P.S. most British Colonial administrators had a good grounding in the Classics with there reflective values, much more useful than abstractive ones when dealing with strange new societies!

Richard Larson said...

Ah. Very satisfying.

Mokey44 said...


Long time reader, first time poster. Thanks for articulating what I've come to believe from my own studies- that abstraction has replaced any real understanding of how nature works and how we can work in concert with it.

Dr. Temple Grandin discusses this as well in her books "Animals in Translation-Using the Mysteries of Autism to decode Animal Behavior" and "Animals Make Us Human" (which BTW contain a lot of great information on training techniques for animals for those who are interested.) Grandin refers to this process as 'abstractification', where us regular folks get so caught up in words that we lose the ability to observe. She discusses her astonishment when she gives her students an assignment to complete where they have to figure out how to catch a 10 foot daddy longlegs and bring it back to a lab using ONLY equipment that exists in the real world. Through an exercise like this she ends up having to teach them what kinds of information they would need to know before even arriving at a possible answer. She has to basically spoonfeed them the right QUESTIONS.

She seems to have an ability to think in pictures unlike those of us with a 'voice in our head', and is actually able to detect real world flaws in just about any piece of equipment (or system) before it's EVEN BUILT. Her impressive accomplishments as a result of these processes bear this out.

As someone who works with infants and toddlers with a myriad of disabilities that include autism, I've come to wonder if Nature, by producing more autistic people than ever who seem to have difficulty living in the world as WE'VE made it, has created an evolutionary response to our own over-abstracitification? I'd be curious as to yours and others thoughts on this.


John Michael Greer said...

Sofistek, it's one thing to use words like "evil" and "wicked," it's another to apply them over and over again to the people one doesn't like as a substitute for reasoning. It's the latter to which I object.

Cathy, memorization is hugely underrated -- in the Renaissance, the standard idea is that you can't think until you have something in your mind to think with, and the way that people these days so often can't think outside of the box defined by current popular culture offers some evidence for this. As for schools being ready for peak oil, it's good that they're teaching gardening, but so many other aspects of the system are unsustainable that that's kind of a drop in the bucket.

Les, thank you, but it doesn't take that much time to moderate, and I prefer to keep things in my own hands.

Kate, exactly. You get a gold star.

Joe, excellent! Yes, I'm very familiar with the trivium; the kind of occult education I got involved quite a bit of study of the quadrivium, and that led me to look into the whole structure of medieval learning -- which has much to recommend it.

The trivium is actually as relevant to reflective as to abstractive learning, though; remember that the standard way to learn grammar was through close study of classic literary texts such as the Aeneid, and rhetoric is a core element of reflective education, as it focuses on specific situations and contexts, and on addressing the whole person rather than sticking to the realm of formal logic. Keep me posted on how the project goes!

R.E., that may be so -- but you might want to learn how to shut off the All Caps button on your keyboard, since shouting doesn't improve your message any.

Das Monde, you're welcome to post -- my comment last week was simply a reminder that what I choose to post doesn't depend on your approval!

Permapoesis, thank you!

Jason, I'm also more than a little of an autodidact; despite having attended public school and university, I got most of my education elsewhere, and much of it myself. That's very often the best approach, though it has its limits.

Rhisiart, I looked into the whole 9/11 business in some detail a while back. You're right that conspiracies do take place, but I found this one implausible at best. I'm not simply dismissing it out of hand; I've done the reading, and it didn't convince me. 'Nuf said.

Pangolin, I remember the same claims being circulated back in the Seventies, and didn't find them plausible then, either. It's also worth pointing out that the whole economic structure of global wage arbitrage, robotics, etc. is only possible in an age of cheap abundant energy, and that's ending in a hurry.

Tony, hang on to that science training! There's going to be a massive need for people outside the institutions who can use the experimental method; you may be one of them, and may teach more.

sofistek said...

it's one thing to use words like "evil" and "wicked," it's another to apply them over and over again to the people one doesn't like as a substitute for reasoning. It's the latter to which I object.

I agree, JMG. I just hope that people don't dismiss the work of a blogger simply because he/she has used the words "wicked" and "evil" a few times. I've read such bloggers but the ones that stand out are those who also include the reasoning.

Ouromboros said...

wandrin wizard: I think you hit the nail on the head here in many respects.

I am a high school English teacher in the public school system of a small city with not much in the way of industry or business. Most of the quarries that made the place exist closed up decades ago.

Education is the servant of many masters, the soup with too many cooks. It is no wonder that it is a mess today. On one hand, universal education gets children and young adults out of the workforce, so that they won't seriously compete with adult populations. On another hand, education is supposed to prepare our young people for citizenship in our republic. Then there are fools like me who actually try to teach something now and again. I'm not even going to try to sort out the political push-me-pull-you and its effects in the classroom.

Human beings are inherently lazy. We do not want to work any harder than we think we must (to get what we WANT.) Perhaps it is wisdom: conservation of energy? So how do we teach those that have no desire to learn? (Teenagers already know everything important, no?)

My father has often talked about tricking students into learning. (He was also a public high school teacher, now retired.) Make students think that they're being entertained, and they'll be surprised how much they learn. This may have been my father's trick, or perhaps his ideal, but it never quite clicked for me.

I believe that the most valuable thing that a human being can learn is how to teach one's self. Few of us, however, are natural autodidacts. I try to construct my classroom in such a way that I create opportunities for my students to teach themselves. Activities that are not too easy and invite a mental checking-out, but yet are not so difficult that cheating becomes rampant. (Once again, human beings will only work as hard as they think they must. If actually completing the assignment is marginally easier than cheating, most won't cheat. If cheating becomes much easier than actually working on the assignment... oh well, we all fail again.)

There is one thing, however, that can make a human being work when one needn't, and that is passion. I have a passion for myth and story and fantastical tale telling. Passion is like fire, a fire in the belly. This fire can kindle other fires; some fires start spontaneously. There are also fires of art in the hands, heart, and head to fuel acts of creativity. This is my wild card as an educator.

With my carefully crafted classroom activities, I try to reach every student. I try to provide them the opportunity to learn, to hear what I have to say, to read what men and women have written, and to teach themselves. With my storytelling and love for literature, I hope to reach some students, to kindle a fire in them for whatever their driving passion will be.

The public high school can be a soul-crushing place. It can also be a forge of character and aspiration. I am only a little cog in the machine, but I am a cog with direct contact with the product. I hope that the product that I have had contact with is a bit more self-reliant than before, maybe even due to my influence. I am not self-delusional. I won't make a huge difference in the life of every student, but I might make a small and good difference in some lives and hopefully make one or two lives markedly better in the course of my career... just be being myself and trying to spark or feed some fires.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, this is one of the reasons I spoke specifically about the US -- the rest of the world has its own trajectories to follow, and they'll likely be very different from ours, here as elsewhere.

BC, sometimes you get lucky!

Mustard, Jim Kunstler's becoming one of the most distinguished angry young men of his generation. ;-)

Quos Ego, I haven't tackled Baudrillard yet -- he's on the list. I'll have to move him up a few notches.

Jhughston, that's a tall order. Much of what I've discussed here comes out of a flurry of scholary works from some years back on the writings of Giambattista Vico -- you might check out Ernesto Grassi's Rhetoric as Philosophy: The Humanist Tradition for starters -- and from the metaphysical chapter at the beginning of volume 2 of Spengler's The Decline of the West. The terms "abstraction" and "reflection" are my own coinage in this context, so that won't help much.

Phil, I haven't read Klein's book, so can't comment on it usefully.

Lizzy, good. "Laws of nature" is a metaphor -- did somebody pass those laws? Who are the police that enforce them? All the things we call "laws of nature" are simply mental models we come up with to more or less predict what nature will do most of the time -- nothing more than that.

Raven, I'm quite sure we're ten to fifty years from another civil war here. The last time partisan hatreds were this extreme and intractable in the US was in the run-up to 1860.

Thijs, yes, fundamentalists homeschool, but so do a lot of other people, and what fundamentalists delete from their curriculum is arguably no worse than what the public schools delete from theirs. As for Atlantis, well, yes -- hadn't you realized that? 11,500 years from now, there will be distinguished scientists who scoff at the legends that there was once an ancient society that put men on the Moon... ;-)

Stephen, er, and how do you propose to do that?

Jason, the name is spelled in more than one way. As for your question, a case could be made for that, yes.

Yupped, the overwhelming sense of entitlement possessed by so many young people today is not going to make life easy for them. I hope your kids have learned that the only self-esteem that matters is the kind that's earned.

John Michael Greer said...

Texas, they'll keep the sports teams going even after the campuses are shut down. Not that it's a good thing, but the attitude shown by university administrations is pretty clear.

Twilight, of course people conspire now and again. That doesn't justify the paranoiac fixation of so many people these days on claims that their political opponents are busy with some monstrously evil plot to enslave humanity, or what have you. Real conspiracies, like real secret societies, are strategies born of weakness rather than strength; you conspire when you can't simply act, or think you can't.

Planner, the terms are my own, though the concepts are based on quite a range of earlier analyses -- the scholarship on Vico I mentioned earlier is a good place to start.

Houyhnhnm, er, if I said that I was going to discuss the petroleum industry would you expect me to post something about vegetable oil? No, the education industry is the industry that claims to produce and sell education -- that is to say, the colleges and universities. Television isn't something I'm qualified to talk about, as I haven't watched it in my adult life, and don't propose to start now.

Don, that's sad. I hope you won't be contributing to the alumni fund drive, and will send a letter explaining why.

Hawlkeye, where did you go to college? It sounds remarkably like where I did my first three years, Fairhaven College, in Bellingham, WA.

Bruce, granted, the current mess has been a long time coming. As for a discussion of education, that's very nearly a book in its own right, one that I may just write one of these days.

Brad, then by all means come up with labels you like better!

Kevin, there's a place for schools that exist to produce highly trained professionals. Most Americans don't need that kind of training, though, and it would be nice if we had some of the other kind of schools, charging much less exorbitant tuition.

Orange Sky, that would be a great display -- please do it!

Kirk, my guess is that the institutions, small and large, are locked into the run off the cliff at this point; potential students demand degrees they think will make them money, so schools have to cater to that; costs are soaring, so tuition is soaring, and the loan sharks are always ready to offer such easy terms; etc. So it's a matter of figuring out what to do when, or before, the crash comes.

John, an engineer's skills are likely to do your son a lot of good, so long as he learns how to use them in the real world. Given that, he should be fine.

John Michael Greer said...

Ghung, figuring out what causes what is always a challenging thing in social issues, and often impossible. Thus my main concern is where to go from here.

Maria, if you've got the smarts to check emailed factoids against Snopes, and to realize that problem solving is often done better by people who aren't enmeshed in the expectations that created the problem, you'll do fine.

Ruraldream, that would be my advice. If I was graduating from high school this year, I wouldn't even think of going to college; I'd be looking for an apprenticeship program that would get me trained in a useful trade, and pursue philosophy, literature, et al. in my spare time.

Dennis, thanks for the feedback! I know that what's happened to higher education is as much a function of demand from students as anything; in a contracting economy -- and we've had one of those since the Seventies, if you leave out the top 20% -- the pressure to find a way to earn a good living is a massive force. The question then becomes how to save the humanities, now that the institutions that once supported them are failing to do so.

DPW, Schumacher's always worth reading, though my work is going in other directions right now.

Ghung, funny. Keeping satire separate from the screeds of true believers is a bit challenging these days.

Jeannette, thank you! You get today's second gold star, for sheer realism. I suspect it's exactly the modern intolerance for uncertainty that drives so many people to seek out conspiratorial explanations for so many things.

Kieran, for there to be further reading, I'll have to write it -- though you can check out the sources I referenced earlier on.

DIYer, exactly. That's one of the main factors in the collapse of every civilization.

Robo, exactly. The question becomes how to teach what has to be taught when you don't have millions of dollars to throw around.

Kieran, I'm glad to hear it's not quite so bad elsewhere.

Tinfoil, the university goes back well before that; it's a medieval invention, and used to be a co-op of students who hired teachers to teach them. Don't assume the current form will be around indefinitely, either -- it's remarkable how quickly overaged forms can implode when their funding goes away.

Petro said...

@BruceH - Gatto's book is the first thing that jumped into my mind when reading this post as well. I wonder whether his thesis, which does posit a rather strong top-down configuration of modern education, is of the same character as that which draws JMG's "unsympathetic comments."

(Oh sorry, JMG - didn't see you standing there...)


Robert said...

JMG wrote:

". . . the university goes back well before that; it's a medieval invention, and used to be a co-op of students who hired teachers to teach them."

Three of the very oldest Medieval universities were at Oxford, Paris and Bologna. Unless memory has betrayed me, the university at Bologna was a collective of students. This collective owned the university, and hired (or fired) whatever teachers they wished. At Oxford, the collective that owned the university was formed of teachers, not students. At Paris, the university was a creation and legal "creature" of the Bishop of Paris, just like the cathedral schools of earlier centuries. (The fourth early university in the West was the school of medicine at Salerno, but I'm not sure how it was organized at first.)

So there are at least three venerable models for whatever may replace our present universities, after they have collapsed from energy costs and being overextended.

And of course there are other goo possibilities as well as these three ancient ones.

Robert (mageprof)

beneaththesurface said...

A wonderful, thought-provoking post!

I have always loved learning, and generally performed well in school, but yet have always been critical of the educational industry.

I think one reason I really struggled to fit into the academic culture was because I was a generalist thinker. I tend to be good at many fields and skills and can make connections between seemingly unrelated things, but I have trouble focusing solely on a narrow specialized field without my mind wandering off. Sometimes that wandering off (also called daydreaming) can be a great creative source and not something that is good to always tame the way the educational system often does. I actually think daydreaming is something that our education should value and channel. So much of creative work originates from having idle time and permission to daydream.

When I went to college, I considered majoring in about twenty different subjects before I decided to study anthropology. Anthropology seemed to be more interdisciplinary, being both a science and in the humanities, and it made me look at my own life from many other angles I hadn’t before. Plus, I had lots of space in my schedule to take many classes in other departments, so every semester, I pretty much looked through the course catalog and picked the most interesting classes—perfect for my generalist self. Still, by the time I graduated, I saw how even a field like anthropology was becoming so highly specialized just like any other field, and while I really appreciated the generalized knowledge I gained through my undergraduate work, I could not see myself going on to graduate school in it, despite my professors’ telling me that I should continue on.

I remember sitting during my college graduation ceremony skimming through the titles of all the theses of those getting their Masters or Phd’s. The research topic for every thesis was so obscure and specialized, regardless of the field. I could not imagine myself going on in graduate school and spending several years focusing in such a narrow area. I’m not saying that any specialist knowledge isn’t worth pursuing by some people, but I think the healthy balance between specialist vs. generalist studies is way off.

The scientists, artists, thinkers and others I really admire the most are generalists (I consider you to fall in this category). They have knowledge in lots of fields and are able to synthesize things in creative ways. And oftentimes and not surprisingly, significant periods of their work and study happened outside the academic world. I don’t know how to seriously reverse the trend in academia of increasing specialization except let it collapse on its on weight. (I recently finished Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies and specifically have been reflecting on how his ideas related to the educational industry.)

I am at heart a generalist—I like to be knowledgeable about many fields, I like having both artistic and scientific skills, to be engaged in both intellectual work and manual work. Sometimes I tell myself I should finally focus on some one career path to the exclusion of all else, but I know that isn’t me. And I’ve come to think that having multiple skills and not being stuck in just one career track makes me more resilient in a post-peak world.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...


It looks like my comments have been relegated to the troll pile. That's okay, you still have important things to say. I just have comments on your ideas.

Don't be afraid to test your ideas on the forge of discensus.

Make one cogent argument that JIT has not been an economic disaster, just like every other bone headed idea brought forward to make US industry more 'efficient'. It has not worked for our economy nor the people who actually work for a living. Productivity gains in agriculture have gutted small towns across rural America.

Why is it that the University of Minnesota can not afford to keep a decent roof on their buildings but they can always find money for (two) new sports stadia ?! Not 1 in 100 college sports stars (remember we are talking about the Gophers) make a living at it after they 'graduate'.

Why have nearly all Americans have checked from thinking about the issues that seriously affect their everyday lives ? Is it possible to re-engage them, to break through their focus on sports and Dancing With the Stars ? If not, will a handful of Green Wizards make a bit of difference ?


Kieran O'Neill said...

I'm not sure that everything you're saying about abstraction vs reflection feels quite right to me.

Firstly, I'm not sure that the two are quite as in opposition as you've painted them to be. As others have already noted in the comment thread, the practice of many fields requires the use of both. An engineer works with the abstraction of Newtonian mechanics, but the design of a bridge requires deep thought, imagination and intuition. Likewise, a scientist has to pause for reflection to work out how the results of an experiment fit into the existing abstractions, and how they could best test the hypotheses their reflection produces. Even in the humanities, most reflective of all disciplines, frameworks to abstract everything from literature to history to the human mind abound.

I have other reservations, but I think I'll keep them for next week when you've developed the idea more clearly.

John Michael Greer said...

Divelly, some people conspire. Other people obsess about conspiracies, and build their universes around them. The two things don't have much to do with one another.

Tully, that's a fascinating retrospective.

RPC, actually, that works for me. Certainly some people have become just as obsessive about evil Muslim terrorists as others have become about evil Republican neocons!

Bill, that's a good point. It's by no means certain that a reflective education would lead people to question their habit of investing their sense of self-worth in how much cheap consumer garbage they own, but it's worth a try.

Jonathan, it's a good rule of thumb, but it's impossible to get even an undergraduate education for the amount of money any entry level job will pay for the first year, so it's a bit difficult to put into practice.

Wizard, my only disagreement with your claim is that I don't consider indoctrination to be a form of education. In most senses, it's the opposite of education, just as it results in the opposite of thought.

Kevin, good! Leonardo was in fact a very good example of the results of a reflective education, the standard form in Italy in his time; more generally, the meaning of the phrase "Renaissance man" has more than a little to do with the kind of education on offer during that particular period.

Susan, that's an abstract generalization that's worth its weight in gold -- yes, even at current prices.

Provo, the fact that drowning is bad doesn't make dying of thirst good. In the same sense, there's something between naivete and paranoia that's better than either one.

Raven, those students sitting around a lecturer make a good model for effective education. Might be worth keeping in mind.

Sekenre, I read Godel, Escher, Bach when it first came out -- a very lively and thoughtful book, especially helpful in that I disagreed with quite a few of the author's arguments. Thank you for the article link and the reminiscences!

Draft, of course you can specify one particular pair of beliefs out of a galaxy of possibilities, choose a specific sample population out of the many options, and come up with figures to support a claim that it's all the other side's fault. So? I heard just as many Dems insist that Dubya was about to launch a fascist coup as I hear Republicans these days insist that Obama is about to do the same thing -- and I got roughly equal numbers of comments from both sides here. Inconvenient as the balance is, it's not false.

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, excellent! Libraries are my idea of Valhalla, anyway; the public library was the one refuge I had from a generally wretched childhood, and I routinely spend an hour each way on public transit to get to the nearest university library to spend some hours of research time and haul home a stack of books as heavy as I can carry. If there's anything you can do to help your own library weather the approaching mess, that would be great.

Adrian, congrats on the stipend! That's excellent news. You're right, of course, that some subjects need to be studied with people who already know them inside and out; the question is how to arrange for this in a way that doesn't have such a high overhead.

Beren, it's interesting to note that those societies that historically had the best administered governmental systems -- ancient Rome, imperial China, imperial Britain, and more -- all trained their staff by reflective rather than abstractive systems of education. A point worth, er, reflecting on...

Mokey, well, as someone with Aspergers syndrome, I have an odd perspective on this; unlike many people on the autism spectrum, I think entirely in spoken language, and so Grandin's gifts are as unfamiliar to me as they are to neurotypical people, if not more so. All the autism spectrum disorders seem to involve a narrowing and therefore an intensifying of the range of things the mind can do, with reading of social cues one of the things that usually doesn't make the cut! As for why autism spectrum disorders are so common now, good question; it's certainly suggestive that we're getting an increased diversity in neurology just when radically new thinking is going to be most desperately needed.

Sofistek, fair enough. I just get tired of radical moral dualism, I suppose.

Robert, thanks for the correction!

Beneath, my degree is in comparative history of ideas, which is about as generalist a program as I could find. (It was actually a degree in Renaissance occult philosophy, but neither my profs nor anyone else got told that, and I don't think anyone paid attention to the focus of my research projects.) That sort of broad sense of the overall shape of knowledge is going to be crucial as we get further down the curve, even though it doesn't necessarily pay the bills.

Greg, no, your post got deleted because it contained profanity. I've had to delete around half a dozen posts for that reason today. Not sure why this topic gets people spluttering obscenities, or simply letting them slip in, but some time ago I stopped pointing that issue out to people, and just started hitting the delete button -- there are, after all, only so many hours in a day.

John Michael Greer said...

Kieran, er, where did you get the idea that I said the two modes of thought and learning are incompatible with one another? Different historical periods tend to privilege one or the other, but it's a pendulum swing, not a switch thrown one way or the other. Of course both operations are essential for deep thought; that's why it's useful to highlight one at a time when the other has been overstressed, as abstraction has been nowadays.

spottedwolf said...

John...I've decided to link your articles to my FB page....

Brad K. said...


You said, "Brad, then by all means come up with labels you like better!"

Yes, I recognize my shortcoming, that I didn't suggest an alternative label that might be more meaningful to me when I hesitated over yours. I was aware of that at the time.

I have read the post again, and parts several times. I find that I recognize the validity of your observation, that there are two ends of a spectrum from abstraction to reflection. That is profound, to me, and I am grateful for your insight.

I am still working, though, on understanding the nature of abstraction and reflection. That is the source of my unease about the labels and whether they are aptly applied. My hesitation is over my inner struggle.

Your observation that government funding has disoriented higher education seems worthy of immediate action.

I have abhorred consolidating school districts because they slough off an intolerable energy (transportation) burden on the community. I hadn't considered that they also isolate a teacher from meaningful parental criticism over whether the student learns to read, or do arithmetic, or learns grammar or phonics.

galacticsurfer said...

The Colloquy of Monos and Una

by Edgar Allan Poe

One word first, my Una, in regard to man's general condition at this epoch. You will remember that one or two of the wise among our forefathers- wise in fact, although not in the world's esteem- had ventured to doubt the propriety of the term "improvement," as applied to the progress of our civilization. There were periods in each of the five or six centuries immediately preceding our dissolution, when arose some vigorous intellect, boldly contending for those principles whose truth appears now, to our disenfranchised reason, so utterly obvious- principles which should have taught our race to submit to the guidance of the natural laws, rather than attempt their control. At long intervals some master-minds appeared, looking upon each advance in practical science as a retro-gradation in the true utility. Occasionally the poetic intellect- that intellect which we now feel to have been the most exalted of all- since those truths which to us were of the most enduring importance could only be reached by that analogy which speaks in proof-tones to the imagination alone, and to the unaided reason bears no weight- occasionally did this poetic intellect proceed a step farther in the evolving of the vague idea of the philosophic, and find in the mystic parable that tells of the tree of knowledge, and of its forbidden fruit, death-producing, a distinct intimation that knowledge was not meet for man in the infant condition of his soul. And these men, the poets, living and perishing amid the scorn of the "utilitarians"- or rough pedants, who arrogated to themselves a title which could have been properly applied only to the scorned- these men, the poets, ponder piningly, yet not unwisely, upon the ancient days when our wants were not more simple than our enjoyments were keen- days when mirth was a word unknown, so solemnly deep-toned was happiness- holy, august and blissful days, when blue rivers ran undammed, between hills unhewn, into far forest solitudes, primeval, odorous, and unexplored.
Yet these noble exceptions from the general misrule served but to strengthen it by opposition. Alas! we had fallen upon the most evil of all our evil days. The great "movement"- that was the cant term- went on: a diseased commotion, moral and physical. Art- the Arts- arose supreme, and, once enthroned, cast chains upon the intellect which had elevated them to power. Man, because he could not but acknowledge the majesty of Nature, fell into childish exultation at his acquired and still increasing dominion over her elements. Even while he stalked a God in his own fancy, an infantine imbecility came over him. As might be supposed from the origin of his disorder, he grew infected with system, and with abstraction. He enwrapped himself in generalities. Among other odd ideas, that of universal equality gained ground; and in the face of analogy and of God- in despite of the loud warning voice of the laws of gradation so visibly pervading all things in Earth and Heaven- wild attempts at an omni-prevalent Democracy were made. Yet this evil sprang necessarily from the leading evil- Knowledge. Man could not both know and succumb. Meantime huge smoking cities arose, innumerable. Green leaves shrank before the hot breath of furnaces. The fair face of Nature was deformed as with the ravages of some loathsome disease. And methinks, sweet Una, even our slumbering sense of the forced and of the farfetched might have arrested us here. But now it appears that we had worked out our own destruction in the perversion of our taste, or rather in the blind neglect of its culture in the schools. For, in truth, it was at this crisis that taste alone- that faculty which, holding a middle position between the pure intellect and the moral sense, could never safely have been disregarded- it was now that taste alone could have led us gently back to Beauty, to Nature, and to Life.

Jonathan Blake said...

I know that generally speaking a college education is expensive (and only getting more so), but I work for public university where the cost for 5 years (including on-campus room and board) is about $90,000. There are lots of ways to avoid going in to debt for the full amount.

There's hope that it may get better. Given what the demand curve is doing these days, universities will probably need to reduce tuition eventually.

Draft said...

Draft, of course you can specify one particular pair of beliefs out of a galaxy of possibilities, choose a specific sample population out of the many options, and come up with figures to support a claim that it's all the other side's fault.

Okay, I suppose I should give up on this back and forth, but you're responding to a straw-man rather than the point. I didn't specify the pair of example conspiracies. You did. And my point was that there's a difference between random people expressing belief in said conspiracies and elected officials doing so on national television, and that no, elected officials on both sides do not do so in equal measure.

Thijs Goverde said...

Mr Greer - of course I'd already realised the Atlantean thing. Wrote a book about it, actually.
I was merely taking issue with your contention that In ages when reflection predominates, the sciences tend to be preserved and transmitted to the future along with the humanities.
Not this time around, I guess. Oh, snippets here and there, no doubt. But the snippets will fail to cohere.
(For a nice fiction of science turning into mythology, you might like Terry Prachtett's 'Nation'. Not a discworld book, and consequently one of his best).

As for the fundamentalists - they're not deleting things from the curriculum. There's another word for what they're doing, but it's not a nice word so I'm not using it here.
To compare: When I teach my kids the moon is made of blue cheese, I'm not deleting anything from the curriculum. I am, however, following the great literary tradition of the Baron Munchausen.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all,

Politicians generally talk nonsense.

I read today about the continuing wrangling between Democrats and Republicans about the US debt ceiling. There was also a quote from Nouriel Roubini (the economist Dr. Doom):

"Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18x, Bush 7x by 4 trillion. Now Republicans pretend to be born-again debt virgins when they fed the beast."

Get it together people - rhetoric makes for entertaining press and that's about it. The blame game also goes along way towards absolving responsibility for the mess that you find yourself in.

PS: The US defaulted on some interest payments for government bonds back in 1979.

PPS: Every parent thinks their kids are gifted - stop boring us all.



Cherokee Organics said...


I don't wish to be harsh, but most commenters here are displaying their values and concerns.

The alternative is to look forward. All I see to replace the status quo is the guild system. This is not to say that there are no better approaches, but in a stable state none leap to mind and no one seems to be offering alternatives.

I have trained many people over the years and am always heartened when understanding blooms. There is beauty in that. Wisdom can't be taught, it can only be experienced and only then is it truly understood. An education doesn't need to look like it does today, but it is a valuable thing nonetheless and not to be lightly dismissed or undervalued. Education, energy and infrastructure is all that separates the first world from the third world.

The risk in home-schooling is that the deficiencies in the parents become the defects in the children. It is a trap that is difficult to escape. I'm not saying that home-schooling is a bad thing, it's just that there is inherent risk in it.



Don Plummer said...

@Adrian--that's amazingly good news! It's gratifying to know that some people in the academic world "get it" about our culture's predicament.

One of the schools where I teach is also "greening" its curriculum by including degree programs in alternative energy. I've also heard rumors of a plan to begin offering a degree in organic agriculture. But I haven't heard anyone tie these plans to the realities of peak energy and climate change.

Unknown said...

I used to just read this post on the Energy Bulletin - I am amazed at what I can learn from reading the comments of others regarding the post. Needless to say, I'll be reading it here going forward.

Having been in business for over 25 years, I have noticed that mgt focus on "What can be measured can be managed". I wondered at such hubris, and from whence it came - should have figured business academia was behind it. Where I work is also a current victim of this thinking. I often despair for our existence as a species. The reason I keep reading JMG is that among his writings, and, those who comment, I often find hope.

Jason said...

I agree with Quos Ego that the 'report itself is very inspiring on the question of classical training. Working trivium-style, Kreeft's Socratic Logic makes very sound points about a humanistic logic, as opposed to the modern analytic and symbolic approach. The best trad. logic text I think, very very good fun and rigorous. The first use to which many will likely put it is the refutation of the author's Catholic viewpoint.

Another one, if anyone would like to learn Greek I recommend Beetham's Learning Greek with Plato which teaches by reference to the Meno, half of which you translate as you go. By the end you can work with a text and apparatus on anything, so it's a great intro.

My first spiritual teacher was a martial artist who recommended the study of rhetoric as martial arts by other means! (Glenn Morris.) He also recommended that one cross-index the classical versions with the modern psychologies of persuasion, but he was sensible enough to know that without a more historical perspective you didn't get anything usable out of it.

If you want a really big modern spin on rhetoric Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca produced a big meaty work. As with so much that seeks to re-root modernity, it reached back to Aristotle. Another one to do that very successfully is the extremely readable Alasdair MacIntyre who has a satisfyingly historical take on the subject of ethics.

On young people's sense of entitlement, I think people will enjoy this short song by comedian Bill Bailey.

Sorry to bring up Plato again, but since we're talking about how far back universities go, what about the Academy?

Those who think JMG is not serious about having researched conspiracies should look at his bibliography, which includes an entire encyclopedia of secret societies.

I'll be interested to check out the book by Grassi.

Yupped said...

Was fascinated by your brief note on Aspergers. Our youngest daughter seems to have a low spectrum Aspergers syndrome. We are interested in getting her assessed, so that we can understand it better, but are a shy of getting her entwined in the traditional health complex, since we've had problems with other of our kids being put in rigid buckets, depending on the expertise of the specialist. Our son, for example, is somewhat dyslexic and we had all kinds of specialists tell us all kinds of stuff, until we just settled on the fact that he doesn't like to read that much, is much more tactile and intuitive that intellectual, and loves being in the outdoors. Once we were able to see the positive aspects of it we were able to be, well, positive about it. Medical specialists seem to be so negative and think in terms of disorders and corrective action. My daughter is sensitive, intuitive, creative and quite wonderful, but does have a few social mannerisms consistent with Aspergers. Maybe we're fooling ourselves, but we're seeing her as an interesting mix, with a touch of Aspergers as part of that.

idiotgrrl said...

About overspecialization -- I took Spanish at UNM in the last part of the 00s decade in order to be fluent in the other major language spoken around here. After the first 4 semesters, there was only one course offered that promised to do that: "Improving your writing in Spanish", which I took. The others were all on the order of "post-colonial Chicano women's writing" --- oops! Just searched the catalog - they've actually included some fluency-increasing 300-level courses now!

Second topic: You said "s someone with Aspergers syndrome, I have an odd perspective on this; unlike many people on the autism spectrum, I think entirely in spoken language, and so Grandin's gifts are as unfamiliar to me as they are to neurotypical people, if not more so."

You, too?!?!? And it presents way differently in my gender, too.

peacegarden said...

Orange Sky

Wow! That story about the factory clad gentleman, his requested book and the conversation you had brightened up my day!

I hope public libraries survive the “austerity measures” ahead. They appear to be on the chopping block in many economically challenged communities.

In the meantime, we can quietly gather as many books as we can store/display. I’m going through the banker boxes of books that have followed me through several moves. We are making our stand here; so shelving will be built for the keepers, and the discards are going to my favorite library for fundraising or the DAV thrift store.

I believe that archiving these books is an important part of my mission…preserving what we can for future generations.



Unknown said...

I'm another long time reader and first time poster.

I've really enjoyed and learned from the recent salvaging series of posts.

After 'discussions' on political topics with both left leaning and right leaning people I've run across I got curious about my inability to keep the discussion focused and rational as I'm able to do in my professional life. I did a little research and ran across the the work of Bob Altmeyer (University of Manitoba) on authoritarian personalities.

The authoritarian follower needs prescribed dogma provided by authoritarian leader to make sense of and to function in the world. According to his research they amount to about 30% of the population. The dogma is defended without regard to to fact or reason because to question it threatens their worldview. Their response when questioned is often rage and/or verbal attacks on the person posing the question.

This population would seem to be the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories provided by the keepers of the dogma.

His work has helped me understand why some of the issues facing us are so polarizing and also provided me with a filter helping to prioritize who I want to spend time with planning and working towards what is next.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Don Plummer

Thanks. To clarify, you may not find the terms "peak energy," "climate change," "environmental destruction," "declining resources" and so forth in the promotional literature or on the website's front page--it's all about "sustainability," "green jobs," and the "green economy."

However, the environmental realities were emphatically the explicitly-named, underlying shared assumptions governing the discussions among the people actually in the room at the conference I attended yesterday, and they will drive content of the workshops we're all planning. Look up IGEN.

GHung said...

JMG: "Ghung, figuring out what causes what is always a challenging thing in social issues, and often impossible. Thus my main concern is where to go from here."

Where-ever conditions lead. My sense is that teaching/learning will become more local just as most things will. What is taught will evolve (devolve) according to the needs of the societies doing the teaching, much like mythology and religion did prior to their codification into written dogma.

One hopes that much of what we've learned will be preserved in some way, perhaps being taught only to a special guild, as in the Star's Reach "Melumi", or even 'held in trust', longterm, ala Asimov's Foundation concept (I actually have reliable knowledge that at least one such facility exists).

I think it's very possible that, at some point, the masses will be ruled, not by force, devine right, or control of property and resources, but by control of knowledge; a learned elite who dole out "the old wisdoms" as they see fit. Much like the church when only the ordained could read the bible, this new religion will be based upon control of science, mathematics, technology and medicine, only available to the "flocks" via "The Keepers of The Books". One must exibit great intelligence, patience, judgement and depth at a very young age to be considered for the sacred, elite intelligentsia. Again, history repeats; same game, different books..

Meantime, teach your children well.

beneaththesurface said...

I look forward to your post discussing the future of science.

My dad is a science professor, and while I didn’t formally specialize in science, I’ve reflected a lot on the culture of academic science throughout my years.

In the thirty-some years my dad has taught at the university, he says he still sees the usual spectrum of bright to not-so-bright students. The biggest difference he sees in his students now versus when he started teaching lies in their experiences that have lead them to want to study science. In my dad’s case, it was the lots of time he spent outside exploring the natural world where he lived that inspired him to become a scientist. Now, most students spend little time outside, and their knowledge of science comes from the laboratory and textbooks. Most students studying biology tend to be interested in medicine and biotechnology, not in natural history. If they were plopped down somewhere in the woods away from electronic media for several days, many would soon get bored.

I think this change parallels the change in the areas of science that have received the most funding, attention, and allure. There are some thinkers who claim that scientific knowledge has increased exponentially, but I’m highly critical of such claims. For one thing, areas such as biotechnology, genetic engineering, & computer technology, have increased while areas such as taxonomy, natural history, herpetology etc. have gotten considerably less focus.

It’s a curiosity to me how few people in the sciences really grasp the predicament that were in right now, let alone are responding to it meaningfully. A person close to me studied environmental science in college and it always struck her how she felt that most of the others who completed the degree were not very ecological at all in their daily life, and how most of her environmentalist friends tended to major in the humanities. I think this may connect to the contemporary emphasis on abstraction over reflection, including in the sciences. Someone can be capable of learning ecology well as an abstraction, but the ability to internalize ecology and apply it broadly to every aspect of how one lives one life, involves a great deal of reflection.

To me, reflection involves thinking in the first person tense. In the anthropology department I got to be known as the student who often asked questions in class such as “Why is this important for us to know?” or “How does this knowledge change the way we live our lives?” For example, I took an entire course on the High Civilizations of the Americas, and we spent a great deal of time studying the history of the Mayan civilization. While I found it all very interesting, I kept finding my mind silently wandering into types of discussion questions that weren’t being discussed. Such as, “How does our understanding of Mayan history relate to our current society?” “How does it change the way I live my life?” “If an anthropologist from the future would observe this class, what might they say about why we are coming to sit here in a class studying and discussing Mayan history in the format we are currently?” I did eventually raise my hand and ask some of those questions. But still, I realized how deep reflection was undervalued compared to abstraction in academic studies.

John Michael Greer said...

Wolf, thank you!

Brad, another factor that's tended to insulate educational bureaucracies from oversight by the parents of the kids they (more or less) teach is the shift from local funding, and thus local school board control, to state funding and thus control by state departments of education. Relocalization could usefully start there, too.

Surfer, good heavens. That's stunning -- and not something I've seen before. Obviously I need to chase down some of the less common bits of Poe!

Jonathan, $90,000 is still absurdly too much, but it's better than many. It'll be interesting to see what happens as government funding dries up and the universities have to cope with the prospect of actual contraction.

Draft, you could as well argue that that shows that the elected officials of the GOP better represent the attitudes of their constituents. My point remains that tendentious arguments, claiming that a bipartisan problem are all the fault of one side, are a good part of what landed us in our present deadlock.

Thijs, I'll have to read your book on the subject -- you may have read mine, for all I know. As for the potential survival of the sciences, though, I'm a good deal less certain than you are. I think it's possible to get the scientific method, at least, through the crises ahead, and that alone will make up for much. But I'll check out the Pratchett book!

Cherokee, it's going to be interesting to watch. The US system of government has vulnerabilities that parliamentary systems don't -- the checks and balances make it too easy for a sufficiently deep and even schism in the body politic to produce total deadlock, which is what we more or less have now. Will they be able to pull some rabbit or other out of the hat? Or will the US government freeze up for a few weeks or months, with interesting economic results? A bag of popcorn would be worth having handy...

As for homeschooling, it has its traps. So does public schooling -- the deficiencies of the bureaucracy, rather than those of the parents, get impressed on the children. The question is simply which one does the more harm in any given case.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Ozark Chinquapin: The fact that differences in mental ability between people is a taboo subject certainly doesn't help the situation.
Agreed. Now that my mental powers are waning, and I understand how hard it must be for some people to follow a complex discussion, I’m much more compassionate, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend we’re all equal mentally. Or to give kids “A’s” that they don’t deserve – just means they’ll hit some bigger wall further along.

@Phil Harris: There are conspiracies out there; but which are the real ones? Just not the idiot popular ones cultists like to project?

I think often you don’t have to resort to conspiracy theory; human nature is explanation enough. The national/world leaders quickly become allies and/or enemies, in the same way that cliques form in high school. It is human nature for people to rationalize their unfair behavior, and sometimes intelligent people are even better at it, thus more impervious to reason. If their job depends on it, most people are much quicker to see their own actions as “beneficial to others” even when they secretly know they are not. Greed is a basic (if ugly) human trait – I see it driving a lot of the behaviors others see as conspiracies… everyone just wanting “a bit of the action” before it crashes.

@Thijs Goverde : It's a sad thought that our descendants will never really understand what we did wrong.
I’ve been thinking that too, recently… how we won’t know how all this chemical soup has affected us, as science will decline too far to measure it, etc. Each time I fall into my old habit of seeing science eventually finding an explanation, I am brought up short by the facts of peak everything… and the tragedy that we might be the most educated and informed era in history (at least quantitatively) and what have we done with it?

peacegarden said...


I do think understanding human behavior is helpful in answering the question, “why are some of the issues facing us are so polarizing” (See Joe Bageant on that one). I just want to caution against shunning or looking down our noses at those who fit that 30% definition.
Your “filter” may prevent you from being open to working with and learning from “authoritarian followers”. They may be your neighbors.

If we aim to be revealers, rather than convincers, some surprising things just might happen.



Thijs Goverde said...

Do you read Dutch, mr Greer? If you do, I'll gladly send you the book. It´s target audience is children, really.
It´s a sort of After-The-Fall-Don-Quixote-meets-Mad-Max. Er, for kids. They won´t notice how weird the weird parts are, I promise. Just an exciting adventure in a strange and dangerous place... sort of sounds like our common future, if you put it that way.

Of course I´m secretly hoping to educate some parents.
The kind who still read to their kids - those are most likely to be the smarter ones.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, my guess is that our species will pull through just fine -- we're one of nature's supreme generalists, right up there with rats and cockroaches, and about as easy to kill. It's the heritage of the last few millennia of culture I worry about, and the management types you describe, for whom the measurable is the manageable and nothing else is real, are among the reasons for that worry.

Jason, thanks for the links! Yes, I've written an encyclopedia of secret societies, which treats them as a real historical phenomenon with documented effects on history. That's one of the reasons I'm fairly confident drawing a line between real conspiracies and vast imaginary scapegoats.

Yupped, if you get your daughter assessed, don't let the educational or medical bureaucracies find out about it; they'll have her on drugs so fast you won't be able to see straight, and her ability to deal with the benefits as well as the drawbacks of her condition will suffer accordingly. I'd encourage you simply to read up on Aspergers on your onw, and adapt your assessment as you see how she develops.

The capacity for intellectual focus that comes with AS can have huge benefits in terms of learning and scholarship, which your local schools almost certainly won't be able to cope with; if you send her to school, you'll need to provide her with a rich intellectual life at home to counter the stultifying dullness of modern public education, and work with her to develop ways of coping with the social deficits that AS brings. You're not fooling yourself; AS has an upside as well as a downside, and if you help her learn how to cope with the social issues, she can capitalize on the upsides to have a happy and productive life.

Grrl, we're something like one percent of the population these days, and growing. My spouse is somewhere on the spectrum, too, so I'm at least a little familiar with the way that gender differences affect the way autism-spectrum conditions play out.

Unknown, I've seen claims along those lines before and have never been sure how to take them -- it's a longstanding habit in social psychology to project the prejudices of the researcher onto his subjects, and (for example) define conservative people as "authoritarian" because they get irritable when a liberal college professor airily dismisses their deeply held beliefs. (It's rather reminiscent of the claims, in the antebellum South, that African American slaves suffered from a bizarre mental illness called "drapetomania," an irrational compulsion to run away from home.) So I'll remain agnostic on this one.

John Michael Greer said...

GHung, I hope it doesn't come to that. A diversity of projects to preserve useful knowledge and culture would be one helpful way to try to prevent that.

Beneath, one of the things that I find very frustrating is the number of people who are involved in the sciences to one degree or another, but seem to be unable to apply their critical thinking skills in exactly the way you've outlined -- asking questions about their own presuppositions and the cultural and social context that defines scientific belief in the present age. I recall a while back reading an MD insisting that if approved pharmaceuticals caused harmful side effects, that was okay because they were doing more good overall, while if herbs caused any negative side effects at all, that proved they were quackery that must be banned. I don't think he was being deliberately meretricious, but his lack of ability to assess his own stance against the basic rules of logic, or to correct for his personal financial interest in having patients come to him rather than going to an herbalist, was the opposite of impressive.

Thijs, I'm sorry to say I don't read Dutch. Have you considered approaching an English language publisher about a translated edition? It might do very well.

Bobbie Stacey said...

Perhaps your best post ever, in my opinion.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG, Yupped, always remember that "diagnoses" are just arbitrary boxes within the hugely multidimensional hyperspace of human psyche and personality. The fact that JMG and Temple Grandin are put on the same "disorder spectrum" yet have such vastly different cognitive processes in critical areas points this out. Considering that both have accomplished more than the large majority of we who comment here on this blog, one might wonder about the whole "disorder" thing, anyway. The "tests" say I am "neurotypical" but I expect if you put me and JMG down next to each other at your dinner party you would be hard pressed to tell which of us was "normal" and which was "disordered" (or possibly even which of us was which, period).

On another note, I am constantly amused by the horror expressed at the "radical socialist" accusations against Obama by the exact same people who were calling Dubya a "fascist" just a few years ago -- a much harsher accusation, actually, and just as false (or there would be no President Obama and we would not be having this discussion). Sure Dubya waged an illegal and immoral war based on deliberate misrepresention of critical military facts. So did Kennedy and Johnston. "Draft-dodging" Clinton deployed U.S. forces more times than did "war-mongering" Reagan. I'm no fan of the neocons and teapartiers; but I'm not an especially big fan of greenie utopian fundamentalists or cheerleaders for "globalization" of any stripe either. Based on actual manifested domestic and foreign policies, second term Dubya and first-term Obama can often be hard to tell apart. Ddid you know that Dubya abolished the ban on HIV-positive people entering the U.S. during his second term? Didn't fit the "profile" so got no media attention. Clinton left it in place for 8 years.

Kieran O'Neill said...


Kieran, er, where did you get the idea that I said the two modes of thought and learning are incompatible with one another? Different historical periods tend to privilege one or the other, but it's a pendulum swing, not a switch thrown one way or the other. Of course both operations are essential for deep thought; that's why it's useful to highlight one at a time when the other has been overstressed, as abstraction has been nowadays.

I got that mainly from the language in the post. There you talk of them as being "views" held by "partisans", rather than as mental operations or modes of thinking. I feel much more comfortable with the way you've framed them in this response.

Another minor issue: you also hold that

Modern American culture is so deeply invested in abstraction that the very suggestion that reflection, as I’ve defined it, could have pragmatic value as a way of knowledge seems ludicrous to most people.

But I would want to see more examples of this before I agreed.

Some counter-examples I can think of:

1. Most modern employers value experience (representing reflective learning) over diplomas and degrees (largely, though not exclusively, representing abstract learning). I think it would be exceedingly rare to find an employer who held that work experience had no pragmatic value.

2. In the American legal system, the laws and precedents that form its basis are abstractions. But the final decision making in terms of verdicts and sentencing comes from the reflection of judges and juries. I think it would also be exceedingly rare to find an American who would claim that you could write sufficiently detailed laws that every case could simply be matched exactly and a verdict produced without argument and reflection.


It seems to me that a defining difference between abstract and reflective knowledge is that abstract knowledge can be codified and potentially tested, whereas reflective knowledge can only be learned (or perhaps taught) through experience, and can be much more difficult to assess.

Does this seem to fit with how you are conceptualising them?

Sorry if I seem to be giving the theory a little too much tire-kicking. It feels like a very useful abstraction of knowledge, which compelled me to enter into some deep reflection about it...

LewisLucanBooks said...

Some interesting and accessible (popular) books on Aspergers.

By Daniel Tammet: "Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant" and "Embracing the Wide Sky."

By John Elder Robinson (Augusten Burroughs' brother, by the way) "Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Aspergers" and "Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers."

My autodidactic contribution for the day :-)

Kieran O'Neill said...

@JMG, regarding herbs vs pharmaceuticals, or modern medicine vs home/traditional remedies

I think this is a pretty important discussion to have. I agree completely that there are proponents of science and medicine who are far too uncritical of their own field, or the knowledge they are presented with. I'd add that I think this is quite contrary to the spirit of science, for example as outlined by Karl Popper, which requires constant questioning and criticism of existing theories. Yes, you're welcome to bring up Thomas Kuhn's view of science, too. I don't think they're entirely incompatible, though Popper outlines the ideal, while Kuhn outlines some of the mess in practice.

My view on medicine is that there is room for both alternative (especially herbal) medicine and mainstream medicine, but that the two have different roles. For example, even in the mainstream medical community, I think there is quite widespread recognition that home remedies for basic ailments like the common cold are largely better for patients (and the rest of the human race) than, say, antibiotics. On the other hand, there are no herbs or alternative medicines that will do very much to help patients with severe bacterial pneumonia, or, say, syphilis, while in both those cases antibiotics can be life-saving.

As for herbal remedies, interestingly enough, modern medicine is full of examples where herbal extracts are used -- aspirin from willow trees, digitalis for controlling heart rate, deadly nightshade eye drops for eye tests, aconite extract as pre-operative sedative. Often, however, dosage is critical, as there is a narrow range between having no effect and killing a patient. In these cases, the extract has to be prepared in a lab which can accurately quantify and control the dosage. It's also best for them to be administered in a clinical setting where emergency help is available if the dosage turns out to be wrong. It would be a brave herbalist indeed who would give a patient foxglove or aconite in anything other than sub-effective doses.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of over-prescription of drugs, especially psychoactives, accompanied by very shady practices on the parts of the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing them. Likewise, there are plenty of practitioners of alternative medicine making ludicrous claims, e.g. that industrial bleach can cure cancer, HIV and malaria, or that every disease can be cured just by straightening your spine.

In fact, I think the whole debate has, like the political spectrum, tended to have become quite polarised. Again, pressure from to polar opposite groups with an economic ulterior motive seems to be the driver.

I'll conclude by saying that a fairly clear thinker on this topic is Ben Goldacre, a British medical doctor who writes a column about bad science reporting. He's drawn a lot of ire for his criticism of genuine quackery in alternative medicine, and even been accused of being in the pocket of Big (Bad) Pharma. More recently he has laid that last accusation soundly to rest by criticising the shady practices of Big Pharma.

Gah - maybe I should start a blog about this...

Matt and Jess said...

Exactly. The public school system is essentially a glorified babysitting session. I wish I'd known long ago that my Bachelor's degree would be completely useless. I managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude while having learned very little. Not that I didn't want to learn. My statistics class was great, and there was some decent stuff in there. Most of it though -- busywork. Or stuff that should have belonged in middle school. At that point in my life, I thought that I needed a Bachelor's degree to have a sense of self-worth, but now I'm so sorry that I completed it. For one, when you get a BA you're no longer eligible for any financial aid. Now that I'm older and more learned, I'd like to learn a usefull skill but formal trade school is no longer an option as I'm not willing to go into debt by any amount.

Also, thanks for the positive plug about homeschoolers. I've been looking at doing a Waldorf-based program because of the inclusion of traditional crafts. There are other great programs too of course. My daughter really wants to go to school because her impression of it is as an endless play session, but I don't want her brains to be wasted.

Not that anyone is following our decisions, but we've nixed boatbuilding due to various reasons and are looking at a trade like carpentry. I can imagine that a business retrofitting existing homes to add wood stoves, remove the dishwasher, better insulation, etc. would be an interesting one. Now we just have to figure out how to survive until school's over. Too bad we didn't learn all this sooner!

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG said, “Over the last couple of decades, ordinary political discourse in America has been drowned out by a torrent of hatred and rage—there is really no other way to describe it—directed by people on nearly every part of the political spectrum against their perceived opponents.”

Do you consider the Internet a major factor in this?

When people group together with others of similar opinions, opinions typically harden and intensify. While cults tend to attract and hold people by isolating them, the Internet with its chat rooms, blogs, listserves, social networking, and such, also gathers like minds and in way too many instances the solidarity of small numbers with complaints enflames rather than tempers rage. Worse yet, I suspect the WWW encourages the few to believe their beliefs are widely held and passionately supported.

It’s not just America either, is it? Anders Behring Breivik?


sofistek said...

I got a similar impression to Kieran about abstraction and reflection being completely separate. At one point, you said, "It’s not a knowledge that can be extracted in the form of abstract generalizations, either; it’s a personal, tacit knowledge, a knowledge woven of examples, intuitions, and things felt rather than things defined. From the standpoint of abstraction, of course, this isn’t knowledge at all"

I'm glad that you see good things in both types of learning. Indeed, I think one can't happen without the other. The "good examples" you talked about surely come from trial and error, and understanding what went wrong, in the bad examples. This is science at an elementary level, isn't it? And abstraction is only improved on by applying, or trying to apply, previous abstractions - and we gain from the abstractions only by applying them.

It's interesting that history shows abstract learning being maintained even through periods of reflective dominance. This might indicate the relative importance of abstract learning, relative to reflective learning, though both are needed to improve our lot.


Ceworthe said...

On the Salvaging Energy entry comments someone had requested Blacksmithing classes. In looking for spinning and weaving classes, I found that this school also has some blacksmithing classes coming up Aug 13&14 and last wkend in Aug. School is perhaps 45 minutes away from Albany NY

Ceworthe said...

The Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, NY is also having blacksmithing courses, working with draft animals course, and letterpress printing.

John Michael Greer said...

Bobbie, thank you!

Bill, understood, but there's another side of the picture. For the first forty years of my life, I was bedeviled by questions -- my own and others' -- about why I couldn't do things that were perfectly easy for most people, since I was obviously so intelligent, and so on and so forth. It was a huge issue for me, since the things I couldn't do well included reading nonverbal cues (90% of human communication) and nearly anything involving motor skills -- my coordination matured about half normal speed, meaning I had all the dexterity of an eight-year-old at age sixteen.

Finding out that I had specific, well documented neurological deficits that I could understand, and figure out how to work around -- that was an immense gift. I literally started crying right there in the middle of the university library where I'd encountered the article, because I could finally be sure that it wasn't just a matter of not trying hard enough -- that there was actually something wrong.

Kieran, er, I thought I explained in some detail that we're also talking about two ways of thinking about education, which do have their partisans. That seems to be the detail that messed you up. It's abstraction as a theory of education that has its hooks deeply into American culture -- again, I thought I explained this -- which is why most people think of education as a matter of learning the right abstract generalizations.

As for your question, to codify something is inevitably to reduce it to abstract generalizations -- a codification that included all the context of each individual case would be as useless as the map in the Borges story that was the same size as the empire it mapped! It's entirely possible to test for reflective knowledge, but there's a catch; you have to have it in order to perceive it. You can't reduce it to a set of cut and dried formulae -- which latter are, of course, more abstract generalizations, but you can determine its presence to a high degree of exactness. Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone talk about something and get all the words and jargon right, but leave the inescapable impression that he didn't actually know what he was talking about?

Lewis, I'm partial to the books written by Tony Attwood.

Kieran, I'll be talking about this in a few more posts. I don't use mainstream medicine myself; I can't afford it -- I've never had the money for health insurance -- and I've had far too many family members sickened, maimed, and killed by drug side effects, hospital-borne infections, and the other consequences of the venial and arrogant mess that too much of modern American medicine has become. Mind you, of course you're right that there's quackery in the alternative scene, and it takes a fair amount of care to navigate the swamp; but alternative medicine is a lot less expensive, and the annual death toll from all alternative health care put together is a tiny fraction of the annual mortality from drug side effects, drug interactions, surgical misadventures, nosocomial infections, etc., etc.

John Michael Greer said...

Jess, glad to hear about the course change! A bit of concentration on the whole range of home energy conservation retrofits might pay off; in a few years, I'm guessing, that's going to be a substantial market, and there aren't too many carpenters who know how to do it any more.

Houyhnhnm, I think the internet is part of it, but the same thing happened just as intensely in the runup to 1860, so I don't think it's the dominant factor. My own guess is that the economic decline of the United States has pushed its internal stresses to the breaking point, just as the massive economic shifts of the early 19th century did with an earlier set of internal stresses. Whether the current mess can be resolved short of civil war is a good question.

Sofistek, as often as not the good examples stored up by reflective learners are fictional, not factual; that's one of the roles of traditional epic poetry in oral cultures, for example. Science can also be pursued in a more abstractive or a more reflective mode. Finally, as I pointed out, abstract learning is preserved in reflective ages because it has a reflective value apart from any practical use it may have -- Greek astronomy was of no practical value in the Dark Ages, for example, but it was preserved because reflecting on it was held to be valuable for grasping the character and context of human existence.

Ceworthe, thanks for the links!

John Michael Greer said...

Rainbow (offlist), we have a major difference of opinion, to be sure, but heaven knows that happens often enough. No harm; no foul.

Mokey44 said...

"always remember that "diagnoses" are just arbitrary boxes within the hugely multidimensional hyperspace of human psyche and personality. The fact that JMG and Temple Grandin are put on the same "disorder spectrum" yet have such vastly different cognitive processes in critical areas points this out."

I don't know I agree with this. The stories of JMG and Grandin herself, plus even 2/3 of the children I work with, point to far more than just an aspect of personality- it's accompanied almost always by a nervous system and neurological connections that have gone haywire somewhere, where just the interactions between individuals and their environment cause profound under or overreactions.

Interacting with the world in ways that most people take for granted causes incredible pain and suffering for many of these people.

Children especially. It's no wonder then that many of these people use early fixations or focused abilities to excel in one field often to the exclusion of everything else. And it's now showing up in babies as early as 6 months. A decade in the early intervention (birth to three ages) field has taught me that the earlier these things are caught the sooner coping mechanisms can be taught.

Diagnoses early on can provide families with a wealth of resources and give these children a chance at a more productive future. The funny thing is, having a diagnosis of Aspergers/ASD/PDD-NOS opens more doors for grants and intervention resources for families than having a generic developmental delay.

Research has borne out that the later that someone is diagnosed, the internal patterns are that much harder to rearrange. Not to say that it can't be done, as evidenced by JMG and others, but it ends up being a much harder road than it otherwise may have to be. Grandin had to design her own machine to help her body learn to calm.

Yupped, please consider getting it checked out. Even if all she needs is someone to help her understand social cues, it can make a HUGE difference in her life.

You have the right as a parent to refuse medicine, and these days they won't put an Asperger's child on medication unless there's a concomitant disorder, like anxiety/depression/OCD or the like.

Most visionaries and pioneers in their newest fields would probably be considered Asperger's today. It's not bad company to be in.


beneaththesurface said...

I'm in my thirties, and from what I've read about Asperger's, it seems like if I were to be formally tested, I myself might get the diagnosis. Responding appropriately to social cues has always been difficult for me. Through the years I've learned the basics of socializing with others, but I often feel like I'm merely in an acting role, outside myself. In social situations, I do things because I am consciously telling myself to do something (oh, "I should be giving eye contact now," or "do not stare too much longer" or "Now I need to say this."). It's an inspiration to hear about how Aspergers can be gift if understood and the many uniquely talented people who have it, including you.

I understand the great feeling about suddenly knowing a name to describe a condition. My example that follows is a little different because it's generally not considered a disorder now:

I have always experienced sensory mixing. Sound comes through also in color. And every word, letter, number, day of the week, etc. is a very specific color that has been true for me as long as I can remember (example, if you're curious: "peak oil" is a certain shade of brownish orange and white to me, though "Aspergers" is a light blue.) When I started mentioning this to other people, people looked at me strangely. I even started to doubt my own experience as something that wasn't "real" even though I felt it was. Finally, my senior year of high school, I stumbled across a scientific article and learned that what I experienced was "legitimate" and it was called synesthesia. Knowing it had a name (and it was a growing research topic among neuroscientists) really empowered me. (This is a little different than something like Aspergers because it never really hindered me perse, it just made me seem weird to others).

Interestingly enough I've learned that synesthesia is much more common among those in the autism spectrum. Some theorize that infants experience synesthesia, but those cross-linked sensory connections are usually lost in early childhood, except in a minority of cases.

I feel I've gotten off the topic of education here, though I do feel it relates in some indirect way. Synesthesia is an interesting topic in science because it deals with subjective experience. In fact, many scientists showed outright hostility to acknowledging it to be "real" and study it precisely because of its subjective nature, that if it was "subjective" it somehow could not be "real." I attended the American Synesthesia Association Conference a few years ago, and a number of presenters reflected on the larger implications of the study of synesthesia on our abstraction-dominated educational system.

SophieGale said...

So many ideas here! I have just started reading American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution by Harlow Giles Unger, and it's obvious that Americans have been crazed from the git-go. Speaking of the Molasses Act of 1733, Unger says "Merchants argued disingenuously that the duties would have doubled retail prices of rum and left colonists unable to afford a drop of their favorite drink. In truth...[the merchants]were able to distill a 16-pence gallon of molasses into a gallon of rum to sell at 192 pence--a gross profit of 1,200 percent! The six-pence-per-gallon duty would have cut profits to 1,161.5 percent!"

Temple Grandin: When I read her book Thinking in Pictures, I instantly flashed on John Anthony West's book Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt. West's description of the Giza plateau in meticulous relationship to the stars overhead made me go "Whoa! This whole society sounds 'autistic'!"

Education: When I was 21, I fell in with the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago, which, I suppose, was a think tank for social justice issues. I went to their six week Academy and pretty much had my brains turned inside out. In those six weeks, I was exposed to the ideas of Bonhoeffer, Neibuhr, Tillich, Kazantzakis, Joseph Campbell, Carlos Castaneda, Jonathon Livingston Seagull, and a host of other minds--frequently without any labels, so my whole adult life as been like an unscripted treasure hunt. To this day I still trip over concepts I picked up at Academy. "Oh! That's where (whatever) came from."

On the other hand, in our teacher training, we were given so many wonderful organizational tools. The Social Process Triangles were imprinted on my brain:

We parted company in the mid 70's. The core of the group was a family religious order, I was heading on a different spiritual path. Now, under their secular identity The Institute of Cultural Affairs, they are working with Transition Chicago on resilience communities!

Indeed, no matter where you go, there you are!

Cherokee Organics said...


I approve of the term autodidact, although I did have to look up its meaning!

One of the reasons I chose to live and work the way I do is because of a paucity of time for reflection in the corporate world.

I put myself through university and post graduate education part time whilst working full time, so had interesting employment experiences from the bottom to the very top of the corporate ladder.

The concerns you raise relating to abstraction and reflection are very much applicable to the corporate world too. Reflection is a tool not often employed even though there is requirement for it at the top of the ladder (it's useful for strategic thinking). Sir Isaac Newton wouldn't have been able to make intuitive leaps without all that time kicking around his mothers orchard.

You can see a lack of reflection in our societies politics - catchy sound bites, tough talk, but very little vision. It's what we are being reduced to I guess?

You do hear all the time that people are saying that they're busy, but what does this mean? What are they doing? Not much from what I can see. What I think they actually mean is that they are over whelmed. Take some time out to smell the roses people.

Also, whilst people are talking about higher education, what is the obsession with living on campus in the US? Of course education is going to be expensive if you expect someone to feed and house you for years on end. From my perspective also is that it places impressionable people into an environment that's unlikely to be repeated anywhere else in society. It lends itself to feelings of superiority. Surely this can't be a good outcome?

Education is a humbling experience because you come face to face with the mass of collected knowledge and begin to understand how little of it you will actually ever really know.

If I were in your shoes, I would keep moderating this blog forum too.

PS: I hope your leaders have an end game plan, although my gut instinct is that they are only concerned with the next election (ie. their jobs). You can't live off borrowed funds forever and prosecute two wars without asking people to sacrifice financially.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Ozark,

I thoroughly enjoyed your post last week. Strangely enough, we seem to be in a similar climate predicament, although the volcanic clay here is only slightly rocky and very deep. I'm following exactly the same strategy as yourself - there is no substitute for organic matter!

Keep up the good work.



Cherokee Organics said...


I never would have guessed from your writing that you had asperger's syndrome. My previous contact with people who identify with asperger's is that they have trouble connecting or listening to others and this doesn't seem to be the case with yourself - although autism is a continuum rather than a point in space.

Best of luck.


Mean Mr Mustard said...

Abstraction versus reflection... Some teachers at the sharp end here in the UK have to contend with children who are entering the education system who do not know their own name. Daresay the same holds true elsewhere...

hawlkeye said...


After graduating high school in New England, my freshman year of college found me at the University of California Santa Cruz, and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

And then after four years became an apprentice at the Farm and Garden Project on that campus, started by Alan Chadwick, mad organic pioneer, which I considered to be "graduate school". For my "doctoral dissertation" a group of us leased prime bottomland of the San Lorenzo river from the old Italians there, revitalized their plum orchards, and became the first organic farmers in Santa Cruz County.

The Farm Project still has one of the best horticultural apprenticeships in the world, and is a showcase example of so many ideas and projects posted here. A visit to this green jewel will fill anyone Wizardly inclined with inspiration and ideas. But I was forever spoiled by what can be grown in a mild coastal climate..

hawlkeye said...

One of my favorite mysteries about this blog is its synchronicity with other readings that appear...

The recent issue of the literary magazine The Sun had this contribution (on the theme Paying Attention) from a public school teacher whose name was withheld for obvious reasons. I found the last line most chilling...

"Jody calls it her 'vitamin'; Cole, his 'M&M'; James, his 'focus pill'. It's the medication they each take every day so that they'll pay attention in my sixth grade classroom. Thanks to these drugs, these students are able to sit in their seats while I train them to pass the high-stakes state-wide tests...

"I teach formulaic responses to essay prompts they'll encounter on the state exams... My classroom is more factory than learning environment, but I have little choice. Legislators are proposing that the students' scores on these tests be linked to my job security. If you were to ask me if I wanted my entire class on medication, I'd say yes.

"If a student starts acting out or is unable to sit and focus, I'll suggest to the parents that they obtain from their pediatrician an ADHD checklist, which I'll use as I observe the child's classroom behavior. Occasionally, a parent will argue about the wisdom of medicating a developing child. I'll listen patiently, then pull out the child's practice scores, or mention the prior year's test results, perhaps even risk a prediction about how he or she will do this year. It's tough to argue with numbers.

"Once armed with the checklist, I'll watch the student for signs of "impulsivity" and "distraction", check the appropriate boxes, and before long that child will be medicated, too.

After thirty years of teaching I know how hard it is for any twelve-year-old to pay attention for long stretches of time. Being impulsive and getting distracted are as much a part of early adolescence as pimples and growth spurts. But these days I try not to think about that. I have to do whatever it takes to keep my job."


Excuse me for yelling, but I have to go yank my kid out of public school immediately...

Bill Pulliam said...

I think my point kinda got lost a bit there. Psychological diagnoses are not clearly defined things with understood, identified causes, mechanisms, and progressions. "Measles" is a disease, with a clear cause. Two people with "measles," though certainly not identical, share fundamental attributes of mechanistic physiological causation that are vitally informative about their conditions. Such is not the same for people with the same psychiatric diagnosis. Mental conditions are for the most part "syndromes" -- collections of loosely similar symptoms that may actually arise from disparate and/or multiple complexly interacting processes. Even to the extent that these diagnoses do come from similar underlying processes, these processes are not yet identified or understood in the VAST majority of cases (no, it is not just a "chemical imbalance in your brain," with no specification as to what chemicals and how imbalanced). They are also fluid, being redefined and reclassified, in some cases created and abolished, every few years. This does not say that the issues are not real or are not rooted in profound physiological roots. But what it does mean is that a diagnosis of "Aspergers" or "Borderline Personality Disorder" is in many ways fundamentally less informative than a diagnosis of "Diabetes" or "Syphilis," in terms of understanding the condition or how to respond to and work with it. You are still dealing with a whole lot of idiosyncratic individualism that will have to be worked out one-on-one before you even understand well what is happening. HOWEVER, in this society with its mechanistic medical concepts of just about everything, psychiatric diagnoses tend to get treated the same as medical diagnoses. "You've got this condition, take these pills." Never mind the fact that two people with the same diagnosis might have drastically different neurological foundations for their circumstances. It is not just the medical community that does this, it is society as a whole. We love tidy (arbitrary) boxes in which we can throw complexity and pretend we don't need to deal with it anymore. Boxes and syndromes are very useful. But you have to remember their huge limitations, too

"I'm not crazy. My mother had me tested."

SophieGale said...

The Zinn Education Project is an excellent history resource for teachers, home-schoolers, and dedicated autodidacts.

Steve said...

Thanks again for the thoughtful and erudite summation of our current predicament. I wish that my abstract life allowed time for a full reflection upon it's implications. I will share a few thoughts before my weekly allotment of home gardening practical learning.

It seems to me a fool's errand to attempt to save or reform the current educational system. Its size and dependence upon large inputs of energy ensure its future demise. I think that education will survive only in forums similar to this one sans the Internet. When life inevitably returns to a predominately local affair only two types of education will survive: the practical and the reflective. The practical 'cause there ain't no way to escape the need to eat, keep warm and find a mate. It is the reflective experience that is the most curious to me.

You have framed the question of man's nature most succinctly. After we are finished meeting our daily needs via practical knowledge we are left with lots of time on our hands. While lions are content to lounge in the sun and groom themselves humans seem to be intent on contemplation and reflection. We have even labeled ourselves as such: homo sapiens, going so far as to add additional ~sapiens indicative of our superior knowledge. I think that from reflection springs abstraction in an attempt to know (reflect) with certainty.

As we enter the Long Descent I look to you and other sources for reflections upon our spiritual future. Are we as a species destined to perpetually exploit the practical benefits of reflection or is there another course where reflection results in reverence and respect for the precarious and wondrous nature of our existence? There is the very real possibility that our exploitative capabilities have already destroyed the opportunity for our contemplative selves to enjoy life basking in the sun, licking our neighbors. I like to think that somehow we come out of this predicament with a profound understanding of our limitations and a deeper appreciation for mystery and the opportunity to love.



Mary said...

I've just graduated summa cum laude from my university's MLT program. To be honest, it feels more like summa cum laude in multiple choice and student loans. Terrifying way to enter the healthcare factory, especially since the majority of the vast quantities of data we fried our brains memorizing and spitting out on exams is irrelevant to the actual work, which will require ongoing on-the-job training by more senior techs. Plus memorizing vast quantities of actually relevant data. Did I mention fried brains?

In the meantime, merging linear and nonlinear thinking is a full time pursuit. It's mind-boggling to be able to "do the math" one moment, and "magically think" a needed or desired item into existence the next. But it is do-able, as I've just confirmed for myself this morning. Eg, I determined after last week's 'druid report that I am in need of a scythe. I worried about it all week -- where would I find one, how would I sharpen it, and so on. Only to find exactly one available via Craig 's list -- offered by a local tool sharpening company, professionally cleaned, sharpened and ready-to-go. At the exact price I imagined. And they will deliver free to a town I will be passing through in the next couple weeks. In other words, the green wizard's path continues to clear before me as I trod along...

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, I expect that in the future education will devolve to guilds and apprenticeships for specialties, with humanities via clubs, reading and writing groups, library circles, religious organizations, etc.

Apprenticeships makes a nice segue into an earlier post on horse breeding that I wanted, but was unable, to respond to. Which response is, now is not the time to be breeding as a business, but is the time to be learning and researching. For non-horse people, to apprentice themselves to a local, quality ranch or farm. For horse people laying the groundwork for their future, to be researching the breed, bloodlines and current breeders who are preserving the right type of horse. And to be keeping an eye on those breeders. Eg, I have found a couple of breeders of the specific arabian type I want are now in trouble due to illnesses, drought, the economy, etc. Already there is one young mare offered free and several others available who were originally "keepers" intended to maintain and upgrade the mare bands. In other words, breeding at this point should be on a very limited basis with the focus on preservation of type and skills.

Jumping back to learning and education, yes, motek, work with animals requires thinking in images and close observation of subtle behavioral cues. For example, my filly is learning to relax in part by my breathing her into relaxation. When horses relax, they often breathe a a long, drawn out, breathy snort as they inhale deep into their chests. Like human yawns, those breaths are contagious; one starts and the rest will surely follow. It is easy to mimic, and when I do the filly is sure to follow. Much of horse training relies on such unexpected, unplanned communication techniques.

peacegarden said...

Kieran O’Neill mentioned alternative medicine as a valid option for the common cold and such. Actually, using herbs and food is more correctly called traditional medicine. It is the medical industrial complex that is alternative!

Of course, one must be highly trained as a diagnostician and careful with the toxic herbs, but they were safely used for thousands of years, by most cultures. To say “herbal extracts must be created in labs…and administered in clinical settings with emergency back up if the dose is wrong” seems a harsh judgment. Extracts can be compounded with great efficiency and fairly standardized potencies if done in correct formulas, weighing the herbal material and measuring the menstruum precisely, followed by proper storage and eventual decanting. It is not rocket science, but it does take knowledge and training.

We may be relying on traditional medicine for most of our “health care” sooner rather than later. Medicine as it is practiced today is immensely complex and therefore fragile. It may be one of the first things to fail. What we have now is “chronic disease management”, not health care. Traditional medicine offers preventative and holistic care, treating the whole person.



hadashi said...

Hi JMG, and also grrl, Bill Pulliam, yupped, LewisLucanBooks, Mokey44, Beameaththesurface, Cherokee Organics and maybe some I've missed. I'm glad that I subscribed to these comments and so have picked up on the Aspergers subthread. You know what they say: it takes one to know one. Good to greet some of my high-functioning brothers and sisters.

I just wish I had some of your 'gift of the gab', JMG. I guess I've a little more physical co-ordination, and I've learned how to read the physical cues quite well (though it takes a lot out of me to have to deal with people). The one thing I do well is to 'grok' or intellectually and holistically grasp ideas - I'd say I'm 30% abstract and 70% reflective (to link to this week's theme). I've had a go at expressing how the world appears to me at Is that something I'm allowed to say? And now, I must go back and read what Thijs had to say. Unlike JMG, I do read Dutch.

John Michael Greer said...

Mokey, that's pretty much my take as well. It's not just a grab bag of deficits.

Beneath, I have to deal with social situations in much the same way: "Okay, now meet his gaze and nod, that way he's going to realize that he's been listened to." Awkward, but it works.

Sophie, true enough -- every loose screw in Europe rolled across the Atlantic during the years of colonization and emigration, which goes a long ways to explain the relative differences between the continents since then.

Chris, I don't think US politicians have a plan for the endgame at this point. They've been scrambling with one immediate crisis after another, and trying to placate an electorate that demands mutually incompatible results in ever shriller tones, that at this point I'm not sure they have any plans at all.

As for Aspergers, what you're seeing at this point is the result of decades of practice!

Mustard, good gods. That's a notch further down than I expected.

Hawlkeye, okay, you just managed to equal Mr. Mustard's story. The appalling thing being that this isn't just one teacher; from all that I've seen, it's business as usual in a very large number of school districts across the US.

Bill, Aspergers isn't a psychological condition; it's a neurological disorder. The exact causation is still a matter of debate, because the fine details of brain neurology aren't known that well, but it's no more psychological than Parkinson's syndrome. Nor is it simply a vague assortment of symptoms; the presentation varies somewhat, due again to the complexities of the human brain, but the basic deficits can be precisely defined -- and here again, knowing what they are is a huge assistance in working around them. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the value of a diagnostic entity is in whether knowing it helps those so defined manage things -- and this one unquestionably does.

Sophie, thanks for the link!

Steve, no argument there. Even if it were possible in theory to save the existing educational system, most of the current administration and staff could be counted on to fight such a project every inch of the way, and the resources needed to keep things running on their current scale simply won't be around that much longer. That being the case, all we can do is try to get something in place to preserve at least some learning as the existing system falls to bits.

John Michael Greer said...

Mary, good! The ability to do math and magic in nearly the same breath used to be a standard attainment of competent occultists; John Dee, for example, Queen Elizabeth I's court astrologer and wizard, also wrote the preface for the first English translation of Euclid's Elements of Geometry and provided navigational advice to a whole generation of Elizabethan seafarers. You're in a grand tradition.

Peacegarden, no argument there. Of course this whole discussion cuts across one of the major schisms in modern American society -- the disagreement, of very nearly religious intensity, between believers in mainstream medicine and believers in alternative medicine. More on this later.

Hadashi, I thought a bunch of us would come out of the woodwork! Welcome to the discussion.

Yupped said...

Just a quick note of thanks to all who chipped in on the Aspergers theme - comments were very helpful for us as we figure out how to best help our little one.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Hi Cherokee,

I enjoy your posts as well. I suspect that although we may be in a similar rainfall situation, our temperature patterns are quite different. I've never been to Australia, most of what i know about its ecology and climate is through reading David Holmgren's work. However, being in the interior of North America with nothing to moderate cold or hot temperatures, we get a good range. I'm in south central MIssouri near the Arkansas border, close to the middle of the Ozark plateau.

Last winter our coldest temperature was -3F which would be close to -20C, but we also get occasional days in the middle of the winter that get to 70F (21C). A typical summer has average daytime temperatures of around 90F (32C), with a few days of above 100F (38C), and humid, but this summer has been dry and unusually hot, with all but a few days since the beginning of June above normal, this following a cool, very wet pattern in the spring. One thing I notice is the huge difference in how plants respond to a small temperature difference when it gets hot. When we get many 100 degree days, even such things as tomatoes, cucumbers and beans show stress when they fully thrive at 90F.

I take note of what does best in the heat because it will likely be all the more valuable in the future. Sweet potatoes are something that yields very well here with less inputs than most annuals and less labor too.

As far as tree crops go, apples are the ones most popular, but although I love them and have some trees, they also have some of the most problems of any tree in hot, humid climates. Many other fruits are a better choice. Even pears are much better as long as you get fireblight resistant varieties. The next thing I want to try is Asian persimmons, as well as selected American persimmons ans crosses between the two. We already have tons of wild persimmons here, ans I eat quite a few, but they're small and seedy compares the the domesticated ones. Asian persimmons are not as cold-hardy as the wild ones, but someone I know who grows them successfully has a trick, he grafts them onto American persimmon rootstock at three feet or so above the ground, because winter damage in most likely to occur closer to the ground line.

A recent book I've enjoyed is "Sepp Holzer's Permaculture", although he lives in a very different climate (the mountains of Austria) so most of the specifics of the book don't apply to my situation, it's an example of a true permacultural genius, actually he has been practicing his form of ecological agriculture since before the word permaculture was coined, only learning decades later his similarities with the permaculture movement. He has used fossil fuel input into excavators to terrace much of his steep mountain land, but unlike the machine inputs to conventional agriculture, they are one time inputs to get teh system set up, not continually needed.

beneaththesurface said...

Thanks for the term "autodidact!" I just looked it up too, and it was empowering to have a word like that to describe what I've been doing since I graduated from college.

When I graduated from college my anthropology professors really encouraged me to go to graduate school, saying I'd be a great candidate. To me whether or not I would be a good candidate was not the issue, it's whether it would be good for me. I knew not and I was afraid of how it might confine me if I continued on even if it gave me the supposed safety of knowing what I was doing with my life. Since then, I've done a lot of self-study and had a variety of experiences that could not have happened if I was in a formal course of study. The first few years out of school were difficult though because I do really thrive on intellectual stimulation and school is the expected place, according to others, for that to happen. It's taken some time to carve a more solid path of self-learning. It involves a great deal of self-initiative and self-reflection. But I don't regret it. It's so nice to be able to read any book one wants or study what one wants without having someone else decide those things. No more wasted time on having to read books that are not on my priority reading list...or having to write papers on certain topics when I want to be writing about something else.

Next time someone remarks about how I haven't continued on in school and gotten advanced degrees or how I don't have a full-time paid career path, I'll simply tell them confidently, "Well, I'm an autodidact..."

Ozark Chinquapin said...

On the asperger's discussion, I am someone who fits many of the signs of asperger's, although my research on it has been pretty limited, and only on the internet. I haven't pursued it any further because of my general mistrust of the mainstream medical system and their diagnostics. However I'm thinking about looking into it further as JMG has found it useful despite having a similar bad experience with the medical system. Even if I do fit perfectly into those criteria, I think I'll never use the label publicly as I see how society treats people differently who end up labeled with a condition and would rather be judged as myself rather than under a label. I don't label myself with a set political ideology for the same reason, I just state my feelings about the issues at hand.

As far as thinking in words versus pictures, I think sometimes in both but many other times in neither. Words are one of my limitations, translating ideas that are in the realm of the mind into words can take me a while, ironically most of all when it's a subject that's most important to me, and in a conversation I've often missed my chance by the time I've made that internal translation.

One of the interesting things I have come upon is the connection between diet and neurological isseus. Some say many of them originate in the gut, and for me at least that seems right. For myself, when I started eating a natural diet and avoiding food additives, sparked by a combination of physical issues and my emerging ecological conscience, I noticed immediately that I was more healthy in the mind too, and could handle the stressed of the world better. Most recently I have been avoiding wheat. I am not a celiac and don't have the extreme reactions they do, so I can get away with eating it occasionally, but notice feeling worse afterward. Many health issues can be aggravated by mild allergies, and this includes neurological ones in my case at least, everyone's is different. Thinking in the holistic sense my real goal is to heal my gut and make it so I'm not so oversensitive, resilience is what I'm after.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey hadashi,

Greetings and well met!

Hey Cathy M,

You've inspired me to go out and track down a scythe. It may sound strange, but for all of the acres and trees I never quite convinced myself to buy a brushcutter and have managed so far without one. The antique blade is on it's way - Sheffield Steel no less - but I don't have the slightest clue as to where to get the snath at a reasonable price - may have to build one from scratch. If anyone has any ideas, I'm open to suggestions?

By the way Spring has arrived early this year - buds are swelling, the early Moorpark Apricot has leaves unfurling already. I'm not sure what this means about the summer coming up. Over the past few years the seasons do seem to be starting and finishing earlier - although it may just be coincedence?



Cherokee Organics said...


You have well developed social skills.

For most people social skills are learned anyway - if they choose to.

I learned much from several entertaining house mates (ie. strangers I lived with in a rented house back in the late 80's early 90's) who were my social superiors. They had much to offer and never seem ill at ease in a social setting. Basically they could also talk garbage with most people on most subjects - which is a skill in itself. Much respect to them!

This is why I'm always banging on about getting out of the family house so that you can develop. Families will tolerate behaviours that strangers won't.

The other thing I notice is that in social settings one of the great truths is that most people are uncomfortable to a greater or lesser extent. It took me ages to understand that a lot of people that I've met over the years who were a bit gruff or uncomunicative were just simply shy and that was their only method of dealing with the outside world. Basically they had a limited social skill set.



Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- "Bill, Aspergers isn't a psychological condition; it's a neurological disorder. " There is increasing evidence that all sorts of psychological diagnoses have substantial physiological components -- the emotional disregulation of BPD appears to have a genetic component, for example. And of course "purely" physiological conditions (even a broken leg) often have major psychological impacts as well. As you know at least as well as I, mind/body is a synergism, not a duality. And the "mind" component remains vastly more mysterious. Plus, of course, as you and many other Aspies I have known are testaments to, the most effective ways of dealing with it are through conscious and determined effort of the mind. This is not nearly as effective for Parkinson's.

The medicalization of the mind cuts both ways. I have a family member who is Bipolar with strong OCD tendencies as well. She refuses to go to counseling (which could almost undeniably help her) because, based on past experience, she expects they will offer her nothing but mood-erasing medication. So instead she spends 2 hours every morning in shower, 7 days a week...

I never said that such diagnoses not valuable; indeed I believe I called them "very useful." If not, I wouldn't have spent so much time learning about them both out of curiosity and to help sort out the inevitable dramas of living in a world full of all sorts of minds. Hell learning about BPD liberated me in a very profound sense from the deep emotional confusion that sprang from an 8-year relationship with someone who manifested this condition in textbook fashion.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

JMG, and all--

The thing about disorders--not at all to diminish the very real and necessary benefits of finding out about your disorder and learning coping skills--but at some point (at least I've found in my daily life and teaching) we then must journey beyond the diagnosis into the landscape of acceptance and helping each person develop as they can. I do not mean this as a criticism, but as an affirmation.

This is muddled. What I'm trying to say is that in some sense the whole idea of "normal" is what enables mass education as presently constituted, and is exactly where mass education is to be most faulted: the insistence on industrial-style standardization. Of human persons.

On the one hand, many people I know have a mild or strong versions of some "disorder" or other, including many members of my family. On the other, many people I know are concurrently creative and atypical in their thinking/functioning and manage to live productive and even fulfilling lives--it's better than being burned as witches, or cast beyond the pale.

This is not at all to disparage or discount the very real hardships involved for some people, or the severity of some disabilities. And truly, what a relief when you discover that no, you are not alone, and yes there are ways to get help and to help yourself.

The Rule of Benedict, after all, which prescribes nearly everything for monastic life, (and seems very, even overly, strict in many regards) also explicitly advises adjusting tasks, duties and teaching so as to take into account individual members' strengths and weaknesses: what they are able to do and how best able to contribute to the community without requiring them to do what they are unable to do. This is exactly opposite to mass education.

I hope you do keep moderating this forum--it's one of the most interesting and thought/life (abstraction/reflection)-provoking places on the 'net. It's nice to know we aren't alone. ;)

Malcolm Smith said...

peacegarden, et al, make good points.

I became interested in Herbalism because modern health care is fragile and will not survive deindustrialization.

The best pre-modern. rigorous diagnostic traditions we have access to are Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and increasingly, Tibetan Medicine (which is grounded in Ayurveda, and has features of Chinese Medicine and ancient Greek medicin, as well as native Tibetan traditions).

I myself am a doctor of Tibetan Medicine having studied at a four year program and interned in Eastern Tibet.

These traditions need to be preserved and brought into English along with their practical techniques. Knowing some herbs are adequate for healing in many instances, but true medicine requires a theory of disease and diagnosis.

I began to study herbal medicine because I have been convinced for many years our present industrial civilization was becoming too fragile, and not resiliant enough. Also, Industrial medicine (and its partner, Industrial Ag.) disempowers peope in the choices they can make about health care and so on.

It is important to become educated in basic things such as reading, math, medicine, and so on.

We need to return to robust and resiliant models of knowledge transmission. Computers and smartphones are not it.


Mokey44 said...

@ Beneath the surface

Welcome to the synesthesia club! You're not alone. My sound/color association has served me well in my training as an operatic singer. I have been accused of having Asperger's myself. I think the only reason I escaped a diagnosis early in life was because they identified an infantile epileptic disorder first, but the symptoms were the same at the time. The intervention I received thirty years ago before age three inspired me to get into the field as a way of repaying a debt.

@ Bill Pulliam - Any diagnostic system will have its good and bad points. I think in this case it's not necessarily a bad thing that it's so fluid- as JMG pointed out in one of his posts, even that which we think of as the 'Laws of Nature' are nothing more than manmade mental constructs, with no enforcements. As a clinician it drives me nuts that a diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD NOS) is codespeak for 'it's sorta like autism, somewhere on the spectrum but we really don't know', but it does give a desperate family something that they can use to open the door to some invaluable resources. Plus, people are getting closer to identifying the neurological underpinnings of these children and are seeing some very distinct differences.

Someone mentioned using both math and magical ways of thinking as a basis for education. It's always struck me as odd that people separate the two. Math, to me, is just another one of many symbol systems, that when combined, produce very real effects on the physical world. People refer to 'theoretical physics' and 'imaginary numbers'. Couldn't it be a distinction without too much of a difference? Our civilization is built in part on it, at least for the last few hundred years. Change the symbol system that underlie a civilization and you may get a whole new society.

My donkey said...

JMG: You say that America's educational system now produces many functionally illiterate adults who have no real notion how their government works, have little knowledge of the world, are largely ignorant of art & literature, and are mostly incapable of critical thinking.

I agree but I don't think it became this way by accident or neglect. I believe it happened intentionally by design. George Carlin lays it out very well in this 3-minute video.

To summarize Carlin's main point: the corporate owners of this country want obedient workers -- people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but not cerebral enough to question or protest anything.

Through decades of lobbying politicians, influencing policymakers, and controlling the mass media, corporate owners have gotten what they wanted. Corporate productivity and profitability recently hit all-time highs, so I'm sure there's plenty of owners and shareholders who are pleased with the system's ability to crank out obedient workers. Their response to your article might be "If you think the system is bad and needs changing, you're just not looking at it from the proper perspective."

John Michael Greer said...

Yupped, glad to hear it.

Beneath, I had much the same experience; during my last year at university, one of my professors let me know that he'd be happy to have me as a grad student. I thanked him but turned the offer down. In my case it was, as much as anything, because the subjects I wanted to study and the books I planned on writing were not the sort of thing that will advance an academic career -- quite the contrary, in fact.

Ozark, the diet/neurology thing is interesting. Some people seem to be powerfully affected by that, others don't; I fall on the latter end, fortunately.

Cherokee, thank you.

Bill, fair enough.

Adrian, oh, granted. There's Aspergers, and then there's the totally personal structure that's been built up over a lifetime to cope with it and, not incidentally, the rest of the human condition. The latter's the important thing, even though knowing about the former can make the latter easier to work with.

Malcolm, the classic medical systems of Asia that you've mentioned are certainly very good options -- as a t'ai chi practitioner I've picked up a certain amount of traditional Chinese medicine, and it works extremely well -- but I'd say that there are other options as well. The west had its own energetic medicine not that long ago, and enough remains of it that recovering it isn't out of reach; and there are more recent systems that are also worth considering. Here as elsewhere, diversity is a source of strength.

Donkey, sure, and that explains why businessmen are tearing their hair out because of the low quality of employees they can get from American colleges, and have to go to such trouble to import skilled employees from overseas. Honestly, why must you go hunting for a scapegoat?

siddrudge said...

I too am an autodidact. Although I hate the word because it sounds like an affliction or a type of person that the local police keep a database on. Right next to those pedophiles! :)

I dropped out after two years of college. I was studying fine arts and illustration (not enough money and even less guidance at my disposal)

For me, I view higher education the same way I view boats - - they both require an enormous amount of energy and money :-) Many boat owners lament that "a boat is hole in the water into which you pour money." So I've learned that It's always better to have a friend who owns a boat because they're always looking for someone to help out with the endless maintenance. :-)

And for me, my friends with fancy expensive college degrees have always recognized my native gifts and abilities, and have been generous to open doors for me in the workplace.

One of my very first jobs, in the mid-70's, was working as a file clerk in a blueprint room for a large precision tool manufacturer. I was surrounded by engineers and draftsman who (at that time) were struggling with the advent of CAD technology. Many older draftsman and engineers were being replaced by shiny new CAD systems. I guess the colleges they came from never prepared them for their own obsolescence. It was sad to watch.

In my spare time I looked over their shoulders and learned how to read blueprints. One older gentleman, recognized my natural aptitude and curiosity and took me under his wing and taught me how to create technical renderings using compasses, old ruling pens, etc. What an education! And all for free!!

When 'desktop publishing' came into play, I was absorbed by their marketing services department and was one of the first few traditional illustrators who was able to make the leap from the drawing board to the whole new world of Macintosh computers, Adobe Illustrator and the amazing bezier curve. They weren't teaching this stuff in art schools at the time. I know personally that many schools rejected desktop publishing technology - - thought it was a fad - - (much like newspapers until recently, rejected the reality of the internet - - thought it was just intrusive technology with no future. LOL.

Fast forward thirty years - - I've had some great jobs as a senior designer, art director and creative director for some fairly successful business-to-business advertising and marketing agencies and corporate marketing departments (Unlike 'consumer' advertising, a creative person doesn't have to sell his soul in the business-to-business world. And, you can actually learn a lot of very useful things.)

I've hired many people through the years, and most of them had much more formal education than myself. I was never threatened by their credentials -- indeed, I was challenged by them. But I never hired anyone on the basis of their education. I am no more impressed by a person's intelligence evidenced by their college degrees than I am by a politician's trustworthiness and patriotism by way of those ubiquitous flag lapel buttons. (gag!)

I would always hire people who had curious minds. People who were well read. I feel that we draw from these interests - - it informs the work. Nothing in- nothing out, I say.

But perhaps the real interesting thing about my 'autodidactic' path is that I was often invited to speak and conduct workshops at some of the local colleges, and have been teaching a couple of continued education courses (part time) at a prestigious college for the past ten years. They keep calling me back probably because my evaluations are off the charts. And to think that I applied to this very same college after high school and was rejected. LOL!!!

Mark said...

It's probably been said in the thread but I missed it but you can't go wrong with an engineering education.

Despite the fact that the education came from a traditional university, it has served me quite well. But it wasn't my specific major that made the difference. (I studied nuclear engineering but left the industry shortly after finishing my MS) It was, I believe, because we spent almost all of our time learning processes for solving problems.

I guess you could call it "meta knowledge" disguised as calculus, physics, etc homework.

While I suffered in the humanities eduction, I've taken that on as one of my problems to solve now that I'm older. I've begun referring to myself as a "Recovering Engineer" (though, once an engineer, always an engineer I'm told) learning to read the classics, participating in theater, etc... (I know, I know, one day at a time)

beneaththesurface said...


Neat that you have synesthesia too! I've done a lot of reading on it since I learned the name and that it was growing research topic in neuroscience. Yes, it's quite common that synesthetes are artists, composers, or other types of creative people. I'd never met another person with synesthesia until I went to the a conference of the American Synesthesia Association four years ago. It was really interesting to be part of a conference that was very collaborative between both scientists and artists. All the synesthetes there seemed to be artists or composers too. Sean Day, one of the researchers and synesthetes studying it (who's also on the board of ASA), is also a composer ( If it's ever easy for you to attend one of the conferences, I encourage you to do so:

I find synesthesia interesting not just because I have it, but because of the larger implications from the study of it...about the nature of subjective experience, about the possibilities of the mind in all of us, etc. The first book I read on it I recommend: The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic. I've read others since then. Diverse people can have synesthesia, though I do find synesthetes to be eccentric, at least that was my conclusion going to that conference.

As for Aspergers, I find that I have some of the key characteristics associated with Aspergers, though other characteristics not so much, so I'm ambivalent about the use in getting a diagnosis. Also, I think I had a very supportive and nurturing upbringing so the deficiencies I have (esp. skills in social interactions, reading relationships), I didn't fully realize until later on. I think if I had a different childhood, I'd be having a much harder time.

Houyhnhnm said...

@Mary—I agree with the points you make on horses.

Horse training requires the rare ability to blend past-present-future into near instantaneous movement, whether action or reaction. Some people can’t learn horse body language. Some lack physical dexterity. On and on. Working with horses is dangerous enough for those of us who through training and instinct react appropriately.

Incidentally, one of my students is a professional breath worker. One guess what she has trouble with when she rides. She’s proof that exhaling to aid the halt doesn’t come naturally to most people.

To your comments, I’d add that I hope even non-horsey people will learn enough to understand the role of horses in history. Too many today, if they think of horses at all, think of them as pets, as show ring toys, or as part of the racing “industry.” I fear such ignorance could contribute to a decimation of breeding stock on a far greater scale than that of the Russian Revolution where the great Mesaoud, among others, was lost.

Have you read The Horse in Human History by Pita Kelekna or Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America by Ann Norton Greene? I’m going to be pitching theses books to my non-horsey friends. I’m hoping learning some history will help them understand why I’m so concerned about the future of the horse.

And, lastly, Mary, sorry I haven’t responded to your last comment on my Swift Horse blog. I will find time, but for now irrigating pastures.

@My Donkey—

I’m a huge fan of George Carlin, especially his rants on writing style. Much of what he says about “obedient workers” was true in an earlier incarnation of the American education mess.

Over the last few decades though, other factors instituted by educational theorists in the name of fairness and democracy have been far more devastating.

Once again, I recommend Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. I’ve handed this book to several people who took it saying they intended to read only Part 5, “Education in a Democracy.” So far, all have gone back to read the entire book.


You response to Donkey surprised me.

I am fascinated by the tangled threads that have led to today’s educational mess. Donkey identified one. I lived through another since I was lucky enough to have been in elementary school when Sputnik went up. In retaliatory panic, our educational system suddenly—and briefly—pandered to its brightest students.

@Everyone who reads this. Can you answer these questions?

What is the history of the word “horsepower”?

One horsepower equals how much manpower?


peacegarden said...

Ozark Chinquapin,

"Sepp Holzer's Permaculture" is a wonderful book! I love the picture of him grinning at one of his pigs…his mushroom growing information is also helpful. This book is on my shelf of reference works that my husband and I will be referring to as we set up our homestead.

Your nutritional experimentation rang a bell here…are you familiar with Chris Kresser, the Healthy Skeptic? The brain-gut connection is very important. I have been eating no grains for about two months now, and am feeling great; energy levels high, clarity of thought, blood sugar levels staying low…It is so good to take control of your health.

I don’t believe I am allergic to gluten, but I may have been addicted to bread…it took me almost 9 months to move forward with this “radical” change. Surprise! It was far from the horror I’d imagined…and weight is dropping effortlessly (that needs to happen, but was not my primary motivation!).

I think all of life is connected in an ecological way. Linear thinking and reductionism have divorced us from living authentically. The rise of the specialist has pushed us generalists to the fringes…I’m glad of that, as being out of the paradigm is where I’d rather be.

We have two magnificent Chestnut trees…does your name imply that you are a fan? I only just learned that the Chinquapin is the same tree as the Chestnut.



Tracy G said...

John Michael,

I hope this question isn't too far off topic, but I noticed your comment about the West having its own energetic medicine, and that has made me wonder whether there's any specific branch(es) associated with druidry.

I participated in an out-of-town continuing education workshop for bodyworkers this past weekend. The instructor taught us a uterine massage technique drawn from traditional Chinese medicine. It consists of six strokes over the abdomen in a radial pattern: three from the base of the rib cage to the navel, plus three from the tops of the hipbones and pubic crest to the navel. The pattern looks very much like a Tribann. I recognized this only because your Druidry Handbook arrived at my house just in time for me to tuck it into my travel bag, and I happened to read that very page during the lunch break, immediately before the teacher introduced the technique. It was an odd and delightful synchronicity.

So, anyhow, now I'm curious: are there any special types of massage/bodywork/energy work which are particularly related to druidry? If so, those must be fascinating modalities to study and practice, and I'd be interested in learning more about them.

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG said, “Houyhnhnm, er, if I said that I was going to discuss the petroleum industry would you expect me to post something about vegetable oil? No, the education industry is the industry that claims to produce and sell education -- that is to say, the colleges and universities . . . . “

I’ve been so busy in the fields that I only found this response a couple of minutes ago.

Last week, when you said you had “harsh things to say about the state of education in America” I assumed you were talking about the breadth of the term. By the time you narrowed your definition to the “education industry,” I had already soared off onto thoughts of television, The Ministry of Education.

So, no, I wouldn’t expect you to discuss vegetable oil if you had mentioned petroleum industry. However, I might well have expected that had you been discussing “fuel,” a term as broad as “education.” Is the fuel industry restricted to petroleum?

For example, categorizing FUEL from general to specific could produce this list:


It could also lead to


Similarly, general term "education”splinters into ever smaller bits, for example,


Or it might lead to EDUCATION/INFORMAL/PEER INFLUENCES/GANGS and on and on.

When I finally realized your focus was so narrow, I felt like I’d been transported to a blog where someone complains about the price of gasoline without discussing the reasons behind those prices.

Your writing is usually of such high quality that I am still surprised by all this. Perhaps I missed an “overall” or some sort of qualifier early on. I’m tired, so it’s certainly possible.

Still, I was expecting a more sociological analysis of the core cultural issues driving contemporary education. Considering the time we’ve both wasted, I’m now I’m sorry I said anything.


Georgi Marinov said...

I am definitely biased and leaning heavily towards the category of the hardcore scientist dismissing the humanities as mostly worthless, but there is a very good reason for it and it is that the humanities and the excessive extent to which intellectual activity has focused on them historically is a a major reason for the situation we are in right now. We are in this situation because we never fully realized our place in the universe and instead of seeing ourselves as yet another species on yet another small planet in the vastness of cosmic space, fully dependent on the health of the ecosystems of that planet and limited in its growth by the energy flows through those ecosystems, we saw ourselves as the center and the meaning of the universe. It was precisely the sciences that have made it possible for (a small portion) of us to understand the foolishness of this attitude. And it has historically been the humanities who have distracted our thinking in the opposite direction.

I am not dismissing the humanities as entirely worthless, far from it, but the fact is that the majority of them focus on issues of what is essentially insignificant details of intraspecies competition between humans, while the role of the environment has gotten very little attention. The whole approach to history, philosophy, ethics, etc., has been a non-ecological one, and the vast majority of the great works of literature deal either with love on one side or politics, history (of the non-ecological kind) or ethics on the other. The end result is a culture that focuses on the details of its internal affairs and has completely forgotten that it is a tiny subsystem of the physical world around it.

So I can not agree with the idea that we need to go back to paying more attention to the humanities in their familiar form. Now, it is entirely correct that the ideals of the Enlightenment crash headlong into the realities of human nature. But there is a very good reason for it and it is that human nature was not understood at all at the time. After all, Darwin came only in the middle of the 19th century and it wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that the genetic and biological foundations of human behavior began to be understood (and I am not saying we understand it completely now, just that we know much better than people in the 18th century). So while not really possible in practice at this point, in principle, a society that is designed to keep human nature in check and prevent it from causing its self-destruction could be designed. Again, unlikely to be even practically possible so it is largely a purely academic discussion, but worth thinking about nevertheless.

RainbowShadow said...

Hang on, John Michael Greer, you have Asperger's Syndrome?

I do too, actually! And I do seem to have benefited from the intellectual "plus side" you mentioned.

Zach said...


I was taught (and am using my memory rather than Google to recall :) ) that the term and measurement "horsepower" was created at the dawn of the steam age, as a way of relating the power of the new engines to something familiar. Of course, not all horses pull with the same power, so the "horsepower" measurment was standardized (at 760 Watts).

(UPDATE: confirms my memory, other than my being off a bit with the conversion factor, which varies by location and industry.)


Well, one can go wrong with any degree program, but I am very happy with my Engineering degree. I am probably a bit unusual, in that I used my general education credits to pick up a solid basis in the humanities (rather than fluff). It can be done (or at least, it could be done twenty years ago, and I would hope it can still be done now...) Although I admit to being an autodidact as well.


Disagree entirely. Post-Enlightentment Western rationalism/scientism is hardly the first worldview to hold that humans are a tiny piece of an uncaring cosmos. Furthermore, you're misunderstanding the notion of Man being the imago Dei. That hardly makes us "the center and the meaning of the universe" -- God is the Center and Meaning, and to place humanity at the center is a textbook case of both blasphemy and idolatry. This is more characteristic of post-Enlightement humanist philosophies than of the pre-Enlightenment Medieval Scholastics, who understood quite well that man is "a little lower than the angels" and made of the dust of the earth.

Perhaps more study of the humanities would have provided you with that historical perspective. :)

If time permitted, I would also critique your classic chronological snobbery that our ancestors knew nothing of "human nature," or your using scientific cover for what are really philosphical or religious positions...


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

A worthwhile historical/critical article about the dismal state of learning in higher ed (in the U.S.) is "Live and Learn: Why We Have College" by Louis Menand in the June 6 New Yorker. He discusses many of the same issues commented on in this thread.

Glenn said...

Horsepower: Manpower:

1. I remember hearing many years ago that James Watt invented and defined the term Horsepower as a way of defining the power of his steam engines in terms his contemporaries could easily understand. It was also alledged that he used small horses, to make his engines look better.

2. As I recall One Horsepower is about 4 times what an Olympic athlete can produce for a short period, or about 10 times what an ordinary fit adult can produce for a sustained period (say a couple of hours).

As I've said before, horses are not the only useful draft animals. I think in the United States we concentrate too much on them due to the Myth of the Cowboy and the American West. Horses are fast and good for light ground. Per unit of useful work Oxen and donkeys are cheaper to feed. You pay a lot for that grace and speed, notably a less effecient digestive system and more susceptibility to disease. Horsemanship is a fine art, but we shouldn't under rate the other species.


Marrowstone Island

Adrian Skilling said...

Do any of us have the breadth of experience of education to really know what goes on in our schools and colleges now? In the UK a University education is getting more expensive by multiples of about 3 every year and surely can't be affordable, its behind the US I guess - so I agree that doesn't look good. And Universities are getting more and more influenced by commercial organisations which is also not good.

Training purely for a job might be bad, but then why is that so different from an apprentiship? I guess JMG you would argue that each has its place and thats true.

But I cannot agree with the assertion that the education system is wholesale heading downhill.

For instance at my sons primary school ( up to age 11 ) they look to be getting a good rounded education. They do forest school, learn about gardening and participate on measuring and implementing recycling measures, etc... and choosing charities for fund raising. So they seem to be engaged politically and have power and take responsibility from a young age. This is really good. Also they sometimes participate in mixed age groups which I think is really valuable.

Brad K. said...

@ Adrian Skilling,

"Training purely for a job might be bad, but then why is that so different from an apprentiship?"

My own perception of an apprenticeship is one of training in the skills of the crafts, and also the culture and society of craftspeople in general and the social structure of that craft in particular. This goes into values of living, celebrations and biases far outside the limited teaching of a limited selection of skills that trade schools or an employer focus on.

I consider apprenticeship to be an introduction to a way of life, an introduction into a community of craftspeople, as well as an introduction to the skills of a particular craft.

Certainly each apprenticeship bears a risk that the master will short-change the apprentice. Instead we rely on a universal education program that assures that all students are suitably short-changed, with only the aberrant few modern students becoming a wider-thinking member of a wider world.

Because that is what I conceive of the intent of an education. An education should affect how a person thinks, with a combination of insight into historical thinking and cultural riches, and applying introspection and awareness of the wider world to personal efforts and choices.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: education, in my view educational institutions (public and private) reflect larger trends in society as much or more than they create them. During the industrial boom, public schools instilled the values of factory and corporate office workers -- punctuality, obedience, tolerance for rote repetition. During the 60s and 70s they evolved into more diverse and varied forms. Since the 1980s they have steadily evolved into vo-tech schools to fill constantly shifting business needs. Of course they tend to run a half a decade or a decade behind the times. In 1979 I enrolled in a prestigious west coast university. Our curriculum was pretty much "Hey, man, study whatever you want, it's all groovy. Peace!" The faculty were vaguely afraid of the student body. This was all strange to us, because as far as we were concerned the hippies were old news and the campus rebellions were ancient history. But in the minds of the faculty, it had hardly been yesterday that all the windows on the Quad were covered with plywood and their offices were closed by sit-ins. So they still bent over backwards to avoid pressuring us too much or agitating us. Meanwhile we were saying "You're kidding, right? I don't have to take a single foreign language, math, history, or english class if I don't want to? PARTY TIME!!!" The most popular class on campus was Human Sexuality (that's not a joke, it really was a for-credit course in the Psych department). A year later the faculty began to suspect maybe times might have changed a teeny bit, and instituted a modest mandatory core curriculum. But those of my class and earlier were grandfathered in, so we got to continue living in a strange chimera of the 1960s and 1980s for a few more years.

In recent years, America is confused and grasping at straws and scapegoats trying to identify What Is Wrong, Who Is To Blame, and How To Fix It. This is happening in the schools the same as everywhere else. It is the same force that is causing the electorate to "throw the bums out" every 4 years; each time throwing out the new bums they just voted in last time to replace the previous bums. The result is a lot of chaos and arbitrary junk that hurts more than it helps.

I would guess the next wave will be the long slow scramble for survival and adaptation skills, and if there is anything left of public education at that time I expect to see that come to dominate the curriculum. I am more than a little worried about what happens to the rest of human knowledge during this period; I gather JMG is as well, so I look forward to more discussion on this!

Robert said...

The state where I live, Rhode Island, is the smallest in the union, and it contains only 39 towns. Many of them, including almost all of the largest towns, are on the verge of bankruptcy, and the state government is not all that far behind. (Nor is this a Republican ploy: in Rhode Island the voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, and almost all elected officials belong to the Democratic party.)

Just this morning the first of the dominoes fell: Central Falls was declared bankrupt. All of the city’s contractual obligations were legally dissolved this morning, including those with the police and fire departments, the library system, the community centers -- and the school department. It is unclear whether Central Falls will even be able to send its children to school in the Fall, five weeks from now, although the court-appointed receiver is making hopeful noises. It seems quite possible that in ten more years, all but the few wealthiest towns in Rhode Island will be bankrupt, and unable to meet their legal obligation to offer public schooling. Nor will the state government have enough money, ten years from now, to support it instead of the towns.

From where I sit, it looks as though the question will soon be, not how do we reform our systems of education. Rather, it will be, how do we as parents educate our own children, family by family, when there are no longer any school systems in our world to educate them for us. Clearly, we will have to educate them ourselves as best we can. But how can we do this?

(continued in the next post)

Robert (mageprof)

Robert said...

(continued from the previous post)

I think the story of my wife’s great-great-grandfather may shed some light on the question. Benjamin Randall Jordan (1805-1853) spent all his life in rural western Maine (generally in Newfield and Parsonsfield). He was the middle of 9 children. His father had died of consumption when he was 12. Not long after he turned 13, he was in the yard, picking up wood chips for fuel, when he heard a cry, ran into the house and found his mother dead on the kitchen floor. The nine children kept the family together and the farm going for two years more, but then split up. At 15, Benjamin was indentured to a farmer in Parsonsfield for 6 years, that is, until he turned 21. All in all, not a very promising start for an intelligent boy.

However, he had been put to a “dame school” when he turned 6: a certain Mrs. Mitchell taught him to read, that is, to take a written text and sound out the words correctly one after another. Women taught these lessons, in the year 1811, with the aid of a spelling book, either Webster’s speller or one of the other spellers for sale in Newfield country store. There were other books for sale in the country store, and there was a very small shelf of books in his home.

Later, as one of the terms of his indenture, he was promised 14 months of schooling in the Parsonsfield village school. As he notes in the chronicle he wrote of his life, he “got 12 months of it,” spread out over several winters. When he was 16, he studied “Arithmetick, Reading & spelling.” The next year he studied Geography, and the year after that he studied “Grammar &c.” And that was all the formal schooling he ever got.

But he bought books all his life – his library has come down to us intact – and he read them: Cowper’s “The Task,” Butler’s “Hudibras,” Pope’s “Poetical Works” and his translation of “The Iliad,” Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” various textbooks of physics, of astronomy, and of history, a manual of what now would be called comparative religions, Samuel Drake’s “The Book of the Indians of North America,” Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and “The Holy War,” and many others.

When he turned 21, he was free to earn his own living. He farmed his own land, but every winter he also worked as a schoolmaster in Parsonsfield or one of the nearby towns. In 1832 he edited a volume of poetry by a local poet, Thomas Randall, and saw it through the press. At some point in his adult life he discovered Swedenborg, and became the librarian of the local Swedenborg Society.

And he wrote. He filled page after page with his own verse, with philosophical and religious speculations, with a history of his own life, and so forth. These writings he formed into books, which he bound himself, and he left these books to his descendants. We still treasure them, more than a century and a half later.

Not too shabby, eh, for an intelligent boy who had only had 12 months of education beyond Dame School!?

(continued in the next post)

Robert (mageprof)

Robert said...

(continued from previous post)

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. A world is coming where there will be no school systems to send one’s children to, and no careers – as we now understand careers – that they might follow.

If a child is intelligent and curious, teach him or her the bare mechanics of how to read English. It doesn’t take all that long, and it isn’t all that hard. The old-fashioned “speller” method still works, but it is not the only option. Then have books in the house that satisfy your child’s curiosity, and make time for him or her to read them.

Of course, not every child is intelligent and curious at the outset. You can try to awaken curiosity and encourage every sign of intelligence. But children are not all the same, and do not all want to do the same things with their lives. The world also, to riff on Montaigne’s famous saying, needs good pastry cooks. And it needs good farmers, and good craftsmen of all sorts, and good musicians and storytellers, and so forth.

As a parent, you do the best you can. That’s all any parent can do.

Robert (mageprof)

Isis said...

This post (and the subsequent discussion) has been rather thought provoking, and it's inspired me to (once again) reflect on my own education. As I'm maturing (I'm now in my late twenties), I'm realizing more and more that my education, while excellent in some respects, has been rather patchy. Perhaps the most important gap is that it's been thoroughly modern in the sense that I have very little notion of the Western culture and history (and indeed humanity's culture and history, but I'm trying to be modest here by sticking to the West) from the pre-modern times. Sometimes, I find myself equating ancient history with the nineteenth century, because this is about as far back as my readings have taken me. One consequence of this is that I lack historical context and tend to ascribe recent origin to ideas that are, at least in some cases, quite old. (For an amusing example: I was recently startled to discover that a certain literary technique, which I'm quite fond of and which I had for years assumed had been invented by certain early 20th century French writers, was in fact extensively employed by Pushkin, nearly a full century earlier. I now suspect that the technique in question was not invented by Pushkin either, but having read almost nothing written prior to the nineteenth century, I don't have the faintest idea where or when it originated. Of course, this is a minor matter, and not that important in and of itself, but it does, I think, provide an telling illustration of the point I'm trying to make.)

Which brings me to the practical question: short of going back to school, how does one make up for these sorts of deficiencies? On the one hand, I do realize that there is a problem. On the other hand, I find it hard to approach anything pre-modern, partly because I don't really know where to start, and partly out of fear of misunderstanding and misinterpreting what the authors are saying. And as much as I would support the project of revamping formal education, what someone like me needs is more of a guide for self-study, an instruction for avoiding the common pitfalls of autodidactic learning. (I am reminded of a novel of Sartre's in which one of the characters embarks on the project of educating himself, and his method of study is to read every single book in his small town public library, in alphabetical order by the author's last name. This is, of course, a caricature, but it does bring home the real dangers of the unguided autodidact's project.)

I was thinking that it might be helpful, both to me and to your other readers, if you (JMG) were to share your intellectual history in more detail. You clearly have a broad education, and I'd be interested in learning how you went about acquiring it, since it doesn't seem to have happened (or at least not primarily) in school.

LewisLucanBooks said...

My mother and father got their high school education in the 1930s. Mom completed high school, but Dad dropped out at 14 and hit the road. Their grasp of literature would be considered startling, these days.

Mom knew all the Shakespeare and poems from Longfellow to Keats. Even Dad could reel of stanza after stanza of Robert Service. Both the legitimate poems and the naughty parodies.

I was in a "antique" store recently and saw a blue and white china plate illustrating the "Speak for yourself, John" story. It's a bit of American folklore. A love triangle from the first pilgrims between John Alden, Priscilla Mullins and Miles Standish. Longfellow wrote a poem about it.

It made me sad that so few people know the story behind that scene on the plate. One in a hundred? One in five hundred? With what we're facing, maybe it's not important. But as I'm sorting through my books to decide what to take with me, I have made room for an old "Treasury of American Folktales" that belonged to my grandparents. It seems important.

kayxyz said...

Completely agree. Look at the birth certificate claptrap. Because my family was expecting a child and transfering via a corporate move, I kept copies of both the long form and the short form birth certicate. When the claptrap came up via Lou Dobbs, I took copies of the long form and the short form. I made my "other" pals read the instructions at the top of the long form out loud. They got very redfaced and quiet and angry when they did, because the long form birth certificate is absolutely NOT legal for proof of identity. I had tried to use it twice--once for my child's social security card and again for admission to middle school. Government officials told me the long form is not legal for proof of identity--20 years ago!

Same with transcripts. They are absolutely not public documents. I attended a small university; the transcripts are kept in a bank vault, similar to how safety deposit boxes are kept. The people yelling about "release the transcripts" are, to a man and woman, the people who flunked out of a university.

Education: simple: clock how much time at home is spent on homework, simple time spent on task. The classroom ratio of teacher to student is 1:40 or so. The at-home ratio of adult to child is 2:1 or so. I've also observed that Maria Montessori's methods for teaching are almost completely overlooked in the US. Montessori was the first woman in Italy to finish medical school. She developed her methods from her time spent studying medicine. She selected her first students from Italian slums. Her only stipulation was that they had to show up in clean clothes. All of her first class of children graduated from universities.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Peacegarden, Thanks for the recommendation, I have not heard of Chris Kresser but will look him up.

As for chestnuts, I love them and have planted many, although rarely get to eat them because my trees are too small too produce and buying them is pretty expensive. When I do get a chance to eat them I will eat a ton. Some people have used them as staples, but it's yet to see whether that could end up a reality in my situation.

The genus Castanea contains the chestnuts and the chinquapins. The ozark chinquapin is restricted to the Ozarks and a few nearby areas, and is uncommon because it is vulnerable to the same blight which hit the American Chestnuts, which are not native as far west as the Ozarks. Go to if you're curious (not my website, just one about the tree)

Houyhnhnm said...

@Zach--Good memory.

@Glenn--Many good points. I certainly don't mean to dismiss other draft animals.

The oxen you mention are promising since any type of cattle can be yoked for draft and they are more docile than horses. However, oxen plod even slower than draft horses and don't tolerate heat as well--which is saying something. Also, the digestive system of cattle, while efficient, limits their working time. So, horses win over cattle for work such as treadmills and threshing.

Donkeys have much to recommend them, both as draft and even riding stock. Their highest value though will come if people have enough sense to use them to breed one of the best ride/drive/pull animals ever--the mule.

Mules take heat and poor forage well. They live longer than horses and have fewer health problems. The supposed downside-- stubbornness--is actually just a stolid sense of self-preservation.

While mules require some different training tactics, the horse people I know who've tried mules end up complaining about how much of their lives they've wasted with horses.

The real problem with mules is they are smart--too much so for most people. A doctor I know in Montana calls mules "the thinking man's horse" and I agree.

As sterile hybrids though, mules are more difficult and more expensive to produce. However, since donkeys and horses can be crossed to produce mules tiny or tall, light or heavy, it's worth it. The biggest job is educating people about how to breed and handle them.

Also, we should not discount camels, another animal that does well in heat and whose feet do not tear up the earth. Of course, camels too require different training methods.


Brad K. said...

@ Isis,

Determining what is a "lack" according to society, to an employer, to you in terms of satisfaction, curiosity, security, or safety is an immense undertaking. Thus, many Americans, and others, I presume, choose to default to whatever "the system" cares to teach. Pick a prepared, "certified" credential, and voila, you have a study plan.

"short of going back to school, how does one make up for these sorts of deficiencies? " Some years ago I read a science fiction book, Heinlein's "Have Space Suit Will Travel." The story, once the kid gets his salvaged space suit functioning and is carried off by aliens, is pretty absurd. Before that story point, though -- the kid's father notices that high school isn't educating Our Hero. And sets him additional texts and work to be done to remedy that lack.

There are numerous respected books on nearly any topic. Finding someone that you respect, and can get their recommendations, is a non-trivial task. Many books with worthwhile contributions to the body of knowledge available to humankind also contain some flaws (my cherished SF novel one case in point; most "text" books have been edited to meet arbitrary age, politics, or dogma goals).

The task you face is one that scholars and other thinking people have faced through the ages. You acquire knowledge by reviewing the works of others, interpreting them for your own understanding, and deciding which matters of information are of value to you.

Document your search to help define when you find what you look for, and to provide backup points to resume your search, when you abandon a dead end. Others have found such searches for knowledge to be worth writing and publishing, and reading.

Mostly what you need in order to learn, is a question, and enough discipline (will to complete a task), to look for answers to that question. If you find it uncomfortable to stretch from the path of predefined destinations, you are correct. People are hard-wired to seek security -- to avoid change. Change is measured in discomfort, whether changing jobs, starting to date or ending dating. Any real change must put away the life that went before, that loss is real, the grief is real, and all change hurts.

The discomfort of change can be endured, hopefully leading to a bettered life.

Blessed be!

Brad K. said...

@ Robert,

"A world is coming where there will be no school systems to send one’s children to"

I don't believe it. Oh, there will be some isolated communities that lose formal schooling of any description, I am sure.

But, "Give me your children, and I will take your nation," still looms out there. Religious schools as well as those with secular agendas will pose to capture your children, as the Dept of Ed does today in America. Read, write, math? Yep. Indoctrination to sing praises to President Obama? I recall those videos. Scary.

Knowing how we program children by what we choose to teach them in terms of what history we explain, misrepresent, or fail to disclose, the values and bigotry we make part of our institutions, these go into shaping a community and society. Most people will still find a school attracting -- or demanding -- their children.

So I expect some form of schooling to endure. I remain a bit hopeful, that schools will be freed of the taint of propaganda and deliberate social shaping, but I am a romantic.

Deepthought said...

Dear JMG, I am very impressed with your deductions on how abstraction will not bring education anywhere but into the abyss in the near future, and, looking at it from a perspective from yonder the atlantic, I wanted to make some comments:
- While it seems that in Germany at least the state of things is not quite as bad as you describe, the tendencies are clearly there. Industry dictates more to be taught in less time, leading to first time applicants to companies that are exactly educated to their standard, but fully fail to perform for a lack of real life experience.
- In physics, where my home lies, we leave all the theories, and do away with the practical parts, because they take too long.
- But the real issue, which you have not picked up upon I think, that we have here in the humanities, is that they are mainly seen as a prerequisite subject for politicians, journalists and historians. Indeed you have to have a PhD in any one of the humanities to get ahead. However, again, no one is given the time to really do a proper PhD. Research? Duh, too hands on. At the moment we look at an unprecedented stream of high profile politicians that have their PhDs revoked for plagiarism. Universities like them because they give credit by celebrity status and so they can get away with almost anything. Our former Defense Minister C.T.z. Guttenberg has adamantly held up he tried to properly cite all his copied passages, but may have failed in some cases (I believe almost 80% of the pages included plagiarized paragraphs). The chancellor then said she did not hire him as a Social Scientist. And this exactly leads back to the main issue, a PhD is looked upon as a title inferring broad education, scientific working attitude and general wisdom, but the fact that solid work is needed, and that high school and college education does no longer really prepare students for this, is ignored. Can we please all have wise geniuses after 3 years of college? No.

Thus currently there is an interesting climate in Germanies Universities where Students bash Uni Senates for being too lenient with high profile candidates and a public that looses all faith in higher education, which has been one of Germany's greatest economical assets so far.

Whether that will lead to a substantial reversal in the dumbing down of our education I doubt, but at least the debate might bring some awareness of the very weird way that politics and industry use higher education.

peacegarden said...


Montessori was a genius in her approach…”follow the child” was the backbone of her methods. I was trained as a Montessori teacher and worked for years in a small school.

The Practical Life area is especially interesting; children are taught individually how to do such things as scrubbing the table or hand washing (with a ceramic pitcher and bowl, no less!) They are then allowed to do these “works” whenever they desire if the “work” is available. They can continue to use that work as long as they desire…no forced sharing, etc. It is incredibly rewarding to step back and observe a three year old carry out the very long sequence of steps, taught in silence, involved in either of the tasks mentioned. These activities and the whole methodology foster deep concentration and genuine mastery…the children are literally constructing themselves before our eyes. It is profoundly awe-inspiring. Montessori believed that the ideal ratio of one teacher and assistant to 30-35 s children of mixed age (2-6yrs) actually works, but the child education/care laws require higher ratios and not so much mixing of the ages. Much gets lost in translation.

The other issue is that Montessori is seen as an “elite” method for high achieving parents, and has evolved toward an expensive product oriented curriculum. Parents want product and schools believe they must accommodate. The joy in learning comes from the act of being immersed in the process.

There is also a bit of a cult-like aspect to maintaining the purity of Dr Montessori’s teachings. I have to admit I fell into this a little bit myself, but the theory and application are still valuable. I plan on helping to keep that knowledge alive for future generations in some small way
@Ozark Chinquapin

Thanks for the link…the chestnuts we have are very productive, though eaten primarily by our resident deer and groundhogs. We are trying to pick them up and treat for chestnut weevils by bringing them up to 120F and holding for 20 minutes or immediate freezing (as if there is room in the freezer!). There is a market for them here and we are contemplating selling at the Community Market this fall.



Bill Pulliam said...

Finally, pretty late in the week, to get to your core concept here. I'm a bit uncertain both about your choice of the term "reflective" based on how you describe it, and your thesis that it is at a particularly low ebb now in society as a whole. The way you describe "abstraction" and "reflection" make them sound more like "absolutism" and "relativism." This is certainly not an art/science split either; there have been times when the arts were extremely codified and formalized, and periods in science when relativism and epistemology ruled the day. The phrase you use to introduce the idea of "reflective" knowledge, "the view that recognizes that human ideas of the order of the cosmos are, in the final analysis, just another set of human ideas," sounds very close to a fundamental tenant of Postmodernism. In spite of what looks like excessive rigidity in news and politics, in culture as a whole postmodernism and relativism are extremely strong trends in society now. I think the veneer of absolutism might be in fact more of a highly visible backlash against the pervasive "you do your thing, I I do my thing, it's all good" attitude of true mainstream society, rather than the actual core trend of contemporary thought. While politicians rant about homosexuality, most actual people grow less and less concerned about it with each passing day.

Maybe I am just having problems with the terminology you chose. I do have a general sense, however, that the true American zeitgeist is not really what is represented in the pseudo-documentaries of that name but is something much more, well, reflective.

Houyhnhnm said...

For what it's worth, here are some books I found relevant to the problems with American education. Only one of them directly deals with education, but I hope my brief annotations show the relationship of history, capitalism, and the American educational system in the last sixty-some years.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 1975. Print.

Poetry professor Fussell won both the National Book Award for Arts and Letters and National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism with this study of World War I. It’s a tour de force example of the value of literature in historical analysis. I add it mostly because it leads up to his work on WW II below. Skip this one if you aren’t a history or lit buff.

---. Wartime: Understanding the Behavior in the Second World War. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.

Of this work by Fussell, Lionel Trilling wrote, “An original and brilliant piece of cultural history and one of the most deeply moving books I have read in a long time.” Since great literary critic Trilling was not given to excessive praise, I will only add that Fussell’s analysis of the negative impact of winning the war on the future of the United States makes this work a good lead-in to the works by Lapham.

Heilman, Robert Bechtold. The Professor and the Profession. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1999. Print.

New Critic Heilman (1906-2004), chair of the UDub English department from 1948 until 1971, begins this collection of essays with personal memoirs that many might want to skip. However, the fifth section, a collection of essays titled “Education Examined,” provides a clear view of the shifts in teaching by outlining the three dominant schools types of “litcrit” that ruled and then fell during the 20th C. This section also contains “The Great-Teacher Myth,” his fairly well known rant by about the Robin Williams’ movie Dead Poets Society.

I’m biased here. Post Modernism was only a cloud on the horizon when I studied under him in the late 60s, but I now know he loathed PoMo even more than I.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Houghton: Boston, 1993. Print.

Kohn’s powerful analysis of the infectious powers of enthusiastic teachers and the lethal effects of rewards on the desire to learn make this, an actual book on education theory, well worth reading. When a cousin of mine told me about the problems her children were having in elementary school, I told her of this book. Armed only with a copy, she got the school to change their policies.

Lapham, Lewis. Fortune’s Child. Garden City: Doubleday, 1980. Print.

The longtime editor of Harpers and current editor of Lapham’s Quarterly argues that attitudes and riches that came to those born in America after World War II was actually our doom. My only criticism of the book is that Lapham chose not to include the subtitle on the dustcover: “A Portrait of the United States as Spendthrift Heir.”

---. Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on the Civil Religion. New York, Ballentine, 1988. Print.

This work is less relevant than Fortune’s Child, but it illustrates the money obsession in America and how it affects the elements of American life, our educational system included. Besides, Lapham’s such a fine prose stylist I can’t help recommending just about anything else he’s ever written.

Houyhnhnm said...

Reading list, Part Two

Reisman, David, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. 1950. Abridged ed. Garden City: Anchor-Doubleday, 1953. Print.

From research done in the late 1940s, Reisman hypothesized that the United States, once a nation of “inner-directed” individuals who in childhood internalized a standard of behavior modeled off adult authority and suffered from guilt when they failed to live up to their ingrained standards, was rapidly becoming “other-directed,” a nation where individuals looked to peers rather than parents or established authority figures for models. Considering that the classroom teacher is now often touted as a “guide on the side,” rather than an actual source of knowledge, Reisman was all too prescient.

From memory, I also recommend Mark Crispin Miller’s 1989 Boxed In: The Culture of TV and the works of Edward de Bono on lateral thinking.


Steve said...

"Jonathan, $90,000 is still absurdly too much, but it's better than many. It'll be interesting to see what happens as government funding dries up and the universities have to cope with the prospect of actual contraction."

Colorado has cut funding for its university system to the bone. At this point, state money makes up ~5% of the budget for the flagship school. Correspondingly, tuition has risen between 6 and 10% each of the last 5 years, with smaller increases before that. Rates since 2000 have tripled for in-state undergrad and graduate tuition.

Being basically privatized, the universities have been cutting staff, eliminating departments, raising fees, and bringing in new management to focus more vigorously on fundraising. I think it's a model that's spreading, and it won't likely outlast the next prolonged stock market crash, when all of the big money donors and parental 401k accounts get hammered and things get tight.

Steve said...

This post strikes a chord with me. All three of my parents were teachers, the last retired last year. My wife is a teacher, as was her mother, my grandmother, etc.

The most common refrain I've heard from the older generations is a sense of relief that they don't have to deal with the crushing regime of standardized testing anymore. Class sizes are increasing, funding is getting cut, and the bureaucracy is now actively pitting teachers in the same schools against each other for jobs, with test scores being the main yardstick.

My father was a guidance counselor at a high school for 30 years (after teaching English for 15). He knew the absurdity of recent "reforms" in education better than most. In a rust belt school with students pregnant, into drugs and gangs, from broke and broken homes, the least appropriate expectation is that a college prep curriculum would serve them best. He often joked that he was sad to retire before 2018 when, according to predictions by school "reformers," every student would be proficient in a college prep curriculum and no child would be left behind.

When he finally retired, the school had to hire two people to replace him - one to handle the student advising and counseling duties, and another to navigate the ever metastasizing duties of overseeing all of the state tests.

John Michael Greer said...

Siddrudge, my path took a longer and slower route, mostly because what talents I have are less marketable than yours seem to be!

Mark, I'm tempted to agree, so long as you don't run yourself too deep into debt getting it.

Houyhnhnm, I notice a lot of my responses seem to be surprising you these days. They're really not all that out of character, you know!

Tracy, what we've got in modern Druidry is what's been slowly reinvented since the revival began in the early 18th century. I know of one system of energy work that's part of one of the Druid lineages in which I've been initiated, but it's relatively fragmentary at this point -- the usual problems with transmission of knowledge in a minority faith. Beyond that, most of the Druids I know who are into alternative healing modalities draw from the same broad range of options as everyone else.

Houyhnhnm, I don't see it as a waste of time, just a difference of opinion. Of course there are broad social forces helping to drive the collapse in modern American education, but the specific forms taken by that collapse also deserve discussion in their own right, and that was the point of this post.

Georgi, you really need to learn something about the history of science and the ideologies that have grown up around science. What you're saying is simply not accurate; for example, it's well documented that scientific ideas have far more often been used to justify claims that humanity ought to dominate nature than to back up any sort of ecological sanity. Were you aware, for example, that the great majority of the opposition faced by Rachel Carson when she campaigned against DDT came from within the scientific community?

Rainbow, yep.

Adrian (A.F., thanks for the link!

Adrian (S.), I'm glad your children are getting a decent education. All the evidence I've seen suggests that here in the US, at least, that's an increasingly rare luxury.

Bill, the desperate scramble to "fix" things is all the more ironic in that, as I suggested a while back, I think most people know what they have to do to actually fix things, and it scares the stuffing out of them. So it's all a matter of displacement activity -- vote the scoundrels out because they won't (and can't) give us the future we ourselves have already thrown away.

Mageprof, I learned to read at the age of two, with the help of sound-it-out books not that different from old-fashioned spellers, and some help from my parents. I think you're quite right that the public schools may not be long for this world in large parts of the US; the question then becomes what will replace it. The survival of literacy seems crucial to me, and if it takes the reinvention of the old-fashioned speller, that's what it takes.

Isis, that's a complicated question that would require a very long answer! You're quite right that very little of my education took place in schools -- about the only useful things I got out of formal schooling were the ecology I studied at my first college and the Latin I learned at my second. As for the rest, well, Sartre's satire is funny, but the education someone can get by reading every nonfiction work in a small town library, patchy as it is, will still be a great deal better than the sort you'll get from modern school textbooks, since it hasn't been predigested and forced into the Procrustean bed of a contemporary sensibility.

I'll have to consider doing some posts down the road on post-leak education. Mind you, if there's a topic that will get me more hate mail than my suggestion that both sides of the US political spectrum bear roughly equal blame for the mess we're in, that's probably it!

Bill Pulliam said...

Traditional western energy working systems... remember that in Eurasia, East/West contact and diffusion of ideas, beliefs, and technologies goes back a loooong way. The Gundestrap Cauldron, buried in Denmark over 2000 years ago, includes an image of a beardless man with antlers, surrounded by classic "Celtic" iconography, but also apparently wearing a striped leotard and doing something remarkable similar to Yoga.

John Michael Greer said...

Lewis, it's hugely important! A culture is basically a group of people who all know most of the same set of stories. "The Courtship of Miles Standish" -- yes, I've read Longfellow's poem, and it's worth saving -- used to be one of those stories. Nowadays the stories most people know seem to be trashy sitcoms. Yes, I know, I'm showing my age -- and Longfellow was a man of his time rather than ours, and had attitudes a lot of people find uncomfortable these days. Still...

Kayxyz, no argument there. I'm not familiar with Montessori's methods, but they can hardly help but be an improvement on the current public school fodder.

Deepthought, that's interesting! I'd heard a little about the plagiarism scandal. Over here, politicians "write" books for the mass market. JFK started the fad with Profiles in Courage, which he didn't write -- a couple of Kennedy staffers wrote it for him -- and these days it's hard to think of a would-be presidential candidate from any of the last half dozen elections who didn't produce a book in the runup to the primary campaign. Word has it that all of them are by ghostwriters, and that there's a thriving little market for writers who can churn out 80,000 words of politically themed fluff under somebody else's name -- but it's not something of which I have any direct experience.

Bill, I'm less than satisfied with the terms myself, but they were the best I could come up with while writing the post. Neither relativism nor postmodernism are what I have in mind for reflection, and it's certainly not an art/science split, as you correctly noted. Perhaps the best way to talk about it is to note the difference between "book learning" and craft knowledge, while noting that book learning also has its craft dimensions; or to start from the distinction between those very useful French verbs connaitre and savoir. The distinction is one I'm still developing, and this sort of exploratory work is inevitably a bit muddy.

Houyhnhnm, thanks for the references.

Steve, unless something changes fairly quickly, I expect to see a lot of public universities shut down or consolidated in the next decade, precisely as a result of the trends you've outlined. My father and stepmother are both retired teachers, and my father in particular has spoken with some bitterness about how glad he was to leave the profession he once loved -- and was very good at -- as the pressures built and the walls closed in.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, true enough -- and it gets even more complicated in modern times. If you ever want to get into real trouble, do some digging into the surprisingly intricate question of where modern hatha yoga comes from! That being said, the west shed a lot of disciplines that were preserved elsewhere, and there's had to be a lot of borrowing and reconstruction in the last couple of centuries; I know quite a few Druids, for example, who practice t'ai chi.

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi (offlist), enough. You've had your say, you've been answered, and trying to pound on the same theme over and over again is not going to get you anywhere.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- appreciate that these posts are works-in-progress, more than happy to be part of your process. Book learning versus craft knowledge makes more sense to me in the context of the rest of your essay, but those are of course terms that will also trigger a whole different set of elitist/anti-elitist knee jerks... especially since you make it clear that you value neither more highly and think both are required for understanding.

I am guessing connaitre and savoir are cognate with the Spanish conocer and saber, and represent a similar distinction in forms of "knowing," ¿sí? Hmmm... knowledge based on familiarity versus facts... "I know where he lives" versus "I know him." Might be worth exploring the Latin roots. Or you could just write this essay in French.

If I can churn up some other ideas for terms before tomorrow night I'll post them here; if something comes to me later after the blog has moved on I'll e-mail you.

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