Curmudgeon Manifesto I: Barbarians at the Gates
As a college professor late in his career, I sometimes tell people I feel like the last Roman legionary on the frontier just before they said “Screw it. Let the barbarians have it.” For 35 years I have watched students at commencement shuffle across the stage, knuckles dragging, grabbing their piece of paper and shuffling off….
And then I noticed the damnedest thing happens. The lights stay lit, the streets get paved, my faucet still runs, the planes fly, the iron and coal get mined, the oil gets pumped (sometimes a little too vigorously), the wheat gets grown, the babies get delivered and the phones still ring. Somehow those immature kids who grouse about eight o’clock classes pull themselves together and become productive people and keep the world running. For a world imminently about to go to hell in a handbasket, it keeps functioning pretty smoothly. So quite a few years ago, I concluded the Zombie Apocalypse was not going to happen any time soon.
And they don’t just keep it running. When I was a kid, good health insurance was less than $100 a month. But then, childhood leukemia was a death sentence. There were no organ or bone marrow transplants, no CAT scans, no MRI, no ultrasound, no heart bypass surgery. No cell phones, microwaves, personal computers, digital cameras, DVD players. Somebody made all that happen. There was once a time I was worth as much as Bill Gates. I figure somewhere about 1973 he passed me.
And then I started wondering: why? Students forget most of what they learn in class almost immediately (and some make the process even more efficient by never learning it in the first place). They complain bitterly about having to take courses for which they can’t see an immediate payoff. (I wonder if I could change the name of my class to “This Class Will Get You Laid 101.”) Their horizon extends to lunch time. How is it we take students who grumble about having to learn things they don’t consider important, and somehow manage to create people who can keep a complex society running, and even more interesting, keep it advancing?
And the answer, I think, is we over-build. You don’t design skyscrapers to stand up on a sunny day - you design them to stand up in hurricane force winds and Magnitude 8 earthquakes. Airplanes aren’t designed to fly straight and level. They’re designed to ride out turbulence and violent up and downdrafts. And we hit students with way more than most of them will ever “need” to know. You can survive without learning any of this stuff. Then again, you can survive eating out of dumpsters and sleeping in doorways. We don’t educate students for their immediate first job needs. We teach them stuff so that some, at least, will have it when it becomes relevant, and others will at least know it exists so they can look it up. My favorite “relevance” story is a British schoolgirl on vacation with her family in Thailand in 2004. When she saw the ocean receding from the beach, she recalled what she had just learned in geography class about tsunamis. She convinced her parents to alert the resort management, who evacuated the beach. She will probably never again need to know about tsunamis. None of her classmates will ever need to know about tsunamis. But that one time it was relevant, she knew. Even more interesting were some of the indigenous groups that recognized the warning signs and sought safety. They had passed that knowledge along for generations when nothing happened, until the day their descendants needed to know it.
Societies, of course, can lose their intellectual leadership. The Golden Ages of Baghdad and Cordoba came to an end. When the Renaissance began, it didn’t begin in Greece. And there’s enough anti-intellectualism and misplaced priorities in American society to be serious cause for alarm. In 2008, while we were putting up candidates who seriously believe the Earth is 6000 years old, and arguing about whether Obama was born in the U.S., the Chinese laid out an LCD screen the size of a soccer stadium for the opening of the Olympics. Nevertheless, I keep thinking about that marvelous Maxwell Anderson ditty “Hi-yo, Hi-yo, Discernible Today (A Song After Reading Toynbee),” (The New Yorker, May 1, 1948, p. 26)
Going downhill is the natural trend,
For the old folks gather and the young folks spend,
Yet line up all our forebears on the path that we descend
And a definite improvement is apparent at this end!