I’ve had a question nagging at me for a while, and I think I may have a clue about it now.
At the Stanford presentation yesterday, I’d once again been “nose to nose and belly to belly” with “clueless academics”. Folks who where physically endowed with the hardware for getting clue, and even to some extent ‘had clue’ and sometimes a lot of it, but in a very narrow silo domain of expertise.
The old joke is that an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows practically everything about nothing.
I think that, as a society, that is what ails us.
So we get a “community organizer” as POTUS who has no clue how anything practical works, listening to a failed D- science student who similarly has no clue about how things really work, deciding how to restructure our power grid “for the good of the planet” that they also do not understand how it works…
That part had me hung up for a while.
I think it is an artifact of our historical momentum through change. We had 2 world wars. During them, huge numbers of folks had to learn how something worked. You had to produce. Prior to those wars, most folks lived on farms. On farms, you know a lot about how things work. Life. Death. Cooking & Cleaning. Birthing animals and people. Fixing tractors and planting seeds. Even that manure makes some folks sick BUT is necessary to produce food. (So some of the nutty ideas about how farms ought to be regulated would be laughed out of the room before even being voiced…)
During the World Wars, many folks left the farms, but many more were either working in factories actually making things; or using those things on the field of battle where a “big thinker” who was having “big stupid thoughts” got weeded out pretty quick.
At the end of that period of history, we had a population where pretty much everyone had some practical reality based understanding of things. Chastened by “reality discipline”. They had killed or seen killing up close and personal. They had to figure out how to build a bridge in the middle of nowhere while someone else was trying to kill them. Housewives had to figure out how to weld up airplanes and children learned to cook or not eat. We exited that period of time with a large stock of folks with intense practical experience and a whole lot of respect for reality constraints.
That “Greatest Generation” is now largely gone. The few that are left largely in nursing homes.
After that generation, increasing numbers of kids were sent off to college. Increasing “regulation” and work rules have lead to the notion that the only folks competent to do some particular job are folks who have sat at a desk while someone talked at them about it for months, or years. My high school offered ‘shop’ with full lathe and machine tools, along with welding ( I learned both gas and stick arc welding in shop). Now it does not. There was a classroom that was equipped with stoves where folks (mostly girls) could take “Home Economics” and learn not just how to cook, but how to plan meals and budget. That, too, is gone.
Essentially, we have become a rule driven academic nation with no practical wisdom.
Today most of us are expected to spend 12 years sitting in rows parroting what is chanted at us. Not having practical work experience. I helped build a restaurant at age 7, then worked in it for years after. Now completely illegal and my folks would likely be arrested for “child endangerment”. I used a butcher knife to cut up raw chickens, likely with some salmonella on them, by the case. Yes, at 8 years old. But now I know how to use a knife and I know what they do to the stray finger and I know just how much no rules will help. Ever fewer folks have that kind of experience. Ever more have never touched a raw chicken, nor used a knife, and think fried chicken comes from KFC in a box.
This is especially severe at the executive level. Where Henry Ford and Edison had a lot of practical hands on background in their operations, today more management comes from MBA programs. There are fewer Steve Jobs and Woz these days. Most managers have spent 18 years sitting in rows being very good parrots. They have not had time to learn how welding can go bad, and why it’s a bad idea to put the gas tank on the outside of the frame. They are “idea guys” and not “detail guys”. They can hire “detail people” for that kind of thing. (Or so they think…)
Our politicians have not just returned from leading a squad on a slow walk across Europe, or figuring out how to get a boat back from Asia to Hawaii without being sunk. They have not spent 20 years making a farm produce enough not just for the family, but for a dozen families. They have never had to tell the dozen closest friends that the company they were building was being beaten by another company and it was time to find a new job; nor made that new company from the ground up and hired them again.
No, most of them have graduated Law School after 18 years sitting in rows being parrots, but 2 of them learning to lie, mislead, entrap, and impress others with posturing. Now they know they are a very crafty “big idea” person. Suited to decide how others ought to live; having no practical understanding of what it takes to make their “big ideas” function. No idea how the collateral damage will cause more hurt and damage than benefit. They have been schooled in “positive thinking” and that would be “negative thinking” and is to be avoided. It’s all about the Big Win and playing the game well. There’s little room for negative introspection in that world.
We have vast numbers of Financial Experts who have never learned the value of an hour of hard labor, and certainly don’t understand the concern about the “value of a dollar”. Yet they are empowered (and certain in their special ability) to make decisions that control those very things they do not understand at any real visceral level.
So we have slowly become a society of Silo People knowing more and more about less and less. Being ever more hypothetical and ever less practical. Focusing by deliberate act on the “Positive Big Idea” and just as deliberately avoiding the “negative vibes” of considering what damage they do in the process. They have “detail people” for that… but ever more of their “detail people” are just interns who have spent 17 years sitting in rows being parrots…
The end result is that things decay. Slowly at first, then ever faster.
There are fewer places that can fix any but the most direct problems with cars. The cars have become much more complex. There is no need for them to be so, but the “Big Idea” folks said that it would make them self actualized, so it was done… Now the folks who have spent 12 years sitting in rows being parrots and 2 years at Technical Trade School can follow the directions in the Repair Guide, but not figure out what is really wrong when that “by the rule book” doesn’t work (and are likely forbidden from straying from the book anyway by THEIR lawyers who are in a pitched battle with the other lawyers looking for anything not in the rules to hold as a cause for liability suit.) So cars become more disposable (and the embodied wealth in them too).
There are fewer people who really understand what it takes to stabilize an electric grid. Not enough to matter in a vote. And the Big Idea folks have the Big Idea that they can save the planet by putting solar panels up everywhere and shutting off coal generation. They have no clue about the economics of it, nor the technical and practical reasons why it can not work. Those are “negative thinking” and have no place in the “power of positive thinking” world they inhabit. Besides, that’s “detail” so ought to go to someone else to “work it out”. Don’t tell me it can’t be done, tell me how you will do it… So we get a destabilizing grid and no one is to blame.
There are fewer folks who had to foreclose a mortgage making the rules about to whom a mortgage ought to be made. We get politicians demanding that loans be given to bad neighborhoods to people unable to repay them. Then they are astounded that the bankers sell off those loans and, what a great surprise, they are not very good loans and subject to not being paid back when the economy has a negative cycle. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done, I’m a Senator and I’m telling you it’s the law!” After all, I’ve learned to win the argument. So there.
But fewer folks know that winning the argument often comes just before you get the tractor stuck in the ditch, or the engine seizes because it didn’t know you won the argument about not needing to check the oil; it only knew it was running out of oil… That practical experience of running into a few walls and getting a few scars is ever more forbidden.
Teachers used to enforce discipline. Now they are forbidden to touch a child. In our local schools, if 4 kids are kicking and beating another, the teacher is forbidden to break up the fight. They are to call the police and wait. Asking nicely if the children would please stop… We are training generations that “acting out” has no effective consequence other than satisfaction at “self actualization”. (One local kid was beaten to death at a football game. Another girl was beaten in a library and the librarian waited for the police. She recovered, but the 4 girl-thugs were not identified. Can’t harm the self esteem of their developing souls and can’t put the organization at risk of a liability suit… after all, the Police are trained to deal with it, not you. Never mind that a couple of whacks from an adult at some point in their lives would have saved many others from greater harm. Never mind “in loco parentis”. Never mind social order.
We slowly decay back to gangs and tribal warfare.
Now what happens when that kind of personality discovers the power of being mayor? Or even Senator? What moral compass will tell them that they are likely to be whacked by Mom, or the teacher if they act out? None. They KNOW that being self actualized even if it harms others has no consequence. So, too, do the ones that only watched (and the ones beaten).
So that’s my thesis.
The elimination of practical consequences and practical experience. The substitution of hypothetical and theoretical academic values. The emphasis on rule based behaviour and rule based action and the loss of “life experience” and moral compass. These are the root of the evil.
Basically, we need more kids to have a few hard knocks (and NOT the ones being attacked but the ones doing the attacking) and we need more folks who have had to actually make or produce something before they can take positions in management. More politicians with grease under their finger nails and hay in their hat; fewer with a law degree and ‘good contacts’ – but little else. There’s a crying need for folks to have been up close and personal with the hard reality of life on the street; and a lot less familiarity with the Ivory Tower, even by proxy from sitting in rows for 18 years being parrots and following all the rules.
We need to learn that living life for 18 years is in many ways far more valuable than sitting in rows learning to self actualize at the expense of others. We need to value ability to function with practical skills at least as much as being enough of a suck up and paper gamer to get handed paper endorsements and ‘credentials’.
(Realize I don’t say this lightly. I am one of those with a ‘paper trail’. College degree. Professional certification. State Teaching Credential and the mandatory Grad School work for it. I did a decent job sitting in rows being a parrot once I caught onto the gig in about 8th grade… But I also grew up in Farm Country with a very practical skill oriented family, so I don’t think it damaged me much ;-)
How will it end?
Sadly, I think we’re going to go through a collapse phase, forcing many folks back to that “learning to do for yourself” process before things can get better. Worse, I suspect that many of the “Academic Style Gamers” will have managed to financially insulate themselves well enough that they will not be part of the process. It may not be possible to effectively “fix it” in less than a generational collapse.
We have a large cultural investment in the idea that everyone can go to college and get a great job doing something clean and easy and very un-practical. But everyone can’t. We have a large cultural investment in Rule Based Behaviour (the legal system acting to spread it far and wide). That will not go quietly.
Perhaps it is just in the way of things for humanity. The Soviet Apparatchiks didn’t see it coming. The Chinese Mandarins didn’t step aside with wisdom. The Roman Emperors led the empire to collapse. Prosperity leads to complacency and lack of practical experience. Then things decay and fail and nobody knows how to fix it. Gaming for position to the end.
Then a new empire rises on the ashes as an external folk, often well schooled in practical arts and real world hard knocks, come in and take over. Resetting expectations of privilege, rank, hypotheticals and academic considerations. Removing ‘self actualization’ from the daily concerns and substituting things more based in what works.
Is there some way off this wheel? I hope so, but I’m not seeing it.
And that, I think, explains why folks like Obama, Baby Bush, Little Chucky Shumer, Arnold the Governator, et al get power, and do so much ill with it. It’s not just them, it’s also the folks voting for them and their “Big Ideas” with little concern for negative thoughts or negative consequences. Less understanding of the practical aspects.