Saturday, May 15, 2010


Idiot-Proofing the Idiot

In grad school, I once read a narrative poem in Middle High German (12th century, or thereabouts) concerning a father who has a fool for a son. Deciding that his boy could use a little brainsing up, he sends the lad off to study at the great university in Paris:

Ze schuol sant er in gên Paris:
An künsten solt er werden wîs.
(Lit: To school sent he him to Paris/In the arts should he become wise.)

The son attends school for a number of years, completes his education, and returns home.

Dad, of course, is thrilled at his son’s return. Eager to show off the boy’s new academic skills, he invites everyone from the village to a “Welcome Home” soiree, whereupon he asks his son to impart to one and all some bit of wisdom he picked up at the university.

The lad takes a brief look out the window, where the full moon is shining brightly in the night sky, and says:

Eis dinges mich grôz wunder nint,
Des ich mitvlîz mich hab besint,
Daz der mâne sô glîch ûf gât
Dem mânen, den ich in der stat
Ze Parîs sach, des wundert mich:
Einander sint si gar gelîch.
Er muoz sîn gar ein wîser man,
Der si zwên underscheiden kan.

Loosely translated: “Well, in Paris they have a moon that looks exactly like ours.”

The moral, according to the poem, is that education won’t keep a fool from being a fool. However, a more pertinent lesson might be: Don’t send your kid off to school and expect the professors there to educate him just because you’re paying them to do so. Anyone who doesn’t understand that the moon shining over Paris is the same moon shining over every other city anywhere else is certainly a fool, but one really ought to ask oneself: Just what were those egghead professors in Paris doing while that dopey kid was sitting in their classrooms?

I am enamored with the idea of higher education. Though I haven’t seen the insides of a college classroom in some twenty years, I continue to read, to write, and to study, in a never-ending quest to convince myself that my brain has some greater function than merely to keep my ears apart. It’s a quest fraught with anxiety and frustration, because I never seem to learn half as much as I feel I should have learned, and I constantly find myself forgetting far more than I have a right to forget, but inasmuch as I’ve always believed that learning is a lifelong process, it’s something I’ve never been able to put aside. As Samuel Johnson once noted, soon the night comes wherein no man can work. Until then, I’ll continue to crack the books.

Yet one of life’s great ironies is that the least likely avenue of attaining higher education is oftentimes the so-called institute of higher learning. Just like the 12th century Universite de Paris, the modern college or university is no imparter of wisdom, or, for that matter, even of learning. Those parents who place their trust in any secondary school to educate their young are apt to find their trust—as well as their money—has been seriously misplaced.

There are many reasons why this is so, but perhaps the most fundamental reason is the insular nature of academia itself, a consequence of the “publish or perish” mindset of the tenure system. A university professor’s focus is not on teaching his classes but on demonstrating his scholasticism, which means he must publish. The classes he teaches are but a means to an end—they provide the professor with a salary so that he can pay his bills; his class workload is deliberately kept light so that he has enough free time to focus on getting his name in print.

As a result, a kind of academic myopia sets in. The professor’s world is his area of study, not the world itself. As the adage goes, if the only tool at your disposal is a hammer you tend to see the world in terms of nails. Anything that doesn’t fit that preconceived notion simply doesn’t merit the professor’s attention. It’s not simply that there are things in his world that are un-nail-like; that which is not like a nail is that which does not suit his reality, and therefore doesn’t exist, or is at least not worth noting.

Worse yet, the professor has virtually no incentive whatsoever to examine his it’s-all-nails world view and therefore no likelihood of changing it. His view of reality will continue to be what it is, right or wrong, so long as he continues to publish. It’s also what he will continue to bring into his classroom, hence the charge that the university setting’s main emphasis is on indoctrination rather than education.

Everyday experience tells us there is often a discontinuity between theory and application. The average professor, however, insulated from everyday experience, is oftentimes unaware of the gap. His focus is theory, not application, and so, ironically enough, it is the professor who fails to learn the lessons of everyday life.

There is perhaps no better illustration of this fact than a paper I ran across while researching for Killjoy: “The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology—An Analysis of the Ocean Crisis Within Capitalist Production” by Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark (University of Oregon), in: Organization & Environment, Vol. 18 No. 4, December 2005, pp. 422-444.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the notion of “metabolic rift,” the giveaway word “capitalist” should clue you in on what sort of focus this paper brings to bear. It’s none other than that of our good buddy, Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto and fictional contestant of the Monty Python quiz show “World Forum.”

Yup, that’s right. Good old Karl “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” Marx. For the rest of the world, Marxism has been formulated, examined, theorized, implemented, found wanting and abandoned; in academia, it not only lives and breathes, it thrives. Nowhere else, with the possible exception of the Obama Administration (though I would argue that BHO & Co. are more Maoist than Marxist), does this queer phenomenon rear its ugly li’l head.

Indeed, Clausen and Clark would give one the impression that the Marxist vision is not only spot-on, it’s the only lens through which a sensible individual would view the world. In their abstract, they write: “We extend Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift to the marine environment to (a) understand the human transformations of the ocean ecosystem, (b) examine the anthropogenic (human-generated) causes of fish stock depletion, (c) study the development of aquaculture in response to the oceanic crisis, and (d) reveal the ecological consequences of ongoing capitalist production in relation to the ocean environment.”

Metabolic rift, must you know, is a term coined by Marx; its central claim, per Wikipedia, is that “the spread of the capitalist node of production results in humans interacting less directly with their natural environment from which they derive their sustenance, which in turn leads to its exploitation.”

And there’s the all-purpose Marxist term of choice: exploitation. Suffice to say, the word appears more than a few times in Clausen and Clark’s paper. We hear of “how the exploited marine conditions” affected the “Cod Wars” fought between Britain and Iceland from 1958 to 1976. “Industrial exploitation” threatens our marine ecosystems with species extinction, the “direct effect of overfishing,” which has created major alterations to marine food webs; this is “the clearest example of capitalism causing a rift in the metabolic processes of the ocean.” Our seas, they write, “are confronting serious environmental stresses that threaten their ability to regenerate… [T]hese ecological conditions must be understood as they relate to the systematic exploitation of nature for profit.”

That’s all commercial fishing is, y’understand, merely exploiting nature in pursuit of the almighty dollar, the “relentless drive to accumulate capital,” as Clausen and Clarke phrase it. Its focus is solely on profit; the idea that capitalist fisheries might fish their stock to extinction and thus fish themselves out of a livelihood never enters their minds. It is the profit motive that has “for the first time made the exhaustion of deep-sea fish stocks a real possibility.” Oh, those—ptooey—capitalists!

This is not to say that Clausen and Clarke’s paper is bad. On the contrary, it’s well-written, thorough, and backed up by a host of secondary sources. At the time of their paper’s publication, C&C were doctoral students; there is not the least doubt in my mind that by now both have received their PhDs, and deservedly so.

But neither can I call the paper good, if only because it's insufferably foolish. It would require volumes to describe what’s bad about Marx’s theory. I’ll suffice with this handy rule of thumb: look at the body count—the greater the count, the worse for the theory. Under National Socialism (a political manifestation of Darwin's theory under the rubric of "social Darwinism"), Adolf Hitler 1) invaded Poland, which started World War II and cost the lives of some fifty million, and 2) murdered some nine million Jews, Czechs, Poles, and Russian prisoners of war in a system of extermination camps; surely this is why we say Hitler was a bad person.

He was not, however, the worst person ever. There are other contenders for this claim, and all of them Marxists. Joseph Stalin, just like Hitler, invaded Poland and started World War II--this, however, under the Marxist mantra of liberating the workers of the world; at the time, he claimed his invasion of Poland was to repel the German hordes, but historians have since demonstrated that Stalin and Hitler were in collusion, the Russian troops no less an invasionary force than the Germans. And while Hitler “merely” managed to murder nine million in his camps, Stalin was responsible for the starvation of over seven million Ukrainians who resisted his attempts to collectivize their farms, ordered the deaths of over fifteen million dissidents and political prisoners, and allowed untold millions to perish in the Gulags of Siberia. Add those millions to the millions that perished under Mao’s People’s Republic and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and we’re talking about the slaughter of easily a hundred million people, all in the name of some Marxist fantasy about uniting the workers of the world and casting off the chains of capitalist imperialism. A hundred million dead is compelling testimony that the proletariat had far, far more to lose than their chains.

But never mind all that, say the professors. At least Stalin meant well.

Further evidence that education is incapable of idiot-proofing the idiot.

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