Dear Mr. Bageant,
My family finally makes sense to me after reading your book, Deer Hunting with Jesus. We don't live in a society that values critical thought. Examining our lives will force us to come to terms with the decisions that we've made, so it is viewed as dangerous and unsettling. The torment of hope is more than most can bear. Most people look at the cost of change, but not the opportunity cost of staying where they are. Staying where they are is viewed as a no-cost option, but change will take real work and is perceived as a higher risk than many will be willing to take.
When I was in engineering school, I was required to take a course in the humanities every semester. This requirement annoyed most of my fellow students, but those courses raised my GPA high enough to let me get my degree. Humanities courses were more likely to cause a student to flunk out than any other, usually because they didn't do the work. American Studies was called the Book of the Week Club because of the reading, but the goal was to produce better-rounded engineers and scientists. I think that it succeeded.
Even for well educated people, it's harder to get and keep a job commensurate with their education and experience. There is less and less respect for learning and experience than there once was, and the half-life of what we learn is shorter and shorter. Friends of mine with advanced degrees work on temporary employment contracts in an effort to be hired as permanent employees, and the risk is that someone else will get the contract next year or that they just won't have it renewed.
If there is a value in education, it is to help you get and keep perspective. Religion can do much of that as well, but the prevailing belief is straight out of "Maude": God will get you for that.
Oh, you are so right. Long ago I came to the point where I could not care less what education could do for a career. When I crusade for the value of education, I am referring to education in terms of basic textual literacy, or at least enough to read the directions on the box of democracy, poor dear embattled creature that it is these days. That, plus the inner enrichment that can be derived from study of the humanities. But moreover, as you so clearly point out, education in the formal sense is no longer any guarantee of financial security. Which is all right with me, though certainly not for people who really believe the system will reward them for critical thinking unrelated to making money or war or more needless widgets.
After all, what have you really got when you have a sheepskin and a great engineering job that pays well and offers long term benefits? You've got an assigned role as a cog in the great deathless machinery of human material production and expansion of an already overblown planetary disease called human civilization. Objectively speaking. Big deal.
And your beautiful expression of "the torment of hope!" Last night I spoke to an audience about the stupidity of hope, which is mystical thinking -- belief that some future unknown force or factor will save us. The belief that "science will come up with something" ... or that a political or religious leader will emerge who will turn things around in the face of impending peak oil and ecological disaster. I have found that when one abandons such superstitions as hope, he or she is left with the truth. And once we see truth, however terrible, we are at least in a position to decide for ourselves what personal step to next take. In that there is empowerment.
The empowerment of the personal and empowerment of the humanity within us. We step forward, we do the things we believe to be positive and life affirming, perhaps little things that eliminate human suffering or enlighten us further as to the nature of the universe itself. But most importantly, we step forward. At least that is the way it has worked for me, once I accepted that consensus reality is for the most part but a ruse for avoidance of critical thinking, and particularly for avoidance of responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
Anyway, what I am trying to say is that while economic justice is important, and insight is to be the pearl of great price, anyone the least bit worldly knows it is unlikely we will see either in the end, given that now the end is within sight. Especially the end of material plentitude as we have known it. Victory in the grisly economic battle ahead for our remaining wealth and resources is sure to go to the brutish and the shallow, simply because survival resides in the reptilian brain, not in the limbic. We are already seeing the beginning of that reptilian struggle to own the last high ground which will support the strongest few, not the chaotic many.
But in the end, this old dog still prefers to cling to learning, a more informed consciousness, and to get in touch with higher intelligence -- our own. Because higher consciousness is the only real game in town. And the poor lizards on the rock cannot even begin to play.
In art and labor,