As stated previously, sometimes I read. A necessary thing if one hopes to gain more knowlege and wisdom than that given by those around you. Not to be insulting to my friends and acquaintences, it’s just that some perspectives cannot be found locally. The list of magazines on my end table includes National Geographic, Discover, occasionally Popular Mechanics and Current EVents, the newsletter of the Electric Auto Association. It is rare that a real book makes it onto the list. One could argue that ADD is to blame. All collections of short articles. I believe the reality is more that I rarely have more than an hour to sit and read at a time which makes getting through a real book a slow and fragmented process.
I recently got through a book though, which I think has relevence to the general thrust of this blog. The book is “The Twilight of American Culture” by Morris Berman 2006 edition published by W.W. Norton & Company Inc. A good portion of the book is dedicated to demonstrating that western civilization or at least western culture is heading toward an end. The signs being essentially the widespread fading and even ridicule of intellectualism. People who excel in acadamia are either derided or worse, unknown. They are honored in some circles but in general they are not role models. Even many colleges and universities now package information strictly for the purpose of vocational training and no longer for the purpose of improving the individual in general. The real substance of knowlege, wisdom and education for its own sake is being largely abandoned. Further, teachers at all levels are being disciplined for daring to criticize their pupils for the parents’ fear of damaging their self esteem. The humanities are being pushed aside in favor of more “practical” curriculae.
This is, for me, preaching to the choir. I agree that people are getting more degrees than ever and somehow appear to be thinking less. The question eventually becomes what to do about it. The author advocates the view that it is unlikely that anything can really be done. The problem is the natural course of events, historical precident, for more you really have to read the book. One reason however, is the fact that there will be no miraculous movement that will save us all. The reason being that ideas that are contrary to the status quo, when the rise to the level of a movement eventually become packaged, dumbed down, and eventually written off as a trend or a fad which is doomed to die the death of any whim of fasion. For example, look at the recent green movement. “Green” has now become packaged and marketed to the point of meaninglessness. There is now a shop a few miles from my house called “eco green machines”. They sell gas powered motorcycles and scooters which are arguably more poluting than cars. Most of my readers should be familiar with the term “greenwashing”. Natural gas companies are using ads saying that fracking for gas and drilling for more oil is good for America and the economy! Al Gore is now the butt of jokes. The man justifiably won a Nobel! This insanity is what happens when a movement gets too big. So what to do?
The author posits that a return to a philosophical, secular monasticism could help preserve wisdom and thought throught the coming dark ages. In other words, since an age of ignorance is coming, the only way to preserve rational thinking is to separate ones self from society until a time when the world is able to appreciate it again. The answer is to become an outlier just like the religious (and academic) monks of the middle ages. As intellectuals are already being marginalized, this is almost made easier. This is where the issue of self sufficiency plays into the whole scheme. To remove one’s self from society at least partially requires one to provide for one’s self on some level. If one stops watching television, there is still a need for some entertainment. If you stop buying industrialized food, you still need to eat. Dr. Berman does not advise a complete isolation of the individual or single family unit, but rather, a loose afiliation among like minded individuals for the sake of mutual support. Close relationships among larger groups of people risk the development of a power structure within the group and homogenization of the group which adversely affects the individuality necessary for independant thought and development.
While I’m not sure that I agree with everything Dr. Berman says, it felt good to hear someone articulate things that I have long vaguely felt. Even as an ameteur student of history, I feel that people are not as bright as they once were. I think that most people who have at one time or another dealt with the general public, have noticed more than a few people who would not be able to keep food in their bodies or a roof over their head without the government doing it for them. I would like to take the utopian Gene Rodenbury/Star Trek view of the future but I’m finding it increasingly less likely. My fear lies closer to the dystopic movie “Idiocracy”.
The fall of Rome was not abrupt. The circumstances that defined it accumulated over a couple hundred years. The last dark age lasted about 700-800 years. We are accustomed to thinking in short timescales these days, but I don’t feel that will be realistic here. For anything to survive, short term needs must be met, but only a long term prespective will give meaning and purpose. During the last dark age, the old books and information were there all of the time and almost no one cared, save those who preserved them. Then the Enlightenment came, and people found again that which was lost for so long. Again here, in rather bare terms, the importance of knowlege for knowlege’s sake.
We live in one of the best times in history. We are overfed and have hours a day to waste doing things like writing blogs on computers. I’m grateful. The sun is shining, it is time to make hay. The Twilight of American Culture paints a depressing picture that may very well come true at some point. If not, living sustainably may make a brighter world of the future possible. If we do decline as Dr. Berman says, it will help preserve the best of who we are. For now, I do the best I can and try to teach my children well.
Dear readers, you don’t have to agree with me, just please keep thinking for yourselves and never stop learning.