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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Of Niall and Neal and students
June 3, 2012 - 6:35pm

As the unrest in nearby Quebec continues, I continue to be amazed, although not surprised. The initial proximate cause of what are now nightly public demonstrations (albeit, greatly amplified by the provincial government's passage of a law severely curtailing civil liberties) was a decision to virtually double university tuitions over a ten-year period. Quebec tuitions, at present, are the lowest in Canada.  On the other hand, Quebec median earnings are also pretty low, so an individual's return on investment in one's own human capital is still not overwhelmingly attractive.  And as tuitions increase, university will become less and less attractive to Quebec's students.

Which is not to say that the current social unrest to our north is based on any rational set of risk/return calculations -- quite the opposite.  The history of Quebec as a culture is unique within North America.  From the defeat of Montcalm through seeming abandonment and isolation after the French Revolution to the "revenge of the cradle" and the Quiet Revolution of the 1960's, Quebec has developed a sense of itself as a separate society within (although there may be some disagreement about that last preposition) Canada.  And for the past half-century, provincial government (they actually refer to it as the National Assembly) has been actively engaged in shaping, negotiating, enforcing, focusing that separate identity.  Where once the Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme, the provincial government has recently ruled.  But the current Premier is seen as falling too closely into line with the national Conservative government headed by Stephen Harper, and a large part of the populace isn't happy about that.

It's interesting to note that when state governments in the USA fall in line with Federal austerity mandates, the citizenry rarely rises up in arms (or, as in Quebec, in kitchenwares).  Why do they do it so quickly while we (events in Wisconsin aside) do it not at all?  I'm probably wrong on this, but I'm beginning to think that the answer has a lot to do with complacency. 

I happened to catch a two-part series on PBS -- Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Ferguson. Ferguson is more a historian than a TV host, so I presume that most (if not all) of the words he speaks in the show are his own.  His list of publications limn him as a historian of empires, both political and financial. Most of his stuff that I've read is short works, but by and large I've been impressed with his manners of analysis and expression. So, I approached the TV show with a moderately high set of expectations. They weren't met.

Instead, Ferguson frames his key question around six characteristics (he calls them "killer applications", with a degree of irony which I don't think he fully intended) of Western Civilization (you can almost hear the capital letters) which have made it more successful than all other civilizations ("the Rest").  He goes on to ask whether, should the West lose its effective monopoly on these characteristics, we run the risk of the Rest catching up with us.

Now when I first heard Ferguson speak those words, my blood ran cold. From a perspective of ecological sustainability, the planet simply can't support seven billion people (all of us) living the lifestyle that 700 million ('all of us who really matter') currently enjoy (I use the term loosely). From a perspective of social sustainability, the globalization of Western values has been tremendously destructive and threatens to be even more so in future as resources available to most societies become even more constrained. And in terms of economic sustainability, it's not obvious that the West, as a whole, currently has a whole lot to offer anybody.

But more than just my reaction as a sustainability wonk, Ferguson's words chilled me by the way they resonated with my general unfavorable impression of 19th century geographers and social anthropologists who did their 'best' work in service to European and American imperialism. "The civilizing mission", "the white man's burden", and all the rest of that social Darwinist poppycock. 

My reactions were heightened by the list of characteristics ("killer apps") Ferguson based his shows around: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.  Not that I have any inherent difficulty with science, democracy or medicine properly pursued but, taken as a whole, this list of characteristics troubles me.  Competition may be good for individuals, but seems to create some difficulties at the level of society or species. Science is a valid way of discovering knowledge, but the last century has proven repeatedly that knowledge isn't always applied in wise and beneficial ways.  True democracy means more than just holding an election every few years, although you wouldn't know it by looking at a lot of countries that call themselves 'democracies'.  Medicine is a form of applied science; as Ferguson points out, its practice hasn't always been beneficial to its recipients.  Consumerism is -- not to put this too strongly -- an unmitigated disaster.  And the work ethic Ferguson ties a little too tightly to Protestant Christianity. 

So "more successful", as Ferguson applies that term, seems to be measured in almost exclusively economic terms. Econometrically, western societies clearly sort to the top of the heap.  But that's because what currently passes for western (most saliently, North American) societies are all about economics. About nothing but economics. About money, and the love of money. And that brings me to Neal.

You see, over the past couple of months I've been reading Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle". It's a set of novels, supposedly published in eight books contained in three volumes (but I had to buy five paperbacks, so go figure!).  The focus (not that Stephenson's works are ever sharply focused) is on the period of European and (tangentially) American, Mediterranean and Asian history dating from the decapitation of Charles I to the ascension of George I.  Characters include European nobility and soldiers, bankers and merchants, churchmen and natural philosophers, pirates, samurai and galley slaves.  It's a rambling work about a rambunctious time.  It's engaging, it's engrossing, it's un-put-downable, and it's largely about money.

Indeed, some reviewers have stated that the ultimate topic of Stephenson's 4,000 pages (+/-) is the advantages of fiat money over specie.  And, certainly, that subject does arise.  But one could equally well say that the whole thing is about the triumph of science over superstition (represented as both religion and alchemy), or the interplay between politics and economic activity, or the importance of ocean-going vessels in the spread of social capital, or the evils of slavery including serfdom and indentured servitude, etc., etc., etc.

I don't pick up any of Stephenson's works (I particularly recommend Snow Crash, although The Big U is probably more appropriate to a higher ed audience) in order to gain deep insights.  I pick them up to be entertained, to enjoy the way the author plays with story and characters and time and reality and (mostly) words.  But in this particular case, the jester Neal has pointed up a truth that the historian Niall seems entirely to have missed.  If our students understood this truth, they might be somewhat less reticent to congregate in the streets.  They might pick up pans and wooden spoons.  Or even torches and pitchforks.

What Stephenson shows us, indirectly but quite effectively, is that while European ways may differ (British probably superior to French and German arguably superior to British, at least in the early 18th Century), superiority is a matter of time and place.  A slave girl in one society becomes a Duchess in two others.  A vagabond becomes a King, then a slave, then a master criminal, then a vagabond again.  Biblical literalists beget empirical scientists, and vice versa.  Nothing is permanent, nothing is inevitable, nothing is immutable.  Money is what, by common agreement, we decide it is; so to worship money is to worship our own creation.  Which isn't just idolatrous, it's stupid.  (Stephenson has quite a lot to say on the general subject of stupidity.  Kind of like Al Capp.)

So, at the end of the day, it strikes me that what Quebec students have that Greenback (and, I suspect, most American) students lack is a sense of their own vulnerability.  As a society, we've raised our kids to be complacent, and we've been tremendously successful.  Critics of inner-city schools have often complained that those institutions spend too much time instilling a sense of self-worth, at the sacrifice of time spent instilling the three R's.  I'd say that, by comparison, the private and public high school graduates who go on to university in this country have a deep-seated sense of complacency which goes far beyond any coachable sense of self-valuation.  While most of them have never heard it explicitly stated, they seem profoundly to have digested the gist of Frances Fukuyama's argument that we are (at) the end of history.  That what we have and are is inevitable, inherently superior, inviolable, appropriate, entirely meet and fitting and proper.  Thus, any real threat to the status quo is inconceivable.

To the extent that we graduate them with that complacency, that sense of inevitability, that tacit privilege intact, we do them (and society, and the planet) no favors.

 

 

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