There’s always something to howl about

Reasons to be cheerful, Part two: If we are wise, and if we are lucky, we won’t “meet the new boss” because there won’t be any bosses.

Watch this:

Yes, everyone knows Saturday Night Live is not funny, but that sketch is interesting, even so.

Why? What is that bit actually saying?

Actors are puppets for writers, never forget that. What are the writers of that unfunny little skit trying to say?

Imagine this: Your parents spent a ton of money to send you to Brown or Yale or Dartmouth, and now you have the thoroughly unsexy job of writing unfunny comedy bits for an unwatched variety show that can’t even sell its own advertising time.

Do you want to believe that some mouth-breather in Dubuque can get an education just as useless as yours at, say, one percent of the cost your parents paid out?

Worse, what if that guy’s education is better than yours? What if he can get a job that amounts to something, in an industry that is growing, not dying? What if people make or lose money — or even live or die — based on his academic performance?

He doesn’t have your class ring, and he doesn’t belong to your network of drunken dissipates — each one of whom is stuck in a going-nowhere job just like yours. But, but, but: He doesn’t feel himself endowed with the centuries of effete sneerpower to which you lay claim but have done nothing to deserve.

The truth you don’t dare admit is that your education distinguishes you in no way at all. You studied nothing serious, and you learned nothing of what you studied. You put in time and you made connections, but you don’t actually know anything, you can’t actually do anything, and if you are ever required to be anything more than an expert at supercilious self-pity, you will be dismissed at once. You are nothing but your vaunted pedigree, and that pedigree is based entirely on the accomplishments of other people — the vast majority of them long since deceased.

This is the naked essence of that fake advertisement, the snarling envy and resentment of an entire social class composed of nothing but empty suits.

Welcome to the disestablishment, y’all…

The question is, what if we’ve really screwed the pooch this time. What if this is not a V-shaped recession, not a U-shaped recession, not even a W-shaped recession? What if this is an L-shaped recession, like Japan’s “lost decade”, a sudden drop followed by a long span of no growth? What if this is the Second Great Depression? What then?

The answer is right in front of your face.

The answer to everything, and we don’t even know it yet, is the internet, the wired life, especially the iPad(ish) experience.

I have a client who is a content creator for The University of Phoenix. She tells me that their product is about 80% on-line by now, and they are within a year or three of being, essentially, 100% remote-delivery. I’m not interested in hearing caviling about quality. You either know how to reconcile account books or write a brief or launch a product or you don’t. If the quality of on-line education is not ideal for now, it will be, as a simple response to market pressure.

But meanwhile, we have arrived at the scalable university. That scruffy, sneering, tweedy degenerate — call him Professor Elbowpads — who held court in the classroom while courting all the co-eds, is about to be well and truly disintermediated. One inarguably excellent professor is all that will be needed to educate thousands and ultimately millions of students — and his lectures will be perfectible and therefore steadily more perfect, in exactly the same way that every other type of software becomes steadily more perfect over time.

That much is very cool: Study what you want, when you want, as much as you want, in pursuit of whatever goals may drive you. This is the university unchained, and your parents and their money, your own social skills, your delectably post-modern ass-kissing talent — none of this will make a damn bit of difference. The highest of education is suddenly available to anyone who wants it and can pay for it.

Even better: The cost of wired education is very low already, and competitive pressure will drive the price down even further, even as it drives quality ever higher.

Do you want to go one better? There are a billion Indians and many more than a billion Chinese who are at least as qualified as you are to take advantage of this revolution in higher education — in education at all levels.

So not only does the sneering, simpering Professor Elbowpads get the sack, so does the entire National (un)Education Association. We’ll save all kinds of money, and yet billions of very bright minds will flame ever brighter — a blinding renaissance of human brilliance such as the world has never seen. We are here, now, already, and you can’t even see the vast riches piled before you.

Think of this: If a genius like Shakespeare is a one-in-a-million mind, there are more than six thousand Shakespeares walking the earth right now — along with at least six million lesser minds who are nevertheless smarter than — and much harder-working than — stuffy old Professor Elbowpads. All of human wealth is consequent upon human capital, and we are on the verge of cultivating human capital as we have never done before.

There’s more than this, even. As much as I love Socrates and all of the giants of the agora of the mind, still, from the Greeks to the Romans to the English to the Americans, we have enslaved the human mind under a vicious caste system. Throughout the entire history of the West, cultivation of the mind has almost always been a monopoly of what we might call the equestrian class, the quality folks who live up in the big houses on the hill. This is the source of the enmity evident in that SNL sketch, the petulant resentment of a putative aristocracy that feels its historical privileges are being eroded away.

The unique character of American democracy was established not by philosophers like Thomas Jefferson, but, rather, by practical politicians like Andrew Jackson. In America, for a short while, ordinary people were able to tell their would-be overlords exactly where to stuff it. That kind of Jacksonian equality is long since gone, and the American university played a huge role in reestablishing the establishment in modern America.

But the days of the aristocracy are over for good — if we want them to be. The net culture itself is a near-perfect meritocracy: You either know your shit or you don’t, and, if you don’t, no one gives a ruby red rat’s ass where you got your diploma. The Web 2.0 world has introduced us all to the idea of the adhocracy — organizations composed solely of self-selected volunteers, each one of whom wields only as much authority as he has earned, this in the estimation of all the others. The next step is the agora that Socrates himself trod, only scaled up to the size of the entire globe — scaled up to the size of six billion hungry minds and more.

Who gets to be Socrates? Whoever can earn the attention of people who want to know the truth. Family connections or family money will mean nothing. Social status will mean nothing. Academic pedigree will mean nothing. You either know what you’re talking about or you don’t, and no amount of sheepskin will enable you to pull the wool over anyone else’s eyes.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Not if we don’t want to, not if we resolve to get democracy right this time. Bosses and equestrian classes and aristocracies and caste systems — these are all artifacts of poverty, of enforced ignorance, of libraries crammed with dusty, neglected books jealously hoarded behind university walls. Look at the rich feast of information that has already been set before you by the incipient internet and reflect upon how little of that vast abundance you are able to consume. Now consider this: This is but the beginning of the true Golden Age of human knowledge and human technology and, we can hope, human wisdom.

Are we headed into a “lost decade” — or worse? Possibly. But we are also aimed straight for the brightest burst of brilliance the human mind has ever yet known — and this is only the beginning of the greatest Age of Reason in the history of human life on earth.

Whatever the next few years may bring in the way of economic growth, they seem sure to bring us the first true flowering of the human mind — when all of us can at last be in league with the Greeks. And, if we are very lucky and very wise, we will emerge from this latest cluster-frolic by our so-called betters having rid ourselves forevermore of the pestilential idea of aristocracy.

Reasons to be cheerful: Defying the specter of ugly fates.

Manifest your own destiny: You say you want a revolution? Yeah, well anyone can piss and moan about how bad everything is. If you want things to change, I’m making a stout effort to show you how to achieve revolutionary change — from the inside out. But your own efforts at self-improvement will bear sweeter fruit sooner if you share what you’re learning with other people who love to live. You’ve never heard anything like this before. Why would you hoard it to yourself?

Related posts:
  • Reasons to be cheerful, Part 2.9: Marksmanship is a perfectible praxis.
  • Reasons to be cheerful, part 0.5: Sleeping giants can’t sleep forever.
  • Reasons to be cheerful, Part 2.5: It’s raining soup and all you can do is piss and moan that Big Mother hasn’t given you a free bowl.


    3 Comments so far

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    2. Damon Chetson June 25th, 2010 7:05 am

      I went to an Ivy League university. I got a good education in the liberal arts with some excellent professors, although few fellow students took advantage of the place the way I did. I just paid off that bill a few years ago. I’m 37.

      However, would I have gotten the same non-profit job out of Penn State as I did at the University of Pennsylvania? Probably.

      There’s an important place for a liberal arts education, but it is – probably – not at universities any longer, at least since the 1950s, which is not to say that universities of the 1940s were paragons of higher learning.

      Part of the problem is that we call many different kinds of “universities” “universities” when the difference between Arizona State University and Yale University is vast.

      Second, there’s difference between having “skills” necessary to make one employable, and being well educated. Lacking in either is a problem, though lacking in employable skills may present immediate problems when it comes to providing yourself shelter, food, etc.

      I would be careful about linking “better” education with earning potential, in the same way that people made the mistake during the boom years of saying increases in wealth were the result of productivity, ingenuity, the free market “system” and so on.

      You can go to an online university, get certified as a medical biller, and earn a very decent income. But that valued skill is merely an artifact of the way billing operates in this economy, not a recognition that you got a better education.

    3. Greg Swann June 25th, 2010 8:05 am

      Your remarks are not without interest, but I want to emphasize that the topic of this post is the unprecedented scaling of education at all levels and how this will, ultimately, disintermediate that equestrian class that has dominated Western civilization as a self-proclaimed aristocracy since Western civilization began.

      Now then:

      > few fellow students took advantage of the place the way I did.

      But exactly. Undergrads are in school for generally stupid reasons, and they make very poor use of the opportunities available to them. Adults go to school in pursuit of well-defined goals, and, if they are wise, they make a point of demanding value for their money. It will be interesting to see what happens as rigorous education becomes available to people who have never before had the opportunity to improve their minds. A hamburger is just a hamburger — unless you’re starving.

      > the difference between Arizona State University and Yale University is vast.

      Better-looking girls and fewer rapes? Surely one cadre of ignorant drunks is as bad as the next. FWIW, the classics department at ASU is non pariel, but that hardly matters, given that undergrads almost always waste their opportunity to study the classics.

      > Second, there’s difference between having “skills” necessary to make one employable, and being well educated.

      Are you saying that people who might be described as “being well educated” are unemployable? That’s been my own limited first-hand experience. The people I know who are simultaneously well-educated by my standards and are still able to do a job that would exist in the absence of the welfare state are nearly all auto-didacts — folks who learned to make a living in school and pursued the classics, the humanities or the liberal arts on their own dime, on their own time. The only people I know who are serious about ideas — including all of the people I know on the nets — work well outside of the academy.

      > You can go to an online university, get certified as a medical biller, and earn a very decent income. But that valued skill is merely an artifact of the way billing operates in this economy, not a recognition that you got a better education.

      This is a reiteration of the argument made in the video, the imputation of value to a traditional education by denigrating the alternatives. First, as we all understand, university education is a joke — a bad joke we’re all living through right now, taking account that the equestrian class has run Western civilization into the ground. Second, the University of Phoenix is in the MBA business, not the medical billing business. There is certainly a lot of vocational education out there — and a valid complaint against almost all profit-seeking education is that it is driven by a sage milking of the taxpayers. But it remains that it is the traditional university system that will be disintermediated by hi-tech education, and there is no aspect of education that will persist unchanged. Insisting that there must be a quality difference strikes me as being a stance with a steadily diminishing return.

      I love to watch the revolution of the mind that occurs every afternoon in the parking lot of every college, everywhere. At 3 pm, the lot is half-full of the goofy cars of goofy kids wasting their time on the taxpayer’s dime. But by 6 pm, that lot will be packed with the cars of very serious adults, hammering away after a hard day’s work to improve their minds, to improve their lives.

      This is a wonderful thing, not to be lightly dismissed. And the most amazing thing of all is that it is just the pilot project for a global renaissance in education. Doesn’t matter what you or I or anyone thinks about it. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to change everything. What could be more inspiring than that?