Quite Possibly, The Most Unorthodox Piece Of Advice Ever Given To The American Youths.
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The final profile we will consider is of “Steve,” who is 18 years old. He found out about Peak Oil after one of his on-line video game buddies sent him some links to Web sites, which he found deeply shocking. Now he is totally freaked out. Is he about to get drafted and sent off to fight for oil in the Middle East? How is he going to survive in a collapsing society? He works a part-time job and lives with his parents, who take his fears to be the folly of youth, and assume that he will be going to college, earning a respectable degree, and entering the workforce (while going into debt at the same time).
Let us suppose that Steve’s parents are correct: there will be no economic collapse any time soon. Steve will go off to college, earn a degree in accounting, get married, take out a mortgage on a suburban home, and have children. Now, if Steve’s parents are reasonably well-informed, can they believe that there is more than another forty years’ worth of nonrenewable resources left at their current level of production, never mind the need for sustained economic growth? As they watch the endless parade of record-setting freak weather events, with fifty-year records being broken not every fifty years, but every one or two, can they believe that none of these, together or separately, will upset Steve’s well-laid plans? Even if they feel certain that they will live out their own lives in peace, why should they want Steve to work hard to perpetuate a state of affairs that they know will not last for the duration of his lifetime? Is it not the tiniest bit unethical of them to try to push their son in such a risky direction? And is it not the tiniest bit incumbent upon them to try to propose something better?
A Web of Lies
One of Steve’s most severe and painful realizations, if he is lucky enough to have it, will be that he has been lied to all his life, more or less continuously, by his parents, his minders at school, and even, to some extent, his own peers. If he does not have this realization, then he will be doomed to see all that happens to him as the result his personal failings: his weakness, lack of talent, inability to fit in, or bad luck. Even if he does have this realization, he will find it difficult to live his life accordingly, because those who lack this realization, and deem themselves successful, will try to denigrate him as a misfit or a loser.
One part of the lie is that America is the best and getting better – land of possibility and so forth – and that he can achieve his dream, whatever it is, by being diligent, hard-working, and a team player. Of course, his dream must be an American dream – just like everyone else’s, and involve a house in the suburbs, a couple of cars in the driveway, a couple of kids, maybe a cat and a dog, and lots of money in retirement accounts.
The other part of the lie is that Steve can live such a life and be free. He would be free - to make false choices. For breakfast Steve will have… stuff from a cardboard box with commercial art on it, excellent choice, Sir, well done! And in order to get around, he will have… a disposable vinyl-upholstered sheet metal box on four rubber wheels that burns gasoline, very wise, Sir, very wise! By choosing a prepackaged life, Steve himself would become a prepackaged product, a social appliance designed for planned obsolescence, whose useful life will be determined by the availability of the fossil fuels on which it operates.
That these are lies is plain for all to see: with each next generation, people are being forced to work harder and to go deeper into debt to maintain this suburban, middle-class lifestyle. About a third of them experience severe psychological problems. Also about a third of them do not believe that they will be able to afford to retire. The majority of them believe that they are not doing as well as their parents did.
And thus we have a three-tier generationally stratified middle-class society. At the top, we have a whole lot of happy, prosperous, self-assured old people, living it large, not willing for a moment to admit their complicity in impoverishing their children and grandchildren. In the middle we have a smaller number of their adult children, running themselves ragged, forced to delude themselves that everything is under control, just to keep up their spirits. And then there are even fewer young people like Steve, just coming of age, and, one would think, justifiably angry with the hand they have been dealt. Few of them are up to the Herculean task that has been set in front of them.
This society still has plenty to offer to a young person, provided that the young person is clever enough to know how to take advantage of it. All of this advice falls into the category of “If everyone did this, society would fall apart.” Clearly, this advice is for people like Steve, and does not apply to societies, empires, or civilizations. It has been thoroughly tested right here in the U.S., and has a track record of successfully dodging society’s best efforts at enslavement.
First of all, it is probably a bad idea to go straight to college. It is best to avoid getting sucked into that pipeline, which starts around the middle of senior year and ends with post-graduate indentured servitude of one sort or another. Apply to a couple of schools, strictly pro forma, to avoid suspicion. Having a high school diploma is important; the grades and test scores are somewhat important. Demonstrated excellence at one or two things is more valuable than a good average. Most important is learning the differences between your talents, you interests, and your expectations.
At this point in the game, gaining basic money-making skills is far more important, especially in the trades, such as landscaping, interior restoration, carpentry, house painting, floor sanding, mechanical repair work, and so on, because these are all jobs that can be done for cash. Avoid dangerous trades, such as roofing, abatement, and, in general, anything that involves toxic chemicals or dangerous machinery. Having some business skills is important too – knowing how to deal with bosses and customers and how to supervise people. The best approach is to work a series of short jobs – shorter than a year, learning a trade and moving on immediately, and always be on the lookout for special, unofficial projects. Think of regular employment as good cover, but not as the main source of income – and therefore best kept to part-time. Always job-hunting, switching and learning new jobs, will help keep your mind sharp. But be sure to read as well, and challenge yourself by reading difficult books – this will help you when you decide to go back to school.
Once you graduate, immediately become financially independent from your parents. Move out, and work on developing a good roommate situation. Go for the cheapest rent you can find by talking directly to landlords and offering to take care of security and maintenance. Pick your roommates carefully and try to get a cohesive group together, so that you can rely on each other. Do not accept money or other sorts of financial help from your parents. Do everything you have to so that if and when you decide to go to school, and file financial aid forms, you are not their dependent, and they are not expected to pay your college tuition or living expenses. If your parents require an explanation, it is that you care about them: you do not believe that their retirement will be enough to live on, and the money that would be swallowed up by tuition will help. If you have a system worked out for living frugally and making a bit of cash, on paper you can look penniless, which is perfect, because schools will confiscate all the money that you disclose to them. Be sure to always disclose just enough to avoid suspicion, and brush up on the laws to make sure it’s all legal.
When thinking about attending a college or a university, it is important to understand what these institutions actually are. They are often called “institutions of higher learning,” but the learning is quite incidental to their two most important missions: research (government or industrial) and something known as “credentialing:” the granting of degrees. In many ways, it is a sort of extended hazing ritual, where the aspirant is required to jump through a series of blazing hoops before being granted access to a professional realm. An important sideline is sports, and some schools are virtual beefcake outlets, with nary a forehead in the crowd disfigured by a sentient impulse.
Excellent teaching does happen, but more or less by accident. Professors are recruited and retained based on their publications and awards (to lend prestige to the school) and their ability to attract grant money. Much of the teaching is done not by the professors themselves, but by graduate student teaching assistants, adjuncts, and various other academic minions.
The human mind learns best through repetition and through applying knowledge, but college curricula are structured so as to avoid repetition, with each course designed as a stand-alone unit. Most of the learning takes the form of cramming for tests, and what is tested is not knowledge but short-term memory. By the time students graduate, they have forgotten most of what they have been taught, but with perfectly honed cramming skills, ready to brute-force their way through any further superficial tests of their “knowledge” or “competence,” to join the swelling ranks of America’s credentialed amateurs.
There is supposed to be a huge difference between the best colleges and universities and the rest. The ones considered best are mostly private, although few state schools find themselves included among them. What is taught is generally the same throughout, and the quality of the teaching is quite random. The best schools are thought to offer better chances for finding good jobs after graduation, but this is debatable.
For some students, the more prestigious schools offer a certain charmed quality: no matter how much they drink and how badly they do, they cannot flunk out. An echelon of tutors is summoned to guide their every mediocre step, all the way through graduation. These are the children of the elite, whose attendance at these institutions is more a matter of tradition than anything else. It makes no difference whether they learn anything or not: for their breed, the pedigree counts for a lot more than the obedience training. I have run across a few of these zombies with Ivy League diplomas, childish handwritings, speech peppered with nonsense syllables, and an attitude that never stops begging for a slap.
The Optimal School
This being the lay of the land, what is a young person like Steve to do? The prestige offered by the best schools would be wasted on a desolate job market, while the inevitable pile of student loans would be a millstone around his neck. And yet there is no better place to learn than a university.
I recommend that Steve choose a school not based on reputation or prestige, but word of mouth and financial advantages. The best school is the one that offers the best financial aid package, where he knows some people in the fields of study in which he is interested, which offers cheap off-campus living, and where he can find jobs to make money on the side. Steve should keep his earnings off the books whenever possible, or the school will confiscate them. The school will force him to take out some loans, so he should save enough money at the same time to cover them. He should try to find employment right at the school, because such jobs often provide a tuition waiver.
State schools have an advantage: not only are they cheaper, but a lot of the students come from the vicinity rather than from far away. When Steve makes some friends among them, they will help him gain entry into the local community. Ideally, this is also an area where he will want to continue living once he is done with school, among his new friends. Deciding to settle wherever he finds a job is not a good plan; it is much better for him to know how to find work wherever he decides to settle.
Fields of Mud
When choosing a field of study, it is important to keep in mind that there are disciplines that will abide and remain perennially valuable, while others are fluff. The sciences – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Zoology, Botany, Geology – will serve you well. Mathematics, Philosophy, Astronomy, and a foreign language or two will make you a better person. Literature and History are invaluable, but rarely taught well; if you cannot find a truly inspired teacher, teach yourself – by reading and writing, which are the only two activities these two disciplines require.
Then there are the pseudo-sciences: Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and Economics. They disguise themselves as sciences by employing experimental techniques and statistical analysis, and, in the case of Economics, a funky sort of math, but they are fluff, and are clearly marked with an expiration date. The distinction is quite crisp: for any subject, pick up a textbook older than fifty years. If it is a real discipline, there will be some recent discoveries and technological developments missing from it (a few elementary particles, DNA) but the rest will still look valid. If it is a fake subject, a fair percentage of it will look a bit iffy, with a smattering of stark raving nonsense.
Lastly, there are the conduits to the professions: Law, Medicine, and Engineering. They have little to do with getting an education, and everything to do with learning a trade, and, of course “credentialing.” In each case, the hazing is extreme.
The legal profession is already a bit overstocked, and, law being a luxury product, it seems unlikely that these graduates will be able to pay down their copious student loans in the new economy. Already many of them lack the option of becoming public defenders or taking on pro bono cases because of their huge financial burdens.
I have already said enough about medicine; but if Steve wants to be a doctor, there are some medical schools around the world that graduate real doctors, rather than technocrats who practice “defensive medicine” and shuffle paper half their day. After the extended sleep deprivation experiment they are put through as interns, they get to live in stately homes, fly to pharmaceutical company junkets, and play a lot of golf. That may change.
I am partial to engineering, having put myself through its rigors. It sometimes creates what I feel is a good sort of person – a bit stunted in some ways, strangely passionate about inanimate objects, but capable at many things and generally trustworthy. If Steve has exhibited the telltale tendencies – such as completely dismantling and reassembling various gadgets, and making them work perfectly again afterward – and if he looks forward to four years of scribbling out formulas under intense pressure, then engineering may be for him. Whether he will be able to earn a living by engineering is unknowable, but then engineers can usually find plenty of other things to do.
The Piece of Paper
It is often hard to tell ahead of time, but for a lot of people graduating may be quite pointless, while dropping out at an opportune moment may be quite advantageous. I know plenty of people who never graduated; they have been my bosses, my colleagues, and my employees. They often have an original perspective, along with an unusual depth of knowledge. Some of the best-educated people I have ever met have been dropouts: the self-educated poet Joseph Brodsky, for instance, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature, dropped out of grade school aged fifteen.
It is best not announce your intention to never graduate, but behave accordingly. While others are busy checking off boxes on their little curriculum planning sheets and suffering through pointless required courses with mediocre instructors, you can find out what you want to learn and who you want to learn it from, and take your time to learn it well. Do not rush: if you feel that you have not absorbed all the material to your satisfaction, you can always request an incomplete and repeat the entire course free of charge. If a good project comes along, take it, take a leave of absence from school, then go back and study some more. Keep telling everyone that you intend to go back and get your degree. I know people in their late 40s who are still in good standing, always threatening to come back and finish their degree: people find them quite charming.
Do not worry too much about grades; it will make very little difference what grades you received, but it will matter a lot whether you have learned what you had set out to learn. If you are on a scholarship, then by all means maintain the average that is required of you in order to continue receiving it. Think of the grade you get as the grade you give to the professor: if the professor is excellent, then you should try to repay her with some excellence of your own.
The last, and possibly the most formative part of your education is for you to go and see the world beyond the borders of the U.S. Learn a language, then go and backpack through countries where you can speak it. Spanish – properly the second national language – is about the easiest language you can learn, and it unlocks a huge world, which starts right within the borders of the U.S., and which offers a great richness of spirit, along with a level-headed perspective on all this gringo madness that you will have to learn to escape from.
You are at an age when parts of who you are – your outlook on life, your personality, your habits and your tastes – are still forming. There is no better way to gain a fresh perspective on the world – and on yourself – than to put yourself into an unfamiliar situation: new place, new culture, a different language. Who knows what you will find? It could be a new place to live, an acquired taste for leading a nomadic existence, or it could be a new peace of mind, a sense of self-sufficiency, or a unique perspective on life.
Fact or Opinion?
What will you do? No-one wants to take difficult steps, make their lives more difficult, or withstand privations of any sort, based on mere opinion; people want facts. What I have written here most definitely straddles the fuzzy line between opinion and fact. I have consciously avoided quoting authorities because I want to emphasize that this line really is fuzzy, and that no authority can help you make it less so. Some of what I wrote here may resonate with you, and so you would tend to consider it closer to fact than it really is. Other things I wrote here you might disagree with, and consider them just my opinion. Be that as it may; as far as your life is concerned, it is your opinion that matters, not mine.
The line between fact and opinion is always moving, sometimes imperceptibly slowly – the way an entire country sinks further and further into debt, and sometimes very fast – the way several million people suddenly lose electricity for a few weeks. It is like a shoreline on a map – quite factual, and fixed, except for the odd storm surge. If you remain dry, the shoreline shift is mere opinion; if you are forced to spend some time underwater, it is more like a fact. When will you decide it time to move to higher ground? When you find yourself underwater, and have to swim there? And what if you move to higher ground while you are still dry, and find that it is rocky and barren?
It is human nature to want to postpone making unpleasant decisions until the last moment, and we can do so with impunity, provided we leave enough options open for us to choose from. Every day that we live contentedly within the status quo, we restrict our options further and further, by making ourselves increasingly dependent on more and more systems over which we have no control, and on which we cannot rely. But there are also small, conscious steps we can take that break some of these dependencies, and create new options for ourselves. If we take enough such steps, then when the time arrives for a major, life-changing decision, we will be ready.
* - Dmitry Orlov is the author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects
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