Sunday, 20 November 2011

Inventiveness, with reflections upon today's society.

For some time now, I've had an interest in dabbling in electronics. This got to the point where I'd bought myself an oscilloscope and was ready to invest in some breadboards and a huge pile of components. Three things got in the way - a small and very time-consuming little squawky creature of the human variety came into my life, I got seriously into target shooting and rabbit hunting, and all of a sudden the local electronics store stopped stocking resistors, capacitors, LEDs, diodes and what-have-you. JUST LIKE THAT.

Following my move to another country far, far away, I decided in a moment of what little totally free time I have from my TWO squawky little creatures of the human variety, that it might be nice to start dabbling again. Well blow me down if the electronics store which is round the corner from me now also has a dearth of electronics components. This bothers me a fair bit, because now almost everything in an electronics store is something that someone else has put together, rather than something you yourself can buy the pieces for. It would seem to be a demand-side effect - fewer and fewer people are dabbling in their own electronic inventiveness and drawing stuff up from scratch - but demand feeds through to supply, and it worries me that in time we will have advanced (???) to the point where these things are no longer available at all.

I've probably already linked to Mark Steyn's article in which he bemoans the death of inventiveness and inquisitiveness in kids. The child who takes a screwdriver to his or her toys is, in the words of Christ, a pearl of great price. It is these kids - the combined thinkers and doers - who grow up to make a nation great.

It's interesting, in that context, to have a look at what's happening in the Occupy movement. This article from Victor Davis Hanson is of interest, and I hope he shall excuse me for quoting verbatim a large chunk, the choicest and most relevant part for comment.

, for much of the 20th century, college was not that exorbitantly expensive (my hardscrabble grandfather farmer sent all three of his daughters to college, two to Stanford, on the meager profits from 100 acres of raisins in the midst of the Depression). Students emerged literate and mostly disinterested and inductive.
 By "disinterested" here, I am pretty sure he means "ideologically unbiased". It's an old, but very legitimate use of that word for that purpose (compare "disinterested friendship" as a synonym for "platonic"). As an aside, Hanson is not a young man - that his grandfather would consider it worthwhile to send three daughters to university is worth noting. It's a shame that he doesn't mention what degrees they did.

The most impressive degrees, of course, were not history or English (much less environmental studies). Instead the palm went to engineering, physics, mathematics, and biology. These were the hard sciences and skills that few of us could master. Social sciences were relatively small enclaves. And while science majors got As in their gut GE anthropology, sociology, and psychology courses, the opposite was not true: the latter majors panicked when forced to take a basic physics or physiology class to graduate.
It's little wonder, if standards to get into the sciences are generally high, that science majors will do relatively well in other fields. To what extent the humanities were a flight from the demand to do well or the last resting place of those who couldn't measure up is a question I can't answer.
I note in passing that not only were there no black, Latino, gender, green, film, gay, peace, or leisure studies courses, programs, and empires, but also a general impression that no one would wish to pay for such classes that imparted little real knowledge about the inductive method or the necessary referents of literature, history, and science. 
 In other words, nobody was willing to fork out for something which would not, in the long run, enhance their prospects of employment. 

So many of these classes were therapeutic. Some were downright accusatory: go back through history and as melodrama point out the bad and good guys (based on present-day liberal standards), or study how modern capitalism should be replaced by a more humane model — in environmental, financial, religious, racial, class, and gender terms.

Hanson nails his ideological colours firmly to the mast here. It's probably worth taking all this with a hefty handful of salt, but underneath it all what we have is disciplines where everything is interpreted through an ideological filter that is imposed by the first people into the game, and there is no objective standard to which the 'teaching' can be nailed down. And at the end of the day, what do any of these things actually prepare the graduate for? What are his or her marketable skills, besides aspiring to faculty and tenure? But with every "useless course" that is added to the community colleges and the universities, and every tenured professor or lecturer, there is a dollar cost - and that must be recouped from the students.

So here is where the last thirty years all led: to too many students who are indebted, poorly educated, and without skills like high-tech engineering, sophisticated medicine, or computer design that the country needs. They are consumed with contemporary furor as the education bubble of nearly a trillion dollars in debt is about to burst. They are mad at the system that they were taught oppresses them, but also at themselves. Who would not be after spending so much money for something of so little value? 
 It's valueless because ultimately it leads nowhere - one may go into faculty, if there's enough room for one more lecturer or assistant professor, or one may try for a cosy sinecure in some Department of Ethnocultural Diversity or what-have-you as Advisor or staffer to the Minister of Touchy-Feely Subjects, or one may (if one is lucky and one has a journalism co-major or sufficiently powerful minor) find a paid niche within the media in which one may regurgitate that which one has learned. The trouble is, all these things are ultimately dead ends. The left-wing governments - whether at state/provincial or federal level - which have spent the last four to ten years establishing and empowering all this have either fallen or are due to fall, and the nations, universities (some of which are no more than overpromoted technical colleges) and even media outlets which support these people in paid employment are increasingly broke.

Nothing is more embarrassing to watch than arrogance coupled with ignorance — and spiced with occasional glibness and the slow realization that they’ve been had.
One wonders by whom. While it is to a certain extent true to tell a child "You can be anything you want to be", there was always in the past an understanding that the "anything" ought to be something that would lead to some sort of paid, productive employment. Here is a case in point, and the closing comment by the gentleman the article is about should give the "Occupy" crowd pause for thought.

"I'm qualified enough now that I'll always have a job," he said. "Without mining, I'd be an auto mechanic making $600 a week. I love mining, mate."

This man is making $200,000 a year; he is part of the 1% the Occupy crowd love to despise. He is also a working-class high-school dropout - hardly a spoiled scion of the rich. The Occupy crowd could do worse than take a look at how he got where he is today, though perhaps their movement could do with a whole lot less of the reason why. The reason why some of them would never contemplate such a career might be the subject of a subsequent post, when I have the time.

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