21st Century Man

I’ve been churning over the 45 second conversation that I had with Michael Perry Thursday night. One of the things I expressed to him was my thanks for writing that it was OK to be one part Red-neck, one part Car Guy, and still enjoy growing leeks, browsing seed catalogues, and going to poetry readings. I have always been hard to Pigeon Hole, but Mike is comfortable in just about the entire coop. Like he said-he was probably the only guy working on a cattle ranch in Wyoming to pay his way thru nursing school…

Our society appears to have come out of the 90’s hell bent on ever increasing specificity. Degree programs become more narrow and precise and minor things like apparel are splitting into ever finer chunks (should I wear my Gore-Tex light hikers, my off road cross trainers, my trail runners, or my Keen’s?) Even food preferences are being muddied: remember when you could just be a vegetarian instead of a lacto-ovo-pescatarian? Specificity is a sign of affluence-go back several thousand years-commerce and technology didn’t really take off until agriculture freed a portion of the workforce from the daily need to procure their own food. Compare that to today’s rate of each American farmer supporting upwards of 125 people (though the quality of that nutrition is highly suspect and they are farming 5x the land per farmer) and it is easy to see that the rest of us have some free time on our hands. Simply put, we are the most affluent society in history.

On some levels this incredible degree of focus allows us to plumb depths of scientific and engineering fields that were unthinkable 40 years ago, but I can’t help but think we are prepping for a fall. General degree programs-specifically the humanities and fine arts, are being dropped from curriculum’s at alarming rates across the country. I studied Philosophy and History in college so I could learn how to think -I figured I would have the rest of my life to fill in the details. My eclectic reading (currently have books going on civil engineering, organic agriculture, religion in politics, and existentialism) allows me to live a full life. But it is more than that. I strive to be hands on; to do things. I drive a hybrid car and still change my own oil and plugs. I read Sartre and have started a gardening business that uses nothing but hand tools. I also see very few people like me in Corporate America. What has this focus on specificity cost us? How many of us can collect seed from a tomato or can that tomato if we needed to without getting sick? How many Americans know how to weld, wire an outlet, or write HTML? We live in a society built on things we don’t understand.

Michael Perry said he was sick of his Redneck friends dogging on his academic friends and vice versa. I distinctly remember the look of horror on my high school guidance counselor’s face when I chose auto shop over AP Calc my senior year. I had this theory that most people had a similar level of intelligence-most of my geek friends called the burnouts morons, but most of those morons could rebuild a carburetor in a few hours…without directions. How is that any different than running force vectors on your T-85 graphing calculator? When the chips are down I’ll take a ‘burnout’ over a geek any day. And I consider myself a geek-just one with a 3 ton jack in the garage and dirt under my nails.

The world needs generalists. The second half of the 20th century-the great Pax Americana- was one of the more stable times in world history (speaking in grossly general terms). Stability breeds affluence, which in turn breeds specificity. Looking down the barrel of the next 50 years I see change in the wind. The deep discontent of the “third” world, the undeniable facts of climate change and resource decline, and the ever accelerating advances in technology placing ethical strains on a generation without the intellectual tools to handle them.

Times of change demand right brain thinkers-or better yet those in the middle and comfortable in both sides to help forsee impending challenges and then to plot sustainable solutions to those challenges. In my quest from dyed in the wool left brain to left of central brain I am attempting to do many things. Read more poetry-ok read any poetry. Grow Permaculture gardens instead of monoculture beds. Do more, and talk less. Try things for the explicit reason that I think they won’t work or because I don’t want to.

I think that the problems my children will face will be more similar to the ones my Grandparents faced and am deeply concerned at how our society is prepping them to handle those challenges. My children will need to be Self Reliant, Innovative and members of a community, not specialists who don’t know their neighbor’s name.

I think I’ll go read some poetry and then talk it over with a friend.


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