21st Century Man

I’ve been churning over the 45 second conversation that I had with Michael Perry at a book signing recently at a local library. 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 whole dang 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 80’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, as we get more free time we can allocate more resources to more and more finite areas of our culture. 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 200 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. As the specialist drill deeper and deeper into their respective feilds, who is looking into the Ethics and Ramifications of their research? General degree programs-specifically the humanities and fine arts, are being dropped from curriculum’s at alarming rates across the country as we enter into a century of unprecedented Change. 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 constant and eclectic reading (currently have books going on civil engineering, organic agriculture, religion in politics, and existentialism) allows me to live the full life of a continual learner, but it also helps me to hopefully see broad spectrum implications and to continually expand my thought horizons.

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, plugs, and shocks. 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? On the one hand, there is the ever increasing focus on shorter term gains-the ROI is measured in quarterly terms now. The cathedrals of Europe took generations to complete-the designers and financiers knew they would never see the fruits of their labours. Who thinks that way now?

As we head into a future rife with paradigm shifts, there are other graver concerns. A society of specialists can be seen as less capable of either seeing the need for change or reacting to it. Specialists are by nature more conservative-they will seek solutions to new problems with the finite number of tools and thought patterns that they know, and will resist the need to embrace tools and thoughts they do not know. As the rate of change increases with improving technology and a rapidly altering physical environment, Specialists will become increasingly incapable of solving the problems at a sufficient rate. In business this will cause loss of market share. In agriculture and government policy it will cause famine and poverty. On a more individual level, this specificity of knowledge leaves us less able to cope. Skills that allowed our grandparents to excel are not present in most of society today. How many of us can collect seed from a tomato or or able to can that tomato if we needed to without getting sick? How many Americans know how to weld, wire an outlet, or to bring in more modern skills, write HTML? We live in a society built on things we don’t understand and are taking for granted.

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 immense 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. There are others who see this nee. One of the most exciting books I have read recently has been James Martin’s The Meaning of the 21st Century, it does a very good job stating the potential problems that we are facing, while offering high level solutions. Even more exciting is his very new school at Oxford: the 21st Century School that offers masters level training to attempt to solve these problems.

Times of change demand right brain thinkers-or better yet those in the middle and comfortable in both sides to help foresee 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.  Take time to smell the roses.  And grow them for another reason than their edible hips.

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 with MBA’s in Finance who can’t rewire a socket and don’t know their neighbor’s name. My children will grow up in a society that is infinitely more connected than ours with access to information that is almost inconceivable to me. But what they will not have, unless we prepare them, are hands on skills that will be critical to them in a changing world.

I think I’ll go read some poetry, and then talk it over with a friend while we drive to a welding class.


11 Responses

  1. You are not alone. I read this essay and immediately saw myself and my own attempts at becoming a “21st century man”. By day I work as a professional in the architectural/engineering/construction industry. During the weekends I am planting fruit trees, gardens and building structures to harvest rainwater. Its tough working in my industry and showing up at a job site in a Prius while every other vehicle is a 4×4. Its really tough not to give up and go with the herd of sheep. Its tough trying to explain to people that after all the college education, you would rather spend your time building compost bins and studying permaculture. But I know I can grow food, make compost, hunt, build, weld, fish and hook up a network system if needed. I can build solar water heaters, solar food dryers and even a solar oven. I can also teach others how to do the same things. I think this will be the real job of our generation. Rescuing the knowledge and skills that our parents threw away. We and our children are going to need it to survive.

  2. Good to see I’m not the only one. There must be something in the air, I felt compelled to speak about a very similar thing. For me it is the desire to exist in a continuum and maintain a connection to the skills and lives of my family.

    Sewing, carpentry, cooking, gardening, mechanical knowhow, I prefer to think that I am reclaiming the sum of my parent’s skills.

    Look no further than the renaissance for proof of what humanity is capable of when challenges are approached from a multi-discipline perspective

  3. Sometimes, I think it’s easier for women. If a woman works on a cattle ranch to pay for nursing school, she’s seen as bold and daring. A guy doing the same? He’s “less than a man.” It’s less of an insult to be considered “unfeminine” than to be considered “effeminate.”

    Diversity is good! A diversity of diversities, even. 🙂 Thanks to everyone who is fighting the pigeonholes.

  4. Beautiful topic, and well written! Here I am in New York City, an unofficial home town of the super-specialist. But of course there are many bucking that trend, even here, even in a world of white-collar office jobs, intense numerical analyses, and little chance to contact the earth. Fortunately I grew up spending summers in the countryside, in summer camp or in high school at their outdoor center in the woods.

    I like your analysis of what we need these days. And in the cycle of things, I do believe we will be forced to become more skilled, when the old way of doing things no longer works. We will dust off the old books, seek out those with special knowledge, and somehow adapt. And I would agree, it is still better to know it now than be forced to learn it under duress. I think life is just better when you have some of that old-fashioned hands-on know-how.

  5. Thanks for the kind words everyone!

  6. An organization you should all check out:


  7. While I do like your essay and agree in broad terms with you, I think there is a bit of over-glorification of the past there.

    You mentioned that cathedrals were built without the builders even thinking to see the outcome and that simply isn’t true. If you look with some regard, at all times in history the building of even the greatest monuments has been with a weather eye to seeing it done. Instant gratification may not have come in the form of giant cranes or bribing poorly trained inspectors, but with exactly how much forced labor or stolen stone could be wrangled. Even the pyramids were built so that the originator could see it finished before their demise.

    It is the human condition to want to see the fruits of our labor. It is also a trait that has long been necessary for our survival. To work on something aimlessly or without productive gains is anti-selected. It is unfortunate that our ability to produce outstripped our ability to think of the ramifications of that production.

    Good essay though!

  8. Dear Rob,

    My name is Alissa Freeberg, and I am Michael Perry’s assistant. Michael would like you to receive an advance copy of his new book “Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting.” If you would please reply with your mailing address I will send along a copy shortly.

    Thank you,

  9. This generalism is welcome, but nothing new. It was in the past referred to as being a renaissance man.

  10. Robert Heinlein said much the same thing in The Notebooks of Lazarus Long:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    -Lazarus Long, Time Enough For Love

  11. It’s true, and walking away from adherring to others expectations of how you should work and deciding just to do something awesome because it sounds like the funnest, hardest, most interesting idea you’ve had today is one of the best feelings in the world.

    People need to feel like they know things, rather then embrace learning something new and this push to conform is endless.

    But after a life of being too straight for the hippies, too green for the mainstream, too practical to be a scientist and too hands on to be a planner I figured i just had a unique way of looking at the world and that was probably useful.

    I plan to keep doing it.

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