Who knows?

In light of the massive fraud case being pursued by the federal government against a company that runs for-profit colleges in culinary, visual art, and other programs one wonders where people can attend higher education any more and learn anything practical.  In his book, “Shop class as soul craft: an inquiry into the value of work”, Matthew Crawford elegantly examines this problem, and how a culture that loses the ability to appreciate work of the hands is in trouble.

Most liberal arts institutions and major state universities still follow what we might think of as a books and desk curriculum, or more aptly a books-desk-computer curriculum.  Lab spaces are for the use of chemistry, biology, a few engineering, some medical, and studio art courses.  Very little else of what is done is “hands-on”.  That is usually considered more base, less theoretical, and relegated to what we used to think of as community colleges.  But even community colleges started dumping hands-on courses favoring a “college prep” curriculum, and becoming less identified with “training”.  High schools did the same, tossing out shop classes in favor of computer lab space.

But as I searched for an expert plumber, electrician, heating and cooling expert, bricklayer, and various other “hands on” professionals in the past several years, one thing became clear.   The people who spent their lives developing exquisite expertise in essential areas of functionality are growing old, and there is no one to replace them.  Every professional I spoke to agreed, and lamented the lack of preparation programs in both high school and community college, and the cultural perception that somehow these careers are less valuable, less honorable, less important than say accountant, banker, business manager (all of which these people learned to be, or at least learned how to hire others to do), or other higher status fields.  One went on to say that he sees so many people going to the gym to work out, but if they had jobs working with their hands and getting off their behinds every day they would not need to.  It was an interesting point of view.

I recall my father talking about all the “college educated” engineers who could not see when their CAD drawings, like an Escher print, would not work.  He would often take wire and bend it for a 3-D representation, to show them the error of their ways.  They were never very happy about it, but over time came to depend on his visual-spatial and hand skills- and offered a grudging respect.

As I get older, I wonder who will know?  Who will know how to do anything- are we expecting just to do searches on our computers, run down to the Lo-HumDepo-Ace’s, get what ever standardized Chinese made supplies they have and do everything ourselves?  There are a lot of issues that one must be an expert in to truly understand, to strategize, to plan, to solve.  Just reading a how-to page will never be enough.  Husband did a fine job on 80% of the house.  But that final 20% needed an expert, and he relied on experts to check the work he had done as well.

All my sewing machines are still machine based, not digital.  It is a cost-benefit analysis for me:  when something breaks or goes haywire on the computerized machines, it is hideously expensive to fix and often requires a new machine.  They are also plastic through and through, and the wear and tear on them adds up quickly.  My mechanical machines (mostly metal) still require maintenance (which I am learning to do), and sometimes specialized care.  Then, they are usually good to for a long, long time.  But the people who know how to work on these machines are also aging, dying, and passing into memory.  They take entire worlds of knowledge with them, knowledge we may not get back.

There is also the aesthetic appeal of machines, of working with one’s hands, and seeing the results.  It not only builds confidence and practical skills, but also develops complex 3-D thinking in ways nothing else can.  I think Crawford is right: until we begin to value work of the hands again, we will continue losing not only a part of our culture, but an important part of our minds.  As discussions about rewriting school curriculum continues, let us not disregard the shop classes, the labs, and the field work that helps us become what we are- 3 dimensional beings made of muscle and fine motor skills.  Also, let all forms of learning and technology be respected as helping us become the best of who we can be.   Let us plan sensibly for all the jobs/roles we need to run our wires, pipes, and build our communities.  In sum, I hope we are not left standing around asking, “Who knew?”

Connect the dots

I really enjoy statistics.  I studied stats under a very kind, bright man who was dogged in his love of seeking out statistical errors and finding mathematical problems in analyses.  I wish I had paid better attention in all the classes I had with him.  Simply put, statistics can be a way through a forest of data, a way to see how “best” to draw conclusions- how to connect the dots.

Present day data mining is a hot way to do the same thing.  Vast amounts of data stream through super computers and different sifting programs are constantly developed to connect the dots and help humans analyze and draw conclusions.  I find this pursuit fascinating.  Not only where data is drawn from, but also how it can be thrown together at any given moment with other (often seemingly disparate) data and voila!  Conclusions about how large groups of people or chemicals or systems behave can be made.  Are the conclusions always accurate?  Probably not (back to statistics- the probability issue).  But then the conclusions themselves get treated as data to be shifted, grouped, and analyzed. 

There is a micro level of such investigation I’ll call case study (also a formal term).  This is the science and art of seeing the big picture within the single case, thinking of a case as a somewhat self-contained system (good doctors frequently do this).  All the data that can be derived from looking deeply within what is often treated as a single data point- a single person, or even business, or family- can be amazing.

One thing we know about systems (I won’t credit the long list of popular books currently published on this topic), say the human body for instance: when a cycle of feeding off of itself to survive begins, the system is in the last stages of existence.  When the human body (as is the case with long term anorexics, and cancer patients) starts consuming it’s own muscles and flesh to survive, it will die not long after.

I do not think it is a stretch to apply this idea to economics.  Whether one looks at the macro level of systems, or the micro (single families and businesses), these systems have begun to feed off of themselves.  The structures that would allow for the solving of problems in creative ways, of offering relief for corrosive stressors, of shifting problematic function points, have all worn away.  The cycle of feeding upon core bones and muscles, the very things that drive the system(s), has begun.  It takes time for these tings to wear away, but wearing away they are.  There seems to be nothing to alleviate these processes, so the spinning within spinning of these cycles, the feedback loops they create, continues and grows in corrosive power as the micro systems interact at a macro level; and the macro level systems themselves are caught in the same corrosive cycles of core decay.

Is this pessimism?  Some might call it that.  Some still hope that an outside force, something called God, or the possibility of drift that creates a sudden set of alternatives not previously imagined or seen that can throw the health of a system into more positive order may happen.  This may be hope, it maybe foolishness born of desperation. 

Some would say this is the natural outcome of systems- this decay into chaos, and that at the furthest point out from organization, from order, when chaos is as crazy as it can get, systems start to reorganize again organically.  Maybe so.  But how much decay and dying has to happen first?  This is a question no economist, no social theorist, no statistics genius, no physicist, and no computer scientist can answer.

So as each of us has a brain, an elegant machine if you will who’s very design is to connect the dots, to make connections between data, input, and then experimentally react, then analyze the results making more data and input that creates new connections and makes stronger pre-existing ones; we try to problem solve and forecast in order to survive. 

Some of us throw those nets of possibilities so far, then connect dots so strangely that we create paranoid loops for ourselves, seeing only information that then shores up what we believe to be connections of the most “real” or true.  You know people like this; you have been tempted to think like this.  Some of these folks will say that everything they experience is due to God being angry, or chakras being out of whack, or a comic book boogie man pulling all the strings of power in the world; or aliens.  Fear is a powerful motivator, and when the complexity of everything individuals face is so overwhelming, the impulse to simplify kicks in, and to react.  Thus we connect dots, and draw conclusions.  Even when we may know better, the comfort of sometimes whackado conclusions and the simplicity of them temporarily puts a stop to the fear, the stress, and the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness we experience.

Then sometimes, even when we try to be as open minded as possible, when we know our own error rates for our conclusions, our own foibles, our own ignorance and holes in knowledge, when we try to see as broadly as we can, what we see can seem damning.  So many experts on climate, economics, and politics- they very people we trust to see broadly- are feeling powerless.  Their sense of desperation transfers to others, and they get pilloried for being pessimists or crazy when they may be doing the best they can while trying very hard not to be “Chicken Little”.

Imagine again connecting the dots.  Taking that huge box of lenses, and pulling one magnifying lens out.  A small one, which will show you only your family.  See all the dots- your current bank balance, your debts, your possessions, your needs, your wants, your strengths, your weaknesses.  This system overlaps other systems, the businesses you run or are employed by, schools, communities, states, nations, geographic regions, on and on so much so that if you try to use all the lenses to see, the information gets overwhelming.  You may use well-developed tools for analysis- borrow from those classes you have taken to help chunk the data, to help index and analyze. 

But if you are like me, you may still be feeling overwhelmed because of what you currently observe through any particular lens:  the knowledge that the system you observe, and the other systems overlapping it, seem to be feeding on themselves.  Businesses cooking books, cheating, lying, creating new rules that feed off of customers in ways that destroy healthy interaction and hide it in language to try to stave off the customers reaction.  Individuals selling off anything they can, cutting back in ways that “go to the bone”, or throwing “caution to the wind” (forgive the mixed metaphors) in anticipation of collapse.  Government at multiple levels reduced to corrupt self-preservation, or feeding off of core muscle to keep going.  I don’t see where these cycles of decay end, I only see consequences of the decay that provoke more decay, more chaos.

As a parent, I feel despair.  Where can we go?  What can we do?  What will be the best decisions- even on a micro level, day to day basis- to take care of my family?  I wish I could write off these feelings as just something all parents experience, or as some floating midlife crisis.  But as I connect the dots, I am starting to wonder if we need to plan for something bigger than laughing off stereotypical angst.  If the smart, educated people I trust (including my husband) are feeling the same way, and seeing the same things when they connect the dots, by taking them into consideration am I just reinforcing my own patterns of belief?  Or should we really be reconsidering the very foundations of where, who and what we are to better plan for the future?  I don’t know and it scares me.

I think if we are honest, all of us are scared.  No amount of knowledge, hope, or power seems to be able to change the course of current systems decay.  What happens now is both a topic of speculative fascination (game playing) as well as pessimistic reaction (greed, violence) and in some cases altruistic exhaustion (volunteering time or money we don’t have for causes that give us a feeling of having done good, or hope).

I hear people saying do the best you can right now.  It makes us feel like we have some control over the moment.  It’s not bad advice.  But now is always connected to later, and some of us can’t help connecting those dots.