Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Determined Life

I was reading an interesting article written by Matthew Crawford, a philosopher/ mechanic who teaches at the University of Virginia while also running a motorcycle repair shop.  The article, Shop Class as Soul Craft, was recently extended into a book length form of the same title.  Combining his various interests, Crawford makes a philosophical pitch for the value and dignity of manual work in an increasingly virtual world.  He traces the economic and social reasons for the decline in importance of shop class in schools in favor of information technology based courses, arguing against the current conventional wisdom of giving vocational training short shrift.  The article is quite brilliant and worth the read in its own right, but what struck me in particular was this short section where he attempts to find some of the underlying reasons for the generalized decline of the vocational trades:

Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.

One’s life is determined… celebrating potential rather than achievement… What struck me about these thoughts was their similarity to thoughts I had had some years back, though in my case not within an economic but a cultural context and relating to certain personal difficulties that had dogged me.  In the degree to which, when I was younger, I had a problem with commitment, of various sorts: to what I would major in college, to my profession, to marriage, to family, it one day struck me that my real difficulty had to do with, at heart, a latent fear of death.  I wonder to what degree this “need to keep options open” coincides with the experiences of others?  

Most of us, it seems to me, deal with the problem of death by seeing it as a problem for another day. This is especially easy to do when you’re young.  We live with the illusion that our lives will extend, if not forever, at least indefinitely into the future.  In other words, a certain vagueness of limits is called for.  The more our lives become bounded by those life defining commitments, the more our lives become determined and predictable, the clearer its trajectory becomes from beginning to its ultimate end.  In other times, children or the comforts of faith might have afforded better solvents for these fears.  But in a me-centered age, we are left far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time.  From a purely egocentric perspective, the next best thing to immortality in this world is living a life without limits, a life unbound.  Is that why we need the security of feeling that even the life defining commitments we do make these days can, at any moment, be unmade?  Does the difficulty of believing in an afterlife make us that much more, not less, frantic about the commitments we make in this life?  I wonder if some of the nervous energy of our contemporary consumer society is not a reflection of these latent anxieties?  Is this need for endless change, the horror of a determined existence, the celebration of potential over achievement, beyond its economic logic, materialism’s secret longing for the eternal?


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  2. PS - I've been reading a book on the 60's generation titled "Destructive Generation" written by two former radical activists from this era, who write, coincidentally with respects to this idea of indefinite futures and its relation to the radical left(the book was published in the 80's, hence the references to Nicaragua):

    "As with many of our old friends, the idea that the journey would have a middle and an end was not something that occurred to us back in the Sixties, when we were still wholly young and halfway innocent. Then, there were only beginnings - an infinity of them. If one beginning didn't work out, there would always be others that might. This, we eventually came to realize, is the pathology at the heart of Leftism, the desire that makes it truly an infantile disorder. It is why Managua has become a new laboratory for the same old experiments that failed before; why sixty years after Lincoln Steffens hailed the dawn of a new world in Stalin's Russia, the revolutionary tourists in Nicaragua still believe they have seen the future and that it works. Abbie Hoffman's recent lament to the 'New York Times' about the trials of being an activist in the 1980's --'It is hard to have an anti-war movement without a war'-- is really a wish for yet another beginning by a fifty-four-year-old who ought to know better."

    Further on they write, reflecting on how the 60's activism gave way to the 70's Me-generation: "Like others who had been on the front lines in the Sixties, we tried to find surcease in the Seventies by shifting attention from History to the intimate self." Could this dream of the left, a dream like a receding horizon, this dream of endless beginnings have been finally, whether on the political or personal level, a Peter Pan dream of never growing up, an immature dream of the unbounded self?

  3. Interesting points, thought provoking!

    Though every society celebrates the potential and the fertility of youth, our modern society differs in its emphasis. It's nothing new to want to be "forever young," what's different is the rejection of those who have grown old. Gone is the respect for the elderly, who are hastily carted off and stuffed in nursing homes, out of sight. Growing old today, so it seems, simply sucks.

    Why is this? On an individual level we may point to broken family ties, or the inability of younger generations to care for the old as they're too busy producing for our material society. But as a whole, society shuns the elderly. Why? Could it have to do with how the elderly have now gained a near monopoly on diseases, and death?

    We've grown accustomed to the notion that youth is life, while old age heralds the arrival of diseases and death. But for most of history this was not so. Death and disease used to be present in every stage of life. Modern surgery (that is, anything beyond amputations) generally did not exist before the 1900s. Antibiotics have been around only since the 1930s. I remember an old physician one day talking about the pre-antibiotic era, how even in elementary school, the students were well aware of death, made palpable in the empty desks left behind by schoolmates that had "gone to the hospital," never to come back. For the entire history of man, up to the 20th century, whether you were 16 or 61, pneumonia meant a risk of death. A cut in the leg could develop cellulitis, and rapidly progress to gangrene, amputation or death. Those around you could do nothing but pray that the fever would break. Starvation was also a risk, as diseases on crops made the food supply unstable. For most of human history, there was little to protect us besides our faith (no wonder people were more religious!). But now our technology has advanced to a point it can nearly guarantee our security. We rely on science to protect us. Who needs God? We are victims of our own success.

    This however, is only valid for the young. We have managed to postpone death and disease, but not defeat it. So now these are almost exclusively associated with the elderly. We do not want to be reminded of this stage in life. We don't want to realize that, when we reach it, we will still need God's help, the same God we've been ignoring for decades. So we prefer to delude ourselves that that day will never come...

    We want to escape death and disease. And today, that means we must remain "forever young." This song has always been sung, but now it's done so with greater emphasis, as we're not simply embracing youth, but escaping old age, and all the inconvenient truths it represents.

  4. Cristian,
    I think you would enjoy reading Peter Augustine Lawler who writes about similar concerns related to the challenges posed by our unprecendent technological successes in the area of medicine. He poses interesting questions as we move into a future that will be radically altered by a biological revolution that is scarcely in its infancy. There are scientists today trying to genetically solve the problem of old age, treating it as if it were just one more disease. Lawler wonders whether, in a future where human beings will truelly be able to extend their lives indefinitely into the future, this won't, in fact, make us more frantic about disease and accidents, since death would then become essentially an avoidable malady? Will genetic enhancement of human beings become necessarily mandatory, for example, since unenhanced and sickly human beings, in light of the available science, would constitute a kind of recklessness? Sounds a little like that sci fi movie Gatica, no? What do these questions say about human freedom and the dignity of the human person? Will we be recognizable to ourselves 100 years from now? Embryonic stem cell research is only the beginning...