Monday, June 8, 2015

The University as a Giant Rube Goldberg Machine

I am not sure I like to be considered a "Collapse Pundit" (as I was recently defined). Surely, however, sometimes I have this horrible sensation that everything is collapsing around me. The world's universities may be a good example of this generalized unwinding of everything. Universities are becoming top-heavy, giant Rube Goldberg machines producing useless paper and bewildered graduates. (image above, from Wikipedia)

Last week, I invited a colleague from the University of Moscow to give a talk at my university, speaking on the geopolitical factors involved in gas pipelines. Not that I expected a crowd coming, but the results were worse than anything I could have imagined. The whole audience at the talk was a grand total of four people (including myself).

I understand that people are busy, that this is exam time for the students, that maybe the talk was not publicized as much as it deserved, and maybe there were other reasons. Yet, this event gave me a chilling sensation. Thousands of students, tens of faculty members, a subject widely discussed in the news and one that, you would think, it should generate at least some interest in a faculty which has "International Cooperation" among its stated subjects of teaching and study. And yet, almost none of them could spare a single hour for this talk.

I was mulling this thing over and then I saw the post published just a few days ago by my friend and colleague George Mobus in his blog "Question Everything" He nails the problem exactly; read that post and you'll understand the situation of universities. Maybe somewhere things go a little better, and maybe somewhere else things are worse. Yet, universities everywhere seem to have become little more than giant Rube Goldberg machines. We study, we teach, we grade students, we fill out forms, we publish papers, but the whole thing is acquiring more and more an aura of unreality. What are doing here, exactly?

To the already excellent synthesis made by George in his blog, I may add that universities could be considered as small scale models of the whole civilization in which they are embedded: they suffer from the same problems. Not only resources are diminishing, but at the same time, the whole structure is becoming top-heavy, burdened by layer after layer of bureaucracy.

It is what Joseph Tainter called the "diminishing returns of complexity" in his classic study "The Collapse of Complex Societies." The cause of societal collapse is not just the lack of resources, but also the appearance of parasitic structures that weigh on society. In my interpretation of the "Seneca Effect" I termed these parasitic structures "pollution," but you may see "bureaucracy" as a form of pollution. The result is this classic curve, from Tainter's book.

No matter how you call this, it is exactly what's happening to universities. Largely, it is a self-imposed disaster, but unavoidable nevertheless.


  1. a fairly respectable article:

    another pertinent article :

    and another :

  2. LOL. Nobody likes getting labeled as a Pundit. However, the definition goes like this:

    noun: pundit; plural noun: pundits

    an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give opinions about it to the public.
    "a globe-trotting financial pundit"
    synonyms: expert, authority, specialist, doyen(ne), master, guru, sage, savant, maven; More
    informalbuff, whiz
    "an economics pundit"
    variant spelling of pandit.

    Now in your case, not only do you blog to the general public, you also publish books, make speeches a bored Pols in the European Parliament, run models on Seneca effects...THE WORKS!

    You're a Collapse Pundit Ugo. Live with it. LOL.


    1. I didn't say I don't like it, I just said I am not sure I do! Then, the term "pundit" always has me thinking of Rudyard Kipling "Kim" and of the wise Indian Brahmin.... or whatever.

    2. Now you have me thinking of Bodhi Pal Chefurka...


  3. I've taken "higher education" with a shakerful -- indeed, a mineful! -- of salt ever since a I witnessed a third or fourth year student of one of Canada's most "academically demanding" universities (Queen's) reading her "advanced" textbook while at the same time watching a movie, with skyping intervals (have I got that right? -- gossiping with a friend, in person, through computer visuals), and texting -- somehow(!), all at the same time. An exceptionally ignorant and boring girl, but a merit student at a prestigious university. (Signed, Tech-Sullen.)

  4. Prof. Bardi, ouch! Che figura!

    Have you ever read Ivan Illich? He published a wonderful book around 1970, "Deschooling Society" (it is available for free online).

    The opening paragraph of Chapter One will always stay with me (bold emphasis mine).

    "Molti studenti, specie se poveri, sanno per istinto che cosa fa per loro la scuola: gli insegna a confondere processo e sostanza. Una volta confusi questi due momenti, acquista validità una nuova logica: quanto maggiore è l'applicazione, tanto migliori sono i risultati; in altre parole, l'escalation porta al successo. In questo modo si «scolarizza» l'allievo a confondere insegnamento e apprendimento, promozione e istruzione, diploma e competenza, facilità di parola e capacità di dire qualcosa di nuovo. Si «scolarizza» la sua immaginazione ad accettare il servizio al posto del valore. Le cure mediche vengono scambiate per protezione della salute, le attività assistenziali per miglioramento della vita comunitaria, la protezione della polizia per sicurezza personale, l'equilibrio militare per sicurezza nazionale, la corsa al successo per lavoro produttivo. Salute, apprendimento, dignità, indipendenza e,creatività si identificano, o quasi, con la prestazione delle istituzioni che si dicono al servizio di questi fini, e si fa credere che per migliorare la salute, l'apprendimento ecc. sia sufficiente stanziare somme maggiori per la gestione degli ospedali, delle scuole e degli altri enti in questione."

    "Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question."

    Illich wrote on energy, as well, and the diminishing social returns on its use ("Elogio alla bicicletta"/"Energy and Equity").

    RE, invoking Mr. Chefurka.. it's because I had been studying along these lines that Paul C's writings resonate perfectly with me; there are similar themes in Illich (although Illich apparently felt that harmful "development" could be arrested or mitigated by making different social choices). Another great is Frederick Soddy, "Wealth, Virtual Wealth, and Debt".

    1. They say that you can't offend someone by telling him/her something he/she already knows. Probably true; I am not offended. But, if you allow me a very modest suggestion, in your place I would be less rash at showing off how well read you are.

    2. It's not clear to me Ugo as the internet is so bad at subtly. Your closing sentence sounded a bit arrogant, insulting and condescending towards Lidia. Is it me or was that truly your intention?

      So, with no intention of offending as I don't know what you know or don't know please accept the following as a way of extending the topic of your piece to a wider context over a longer period of time.

      As I've stated previously in your mistaken belief in how "well off" we are in the USA and our "wonderful" education system. I disagreed with your previously and still do. I wound not say that Noble Peace prize by our current President elect is anything to write home about or that we should brag about any of the Noble Prize winners that is generated by our education system.

      It's not my intent to be be "rash" or "show how well read" I am, but are you familiar with the writings and work of one John Taylor Gatto? I've read everything he's written and I get a sense that what you are experiencing at the lack of interest in the student body has been going on for a very, very long time, probably for much longer than you've been conscious of.

      Here's the short story on Mr. Gatto. The same year he was awarded the Teacher of the Year honor in both New York City and New York State (1991) the Board of Education (the old name for the bureaucratic entity in charge of teaching) was attempting to get Mr. Gatto fired, tossed out on his ass, given the hook, while he was motivating and really educating the group of children the system had abandoned and saw as nothing more than flotsam.

      Another recommendation is an old favorite of mine Neil Postman who also wrote about the failure of our university system and any one of his books will do. Although had he lived longer I wonder whether he'd think we could actually reverse the situation we're in or just have to muddle through the Sixth Extinction.

      In my case the adage about not being able to offend someone by telling them something they already know is not the case. I can't offend anyone who bringing up subjects of which they seem to have no knowledge of history. Try as I might to excite anyone, especially those attending school or working in the "education" system who are complaining about the same things you are and much of what Gatto wrote about. (Forget about getting them to read "Limits to Growth"). In each case they've never heard of Gatto (no surprise) nor of Limits, but believe in the case of the education system they have realized there is something seriously wrong with it and they "know" how to fix it, but have absolutely no interest in reading anything by Gatto before embarking on their Don Quixote like effort. Talk about recreating the wheel or history repeating itself over and over and over again and getting nowhere.

      I'm dying to know if you'd read Ozzie Zehner's book, "Green Illusions"? Sadly, it seems that Ozzie's message regarding solar and wind gets lost like "Dust in the Wind" (a favorite song of mine by the group known as Kansas).

      Finally, did you see the NYT piece on population "The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion"? If anything was to encourage all the hip, cool, yunnies to breed and breed and breed it would be this piece. This "paper of record"(which supported our going into Iraq (hey Judith Miller) has continued to bash the work of Ehrlich. The piece is heavy handed and not a true analysis of the issue at hand. Pretty typical of the Times.

    3. Well, the lady (or whoever is behind the nick) barreled in the comments without - evidently - having read my post. I can't quite figure out what the lady found so wrong in what I said, but I can say that not only Illich is one of my favorite reads, but I even met him personally. He had studied in Florence and in the 1990s would often come here to give talks. So, seeing his work used so clumsily to attack my post; well, I was slightly upset; although I tried to frame my comments as a "modest suggestion". Sorry if it came out as a bit offensive; I didn't mean that.

    4. About your specific questions, I never read Gatto's books, but I can quite understand what he means. The decline of universities is ongoing everywhere and has been ongoing for quite some time. I may well have a wrong impression of the state of US universities from my time in Berkeley in the 1980s - at that time, it seemed to me that the average level of the research and of the teaching there was simply stellar. But things do change; unfortunately.

      About "Green Illusions", I read the first chapter (available on the Web) and that was enough to convince me that it is not a book worth reading. Any discussion of energy which doesn't use the concept of EROEI (and Zehner doesn't) is pure background noise.

      Finally, the NYT piece: yes: I noticed it. Another one of the series "I have been falling from the 99th floor for quite a while, now, and nothing bad has happened to me. So, I think that nothing bad will ever happen to me"

    5. From time to time I comment on this blog.
      Just so there is no confusion - I am not the 'Phil' who commented on June 9th.

      There are a number of trends in mature economies in our industrial civilisation. If we see a similar set of trends across those – mostly USA, Canada, W Europe / EU and Australasia and perhaps Japan and Korea, then I think we could say that the fate at least of the front-runners of the civilisation seems to follow an agenda determined by system dynamics. One could include trends within 'mass education' and perhaps 'health care', along with 'outsourcing' of manufacture and changes in the profile of the labour force? There are other 'markers' of what looks like inevitable change that one could add.
      Phil H

  5. I'm sorry if this sounds corny, but maybe the two people in the room besides yourself and your friend from Moscow were really changed by what they heard. Maybe at least one was. Better one truly attentive listener than a hall full of bored inattentive students. There is a story about the Quaker preacher Stephen Grellet, that he once went into the American backwoods to preach to the lumberjacks, because he had heard that their life was very immoral. When he reached the lumber camp he found nobody there, so he stood and preached to the empty camp. Years later, a man approached Grellet and told him that he had been in that lumber camp, hiding, that he had heard every word and that it had changed his life.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)