Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Lost Dreams

Marcus Kracht alerted me of this recent post of his after he had read my post with a similar title, "Where have our dreams gone?". So, I am publishing it here with his kind permission

The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.

And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain (Children's song)

This post was originally published on "Dictionary of Decline" on July 21, 2014


The Other Side of The Mountain

In the song "Susann" by Toni Vescoli (people in Germany might recall the cover version by Reinhard Mey), a young woman, fed up with her boring life in the countryside, decides to move to the city. She gets herself a job and becomes a true and content city dweller. Until, one day, her boyfriend comes home with a triumphant smile and declares that his lifetime dream has finally come true: he has bought a farmhouse and they will move there to escape this dull city life! This sums up nicely the universal pattern of modern life: we want change. It is not so much a question of where we are or whether life is good. After a while, we get bored and want to move on.

Our dissatisfaction is growing and we start to dream of a different and of course better world, where all our problems simply do not exist.Every dream that we have can turn into an obsession — which lasts until the dream comes true. Reinhold Messner in one of his darker moments said that every mountain conquered is a dream gone forever.

The same holds true of societies as a whole. They dream about the future and what it will bring them. A hundred years ago, for example, future was hoped to end diseases, hard labour, poverty, and hunger. Mankind would excel not only in arts, but also in science. And we would travel not only anywhere on earth but eventually also go into space.

And we did.

Only that once these dreams came true, we got to see the other side of them, too. Some hundred years ago, longevity had been a dream. Today we hear about a growing problem of Alzheimer or similar diseases of the ageing body. Or we see people lying in hospital connected to ever more machines. To live on is not always a dream come true. It may for some also be a nightmare.

Or think about the space that we have given to cars so that they can move us where we want to go. When I was a child, there was hardly a car around in our little street, and we roamed the street on roller skates. Today, this same street is filled with cars. So many, that they can't even get past each other on encounter. And there are no children.

The Desire to Learn

When the dreams are no longer there or have turned into nightmares, when the people do not know what to really aspire for the first that happens is that there no longer is a desire by the next generation to learn anything. Because what would be the result of learning? What is the direction they should take if we don't know it ourselves?

Indeed, this is our great dilemma. While we have lost direction ourselves, we wish for the next generation to find out where to go. We see what we have done, and we ask ourselves: was it worth the effort? We see what the world has become and we ask: where is the future? But the next generation cannot be the future if we do not do out part.

I have long thought that today's children have stopped learning because of the affluence. Or because of the long term effects of a libertarian society (as Plato proposed). But now I think that affluence isn't what has stopped them. Young children are still eager to learn. It is not until they reach a certain age when they change their mind about their goals.

One may think: maybe it is just an effect of adolescence. But remember the desire for learning used to return once the problems in our heads got sorted out. Because when we understood our place in society there were signs and directions all around us. They said: study hard, become a scientist, a programmer, a doctor, and life will be very interesting. Not only will you get a job, it will also be interesting, useful, and rewarding. They said: practice an instrument and you can perform music. You can become popular, even famous. They said: if you want and work for it, there will be a place for you.

That is no longer true. Not only are the dreams failing us. There are no true dreams left. We are dropping them one by one.

It happens to all of us. But we don't like to talk about it.

Why become a scientist if all science does is prepare the ground for the destruction of the planet? Name one invention that has not been perverted to make money rather than being used for the benefit of mankind.

It doesn't have to be genetics or nuclear physics. Anything, I repeat: anything, is being turned into money. And nothing besides that is left to dream of.

Who is dreaming of playing music? Who is dreaming of becoming a singer (as opposed to becoming rich and famous)? Who is in it for the beauty?

Or take foreign languages. What is the point of learning any language other than English? When people talk about internationalisation what they really mean is: Anglicization. Because that is what you need to make a living. Give English names to things and you are there. You are international. Foreign languages are no longer important in themselves or as a means to understand other cultures, but as a means of being economically successful. Which leaves more or less one language worth the effort of learning it.

Or take machines. Of course, we need engineers to make them. But where is the attitude that engineering is actually fun? It is gone. And, really, most factories are dead places. Full of robots. Sure, they need designing, but that too is increasingly a sterile job. The engineer hardly gets to touch the thing he is making. Instead, he is assembling them behind a screen, like a programmer.
Not to speak of programming itself. That too has become more of an assembly-line job. The spirit's gone.


And so the students arrive at university without dreams except for a single one: to get a diploma so that they can get a job — and make money. And why shouldn't they want that if this is what society tells them to do?

The belief that society values science is pure hallucination. It values only the money that the science is asked to deliver. Why else are universities under constant threat to get in money regardless of the content of the research? Why do the criteria of success for German universities talk about anything but content?

Think this: the majority of people in Europe (and, as I read somewhere, also in the US) do not want genetically modified food. And yet they are being told that they have to accept it. And they are told that they have to accept it because there is no scientific proof of its adverse effects. As if it were a simple matter to stop this food once we know what these effects are. This is not only hard to accept in a democratic society. My question is: why do all this science, then? Apparently it is not being done so that in the end society gets to choose and say what it really wants to have. It is there for certain institutions to make money from it. Pure and simple.

It means that if you are against the abuse of science your only safe bet is not to become a scientist.
The logic of money is everwhere. Is it not natural that students say: I am doing all this to make money, all I want from my degree is a job? If we want them to change their minds, we should change ours first. But we are not. Instead we are dabbling on about changing the learning habits.

Different recipes have been tried to stem the tide. In the US, rising costs have led to fee hikes, and students are more and more in debt. Which will focus their attention even more on the question of where the money is in their education.

In Europe, one has tried to standardise education. Students get credit points, which supposedly are uniform in value. Universities however are subjected to a quasi-market oriented regime where they get part of their funding according to performance. Performance in turn is measured by some bureaucratic numbers. In Germany they are: number of first degrees, amount of extra mural funding, and progress in equal oportunity hiring. None are about content or quality of teaching.

None of these approaches have worked. It is not because the students are protesting. They in fact are very polite. But typically they are absent minded. The content is not what they are in for. They are asking: what do I have to know to pass the exam?

The politicians and presidents of the universities alike talk about performance but they hardly mean content. They mean money. In other areas of life you call that prostitution. It results in getting a mere substitute for what you really want. Because what you really want you cannot get by paying money.

Motivation is a primadonna. It is not singing when you want it to. It disappears once you start asking too loudly for it.

If I want my students to listen, I need to give them a story of why it makes sense to do what I am doing. Why I am doing it despite everything.

The Road Ahead

But not only the students need dreams to carry on. All of us need them. I need to have a dream as well. I need to know why I am doing what I am doing.

Increasingly however I am getting tired. The administration is turning academic life into a madhouse. We get no time to think, because that is something that can't be measured. No credit points for thinking. And we are losing hope that the next generation will have any chances to get a meaningful job in society let alone at a university. Higher education is at a crossroads, really. It needs money, and the money isn't there. To cover that up, they are making up excuses. That's it.

Increasingly, I see myself doing research not for a future generation (who would that be?) but for the people with whom I went to university. Because there hardly is a next generation. Jobs are being cut, university life is being stripped down to the barest necessities. The propaganda has it that there is less money because people aren't working hard enough, but that's not how the bureaucratic machine functions. Remember that awards are relative: you get more if you are better than the rest. If everyone works more, you have to work more just to stay even with them. And if they start working less, then less work on your part will also do.

Universities will become marginalised. Already the discussion of what its role in society is or should be is nonexistent. Because interference with politics is not desired. Intellectuals do not appear in television for fear that what they will be saying is too difficult. Their role is not any more to come up with a beautiful story but to get money in. So universities turn into private companies for funding.

And the state nods in agreement.

The dream of learning has disappeared from higher education. Yes, more and more students enroll in first tier institutions (high schools, universities), but less and less of them do it because they want to learn. Call that realism. I call it a wasted chance.

At one point the money will be so scarce that they start closing down universities. And we get to see the other side of Big Education.

Marcus Kracht 2014-07-12


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)