Wednesday, January 21, 2015


High School Architecture

If one accepts all those ideas about humans evolving in paleo-times into groups of a hundred people or so, mixing hunting with gathering, dividing the work by gender, deeply shaped by the ecology of their place, then there ought to be echo in the small towns and urban neighborhoods about that size where people still live.  I think there is.

When I try to talk to people about religion or even when I read the steady stream of articles from journalists and academics, I find that they still see the subject in terms of what I call “high school rules,” that is, assuming that the point of life is adversarial, status-bound, group-dominated, and not much affected by the theoretically governing body -- the faculty/administration.  

Growing up -- to a point

What is acquired in classes, which are defined by work (jobs), is irrelevant compared to what is acquired by interaction with peers.  There is little or no expectation of personal development or learning -- strange for an institution specifically meant to educate, but probably due to the adolescent belief that they are already grown up, because they don’t have a mental picture of how a true adult is different from them unless they include signs of aging: balding, wrinkling, slowing.  The final maturation is inside the head, not on the pretty face.

Maybe the strangest aspect of our present situation is that our “peers” are fictional characters presented in our own homes.  They come to be what we think of as normal, though most of their behavior was never considered normal before television and now is more “normal” on television than it is on computers, though what we see on YouTube is each other.  The “norming” of social behavior, which is what we think everyone else is doing, is far riskier than it ever has been in spite of all cautions.

"High School", the musical

I am not comparing theologies, but sociologies.  “Theology” is the business of the equivalent of faculty, curriculum, courses of study, even grading.  Sociology is what really happens in the dynamics of the population which may not have much to do with the institution.  Bullying, hazing, pecking order -- the interactions of those who consider themselves the standard, who are trying to maintain that in the face of challenges from the exceptional, the misfit, the transgressive, and those with weak or missing families.  The idea is to make them blame themselves and possibly eradicate themselves.

In a sociological context “From is to ought” and “misplaced concreteness” are the most common philosophical and ethical blunders.  That means maintaining the status quo, marking tight local horizons and supporting fear and resentment of the “Other”.  Also, it is high school to expect an external enforcer (parents) to be the Deus ex Machina.  If they are given a chance to be judges (student discipline panels or town councils) they tend to be rigid and harsh, which may be displacement from how they see authorities above them.  But they are very skillful at triangulating: the high school practice of pitching parents against faculty, for instance.

A horrible example

“From is to ought” has several dimensions.  It can come from being in the catbird seat and not wanting to leave it.  It can come from fear of change.  It may just be a lack of imagination, an inability to create options.  “Misplaced concreteness” means not being able to handle metaphor, so either one thinks what was a figure of speech was a statement of actual fact, or one cannot see through the surface to the pattern underneath it, the subtext as it were.   There’s no awareness of difference between different people’s thoughts.  I find both of these very characteristic of small towns or, for instance, ethnic neighborhoods that people don’t leave much.  They don’t know they’re in a box, much less wonder what’s outside it.

On the good side, these communities are stable, reassuring, and offer a strong base for those who work in some viable way.  They tend to become prosperous, so long as the larger picture doesn’t change, but they don’t respond well to something like climate change or frakking that causes earthquakes or aquifer contamination.  The constant drumbeats are jobs and safety, like grades and basketball tournament prospects.  Progress means to them something more like continuity: bigger and better versions of what already exists, especially if it favors their pursuits.  A monoculture.

People here are constantly instructing each other how to do things, how to act, the way junior high kids critique each other.  The aim is conformity in the guise of encouraging success.  Even a new social site I dropped out of -- a virtual neighborhood not here at all -- was constantly instructing members to post cheerful selfies, not to write over other people’s heads, and to stick to popular topics -- the target populace being the people running the site. 

In terms of church congregations of the Abrahamic type, these biases are evident on both ends of the political scale, both liberal and conservative.  There is no thought of looking for new ground, but rather protecting old ground.  There is appreciation for new methods in the old pursuits.  They are interested in moving to a fresh new planet -- like a new set of school supplies -- and making it like this one -- not finding a transformation of this planet.

A sociological pendulum has always swung between protecting the interests of the individual or the interests of the group.  Right now we seem to be just about at the limits of the individual and slowly turning back to the group.  They tell us that so much wealth is accumulated by one percent of the population of the nation (some say one percent of the world population) that it equals the wealth of the other 99 percent.  This cannot stand.  It won’t.  We’ll be very lucky indeed to redistribute wealth peacefully.

Another pendulum has swung demographically.  Much of the planet has been depopulated by war, famine and disease.  Many places are rubble.  Most of the population in developed countries is accumulated in supercities along the coasts.  They have taken the money that should have been spent on infrastructure in the interior of the country, thinking no one lives there anyway, but they will soon have to spend huge amounts to survive the rising oceans.  All this is happening much faster than anyone has expected.  Now the bulge from all the WWII babies are aging, retiring and dying.  

The tenured college profs who began their careers teaching veterans on the GI Bill are clutching their lecterns in terror of retirement, though their classroom material is outdated.   This sort of thing will change governments, manufacturing, and living circumstances.  We’re told it all the time.  And yet our health system is unprepared.  The old and the poor are still pushing dust mops and sneaking cigarettes in the boiler room.  Delinquent outsider kids used to be told to join the army where they could get it out of their systems, but they cannot be taught how to operate predator drones.  Now they go to join Islamic terror cells overseas if they can get someone to help them with the paperwork to apply for a passport.  Or they live in prisons.

At present there is a lot of talk about the “middle class” but it is also stratified between those who earn $100,000 a year, own cars and houses, send their kids to college -- and those who are still working class, though it takes two jobs with low pay to survive.  The truly prosperous are a criminal class whose robberies are on paper infrastructure they pay upper-middle-class people to maintain.  Their only physical risk is their lifestyle. 

I’m not sure any of this is new.  I do know it is very fragile.  The planet will not support it.   But this is not the whole story.  We are always taken by surprise, one way or another.  It might be very good.  It will be different.

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