The next young "conservative" Catholic man, say 19-25, who does not intend to become a priest, who tells me he's going to study philosophy and theology is going to get punched. "Oh yes, I intend to get married and have lots of kids too!" Whack!
My parents were engineers. When I was 13, my mother met and married a guy who had spent most of his life on ships, first in the North Sea fishing fleet, then in the Merchant Marine, and then in the Canadian Coast Guard. He'd been kicked out of school at 16 for punching a teacher (who sounded like he deserved it) and his father decided it was time for him to start in the world of working men. He turned out to be quite brilliant at maths (mostly self-taught), and through many years of directed self-learning and going on short courses, became qualified as a marine diesel engineer, 1st class, spending the most fruitful part of his adulthood overseeing the operation of arctic-going ships. He was known by his peers and superiors in the Coast Guard as one of the best engineers the fleet had ever had.
He was thirty-five when he met my mother, and fell madly in love with her. She had struggled to get her feet in the world, having gone to teachers' college and worked in elementary schools for a while, then gone on to do a double major science degree - mathematics and marine biology with minor competences in Japanese language - but still struggled to get motivated to find a real niche in the working world. She met her second husband (annulled from my father) and with his encouragement, ended up going to the Coast Guard college in Sydney, Nova Scotia to be the first woman ever to do their engineering programme.
(There were and are lots of women in the CCG but most of them train for navigation or other deck jobs. Engineering is extremely maths-heavy, and has a good deal less prestige than the tidy, dress-uniform-wearing deck careers. Engineers on Coast Guard ships come home from their three month stints smelling strongly of diesel fuel and machine oil.)
|One of the ships my mother worked on, the Eastern Arctic icebreaker, the Louis St. Laurent.|
When I went to university, in my early 20s, I really had no idea at all what I wanted or ought to do with myself, and the costs were already becoming insane (this was about 1987). My mother finished her degree in 1975 and the whole thing, books included, had cost her $3000.00. By the next generation in the same university, I was looking at 25,000 - 30,000 per year for tuition. The warnings were already being seen in the media of students graduating with student loan debts that they would never - given their degree paths - be able to discharge. This was also the time of the so called "slacker generation" - that we later called Generation X - a demographic cohort who, having been raised by feel-good hippie hedonists, had no idea at all what they wanted out of life, or that anything they could bring themselves to dare to want could possibly be achievable.
In fact, it was worse than this. Our parents' generation had demolished the rules and standards and expectations of an entire civilization, leaving us "free" to do little more than drift aimlessly through life. They had succeeded in indoctrinating us into the New Paradigm in which none of the old expectations could be counted on, a nihilistic worldview in which nothing was really valuable or important. We had been raised every day of our lives through the late 60s and 70s to believe that nuclear war was inevitable, that we had no future that was not going to be full of pain and loss, that nothing was worth doing and the best we could hope for was a life of blessed distraction (which the internet was shortly to come along to helpfully provide.) Quite a lot of people my age went to university because it was just the expected thing to do. No one really had any notion at all of how to achieve anything in life, still less to pursue a career (which was mostly denigrated as the pursuit of "greed-is-good" capitalism). At the time it felt like failure but now seems just sensible that I dropped out. I still believe that the best educational money I ever spent was 80 bucks at the Y for a typing course.
But there were a lot of sensible things left at work from my mother's upbringing. Having been raised in post-War England where poverty and deprivation were universal and normal, she had instilled in me a deep fear of debt. (Thanks, Mum!) She was the one who taught me my two basic rules of getting on in life: only spend money you actually have; secure your home first - without a reliable roof over your head, nothing else can be achieved. I suppose in a sense, this was the foundation of my conservative nature.
But she also taught me the importance of knowing how to do things. How to make things, and mend things and make do with the things you had. The consumerist mentality - that was entirely a product of post-War North American boom economy, was something that simply did not enter our lives. I remember the conversation I had once with a co-worker when he said he wanted to go to a big sale at an electronics shop, to buy a new stereo. I said, "Oh, I thought you said you already had one. Is it broken?" He said, "No, but it's outdated." I said, "Well, does it work?" I told him he was mad, and he thought I was weird. This was when I realized that I lived in a significantly different world from most people.
I've always admired people who know how to make things, fix things, build things. I had a friend who was in a robotics engineering programme in university whose hobby for about three years was completely rebuilding a car. His ability to work through partial differential equasions was as nothing, I thought, to the fact of this car he drove that he built himself.
I know people now who have simply staggering student loan debt, and who know that they will never, ever be free of it as long as our civilization continues. Personally, if it were me, this would be a pretty good reason to hope for the coming of the Asteroid. I can't think of any more horrible situation to live in day to day.
Currently, I have very little money, but absolutely no debt. I've never had a credit card, my brief flirtation with student loans 30 years ago is a long-forgotten bad dream. I don't own much in the world - no car or house - but I'm free in a way that I think most people rarely experience. And lately, I'm learning that even the few little practical skills I have, mostly domestic, are so rare as to make me something of a curiosity. I am the person my friends turn to when they want to know how to cook something, grow something or sew something. I know people who don't know how to light a fire in a grate or make a pot of soup.
All those disaster movies about the various kinds of apocalypses have one thing in common: the great majority of modern, urban-dwelling people are going to do very badly when the cocoon-like supports of Modernia are taken away. In any situation that requires any sort of fortitude or practical knowledge for survival, most of us are going to be toast.
I have had a running argument with my friend Steve Skojec about the value of university. I keep posting articles about how university is mostly a scam and a snare for the lazy and unimaginative young to trap them into lifelong debt and detachment from reality. Of course, Steve is a guy who got a degree in communications and just about lives online and has admitted that he just doesn't have most of the practical skills we used to take for granted. I also "live in my head" a good deal and I write for a living, but I did do two trades courses, one in joinery (making things out of wood) and another in cheffing. And I hung around my engineer parents a good deal and learned things from them. We lived in the arctic where The Real is rather more in-your-face than it tends to be in an urban setting. When my motorcycle didn't work, my mother refused to pay to get it fixed. Instead, she lent me her tool box, handed me the owner's manual and told me to figure it out myself. It took me a couple of days, but I did it (had to take apart the carburetor and replace the float valve). I figured (and this was her reasoning too) that if I could follow a recipe in a cookbook, I could probably work this out too.
I think our friend Mike Rowe in the video above is right. I think some people really ought not to be encouraged to "follow their dreams" but to have dreams that are realistically achievable. I once had a class of young catechism students, and I asked them to give me a show of hands of who was planning to go to university. The kids, all about 14 years old, all stuck up their hands except one. I asked them, "Now, who has some serious interest in one particular subject they want to go to university to study, like biology or math or history?" No hands. Then I looked at the kid who hadn't put up his hand and asked him what he was going to do. He said he was going to apprentice with his dad as a plumber. He said he'd seen his father do useful skilled work and be his own boss, running a business that made a good living and supporting his whole family. He said that he could expect a starting salary of about $40,000 a year and would be his own man, without debt.
It's not so much that a person who has gone through university is necessarily going to be useless in the real world. It's not even that a tradesman will necessarily be more independent. It's that the culture does not value the independent mindset. We don't even bother to get things repaired by other people any more. Now we have chained ourselves to the consumer machine to the point where if something stops working we throw it out and buy a new one. We're slaves, and humans aren't meant to be slaves.