Friday, December 30, 2016

Trades and the Real

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.
Of course, being my mother, she graduated with high academic honours and started her work in the service with high expectations all round. She worked on a variety of vessels from Eastern Arctic ice breakers to West Coast ready-runners doing search and rescue off the coast of Vancouver Island. Later she worked in the Ottawa offices of Vessel Technical using her expertise to do cost estimates for vessel refits, and being responsible for the expenditure and tracking of millions in public funds. (When an ice breaker is damaged by hitting a hidden iceberg, the costs can easily run in the multiples of 7 digits.)

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.



Gerard Brady said...

I find the Irish have a really big issue with this. Everybody wants their child to go to university here and like the UK the populace is almost wholly dependent on tradesmen from overseas, particularly the Poles. I have discouraged my daughter from pursuing any kind of study that she cannot pay for, thereby ensuring she escapes 20 odd years of indentured servitude endeavouring to repay massive debts. You're right. We are not meant to be slaves.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

There are a few alternatives. You could look into the University of Malta where tuition is free for EU citizens.

Anonymous said...

When the astroid hits, I'm packing my bug out bag and moving in with the Amish. I think they have a community close here somewhere near Toronto.

Anonymous said...

We have a Vocational education and training sector that offers a wide variety of career pathways. There is still the push for university but a lot look at the VET sector too0 We call them technical and further education institutes or polytechnics the new term for all publicly owned institutions. I taught in 2 over 220 years and they are great providers of education.

John L said...

This is not necessarily wrong but leaves things out. One important thing is that the institutions now known as universities on the whole do not in fact provide the education a university was originally designed to give. They are far less rigorous and in fact their students do not have the preparation required for an university education. There are a few places that still do something like this. If you can do Greats at Oxford, for example, or some other combined philosophy degree, then you will get a decent university education and will in fact be fairly employable. But look at how hard that course is and how well qualified the students who take it are if you want to know what actually going to university is about. Another thing is that it is reasonable to want to have a decent liberal arts education and that it is hard to put people off getting one. But what should be recognised but is not is that the time to get a decent education in language and literature is in primary and secondary school, not in university. In fact the liberal arts traditionally were what was studied before university and 'liberal arts colleges' were secondary schools. That is how it should be, but again no-one knows or wants to find out that a proper secondary school education should leave you with a better foundation in the liberal arts than you get from the vast majority of universities nowadays. A third thing is that if you think that culture is something that is acquired through learning it at school you will never have it. You have to have a family that gives you a cultured background and you have to put a lot of work into learning it yourself through reading from an early age.

Anonymous said...
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Tom Ryan said...

In his The Idea of Unniversity , Cardinal Newman said that the purpose of a university is not to make men doctors, lawyers nor plumbers but to make doctors, lawyers and plumbers men.
Since they are no longer doing thAt, they've lost any value they had. Deconstructionism can be learnt watching daytime television and the news parodies.

Tom Ryan said...

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Rico, I don't know how many times I've told you not to address me like this. I'm not your "sweet". It's offensive and inappropriate. I'm deleting your comment because of it.

AMDG said...
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