From Alma Mater to Edax Mater

Given that I’ve spent much of the last three years writing about the Devouring Mother, I didn’t expect that I had much left to say on the subject, and yet, just this past week, I realised I had missed a key part of the dynamic, one that is incredibly obvious in hindsight. My realisation was triggered by this story that went viral from the recent university protests in the US. A spokesperson for the protesting students at Columbia demanded the university not prevent food and water, which she referred to as “humanitarian aid”, from being given to the students. When questioned, she admitted there had been nobody stopping the students from getting food and water. On the contrary, it turned out the university had offered the students $80 food vouchers as part of the “negotiations” around the protest.

All of this reminded me of the food bribes offered to the general public to get them to take the covid vaccine. Here in Victoria, you could get a free ice cream with every jab. I remember seeing stories from the US of politicians offering burgers, fries, and donuts—all super healthy foods, mind you, guaranteed to provide the vitamin boost needed to get one through a “pandemic”.

Burgers for jabs

Bribing children with junk food to get them to comply is a standard practice among parents, and so, in and of itself, these kinds of offers are indicative of the infantilisation of the public by the government and evidence of the Devouring Mother at work. But there is a more symbolic aspect to the university side of the story that I only just realised.

Coincidentally, Columbia University has a big Alma Mater statue on campus

Most people would have heard universities referred to by the Latin phrase alma mater. In Latin, alma mater means nourishing mother. The phrase seems to have always had a metaphorical usage. In relation to universities, it refers to the spiritual and intellectual nourishment given to students as the institution guides them on the path to graduation and full membership in society.

The idea that students would be the ones demanding things from their alma mater is already an inversion of the whole dynamic and one that never would have been accepted in the early days of the university. It’s fitting that the modern alma mater, who offers very little in the way of spiritual and intellectual nourishment, should turn to offers of actual nourishment (food) to keep her “children” placated.

It’s not a coincidence that the whole notion of student protest belongs to the post-war years, since that time represents a radical change in the nature of the university and one that ties directly in with the larger societal trends that I have captured under the archetypes of the Devouring Mother and the Orphan. We can get a better appreciation of that change by doing a lightning survey of the history of the university. The story is worth telling because the university is a unique institution that appeared simultaneously with the birth of modern Europe in the 11th century.

The very first university was the University of Bologna, which was established in 1088 and bore the name of alma mater. Specifically, it was Alma Mater Studiorum—the mother who nourishes studies. A unique feature of the universities from the beginning was the concept of academic freedom. In those days, this referred to the freedom of travel. Students and their teachers were able to move around Europe, attending whichever university they preferred. Tied in with the Catholic Church’s pan-European reach, the university was a key feature in the unification of Europe and really was a foundational pillar of modern western civilisation by allowing the exchange of ideas across borders.

From the beginning all the way up until the 19th century, the curriculum of the university was founded on the seven “liberal arts” of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. It’s important to understand that the meaning of the word “art” in those days would have been translated into modern usage by the word “skill”. Grammar, logic, rhetoric, and the other disciplines were seen as skilled activities. There were rules to follow, and you were graded on how well you followed them. Universities were not there to foster creativity or critical thinking in the modern sense of those terms, they were there to churn out skilled practitioners who would then be ready to tackle the highest subjects of law, medicine, and theology. Those students who were not gifted enough to become lawyers, doctors, and theologians could still count on getting jobs as clerks and scribes in royal courts or ecclesiastical institutions.

The seven liberal arts had all been taken over directly from antiquity. In fact, Plato had talked about the subjects in his famous work, The Republic. This fits the general pattern of the early Faustian as being heavily influenced by the ancient world, and the university was no exception to the rule. The first major change came during the Renaissance with the addition of what would now be called the humanities. The seven liberal arts were all highly abstract. Even music was not studied as a performative or compositional skill but as a branch of mathematics. This made education incredibly dry. Students were rewarded for precision, not inspiration. The idea of the humanities was to put some life back into education and have students consider what it meant to be a human.

In practice, this added history and literature as major new subjects to the core curriculum. Although a seemingly small change, this was actually quite monumental since neither history nor literature are skills in the way that arithmetic and rhetoric are. An element of subjectivity had been introduced into the equation. This tied in with broader changes in the culture away from the ideals of truth and towards the acceptance of belief. The inherently subjective element in literature and history was more about belief than about truth in a mathematical sense.

Again, this might seem like a small change, but this little crack in the dam wall turned into a flood with the Protestant Reformation and has arguably reached an apotheosis in our time. The ability to choose one’s own gender represents the final ascension of belief over truth. We have gone from a concern with absolute, eternal, and abstract truths to an insistence on subjective belief, which changes with the seasons. It should be no coincidence that the incubator for all this is the schools and universities.

The role of the university in these changes cannot be overstated even though they are the exact opposite of the foundational principles of that institution. The universities had always been separate from the local populations where they were located. In fact, the local population was often hostile to the university because the church made them pay for the university’s upkeep. A famous example is a riot at the University of Oxford in 1209 after a student killed a local. The townsfolk captured and hanged several students who were believed to be involved. Many of the other students and teachers fled the area and went off to form the University of Cambridge. The Pope issued a punishment to the local people that included, funnily enough, the provision of meals to students and staff at Oxford.

Not only were the universities independent of their communities, over time they also gained a level of independence from the church too. This may have been a grave error on the part of the Pope since it appears to have opened the way for the rebellion that followed. All of the major players in that Reformation were university men. Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Foxe, Tyndale, and others had been educated at university, with Bible study at the forefront of their work. Since the Bible was supposed to be the word of God, how could there be any errors in it? The discovery of errors in translation from the ancient Greek texts became a major issue, and the blame was placed on the church, not just for using an incorrect translation (the Vulgate) but for misrepresenting the teachings of the Bible to the congregation.

The Church had inherited a version of truth from the ancient world, which was that what was true was absolutely true. There were no shades of grey. No probability entered the equation. The seven liberal arts were founded on the same assumption. They were about eternal truths. The development of the humanities and the emergence of Biblical interpretation and translation from within the universities allowed for subjective truths, which came to undermine the authority of the Church. Since the Pope had proven himself fallible in his interpretation of the Bible, he was no longer the source of authority. Nominally, the source of authority became the Bible itself, but this was always problematic since the original Protestants were themselves doing the translation and asserting that theirs was superior to the Church’s. They could not justify this logically, so they appealed to notions of “grace” and being “chosen by God”. Eventually, this would open out into the world in which we now live, in which belief trumps truth.

All of these monumental changes were incubated in the universities, and so it’s a strange fact that the influence of the universities actually declined in the centuries following the Reformation. The religious sensitivities that had been opened up saw the universities stagnate around the original seven liberal arts, with a smattering of humanities thrown in for good measure.

The next big intellectual movement, which we give the generic name of “science”, would not come from within the university at all. With the persecution of Galileo, the impetus of science shifted to the Protestant north. But it was not channelled through the universities but rather a new kind of private institution, of which the Royal Society in Britain was the paradigm example.

The Royal Society became a focal point for the new science

Universities had been nurtured into existence by the Church. But the various scientific societies and academies were the product of private money, which came partly from allied members of the aristocracy and partly from the nouveau riche of the emerging bourgeoisie. Fittingly, the precursor to the Royal Society was called the Invisible College since the whole idea of doing experimental science was politically dangerous and needed to be carried out in private. Remember that the truths of the Church and the original university were eternal and absolute, which meant they were not proved or disproved by evidence but by reason and logic. The Invisible College needed to be secretive because it still jarred against mainstream religious and theological beliefs.

Louis XIV funded the French Academy

Much like the Reformation had incubated clandestinely inside the institutions of the church and university and then been supported politically by those to whom it was seen as beneficial, so too did empirical science begin in secret and then receive official support when politically convenient. The Royal Society won the official recognition of the king in 1660. A few short years later, Louis XIV would fund the French Academy of the Sciences. There followed numerous other institutions dedicated to the new science. All of this was done outside the university system, which was still dominated by ecclesiastical concerns.

One of the key features of the new scientific societies was their relative openness to the general public. The Royal Society held a public lecture each Friday evening on a hot scientific topic of the day. It was none other than Michael Faraday, who had not attended university at all but done an apprenticeship as a bookbinder, who attended a series of lectures on chemistry at the Royal Society as a member of the general public. Faraday’s note-taking impressed the lecturer so much that he offered him a position as a laboratory assistant. The rest, as they say, is history. What we see during this period is a glimpse at the kind of meritocratic system that the university offered in the early days of modern European civilisation.

It took until the 19th century for the universities to finally break free of the religious ideology that prevented their acceptance of the new science. It was in Prussia that a new paradigm was introduced, not just in the university sector but in the general education of the public, and it’s worth remembering that the Prussian model was an especially strong influence on the US education system. The focus was once again on academic freedom, and it is certainly for this reason that there was a mini-golden age of scholarship, especially in the German-speaking lands.

Nevertheless, it’s also true that much of the great scientific and intellectual work happened outside the university. Alfred Russell Wallace was an autodidact who self-funded his expeditions. Tesla was a university dropout. Darwin, Lavoisier, Marx, and Freud were gentlemen of independent means. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Goethe all did their main work outside of the university. Gregor Mendel was a monk.

Putting all this together, we can ask the question of what has been the importance of the university throughout the history of the modern West. There can be no doubt that the institution was crucial at the beginning. It was the way in which knowledge from the ancient world was imported. The university was the birthplace of Faustian intellectual culture. But if we consider science to be the crowning achievement of that culture, it’s pretty clear that the university was a hindrance and not a help to its emergence.

This brings us to the 20th century, specifically the post-war years, where we have seen an explosion in the size and scale of the university. Has this explosion been accompanied by a golden age of scholarship, innovation, and knowledge? If it has, I must have missed the memo. But the lack of results is arguably not the main problem. The main problem is political and it is this which seems to be coming to a head now.

When resources were scarce, universities were very strict about grading because society could not afford to waste money training people who were not up to the job. Thus, the system was designed so that only the best of the best graduated and went on to study the highest disciplines of law, medicine, and theology.

A rich society has no such concern. In a rich society, just like in a rich household, the challenge is to find things for people to do. This has always been an especial problem for industrial capitalism. The unemployment rates of the Great Depression were the logical outcome of the massive oversupply created by the system, which drove the damaging boom and bust cycles. The rollout of mass education was one of the main ways in which the state stepped in to try and fix the problem of oversupply.

The university sector employs a huge number of people, both directly and indirectly. It also removes a segment of the population from the workforce. In most modern western nations, one third of the population will now go to university, up from single digits in the first half of the 20th century. That’s a whole lot of people who are not looking for work. In all these ways, the modern university helps to smooth out the problem of unemployment.

All of this worked tolerably well in the aftermath of WW2, but there are several trends that have turned the dynamic noticeably toxic in the last few decades. Firstly, a university education has become the pre-requisite for entry into corporate and government work. It is a mandatory stepping stone on the way to most of the high-status positions in society. The university now attracts those looking for status, not those looking for knowledge.

Secondly, corporate and government bureaucracies are zero-sum institutions with a pyramidal organisational structure. While the number of bureaucracies expands, the number of high-status positions grows, and university graduates can take up those positions. What happens when the bureaucracy ceases to grow? You get a classic zero-sum dynamic where competition increases for the scarce resources at the top of the pyramid. This explains the increasingly ideological nature of the university in recent decades. It’s no longer about knowledge but about allegiance to the ever-changing dogma that is used to solve the cutthroat internal politics of zero sum bureaucracies.

It is this combination that gives us the third, and arguably the biggest, problem. The post-war years have seen a huge increase in the number of university students. Clearly, there have been no supply-side constraints on this growth. In a functioning market, we might expect the price of university tuition to actually fall since when there are a greater number of people paying for a service, the fixed cost ratio goes down. Instead, tuition fees have massively outstripped general inflation. Why? Because what is being sold by universities is no longer knowledge but access to high-status jobs. Since the demand for high-status jobs exceeds the supply, the price of tuition has skyrocketed. Here in Australia, we run a similar racket for international students where the product for sale is a permanent residency visa.

All of this has been going on while the internet has all but undermined the historical role of university as a repository of knowledge. The knowledge traditionally imparted by university is now freely available online. This is the same old problem of oversupply that has been happening for more than a century. In a functioning market, the value of a university as the transmitter of knowledge would be almost zero and the price of tuition should reflect that. By definition, the university market is a racket and it is the students who are being forced to pay for that racket in the form of increasingly absurd student loans.

The alma mater is supposed to nourish her children in preparation for the day they will become adults. What do we say about an alma mater who burdens her children with enormous debts? That is not an alma mater at all; that is an edax mater – the Devouring Mother. In fact, it is university students who now “nourish” their alma mater financially through debt obligations while also being bound to the mother through ideological allegiance. This is an inversion of the way it should be.

In short, we’re right back to where we were in the old days when the Church played the role of Devouring Mother to the medieval societies of pre-Reformation Europe. Coincidentally, the decadence of our elites mirrors that of the popes of the 16th century. The time is right for a Reformation. Will the university survive as an institution in the aftermath and what institutions(s) might replace it? Those are interesting questions to ponder.

40 thoughts on “From Alma Mater to Edax Mater”

  1. Welcome back, Simon! Hope you enjoyed your break. 🙂

    About absurd tuition fees: I’m reminded of a friend who took a foreign language summer course at a reasonably fancy American university a decade-and-a-bit ago. She paid a few hundred dollars for the privilege. A classmate paid a few thousand for the exact same course. How come? Glad you asked. The difference, you see, was that the classmate was getting “academic credit” for it. Which he could transfer to his undergraduate institution and have it count toward his degree. Meanwhile, my friend wasn’t getting any “academic credit,” but only instruction. From what I gathered, the instruction that they received was identical, and it cost a few hundred dollars. And then you could pay a few thousand dollars extra for the “academic credit.” One fine racket, don’t you think? 😉

  2. Irena – hah, that’s a perfect example. Here in Australia, we do it the other way around. Foreign students pay through the nose and subsidise the tuition for local students. Even then, the tuition rates have been climbing over the years and, here’s an interesting synchronicity, the Australian government just yesterday cancelled $3 billion in student loans. Of course, they didn’t say they were cancelling it. They were “using a revised formula”.

  3. Simon: “Will the university survive as an institution in the aftermath and what institutions(s) might replace it? Those are interesting questions to ponder.”

    So, I’ve been thinking about this. One possibility is that you’ll increasingly get credentialing agencies (administering exams that evaluate this or that skill), plus a mushrooming test-prep industry (schools, boot camps, tutors, textbooks…). The solution is imperfect for all sorts of reasons, starting with the fact that it won’t allow you to measure the ability to execute legitimately lengthy tasks (such as write a coherent 10-20 page essay over the course of one or two weeks). And what doesn’t get evaluated does not get taught. 😉 But it’s a pretty good substitute for a more cookie-cutter university education. Especially if you cannot even rely on the cookie-cutters to maintain standards. (For instance, suppose you need an employee who can speak some foreign language, and you cannot test the person’s abilities yourself. Well then, I strongly recommend choosing someone with a high-level language certificate over someone with a degree in that language.)

    Some elite institutions are more or less guaranteed to survive, though (unless our whole civilization goes belly up). Partly as more rigorous training centers (with those 10-20 page essays, longer projects, etc.), partly for research purposes (though you can always set up institutes for that), and partly as exclusive social clubs.

  4. Irena – credentialing could easily be automated too. In fact, many of the online education platforms provide a simulation of that by gamifying the learning. “Hey, you passed level 3. Here’s a gold star!”

    Another way to think about it, though, is what sort of institution could give rise to a new wave of learning similar to what happened with the various scientific societies. I still have a soft spot for the idea of cross-disciplinarity which was somewhat fashionable in the 1970s. But that requires a change of perspective from individual to teams. Could there be a way to “educate teams” instead of people or educate people to work in teams?

  5. Simon: “Another way to think about it, though, is what sort of institution could give rise to a new wave of learning similar to what happened with the various scientific societies.”

    My guess is that this simply isn’t going to happen, or at least not any time soon. 500 years from now? Who knows. For now, Western civilization is in decline. And China will do whatever best suits China.

  6. Irena – the Catholic Church was formed during the decline phase of the Classical civilisation and then went on to form the new civilisation of the Faustian (and arguably another in the Orthodox realm). There may still be life in the old dog yet 😉

  7. Good point about the Catholic (and Orthodox) church. A counterpoint: were those institutions doing anything that Caesar’s contemporaries would have seen as worthwhile? Perhaps not. So, we may get new institutions, but they’ll probably concern themselves with… something other than science. That would be my guess.

  8. I think the difference between the 16th century and now is people actually cared back then. The culture was on the way to reaching its baroque zenith and the debate of ideas and truths actually had weight behind it (enough to go to war), whereas now in this late stage no one cares, because all the debates have been answered.

    All that people will come to request or desire is technical knowledge, and leave everything else to the second religiosity. This is really apparent with older cultures like the Chinese, Jews etc who are happy to utilise western technics but don’t really go for the metaphysical basis it arose from.

  9. Irena – depends what you mean by “science”. Actually, my idea about cross-disciplinarity is relevant to science because a lot of the garbage science going on right now is due to specialists who can’t see the wood for the trees. In theory, cross-disciplinarity would address that. Doesn’t mean it will happen but there is at least a potential there to be explored.

    Skip – I suspect you’re right. It would take a genuine crisis to snap people out of their malaise but at this point a genuine crisis might crash the whole system which is why everything is being done to try and prevent it.

  10. Irene,

    “And China will do whatever best suits China.”

    For some time. But it is also a civilization in rapid decline. We’re swapping deck-chairs on the titanic. The swapping has been rough and will get rougher. And without more, the new “multi-polar” eastern order after that is not likely to be any better than what we have.


    Could there be a way to “educate teams” instead of people or educate people to work in teams?

    Yep. Integral guilds (they’d have to be invisible at first). A place where people can actually work with each other for enough generations to build pathways that integrate multiple disciplines into genuinely functional and beautiful wholes. Like a Japanese sword maker enfolding strips of metal by furnace and hammer.

    Longevity presupposes sustainability. Esoterically this requires the cooperation of truth, belief and discovery. Exoterically there needs to be pursuit of of the ideal of contentment in material pleasures. All of the above requires the rejection of the Faustian deal with the devil, unlimited worldly knowledge and worldly pleasures in exchange for the soul — a dogshit deal drowned in molten Hershey Bars and Netflix’s. In place of that? A symbiotic exchange between elder and student: “be disciplined inside of the bounds of limited worldly knowledge and limited worldly pleasures, and I will show you the pathway into the happiness of harmony inside of conscience and consciousness.”

  11. Jinasiri – good idea. But I was thinking more specifically about cross-disciplinary science (and thinking in general). The corona debacle provided a classic case of independent disciplines who were not communicating with each other. The virologists, epidemiologists and doctors were all off in their own little domain, as indeed are all scholars and “experts”. Nobody is talking to each other. I’m thinking of the collaboration between Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli or between Gebser and Sri Aurobindo as examples of cross-disciplinarity.

  12. Simon.

    “I’m thinking of the collaboration between Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli or between Gebser and Sri Aurobindo as examples of cross-disciplinarity.”

    So am I. My sense is outside of personal affinities, to avoid the mush created by hippydom, creative cross-disciplinary work needs to happen inside established genres and traditions. Old clubs, guilds, colleges, temples, churches … sowing circles.

    The Buddha was an early advocate and adopter of upcycling. Doing this with culture and religion is even more important than with abandoned leatherware. Refurbushing tradition is also the way for good ideas and practices to produce heirs.

  13. Integral Guild does have a nice ring to it. “Welcome to the Integral Guild. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

  14. Re: interdisciplinarity

    Well, you keep hearing calls for interdisciplinarity in science, but in practice, this doesn’t seem to have worked all that great. One way or another, it probably has to do with the limits to how much complexity humans (and groups of humans) can handle. On an individual level, getting trained in an “interdisciplinary” field just makes you less hirable because you as a peg no longer fit into any of the pre-made holes. This is especially true in academia, where the hiring department (reasonably enough) wants its faculty members to be able to teach a wide variety of introductory courses, and those “interdisciplinary” people often lack sufficient expertise in the core areas to teach such course. (And to be fair, part of the reason is that “interdisciplinary” training will often leave out the hardest parts of both fields. Sure, you can get a couple of degrees by staying in school twice as long, but how long do you actually want to be in school?)

    Now, I get that you’d like interdisciplinary teams, rather than interdisciplinary individuals. But even then it’s hard. To successfully communicate with people from a different discipline, you as an individual probably do have to know a thing or two about that other discipline. I recall a conversation with a bioinformatics person (I believe it was something like a decade ago) who was telling me that it was really hard to get biologists and computer scientists to cooperate effectively. The problem, as she saw it, was that the biologists simply had no clue what computers could and could not accomplish. So, a computer programmer would ask a biologist what exactly they were interested in finding out, and the biologist would say “I’m interested in everything!” Yeah. Good luck writing a computer program that searches for “everything.” To fix this, you’d probably need to teach some programming to biologists, enough for them to get an intuitive understanding of what sort of thing computer programmers can and cannot do. Except that so many biologists are math/tech-phobic. And as for the other way about: hello, Neil Ferguson.

  15. Irena – I’ve always liked Richard Feynman’s injunction to scientists that “if you can’t explain what you’re doing to a ten year old, you don’t understand it.” Communication in cross disciplinary teams should be able to work on the same principle. As for knowing a thing or two about the other discipline, isn’t that the whole point of our education system i.e. to give a broad overview of all subjects. People should have enough understanding of what the other discipline is to at least ask intelligent questions. But maybe I’ asking too much 🙂

  16. Simon: “As for knowing a thing or two about the other discipline, isn’t that the whole point of our education system i.e. to give a broad overview of all subjects.”

    Ts-ts-ts. I’m disappointed in you, Simon. 😛 The main point of the education system (at least at the secondary/tertiary level) is to keep teenagers and young adults from overwhelming the job market and causing unemployment to skyrocket. Obviously. The fact that the particularly bright and/or motivated manage to learn something useful along the way is a nice extra, but it’s not the main point. Heck, you even said so yourself: “The unemployment rates of the Great Depression were the logical outcome of the massive oversupply created by the system, which drove the damaging boom and bust cycles. The rollout of mass education was one of the main ways in which the state stepped in to try and fix the problem of oversupply.”

  17. True. But we’re in imagination mode here and that means we get to imagine a better world. I suspect cross-disciplinary teams can only work when people have learned how to ask good questions, which is something our education system not only does not encourage but actively beats out of the student.

  18. It sounds like the students were roleplaying as the Gazans, using words such as “humanitarian aid” to refer to the food they demanded for themselves, as well as ignoring the vouchers they already got. You did not get into why would this contradiction occured if they already got the goodies from their mother already.

    I have another, off-topic question for you, as I think you may be able to help: I am looking for a history book for general reading about the Battle of Beersheba in the first world war. I’m asking you because you may know, the cavalry force that had to treck across the desert before reaching Beersheba and taking part of one of the last successful cavalry charge in history was Australian (I remember you wrote about how Americans think Australians are Americans in a different continent, but this happens to be a supporting example of the claim nevertheless). Ideally I want to read a history of this battle by an Australian, and thought you may know of publications closer home. I know it’s a long shot, but I thought I’d ask.

  19. Hi Simon,

    Once again, and back into the fray! 🙂

    $3bn is a drop in the ocean. I believe in Australia the total debt owed is about $78bn with an average balance of $26,000 or near that amount. The debt relief was that one index (CPI) was swapped with another lower index (wages growth), so it was more a case of the overall debt not increasing as quickly as it had rather than a debt jubilee. With the CPI at 7% last year, a backlash was building. Incidentally I’ve long held the belief that the debt was always deliberately described as an ‘index’ rather than ‘interest’, which kind of looks the same to me, but we can’t say that due to the differing definitions. It is possible that if it was described in the legislation as interest, there may have been some way to make the interest deductible against income? Dunno, just a wild guess.

    Well, when I first began working in the adult work force at the age of 17, there were older accountants who’d earned their position by both merit and apprenticeship. That path had been closed, so I did Uni at night whilst working full time. Student protest was the last thing on my mind way back then! And I rarely recall any interactions with, or benefits from, the student union.

    Now interestingly, afterwards the professional association, I believe the older accountants paid $50 to join and provided their work experience as surety. That path had been closed, so I did the professional associations five extra postgraduate degree subjects at night whilst working full time. That changed, and now it requires six extra subjects.

    The hoops, they keep on liftin’! 🙂 Basically, it looks to me like the market was over supplied, which is good for Uni’s and the professional association, except that drives down remuneration rates into the dirt.

    Dude, whenever anyone asks me about University, I inevitably respond: What’s the return on investment for the time and debt?

    Any group or organisation can lose its way.



  20. @Simon

    Western civilization (broadly understood) is on a downward slope. Eventually, we’ll hit bottom and consolidate. However, by the time that happens, a great deal of specialized knowledge will have been lost. There may or may not still be something recognizable as science, possibly including cross-disciplinarity, but there will be no cross-pollination between different branches of what is now (or what was at any time during the past few decades) cutting-edge research. All of that will be lost. (Okay, some exceptionally useful bits of engineering may be preserved.) To be sure, there may be significant advances in fields that our civilization has neglected due to their perceived lack of utility and/or coolness. I remember John Michael Greer mentioning mycology. Sure, it’s possible that 500 years from now, they’ll have answered mushroom-related questions that none of us have even thought to ask. Physics, though? Forget it. They’ll be lucky to retain most of what’s now undergraduate-level physics; in fact, I really wouldn’t count on even that much.

    As for the system of education: it’s required to do too many things at once (babysit children, keep the problematic youth off the streets and out of prison, keep rates of unemployment from sky-rocketing, give fancy-sounding credentials to the the ambitious and status-conscious, though not necessarily particularly bright or diligent, indoctrinate the youth in the latest fad, and oh, yeah, teach some math and history and so on). As we all know, when you multitask, all the tasks get performed less well. So, those who have a lot of academic potential almost invariably have quite a bit of their time wasted (especially during the period of high brain plasticity), which among other things means that they become less capable of doing things such as, y’know, advancing science. But what are you gonna do about it?! Tell Johnny Average to go get a job at age 15, causing unemployment to skyrocket? You probably care more about your neighborhood not being vandalized (what do you think all those unemployed young men are going to do?) than about advancing science.

  21. Bakbook – do you mean they were deliberately role-playing or unconsciously?

    As for the Battle of Beersheba, the original classic history on the war from the Australian perspective was written by a guy called Charles Bean. He wrote 12 volumes, one of which includes Beersheba. You can find it online here – (the link to the section on Beersheba is near the bottom of the page).

    Incidentally, there’s also an Australian movie on the battle which I see is available at – It’s been a long time since I saw it but I remember enjoying it.

    Chris – yep, the universities are basically running a protection racket. It’s hugely expensive and we can’t afford it anymore. How we uwnind it is going to be a massive challenge. I think it’s finally hitting home that government regulation and other rackets are strangling real economic activity. Note that we can’t even build houses anymore at the required rate as they keep heaping on more regulation. Fun times.

    Irena – I thought we were in imagination mode 😛

  22. Hi Simon,

    My gut feeling is that economic and political support for the Uni sector may be waning after the recent failed referendum. For some inexplicable reason that sector went out of its way during that campaign to disparage a lot of people who pay for that sector and may not even use it. Always unwise to bite the hand that feeds. Look at how those folks publicly acted during the referendum, and then some of the comments afterwards. It’s not wise.



  23. Chris – well, they can get away with that to some extent since about 25% of their revenue comes from international students and local students have no choice but to go to uni if they want a professional career. It’s the same across most sectors of the Australian economy. You’ve got oligopolies everywhere which means there’s no economic punishment for unpopular ideas.

  24. Irene, Simon,

    “As we all know, when you multitask, all the tasks get performed less well.”

    A myth, actually.

    It depends on how you do it. If the mind is trained to feel into the symbiotic connections between tasks, like a piano player integrating the movements of her 10 fingers, two feet, 2 eyes, 2 ears, perception of volume melody andnhatmony, empathy with her audience, historical and thematic narrative wisdom, consciousness of posture, body language and breathing etc etc etc, multitasking increases the effectiveness of each individual task, and further, the whole becomes much and mysteriously more than the sum of the parts. But when the sense of integrative connection is lost than it’s like the centipede who trips over himself the moment the cricket mocks him for having too many feet.

    The kind of specialist knowledge we have now is fake. It’s not really knowledge. Knowledge is something that emerges inside the clarified awareness of integrated and harmonised beings. We teach people how to reduce, separate and disintegrate, turning humans into babes that swallow triviality and puke it out as conformity.

    In an age of fossil fuel bot-slaves, the bots do the work. The puppet master’s get rich by controlling the oil and owning the bots working in the factories. They don’t need to train humans to be smart because the bots are smart enough to do the factory work. Nor do they want smart humans because smart humans have this annoying tendency of noticing that they’ve been had and doing something about it.

    The remedy is to walk away, simultaneously from oil, fake money and automisation and replace them with? … integrated humans beings living and working with each other by the strength of their own arms, the sweat of their own brows and the joy of their own creativity and the social and economic technologies appropriate to that.

    Cross-discipliary teams can be achieved through thinking like a forest instead of like a professor. But why should anyone wish to do it? ‘Cos we all want to be happy. And ‘cos we’ve been had. Happiness is an internal quality which is predicated on material contentment – a model that is at once sustainable and satisfying. What we have now is “a living arrangement without a future”: unsustainable and desperately miserable. Even the powers that be, want it to end. It’s that bad.

    But nature abhors a vacuum. Killing vampires just invites zombies. We need to imagine and build something better.

    Here’s a clue. Fruitful multitasking requires artful repetition done in layers. I suspect that cross-discipliary teams develop on the same principle.


  25. Jinasiri – well said. I like the music/art analogy here because what art does is subordinate the technical considerations beneath an artistic vision. Where the artistic (we might even say “spiritual”) vision exists, truly amazing technical things can be achieved but the error of modern education is to analyse the technique and not the artistic vision. Modern education is nothing more than learning techniques and no surprise that it fails to inspire anything of value.

    I think cross functional teams are also held together by an artistic vision. This works even in the corporate world. The best companies I’ve ever worked for inevitably had a strong story around the company that everybody knew and which integrated the various people. The most soul-destroying jobs are where they don’t even bother to try and communicate the meaning of what you are doing.

  26. @Bhikkhu Jinasiri

    You may be right about multitasking and symbiotic connections, but that’s not what the education system is doing, or rather, being forced to do. It’s more like a person forced to play the piano with one hand, while cooking with the other.

    As for this: “The kind of specialist knowledge we have now is fake. It’s not really knowledge.”

    That’s just a semantic argument. The fact is that the dizzying amount of specialist knowledge that our culture can call upon allows it to do all sorts of things that would quite impossible without such knowledge (whether or not it’s “really knowledge”). Everything from us being able to communicate with each other over the Internet, to the guy who got badly injured in an accident getting to survive and maybe even walk again.

    What is true is that large amounts of specialist knowledge cannot exist without energy slaves. If the energy slaves get freed through entropy, then all the work they used to do for us will either get done by us or will not get done. Plenty of things will simply not get done, and one consequence will be that we will live shorter lives (on average, of course).

  27. @Chris

    The staggering cost of higher education is more an Anglo-Saxon thing (as the French would put it). The United States is leading the pack in this regard, but it’s pretty bad in at least some other parts of the English-speaking world. In continental Europe, though, unaffordable university tuition is not really a thing. It’s either free for the students, or heavily subsidized. But “keep young people in education for as long as possible so that our unemployment rates look better” is very much a thing.

    In Serbia (which is where I’m originally from), this has been brought to perfection. There’s nothing particularly unusual about working on your bachelor’s degree for a decade or longer (some, though by no means all, of these people do eventually graduate). And no, it’s not because these people are working full time and therefore taking forever to graduate. Or rather: sure, that sort of thing happens, too. But none of the eternal students whom I have personally known (and I’ve known my fair share) have been in this category. No, Mom and Dad pay for everything. The eternal student may possibly hold a part-time job on an every-once-in-a-while basis (and strictly for pocket money), but even that is not a given. The only rational explanation that I can see for this is that it does help to keep rates of unemployment down. “I’m not unemployed! I’m a student.” Even if the speaker is well into his 30s and has never worked a day of his life, and no, not because his PhD is taking longer than expected (that’s a different topic), but because a degree that’s supposed to take three or four years is taking him over a decade.

  28. Irena – yes, I remember that from my travels in Germany that it seemed to be standard for people to go on to a masters or PhD and not to begin work til late 20s/early 30s. I guess that’s part of the reason why the Germans needed to invent the word fachidiot 😀

  29. @Simon

    A bachelor’s degree in Australia takes 4 years, right? In Europe, it’s normally three years for a bachelor’s degree, plus two for a master’s (five years total). So, assuming you graduate from high school at age 18-19 (depending on the system of education in question), and then get a bachelor’s and a master’s, and (this is the important part) complete your studies on time, you can expect to be done with school at age 23-24. Whether that’s good or bad depends on the degree you got. A PhD will take as long as it takes, and indeed, you may be in your late 20s or early 30s by the time you finish. For the most part, a PhD does not have a great return on investment, except for some engineering/tech fields (and even then it depends). PhD level study is a type of work (research/teaching), though, which is a bit different from what I was talking about. I was talking about people who graduate from high school at age 18-19, then enroll in university, and keep working on their bachelor’s degree into their 30s (possibly mid-to-late 30s), without holding so much as a part-time job during this time. Yes, this is a thing.

  30. Irena – I don’t know about Serbia, but I got the impression in continental Europe that there is still the old class system at play. It’s also there in Britain. We forget that, once upon a time, the only people who went to university were the aristocracy and, therefore, there was no expectation that they would work after graduating. They might join the government or the army or whatever, but they weren’t going to work for its own sake. I got the impression that this old class belief was still there in Europe and might also be a factor in the attitude to university study. Australia shares with America the background assumption that everybody has to work. Thus, even our “aristocrats” need to pretend to work.

  31. @Simon

    Interesting comment about the old class system. Maybe something like that happens in parts of Europe, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s going on in Serbia. Remember, Serbia (like most of the Balkans) was part of the Ottoman empire, and Christians were the underclass (although, sure, some of that underclass managed to do reasonably well for itself). If anything, it may be more of a residual peasant attitude of “I’m not going to work any harder than I have to.” It’s a reasonable enough attitude for a peasant to have: why work more than strictly necessary if any surplus that you produce just gets confiscated?

  32. Irene,

    “What is true is that large amounts of specialist knowledge cannot exist without energy slaves.”

    Yes. You’ve hit the nail square. But do we need that kind of knowledge and the stuff and activity it leads to? Does it lead to our happiness? If not, it is not useful, and in that sense fake. Just as junkfood. The semantics of what the word “knowledge” means matters.

    “Plenty of things will simply not get done, and one consequence will be that we will live shorter lives (on average, of course).”

    Choosing to not participate in futility saves amounts of energy that are hard to imagine. Thus “imagination space”????.

    The simple life is externally poor but internally rich and, done with art and skill, leads to longer-life.

  33. Simon,

    ‘Where the artistic (we might even say “spiritual”) vision exists, truly amazing technical things can be achieved but the error of modern education is to analyse the technique and not the artistic vision.’


    Modern education has its advantages. It just goes to far and it’s self worship blinds it to its deficiencies. Analysis of technique needs to go together with analysis of vision. And those need to go together with generation and and execution of vision and technique. In this sense everything is art. The art of life and death and beyond.

  34. Irena – What’s the Orthodox attitude to work? The Catholics used to have much the same attitude as the ancients i.e. work = bad. It’s the Protestants who had the work ethic.

    Jinasiri – One of the things it took me a long time to learn was that I learn anything so much better when I understand what the original problem was. Thus, the first I do when wanting to learn anything is read the history of the people who worked on it and figure out what they were trying to do. If only modern education would start with that. Actually, this is a good example of integrated (Integral) learning. History should not be a separate subject. It should be a part of every other subject. Here’s the history of algebra, of calculus, of biology, of literature etc.

  35. Bhikkhu Jinasiri: “The simple life is externally poor but internally rich and, done with art and skill, leads to longer-life.”

    You can do that in an energy rich world, too. It’s hard, but it can be done. It can also be done in an energy poor world, but it’s even harder than in an energy rich one. With less energy, people mostly just live shorter and sicker lives. See, in an energy rich world, you can choose to strategically reduce your energy use in ways that actually increase your quality of life. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it can be done. And you can still use plenty of energy if you suddenly need to (for example, if you’re in an accident, they may just send a helicopter to rescue you). If you’re in an energy poor world, and you suddenly need a lot of energy in order to avoid dying, well then, you die. The helicopter example is dramatic, but it’s not just that. In an energy poor world, many people go more or less hungry in the winter, which makes them more susceptible to disease.

    Simon: “What’s the Orthodox attitude to work?”

    Now there’s a question for the sociologists! And historians. It’s hard for me to tell. However, you’ll hear people say something like “In Serbia/Bosnia/etc. people work in order to live, and in the West, they live in order to work.” So… If you can live without working, then why not? However, I don’t know if this is an “Orthodox” thing. There are layers to this. There’s the Orthodox layer, the Ottoman underclass layer, the communist layer, and even the “transition” layer (that would be the 1990s, when only the criminals – some of them – got to live well).

  36. Irena – I wonder if the simple formula is this: anywhere that’s not Protestant Europe, people work to live and not the other way around.

  37. Simon: “I wonder if the simple formula is this: anywhere that’s not Protestant Europe, people work to live and not the other way around.”

    Could be! Of course, “Protestant Europe” would include its offshoots such as the United States.

  38. Simon –

    Sorry for getting back to you so late, I was thinking about your question. I believe it is unconcious. It reminds me of a lot of behaviors during the pandemic – people wearing medical masks and gloves and administering body heat checks and corona tests to each other, playing doctor.

    Right now the students are playing a game where they pretend they are being besiged by someone and they need help.

    I believe those two are closely related. During the pandemic people wanted to join the ranks of herioc materialism, and it could be the students want to join the ranks of victims.

    But both groups attach a more exoteric meaning to their actions. They believe they are being active in a society that discourages any mass movement that tries to change reality. Nither of those activities is actually productive, which is why I think this may be done for a subconcious reason.

    In the pandemic, the roleplaying may have been fueld by fear, while in the case of the students, it could be the students no longer see being a student as meaningful and exiting enough. Part of the appeal of student life was being in an intelectual community, and nothing brings people together as a community like being attacked from all sides.

    Thank you for the book reconendation, I was looking for something exactly like it. I ordered it, as well as your latest book.

  39. Bakbook – yes, I think you’re absolutely right. In fact, the behaviour of the students is a prime example of the Orphan archetype, since playing the victim is one of that archetype’s main shadow traits. So, actually, the modern university campus is the incubator for the Devouring Mother – Orphan dynamic. Hope you enjoy the books!

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