Today, I had an interview for a teaching position with a state university. I think it went well, although what I had supposed would be a thirty minute interview became an hour and a half of tangential, anthropological nerd-chat with the chair of the Anthropology department. Did I say too much? Was I too bubbly? Perhaps, perhaps not. I left with the distinct impression that I had the job–comments about having the person in charge of forms and tax bits getting in touch with me, etc.
But it has set my subsequent thoughts on a certain path, and maybe that’s not all bad. As part of my interview process, I had to complete a writing sample. As any writer knows, second guessing after the fact is always a part of anything we compose. The question went something like: The University is conducting budget cuts and is considering cutting ANTH 1102 (Intro). Make an argument as to why that’s a bad plan. Having to compose on the fly isn’t a weakness or a strength. Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve struck gold. Sometimes, I want to set everything on fire after rereading a draft. My dashed off response fell somewhere in between those poles.
An introductory course provides students, irrespective of degree track or major, a sense of context and an opportunity to see the world in different ways. Anthropology is the Story of Us. As a species, our origin isn’t a spontaneous event occurring in a vacuum. Every triumph and struggle is written in the material record we leave behind. It’s etched in our very bones and held in trust by oral traditions that have outlived any empire. To deny students even an opportunity to access information with integrity, you leave them no option but to rely upon those in authority who have none.
As I said, my feelings about this little writing test are ambivalent, pulling one way and then the other. But it brings me back to something I’ve said before, an idea that has been taking shape in recent months.
Behold! The Makers of Things and Doers of Stuff…
You are what you make. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, first, I feel that human beings, while possessed of lovely, big brains and all the intellectual fireworks that go with them, are creatures of the physical world, too. We are, after all, animals. The physical manifestation of all that cerebral lightning is material culture. We think of an idea for a weapon, a vessel, a structure, a piece of clothing, jewelry, food…whathaveyou. And then, using technology available to us, we make it.
Jumping up another level in terms of cognitive function, if we don’t really like the means available to us, we may just make up something new by incorporating existing tools or improving upon designs, material processing or material selection. The brain/mind becomes the ultimate metatool, and is still, by the way, the most complex computer known to us. Bitchin’. Again, significance?
We are each possessed of two selves–the one that dwells in a physical realm and is subject to its laws and the other that is one step removed, that processes and imagines, creating, at will, entire worlds that have no tangible existence. I feel, in this statement, an echo of Platonic forms–the perfect bowl or dress or tuna casserole, an ideal concept that is not subject to physical laws, such as material variations or laws of physics.
I think that, each time we undertake to make something–whether its dinner, the bowls from which it will be eaten, or the dining room table upon which we eat it–we are reaffirming a connection to all the other makers of things and doers of stuff that came before us as well as other humans with whom we share Earth. We are bringing into being something that did not exist in the world before we made it. Moreover, while some do still pursue this making and doing as a way to earn a living, it’s usually seen as an intentional but less necessary form of activity.
The Mass Produced and the Hyper-Specialized
Why am I rambling on about making stuff? Who does that anymore? Well, that’s part of what has been shifting around in the back of my head all evening. We live in a culture that is particularly industrialized. Even our food is in the hands of large corporations, from factory farm to a shelf-stable waiting game–we are no longer largely in control of how our food is grown, what is done to it after it’s harvested, or even the act of preparation. Because we’ve been encouraged to become worker ants in our particular field or form of employment.
Convenience food has moved in and we’ve been reassured that this boxed dinner is as “wholesome” as it is convenient. But it’s not, is it? And there’s really no easy way to back out of this particular cultural elaboration of ultimate convenience, because we’ve lost the skills to feed ourselves without help from global corporations and fast food companies. If you disagree with me, ask yourself when was the last time you cooked anything from scratch (or a very close approximation of it?)
Now, I do think that specialization is an important aspect of our ability as a species to thrive in growing numbers. But I also think that, in the United States, especially, we’ve become creatures that live almost entirely in the mind. We deal in information and services that rely on prefabricated components. The portion of our population that brings together raw elements into whole material forms that transcend the sum of their parts grows increasingly slim, and their actions are seen as “artistry” or “craftsmanship” rather than “I like to be not dead, so I made stuff using this other stuff.” There are consequences for this.
The Laws of Physics Believe in You
Some of these consequences involve forces of nature, like gravity or fire. We have become so distanced from a way of being that accepts on a visceral level how the world functions, that we no longer see ourselves as part of that world. Individuals can study laws of force, of thermodynamics, or other science-y sounding bits. But until they see those laws played out in the corporeal realm, what they have is not really understanding. They’ve memorized concepts.
As children, we’re supposed to test these inherent principals of our world (within reason and within earshot of a caregiver) and discover the Laws of Ouch and That Didn’t Work the Way I Thought It Would. In many places, however, parents now overprotect their offspring, so that this critical period of childhood empirical research is hampered or entirely prevented–much to the detriment of the adults those children will become.
How many children are prevented from making a mess, making mistakes, and making real connections about how the world functions with and around them? These children complete their sentence in the school system, where “learning” is often conflated with “rote memorization” and “following the rules.”
They are then vomited out into the world, and if they conform to this culture’s concepts of success, they mortgage their future with school loans to attain a degree they won’t actually use and don’t really understand, and then they get a job in which they make nothing, build nothing, and have no stake in actual creation, but which earns money to buy lots of things. At the end of the day, they don’t understand how their computer works or where their food comes from or that referring to Africa as a country is as insulting as it is wrong.
Just to Make a Point
Another consequence of being protected from learning is that they do not understand how the laws of physics really work, that the material of their automobile is “plastic” in the sense that its molecules become highly malleable when sufficient force is applied at speed, or how disease spreads. They have become, in effect, lumps of motile flesh with central processing units that house many facts and figures, but cannot correlate or collate data.
They cannot connect one event to another, and they certainly don’t perceive that, as physical beings, there are physical consequences to such a life. If they are ever put in a position where they no longer have resources processed for them, they will perish, learn very quickly or become dependent upon those who do understand these things and retain the skills to create food, clothing or products.
I know that sounds fantastic and far-fetched. To a large extent, you may take it as the “logical, but ridiculous, conclusion.” In terms of what it means in real time, I think that when we become disconnected from our physical selves and cease to practice skills that require us to pay attention to how materials react to the world, we also become distanced from communities of humans who are still on speaking terms with their bodies.
When Human Beings Are Reduced to Unsavory Ideas
We cease to understand them or their needs, because those situations aren’t really real to us. They become concepts, to be discussed in non-real terms. So, much like a disagreement on the internet, this can quickly escalate into harsh language and overblown or parroted rhetoric–because the topic of your conversation isn’t actual to you. Consider the suggestion that we “Bomb the Middle East until it’s nothing but a glass parking lot.” or “Build a wall along our border to keep those ‘Mexicans’ from taking our jobs and living off illegally obtained welfare.”
The first statement is so far-fetched and unfeeling as to be both laughable and deeply disturbing. The second…well, that’s a lame idea (that we actually did, anyway) based on false data and a total lack of understanding of how welfare works and a completely bigoted generalization that everyone who comes across the Mexican border is Mexican or has any options that don’t include immediate death, watching their child suffer, or a slow death from a number of social and economic factors at play in the places they are trying to leave.
It doesn’t happen overnight, or even within the span of a single generation, this placing of a safety zone around our intellectual selves until it swaddles us like cotton batting from the rest of our species. Perhaps it happens a little at a time–one convenience product, one mechanization, one lapse in the reportage of the evening news at a time–but sure enough, we have become isolated from much of the world and even from the concept of how to function within it. If our surroundings do not accommodate our maladaptive loss of physical skill sets, what recourse do we have? If we are what we make, what can we claim to be when we make nothing?