Friday, July 17, 2009


Posts have been slow over the summer, a consequence of other writing projects. But, for the next two weeks things will grind to a non-virtual standstill: I'm off for some R&R and then the ISI Honors Program in Williamsburg, VA. We will return to our irregular programming here in August.

The End of Education

This article from today's Inside Higher Education informs us of a new study that measures higher education degree "productivity." But what, a curious reader might inquire, is meant by "productivity"?

Using publicly available data (in hopes of making it easy for policy makers to replicate), the report starts with the total funding for each state's public colleges, combining state and local appropriations and tuition and fee revenues, which account for the vast majority of operating funds for state institutions over all. The analysis then weights the numbers of degrees and certificates that a state's colleges award (by level) by the median earnings associated with them in the state's employment market. Higher degree levels are weighted more heavily, as are credentials and science and technology fields.

According to this study, higher education is to be judged purely and exclusively on the basis of its ability to increase the "median earnings" of its students. Studies such as this are offered as a means for policy makers and university administrators to assess the value of a university degree. As these sorts of "metrics" become ever more widespread - and there is tremendous pressure from every direction that universities provide measurable forms of "assessment" - there will be massive corresponding pressures, incentives and allocation of resources to ensure that students are receiving an education that will directly translate into earning potential. We are in the midst of witnessing a fundamental redefinition of what a university education is. And, lest anyone think that "liberals" are fervent supporters of "liberal education," the article makes quite explicit that "at a time when policy makers, led by those in the Obama administration and in Congress, are focusing intently on higher education's need to significantly increase the number of Americans with a higher education credential of some sort, the focus seems appropriate."

Sadly, the colleges have largely brought this upon themselves. For many years they were content to offer vague suggestions about why a university education was beneficial, with glossy brochures offering bromides about the value of "critical thinking" and "multicultural" experience. Yet, in fact, every major actor in the university game - administrators, parents, students, etc. - knew that what was being sold was a ticket to success. Yet, it wasn't necessary to state this fact quite so baldly, since there was so much excess money in the system, a notional form of wealth that allowed us the self-deception that we were offering something other than what we were really doing. Faculties in the humanities especially - who might have offered a counter-narrative to the universally understood assumption that college was about career advancement - engaged in hostile attacks against traditional norms and structures of power, but offered nothing positive to counter to dominant, if always implicit, assumptions. The humanities itself killed off the ideal of the liberal arts; "political science" ceased to understand itself as fostering the ideal of citizenship (to the point that its leaders now consider eliminating the study of America as a subfield of the discipline); philosophy and theology abandoned their aspirations for knowledge of the true, and instead emphasized (respectively) making arguments and religion as a form of cultural studies. In the wake of the near-universal evacuation of reasons for a college education that went emphasized "the permanent things," all that was left was a saleable commodity that provided a pipeline to Wall Street. And we saw the sort of activities that were the consequence of that sort of "education."

This catastrophe of education as preparation for money-making follows directly upon the evisceration of the liberal arts. As a consequence of these sorts of measurements - to fulfill a hunger by those who write the checks - the faculties and offerings in the humanities will shrink to a near-invisible presence on our campuses. From one perspective, this is not altogether to be lamented, given that the caretakers of the humanities came to despise the thing it was they were supposed to teach. But, from a more important perspective, it is to be lamented, because only the liberal arts helps us to know the appropriate ways to make money, helps us understand what more fundamental ends can be achieved with the fruits of our labor, and finally leads us to see why making money is not in itself the appropriate goal or end for the good life.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sweat of Thy Face

Several years ago I (sarcastically) noted a hot trend in the DC Metropole - the outsourcing of many mundane tasks seen as superfluous and distracting from the busy lifestyles of the harried DC cosmopolite. At the edge of the economic precipice (whose steep decline most did not see at the time), we had become so certain that our lives should be unbothered by mundane tasks that we began hiring "lifestyle managers."

Well, the breaking news today is the rediscovery of doing those little things for oneself - whether ironing, mulching, cleaning, repairing, and so on. And, according to a poll cited in the article, people expect this renewal of doing things for oneself is not a flash in the pan: "55 percent of respondents to a recent poll said they would not go back to old spending habits should the economy perk up. 'The main reason is because they have found out that they can do just fine using less,' [the pollster] says. 'They realize they had gotten a little out of control in spending, and now they want to replenish their nest eggs. Life is uncertain.'"

This sea-change in behavior raises an interesting prospect (related to the previous post and the week long discussion at FPR on Matt Crawford's book): it is possible now to conclude that the move away from "drudgery" was simply a consequence of (largely imagined) wealth. Believing ourselves to be infinitely wealthy in a permanently growing economy, we were profligate and slothful. It's easy to dismiss the momentary gluttony and sloth as a symptom of excessive pocket change, and leave it at that.

But this conclusion, I suspect, may get the matter wrong: in my view, it would mistake cause and effect. The immediate reaction imagines that our sloth came from our wealth; but I would submit that our "wealth" was generated by our sloth. In the time between the first article (November 2007) taking note of the outsourcing of mundane tasks to "lifestyle managers" and today - a year and a half later - we have discovered that most of our purported "wealth" was entirely fictitious, a Madoff economy writ large. This "wealth" was largely generated by our sloth - our wish to have something for nothing, to take shortcuts in order to attain riches on the cheap. As a society we decided to take a break from real work, and instead pursued dreams of untold treasure that poured - via banks - from the drywall and faux country exteriors of our suburban "homes" or the packaging of mortgages that could be repaid only in fantasyland - where, for a time, we believed ourselves to be residing. The outsourcing of our lifestyles wasn't a consequence of our wealth - the impulse to avoid actual work was the root of the notional wealth that culminated in these more evident forms of sloth.

If today's article is to be believed - and one hopes it points to a salutary trend - then we may be embarking on a better path, and not a false spur. At root, what has all along been needed is a better theology. God told Adam and Eve that "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground" (Genesis 3:19); yet many of the worst moments of subsequent human history have come from the effort to avoid the consequences of Original Sin, whether the enforced labor of chattel slaves that some could avoid work, or, more recently, the employment of cheap [and world-destroying] energy to do - or to generate sufficient "wealth" to hire others to do - that which spared us sweat on our own brows. If indeed we are again beginning to do more things for ourselves, not only can we expect more salutary forms of "being master of one's stuff," but perhaps even a reorientation of our sight away from the self-aggrandizement of the autonomous individual and toward more humble recognition of a divinely created order.

God once sent his prophets to rail against the sinful behavior of his people, to warn of God's displeasure and the prospect of His wrath, and needed often to rain down calamities to recall them to a straight path. Today's materialists pay little attention to any prophet who might speak in God's name, and so perhaps God has sent instead a prophet who can grab the attention of those who would deny his reign. And so, perhaps, after Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, there came Dow Jones...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Whole Hog

This week, Front Porch Republic is hosting a symposium with posts devoted to reflections on Matthew Crawford's new book, Shop Class as Soul Craft. My introduction to the symposium is here.

Below are my own reflections on the book, also appearing today on FPR.


Alexandria, VA They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can sometimes tell how the book’s designers wanted the book to be judged at first glance. Shop Class as Soul Craft shows an antique BMW motorcycle casually parked in front of an old shed. On the back cover we see Matt Crawford with one hand casually holding the throttle of the motorcycle – which has been moved inside what can only be assumed to be the same building, housing what appears to be a motorcycle workshop – while, in the other hand, he holds a wrench. So now we know – this was a book written by someone who works with tools, who loves classy motorcycles, and who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

We should contrast this author’s photograph with the typical photo that will often grace the back cover of books by Ph.Ds in philosophy.

Many, if not most, of these photographs picture a learned scholar in front of a wall of books. Sometimes, instead of casually holding a wrench, they hold a book open to an important passage. These photographs are testimony of sorts – a visual cue that we are in the presence of a learned person. The photos that grace the front and back covers of Shop Class as Soul Craft provide a different sort of testimony: we are about to join the company of someone who can do things, and – just as importantly – can do things with motorcycles. And the emotional and cultural associations that accompany motorcycles are powerful: freedom, autonomy, sex, counter-culture, and so-on.

These two elements are important: one doubts the visual cues would have been as compelling if the book pictured Matt with a plunger standing next to an old toilet, or a conduit pipe next to a mess of wires. It's also to be doubted whether the cover would have been as compelling had the book pictured Matt Crawford in front of his wall of books (surely he has a few bookshelves). It’s the fact that we know a few things about Matt Crawford’s life and career (literally, path or course) that informs how we, the readers, are to approach this book. And, I think, it explains in part a great deal of the amazing, widespread, and deserved attention that this book is receiving.

This is to say that the book derives a good deal of its persuasive force and power because of the personal biography of Matt Crawford – scholar, electrician, disgruntled office worker, motorcycle repair man. It’s a book that would have barely drawn the attention of the likes of NPR, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Stephen Colbert had it been written by someone like me – a certified egghead who can’t fix his own motorcycle. Matt gets a pass on the first and generally successful “conversation-stopping” critique of books that praise handwork and craftsmanship – the charge of hypocrisy, that you aren’t living up the ideal that you claim is worth living. Moreover, he gets past some of the yawns that any such book would have produced if written by a plumber or electrician. Toilets are mundane; motorcycles are sexy.

We should notice something about the media outlets that have been drawn to the book – they are the redoubts of eggheaded intellectuals, more often than not liberal progressives. While I may have missed some other reviews and discussions, I don’t think the book has been as widely covered in magazines like Iron Horse or Workbench Magazine. While some, such as Kelefa Sanneh have tried to throw cold water on the modern romanticism for simpler times and especially the work of hands that informs the fascination with Matt’s book (or the works of Wendell Berry, another certified non-hypocrite), most of these outlets have demonstrated remarkable admiration for Matt’s argument (including the likes of Francis Fukuyama, who recalls with fondness the bygone days when he, too, worked with his hands). Clearly the response to this book says something about us, especially the “intellectual classes” who generally not only do not work with our hands, but are largely incapable of doing so.

It’s easy to make fun of this neo-romantic longing for simpler times and work of hands (even as one might, at the same time, feel a degree of self-indictment of the helplessness that comes from not being able to do things for oneself – and the guilty pleasure that comes with any such self-indictment). Our own Susan McWilliams noted with some bemusement the sometimes laughable efforts of young neo-agrarians who attempt to work farm implements in one hand while holding a Starbucks latte in the other. While it’s appealing to call to mind the virtue of working in the crafts, it’s also easy to dismiss these longings as an archaic and outdated, and one suspects that many of our best and brightest will still be drawn to apply to the best schools, will strive to get the right internships, and – if they are lucky – will be sufficiently successful to afford a “farmette” in the country that will assuage some of their white-collar, elitist guilt.

It’s because this book has been packaged and sold as a defense of crafts and handwork that accounts at once for its immediate appeal but, I think, constitutes a serious obstacle to discerning its more expansive and structural argument. Matt – understanding the needs of book marketers and, doubtlessly, the compelling nature of his personal biography – highlights his personal authority as a motorcycle repairman (most people will be impressed by, but not really understand, his discussions of rebuilding motorcycle engines), even as he strives to move it to the larger issues of which a life in crafts is a part. One fears, however, that – a bit like Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind – many “readers” will come away impressed most of all with the personal narrative (just as they focused in on Bloom’s discussion of the sex and music preferences of college students) while neglecting its more challenging and deeper foundations.

A theme that runs through the book, but which may be easy to miss with all the praise of the manual trades, is that of alienation. Early in the book Matt discusses the development of scientific management by its greatest theorist, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor – the originator of “Taylorism,” an approach often criticized on the Left – sought to streamline various forms of industrial and even white-collar work into processes in which each worker was to concentrate on one portion or part of the process, often wholly unaware of what relevance or connection that work had with the overarching aim or outcome of the process. Following the logic elucidated by Adam Smith centuries earlier, Taylor laid out the practical blueprint for extreme subdivision of labor, in which those engaged in discrete jobs – whether “brain” or “manual” work – were increasingly to concentrate on narrow and discrete tasks, and thereby increase efficiency and profit, while also minimizing labor costs by making each cog effectively replaceable. Taylorism renders each worker increasingly ignorant, not only in the discrete job being done, but in regard to the purpose and meaning of the work as a whole. Henry Ford – one of Taylor’s greatest disciples – discovered that instituting industrial process following the tenets of Taylorism was not, at the outset, without its challenges: according to a biographer cited by Crawford, “every time the [Ford] company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963” (42). The new system, according to Matt, induced “natural revulsion.” It took a good deal of winnowing and transformation of the economy and society to arrive at a point at which people no longer minded an active inculcation of ignorance about their work.

No fan of Taylorism, Matt recalls the work of Harry Braverman, a Marxist critic of much of modern economics, whether capitalist or Marxist, and a particularly fierce critic of Taylorism. According to Matt, “Braverman gives a richly descriptive account of the degradation of many different kinds of work. In doing so, he offers nothing less than an explanation of why we are getting more stupid with every passing year – which is to say, the degradation of work is ultimately a cognitive matter, rooted in the separation of thinking from doing” (38; emphasis mine). What Matt here notes in a central argument of his book is that the degradation of Taylorism applies to “many different kinds of work.” The argument about our growing more stupid applies equally to blue collar industrial production line workers as it does to white collar office workers who effectively work under a Taylorian form of scientific management. While it’s easy to understand Matt’s argument to be a defense of the nobility of the manual trades, more importantly and fundamental to his argument is that we are generally becoming more ignorant because we don’t know why or for what purpose we are doing things. The separation of doing from thinking applies equally to people in offices as on assembly lines, inasmuch as all these forms of work increasingly require or encourage no thought to the implications or reasons of what one is doing. More and more forms of work require the wearing of blinders, a narrowing focus upon discrete jobs that are fundamentally disconnected from any broader understanding of how that work relates to, fits into, contributes to, or derives meaning from a concrete community of fellow human beings.

This central theme again becomes explicit toward the end of the book, when Matt discusses the way so much of modern work is degraded because of a loss of connection to a concrete community, and thereby the attenuation of responsibility, memory, gratitude and fidelity. He offers the example of banking as an exemplary case in which doing is separated from broader forms of thinking. Noting that in the 19th-century there was a prohibition on banks from opening branches in communities outside those where they originally operated, Matt calls attention to an ethic in which interpersonal knowledge of what we do requires a special form of thought that induces reflection on what we are doing, and for what reasons. He quotes Thomas Lamont, head of J.P. Morgan, who in 1923 told his colleagues “the community as a whole demands of the banker that he shall be an honest observer of conditions about him, that he shall make constant and careful study of those conditions, financial, economic, social and political, and that he shall have a wide vision over them all” (190).

We can contrast a time when a combination of social mores and political laws fostered a form of work – in this case, banking – in which that work was undertaken with an aim and purpose not only of money-making, but of contributing to the good of a concrete community, to our very recent past when the activities of banking became separated from the places of their origination, when loans and debts were packaged as abstract “investments” for people who would trade and re-trade the parcels of debt from everywhere and nowhere. Lenders had no responsibility for the loans they made; brokerage houses packaged good and bad loan together for sale to anonymous “investors” upstream; and, meanwhile, “homeowners” were flipping houses and talking about their “equity” as if their homes were the equivalent of a hot stock tip. Across the spectrum, the separation of “thinking” from “doing” in a much broader sense – that is, a situation in which we no longer gave any thought to the implications of our actions, so long as an immediate reward was expected by sundered individuals – was the underlying cause of our current financial crisis. The crisis was not cause by faulty regulation or Barney Frank’s legislative blunders or greedy Wall Street bankers: it was caused, above all, by a systemic sundering of thinking from doing, of having a concrete understanding of one’s work and its contribution to the good of an actual community of fellow people.

While Matt’s book has every appearance of being a paean to the work of hands, in fact it is, above all, a defense of the integration of work and place, a call to expand the temporal expanse of our work – to see our actions as part of larger history, with a past and a future – and a summons to reconnect whatever it is we do with a more concrete and evident capacity to think and understand why and for what reason we work. Writing in defense of a life well-lived – in which our working lives are not radically divorced from our lives as parents, children, worshipers, friends, neighbors, and citizens – he concludes with a call for a more “humane economy:
When the conception of work is removed from the scene of its execution, we are divided against one another, and each against himself…. A humane economy would be one in which the possibility of achieving such satisfaction is not foreclosed ahead of time for most people. It would require a sense of scale. We in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power...; but we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or to take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible (208-9)

What such concentration - and corresponding massiveness - tends to foster is ever-more pervasive forms of abstraction. Jobs are sliced up as neatly as the mortgages that were bundled into abstract financial instruments, and - wholly losing any sense of grounded commitment to place and people, every job becomes simply a way of making as much money in as little time and cutting as many corners as possible. An economy based upon such structural abstraction is ruinous - as we have seen - most of all, in its degradation of the humans who perform increasing numbers of tasks without knowledge or understanding of their meaning. I would include in this category - a vast one, to say the least - much of the work being done today on college campuses, in which faculty concentrate on ever-narrower slices of knowledge but persist in a state of radical ignorance about the actual object of their endeavors - the education of students. College professors may appear to be dominantly Marxist, but the truth is, for the most part we're oblivious cogs in a Taylorist machine.

Also at the end of the book Matt notes that he would probably make more money as an electrician than a motorcycle repairman – but he chooses to repair bikes. Doubtless this is because he finds that work more satisfying. But, also in evidence throughout the book is a charming community of motorcycle enthusiasts, a stand-in for the more robust community of place and memory. What Matt’s admission suggests is that even the manual trades – absent such integration in the life of an existing, palpable community – can be degrading. An electrician who covers an expansive area, never meeting a client twice, would likely regard such work as job one does for the cash – nothing more. And then there is the example of the bad motorcycle repairmen related by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – people who couldn’t care enough about their work to do the job well and proudly. It is only when we care about the people with and, in great part, for whom we work, that we are likely to do good work. This book is, above all, an argument for doing good work – whether with one’s hands or with one’s mind - but, regardless of its form, undertaking work in which doing and thinking have been reconciled within the context of a human and humane community.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Broken Connections

"We live on the far side of a broken connection" Wendell Berry has written. One of the greatest obstacles resulting from our current circumstance is our inability to make the necessary connections between various "problems," seeing them as discrete and separate and attacking symptoms while not only ignoring, but persisting in deep ignorance, about underlying pathologies.

I was struck anew by how surprising some of these connections can be while listening to a discussion on NPR about the new book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. I think that for many, high use of Meth in various small rural towns throughout America must be a sign of the desperation that comes from the dullness of life in those small places, and is seen as good reason to "escape" if the opportunity presents itself. However, according to author Nick Reding, the high use of Methamphetamines derives (surprisingly) from the industrial consolidation of agriculture and the meat industry.

Reding says that the agricultural industry has consolidated over time, and the working class has had to work harder for less — which has made meth more attractive. As an example, he cites a meatpacking plant that was bought in 1987; the new company cut wages from $18 an hour to $6.20.

"If you're a guy like Roland Jarvis ... you've got to work extra hard to make less than you were yesterday," Reding says. "Meth is often seen as a helpful drug in that instance because you don't have to sleep. You don't even have to go to bed before working your next shift."

Reding explores the effects of a number of these policies that have contributed to the decimation of the small town of Oelwein, Iowa. His counter-intuitive discovery: the use of these drugs are not because of the dull life in small towns, but because of agricultural and industrial policies of the past fifty years. The use of Meth is an effort to compensate for the effects of punishing policies that encourage economic consolidation and "efficiency" - resulting in cheap food that turns out to be very expensive indeed for the people of Oelwien and similar small towns. In describing efforts of police to crack down on the manufacture of the drugs (a bit more aggressive than "just say no"), one is struck by the fact that they are trying to play whack-a-mole against a problem that arises from bad political policies and a bad economy. But, in seeking the to tamp down on Meth manufacturing and use, officials are altogether missing the more profound underlying reasons for its explosion in small towns across America.

When some celebrate America's economic might by pointing to our agricultural productivity and cheap products, they need to begin adding in the costs of the devastation of Oelwein, including the ruined lives that cheap meat has fostered. We need to start adding in a great many costs that we've all too conveniently separated - say, starting with the cost of running and imperial military including three recent wars in the Middle East and Near East that aren't being fought because we believe in "democracy," but because we believe in cheap oil. Until we start an honest accounting of the true costs of our "cheap" food and convenient shopping options, we'll continue to be complicit in the devastation of places like Oelwein, and a bad culture of addiction that replaced a good culture of good work.

(Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic)


Pickens calls off massive wind farm in Texas.

It turns out the wind isn't close enough to where the people are. "Technology" is supposed to solve our energy problem - except when it can't. We'll be getting our energy more locally, whether we like it or not - and, for that reason, using less of it. In the meantime, anyone looking to buy a wind turbine or 400?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Too Small to Work

A whispering campaign has begun that will necessarily precede the effort to pass a second "stimulus package." Now, truth be told, the first "quote-unquote" stimulus package was one of the foulest-smelling pieces of ill-designed pulled pork that recent memory can recall, but even a well-designed actual "package" directed at re-orienting the American economy would not have "worked," if by "working" what's meant is immediate return to so-called economic "health." The damage of the previous quarter-century of acting like we would all be dead tomorrow is just too deep and vast. Still, the idea that a second package - doubtlessly written by Pelosi and her minions - will do anything structurally to foster an economy that is not necessarily built on quicksand and held aloft by balloons is risible.

Still, Laura Tyson whispers that the first stimulus - at $787 billion - was "a bit too small," while various other Administration officials protest too much that we shouldn't be talking about a second stimulus - yet.... Expect by summer's end that the whispers will begin emanating from spaces closer to the Oval, while even those who feign opposition will begin acknowledging that the Bush recession was deeper than first assumed... All this as a prelude of printing about a trillion more notional dollars to divert the attention of enough voters in November from our 10+% unemployment rate (or, was it 20%?) and growing numbers of foreclosures as more "Option ARMs" begin "readjusting."

Meanwhile, the Republicans will attempt to capitalize by blaming the Obameconomy while the Obamites talk about the need for "new foundations" that will be provided in the form of IOUs from the Chinese. Given the growing renewed popularity of Atlas Shrugged, I'm beginning to think that all the actual grownups have indeed gone on strike and are living in a secluded and hidden valley in the wilds of Colorado - or, maybe that we are all just living in our own poorer Neverlands, refusing to grow up and acknowledge that we are going to have to start living within our means....

Hot New Investment

From today's Inside Higher Education:

Could Farming Become the Hot Endowment Investment?
George Washington University is planning to increase, to 10 percent from 6 percent, the share of its $1 billion endowment invested in farms, Bloomberg reported. The news service quoted one of the university's analysts as saying that the fund already has farm investments in Latin America and Eastern Europe and is now looking to Australia. The endowment data collected each year by the National Association of College and University Business Officers is not granular enough to determine whether GW's strategy is unusual.

When I saw the headline, I thought for an instant the school was going to increase its investment in course offerings on agriculture. Not only is there no real interest in what farming involves, but the investment strategy shows an ongoing commitment to deracination and placelessness that lies at the heart of modern elite institutions of higher education. I'm willing to bet that they won't be increasing the course offerings in animal husbandry or topsoil stewardship. Probably not even a minor increase of assignments of essays by Wendell Berry. But, if it raises the return of their endowment so that they can increase the numbers of faculty teaching in the Program of Advanced Deracination, I guess we can all be pro-farming.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Food News

The Washington Post today announced the start of a biweekly column on "the politics of food." At a time when news divisions are cutting back on nearly all forms of coverage, domestic and international, that in itself is an interesting bit of news. The first column by Ezra Klein is entitled "We're Getting a Bad Feeling About Our Food," which - by way of focusing some attention on the film "Food, Inc." - at once recognizes the legitimacy of contemporary concerns about the status of the food as well as what he sees as an element of fear-mongering in over-stating the dangers that lurk in our refrigerators ("does for the supermarket what 'Jaws' did for the beach...").

Klein (perhaps in the spirit of the PoMoCons) tut-tuts the fear-factoring that seems to be informing films like "Food Inc." or books like Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma." "The sense that something is wrong with our food quickly blurs into the suggestion that everything is wrong with our food." Still, he acknowledges that much of the growing concern about our food stems from a sense of deep ignorance and even alienation from the sustenance we put into our bodies: "We know rather less about our food than our grandparents did. In part, that's because the process of creating food in a lab is less familiar than the process of growing it in a garden."

While dismissiveness toward over-blown concerns might be the response of someone who can cite various studies about food safety, farm productivity and a general sense that things are generally just fine, all of that glosses over the deeper significance of the growing self-awareness of our profound disconnection from the sources of our sustenance. One sees this anxiety in the efforts to find out more about our food - including the desire to see and speak with the farmers who grow our vegetables or slaughter our meat at Farmer's markets - and in the quite amazing response to Matt Crawford's book Shop Class as Soul Craft (N.B.: I will be hosting a week-long symposium on the book in a week or two over at Front Porch Republic. Stay tuned).

I think these are signs that we are entering a time of reaction against the "blessings" that were bestowed upon my own generation in the form of a release from having to get your hands dirty. The children of those grandparents who knew something about food grew up in a period when - with America regnant - it was believed that we had a unique opportunity to unburden ourselves of the old connections that brought us closer to the world of stuff. We would be spared the burden of knowing how to raise some food, care for chickens, fix an engine, darn a sock, mend a dress,make strawberry preserves. Seen as a gift by a generation that swam in a sea of cheap oil, they in fact bequethed a profound sense of ignorance about the stuff of the world, a sense of disquiet about our incompetence, a profound anxiety about our inability to care for ourselves. And - unlike the false fear of the beach that the film 'Jaws' induced - this anxiety reflects our genuine condition. Within a generation most of us have lost the generalist skills and knowledge that was a matter of birthright to every previous human generation. We wuz robbed....

Interestingly, just below Klein's column was the story of a retired CIA operations officer who has, at the age of 55, begun farming his 11-acre yard. The article notes how hard the work is, and how much the new farmer, Jim Dunlap, has had to learn in the past few years. It also notes how difficult it would be for someone not in his rather more privileged position - with savings, credit history and a pension - to start the kind of work he's doing. Still, he's like one of thousands upon thousands of individuals who - confronting that same feeling of helplessness and disinheritance - have started in some way, larger or smaller, to re-learn the forgotten knowledge of our forbears, to repair the broken connection that was intended as a gift, but which we increasingly understand to be a curse.

It is a mistake to regard the current anxiety as nothing more than a fear of sharks. It is a deeper response of our human imperative to know through the actions of one's hands, through habits learned from standing beside one's mother or father, and through our own sense of accomplishment at task well done, that we live in a world that we know and understand and with which we are deeply connected. Dare one say, it is our own nature reasserting itself after too long engaging in its denial, aided by the ease and distraction that our destructive conquest of nature had briefly permitted, if briefly, and the temporary illusion that we had overcome that need to know?