Rock Island, IL

In 1923 Upton Sinclair published a book on education titled The Goose-Step. It began thus:

“Six hundred thousand young people are attending colleges and universities in America. They are the pick of our coming generation; they are the future of our country. If they are wisely and soundly taught, America will be great and happy; if they are misguided and mistaught, no power can save us.”

I am interested in these words not in relation to their own context, for much of it was blather, but in relation to ours, for much of it is dire. I am interested in them not in relation to what Sinclair considered wise and sound teaching but in relation to what Reality–our stern preceptor–considers sound and wise teaching.*

To be specific: I wonder whether I am alone in thinking that Sinclair’s opening sentences describe our “chief economists” and many of our “leading scientists” and most of our “political leaders” exactly.

For no one seems to have taught the economists that they live, and always have lived, in a land-based economy, notwithstanding their delusions about an industrial or post-industrial or service or information-technology economy.

No one seems to have taught the scientists that the history of their own discipline is filled with whole chapters in which one error replaces another—that, to paraphrase Hawthorne, their most splendid successes have almost invariably been failures. **

No one seems to have taught the politicians anything about that threadbare doctrine of man that underwrites their public jerry-mandering. They went to college, these elected officials, but no one thought to give them a proper dose of theology.

And now, as the curtain falls and the lights fade on the age of growth—economic growth, scientific “advance,” and political expansion—none of these great public intellectuals, the unwisely and unsoundly taught, seems to care much about what our stern preceptor is saying.

But what she’s saying is this: the world as you have known and enjoyed it is over; make other arrangements.

Make arrangements to live locally, to scale back, to get used to less.

Do this voluntarily and cooperatively before catastrophe forces you to do it in a panic.

Make arrangements to be kind and useful to one another, to be competent at fundamental tasks, to be willing to do actual work, to help those who can’t do it and to encourage those who won’t.

Make arrangements to stay home more often, to occupy yourself in useful endeavors, to make birdhouses rather than hand money over to Hollywood at the Celebration Cinema.

Love your place. Guard your liberty. And remember: you are free not insofar as you are able to pay; you are free insofar as you are able.

As a teacher in one of those disciplines we’re not going to be able to afford much longer, I have spent some time thinking about what sorts of arrangements are going to be required of me—supposing that a few liberal-arts colleges, my own included, will still be around in ten years, which supposition I more often doubt than hold.

This thinking has been aided by such passages as the one ripped from Upton Sinclair—and from others as well.

For example, these lines from Book VIII of Paradise Lost have seemed to me endlessly ponderable:

to know
That which before us lies in daily life,
Is the prime Wisdom; what is more, is fume,
Or emptiness, or fond impertinence,
And renders us in things that most concern
Unpractic’d, unprepare’d, and still to seek.

I can’t think of a single “chief economist” who has any clue about what “before us lies in daily life.” (No one who is well-fed but who treats agriculture as nothing more than 3.5% of the GDP knows the first thing about daily life.) But I can think of several economists—to say nothing of “leading scientists” and politicians as well—who, in place of “prime Wisdom,” offer “fume, / Or emptiness, or fond impertinence.”

And, as I look about me, I see the wretched unsuspecting multitudes unpracticed in, and unprepared for, and still seeking the things “that most concern.” I number myself among them.

Milton had it exactly right. He wasn’t thinking about CSAs or food pantries, but he had it exactly right.

I was dipping about in Paradise Lost the other night when I came once again upon these lines from Book VIII, and they sent me back to another work by that same blind old scold: his treatise, Of Education.

Pupils thrown too soon into “fathomless and unquiet deeps of controversy,” said the myopic bard, “do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of learning, mocked and deluded all this while with ragged notions and babblements, while they expected worthy and delightful knowledge.”

Grow for how long—and in what occupations?

“Till poverty or youthful years call them importunately their several ways and hasten them with the sway of friends either to an ambitious and mercenary, or ignorantly zealous divinity.

“Some allured to the trade of law, grounding their purposes not on the prudent and heavenly contemplation of justice and equity which was never taught them, but on the promising and pleasing thoughts of litigious terms, fat contentions, and flowing fees.

“Others betake them to state affairs with souls so unprincipled in virtue and true generous breeding that flattery and court shifts and tyrannous aphorisms appear to them the highest points of wisdom.

“Others, lastly, of a more delicious and airy spirit, retire themselves—knowing no better—to enjoyments of ease and luxury, living out their days in feast and jollity; which indeed is the wisest and the safest course of all these, unless they were with more integrity undertaken.

“And these are the fruits of misspending our prime youth at the schools and universities as we do, either in learning mere words or such things chiefly as were better unlearned.”

Were it not for the style and diction, we might suppose these words were written yesterday.

As a teacher in one of those disciplines we’re not going to be able to afford much longer, I have also spent some time not just thinking about but also making other arrangements. I will spend some ink on those actual arrangements in a future piece. But, for now, a little more Sinclair:

“Six hundred thousand young people are being taught, deliberately and of set purpose, not wisdom but folly, not justice but greed, not freedom but slavery, not love but hate.”


* “What I like about experience,” said C.S. Lewis, “is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.”

** They have imagined themselves, said Hawthorne, “to have acquired from the investigation of nature a power above nature.”

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks January 13, 2010 at 6:49 am

I like Peter’s stuff, he’s usually humorous, satirical, and occasionally dark.

This morning he’s dark.

Perhaps its the hint of the horrific, the catastrophic, the apocalyptic possibilities of our specie that lure us to this variegated collection of itinerant writers and thinkers. They spend a great deal of time scolding us, critiquing our sundry corporate sins, and pointing the unwashed to a better way, hinting at a certain Earth/God/Man like harmony if only we eschew demon oil and quit congregating at the local box stores. All of which make me feel warm and gooey…or maybe it’s the two fingers of Maker’s Mark?

Fortunately, Peters and a coterie of his edumacated friends have take to probing the great questions and are digging a bit deeper, diligently seeking the truth of stuff (Peters: that light, distant though it is, is the engendering experience, you may want to head that way!), which has the serendipitous possibility of making this site even better (or worse, as Professor Lawler is fond of saying).

If we know anything about our specie it’s that we are an anxious group and if you think about it, going back to the land isn’t likely to alleviate either our collective or individual anxiety. We are also a questioner, and if you combine anxiety and the “search for truth,” well maybe you’re actually going to find an answer to the question.

Which brings me to George Santayana’s poem, “Eros:”
Yet the profane have marveled at my prayer,
And cried: When did he love, or when believe?
They little know that in my soul I bear
the God they prattle of, and not perceive.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 13, 2010 at 10:42 am

When one’s government likes to maintain an illusion that it is in fact a government and not a casino, the casino is generally revealed when the high production values diminish because too many folks in the casino are pocketing cash while the pit manager aint watching. And so, in the fullness of time, when all scams are exhausted, a new scam, Carbon Credits is created and another frenzied round of happy gambling proceeds apace. In Derivatives We Trust.

But, as ole Ed Abbey sez, “when the situation is hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about”. The clock will wind down.

avatar eutychus January 13, 2010 at 10:58 am

Cheeks, I don’t think Peters is suggesting that going back to the land is going to alleviate are collective or individual anxiety. I think he is saying that we may have to go back to the land to survive. And I find it difficult to argue with him. Heck, that’s what God has done with me. Taken me back to the land, had me build a house, water systems, taught me mechanical skills, how to hunt, and is now suggesting I should plant a garden and some fruit trees. I’m no doomsayer, but for a kid brought up in the city, it does have me thinking. That distant light you speak of Cheeks? Come out from behind your obscurantism and move towards it. It will do your darknesses some good.

Anyways, thanks again Peters. This is, as it often is, fantastic stuff.

Anybody here familiar with Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead?

avatar eutychus January 13, 2010 at 10:59 am

OUR collective anxiety. sigh.

avatar Marchmaine January 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Fruitful speculation.

I don’t see it so much as some sort of cataclysmic financial event that sends us scurrying “back to the land”… but more of an ongoing devolution of empire.

In short, what will middle-management do when there is nothing left to manage?

If you realize that we college educated folk in America are all essentially middle-management, it is only prudent to recognize the need for new skills as we become… redundant.

avatar Bruce Smith January 13, 2010 at 12:23 pm

As my “Sarah Palin” post America needs to stop living in the past, namely John Locke’s views on property. Here are questions that the 17th century threw up:-

avatar Bob Cheeks January 13, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Eu, dude, I like your spunk!
DW, no etchings yet…I’m hanging on the mailbox!
Bruce, you need your own blog……!

avatar Bruce Smith January 13, 2010 at 2:20 pm
avatar Bruce Smith January 13, 2010 at 7:50 pm

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has brought a lot of information forward. It’s starting to look like the Financial Crash could well have been triggered by some of the investment banks shorting counterfeit CDO’s, including their own, as well as the stock of other investment banks made vulnerable by their possession of too many of these CDO’s. The whole process then got way out of control since it dawned on a wider bunch of market players that the CDO’s were in fact counterfeit but widely distributed and therefore it was impossible to know who was solvent. Trust then dramatically disappeared from the market. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats including Obama will have the courage and integrity to now “short” the Vampire Squids to stop some other scam crashing the economy in the future.

avatar John Médaille January 13, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Eutychus, I have indeed read it, and Jane is right, as usual.

Jason, don’t feel too bad. True, half (at least) of the “liberal arts” colleges will close in the next 10 years, and you and I will have to get real jobs. But the world will also find out that it can do without a whole bunch of professions that are now considered essential and are therefore well-paid. Like derivatives broker. You may be mopping the floors next to a man who made a million dollar bonus this year.

avatar Bruce Smith January 13, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Was the Financial Crash inevitable or was it caused by the deliberate short selling of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers? Was inside information used?

Don’t hold your breath that anyone will ever find out!

avatar Bruce Smith January 14, 2010 at 10:07 am

Interesting article about the banking business and bankers behavior:-

avatar John Willson January 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Land-based, maybe; I say an economy is growing stuff, making stuff, and fixing stuff. The rest is fluff. You are probably right about planning on hunkering down. An old man in an Elmer Kelton novel says, “You hard pressed to starve, growing goats.
I’m interested, though, in which “liberal arts” colleges you think will close, and why; and in which “disciplines” you think we won’t be able to afford.
We can’t afford, of course, the thousands of government schools of “higher education” that educate nobody lower or higher. “Liberal arts” colleges that have sold themselves to federal and state governments have become simply arms of the state, and frankly, I don’t care if they fail. But I’m very interested in what you think is going down.
I’ve told my students for forty plus years that Benjamin Franklin often said, “He who hath a trade, hath an estate.” Get that, then follow your heart, and who cares what happens to Saginaw Valley State or Rollins College? The ancient Hebrew rabbis had to have a trade.

avatar John Médaille January 14, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Bruce, good article, but there is a better idea: abolish fractional reserve banking entirely and have the banks lend only their deposits or money they borrow from the Gov’t. Instead of the community borrowing money from the banks to fund public investments and paying them interest, the banks would borrow from the community and pay them interest to fund public improvements.

avatar Bruce Smith January 15, 2010 at 10:57 am

Thanks John. I’m intrigued by the alternative banking arrangement but wonder how it stands up against the politicians and the rich using it for their own ends of power and greed? How also do you stop the fractional reserve arrangement starting up again?

avatar John Médaille January 15, 2010 at 11:08 am

The reason the rich can use FRB is that they can create money ex nihilo. This is not possible with 100% reserves. Today, $100,000 dollars in deposits means you can create $900,000 in loans. Under a real banking system, you would have to have $1,000,000 in deposits to lend out $900,000.

The fear you are expressing is that if gov’t (politicians) have the power to create money, they will simply create it and give it to their friends, and do so in unlimited amounts. However, that is what happens currently, only now it happens without political control. If the gov’t does create so much money that it shows up as inflation, then we know who to blame and what the remedy is. As it is now, even the Fed doesn’t have real control, only influence, and it is subservient to the banks rather than the body politic.

avatar Bruce Smith January 16, 2010 at 11:20 am

John thanks for the information. Are there any articles or books that you would recommend to people that best articulates the alternative system you envisage?

avatar John Médaille January 16, 2010 at 11:38 am

“The Web of Debt” by Ellen Brown, “Secrets of the Temple” by William Greider, “The Lost Science of Money” by Stephen Zarlanga. But both are grand tomes.

There used to be a good film on this by Paul Grignon that was available for free, “Money as Debt,” but it is now for sale.

avatar Bruce Smith January 16, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Thank you John. I’ll try to get hold of these books. One question I’d like to ask you though is if a system of supply and demand was allowed to set interest rates rather than the Federal Reserve do you believe this would automatically and successfully choke off bubbles? I guess this also begs the questions as to who should control the supply and demand and could it be manipulated?

avatar John Médaille January 16, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Supply and demand do not set interest rates, because credit does not have an equilibrium point. I expand on this point at

avatar D.W. Sabin January 16, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Fiat Money and its engine, Fractional Reserve Banking have created a Consumer Fiat Culture. That folks find this difficult to understand or accept is a continuing source of wonder. Fibbing always demands skill because it often consists of making things up as one goes along. One could assert that the system might work if there was greater skill applied.

Skill in what? …one might ask, a better fib? We have created an enormous paradigm of technological skill and material culture that is often lumped under the category of “wealth”. What is becoming interesting is that the great wealth is now suspect on certain basic levels. We will now see if wisdom can be brought to bear on a fuller definition of wealth or, if it cannot, how long can a mirage be maintained before it flickers out in the chimerical heat of a cracked salt pan. The American Donner Party of this Post 9/11 world is finding itself a tad marooned. Perhaps cannibalism will go from fringe practice to mainstream….if, in fact, it is not now already so.

Fortunately, I have greater stock in any number of people, stranger, foe and friend alike and find within them the assets of a reality that is always with us, if somewhat obscured by the rank growth of our noisily popular amusements. Funny enough, these folks have immediacy, they are within reach, unlike the great superstructure of Popular Culture and its chief Oz, the Nation State Governments. Subsidiarity springs from the interactions and judgement of the immediate. Hence the fear of it …and disdain, exhibited by the large institutions which have so much vested interest in the Fiat Culture whose cracked foundation seems to be revealing its hasty construction. The spectator would do well to recognize Plato’s shadows for what they are.

Reinvention? I don’t think anything quite so drastic is wholly required. As Augustine pointed out, “they may storm at our position but they cannot storm it.”

avatar danielj January 16, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Sometimes, when unreflective liberals petulantly demand from their opinionated and editorial heights that Americans undergo voluntary extinction through cessation of breeding, some thinking, Front Porch types or those of similar stripe decry their entirely unwarranted neo-Malthusianism while at other times the very same (childless?) Front Porch types insist that we Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox fundamentalists are guilty of overproducing and using too much gasoline.

I have the sneaking suspicion that in a future where a humanized agribusiness, aware of human and agrarian limits, that existed solely to supplement stable, self-sufficient family farms abounding with children would still elicit nothing but scathing contempt and condemnation from this corner of the net. If the people gave up satellite t.v. and frozen food they would next be pilloried for insufficient capability to conjugate Latin verbs.

With the notable exception of Caleb Stegall it seems that fecundity and fertility itself offends the sensibilities and raises the hackles of the folk round here.

Nevertheless, I liked the Hawthorne quote in the footnote.

avatar danielj January 16, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Sorry about the muddled second paragraph. I also realized I just expressed a nagging concern of mine in an inappropriate place. So, accept my apologies and keep up the good work.

avatar pb January 16, 2010 at 8:07 pm

“With the notable exception of Caleb Stegall it seems that fecundity and fertility itself offends the sensibilities and raises the hackles of the folk round here.”

I see no evidence of this.

avatar John Médaille January 16, 2010 at 8:49 pm

With the notable exception of Caleb Stegall it seems that fecundity and fertility itself offends the sensibilities and raises the hackles of the folk round here.

On the contrary, most of the people who congregate on the Front Porch seem to be pro-natalist. Which is Latin for, “They like sex and babies.”

avatar danielj January 16, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Well, as I indicated in my second comment, this probably isn’t the place for this discussion and I don’t follow FPR religiously enough to catalog every single instance but I’d argue that the general contempt of the average Wal-Mart shopper is thinly veiled malice for fertile Southerners. I think it sorta comes with the territory (anti-anti-intellectualism) and sometimes some valid criticism slips over into veiled hostility.

Regardless, I’d prefer we end the discussion now and delete my comments and any responses because I believe other commenters have raised this points before and more better.

avatar danielj January 16, 2010 at 8:52 pm

On the contrary, most of the people who congregate on the Front Porch seem to be pro-natalist. Which is Latin for, “They like sex and babies.”


I do see that but I also feel like the general attitude or something betrays something deeper sometimes. I don’t quite know how to phrase it.

avatar Bruce Smith January 17, 2010 at 8:38 am

Thanks for the reference John. I wonder though if it is not the case that the price point of finance works in tandem with the “rationing” or assessment of credit worthy borrowing. I was asking my question though in relationship to alternative methods of finance provision in which a public bank, for example, supplied the money to private banks on an auctioned basis for management fee plus pro-rated bond. The management fee bid plus bond would effectively set the interest rate. The point of the bond being to ensure the private bank had some “skin” in the business of assessing credit worthiness. (The whole problem of CDO’s, or mortgage bonds, was that the banks didn’t have any “skin” in them. So much so that it is suspected that there could have been contrivance to devise defective bonds in order to bet on their failure through CDS’s. This would be much like deliberately entering a horse in a race with a defective heart and betting that it would fail to finish the race.) My thinking was that this auctioning device might provide a mechanism for automatically choking off bubbles as demand raised the interest rate. The weakness of this approach, however, seems to be that the private banks could organize a cartel to keep bids low and that trying to stop fractional reserve banking results in trying to give the public bank a monopoly over interest rates for savers. It would seem to be difficult for a government to force all savers to put their savings into the public bank because of the perception the government was trying to keep the spread wide between saving and borrowing rates for its own purposes. In an age of global finance if the private and public banks in other countries were offering higher savings rates there would be a tendency for “leakage” schemes to develop just as the “carry” trade developed with Japan for borrowing purposes.

avatar eutychus January 17, 2010 at 3:35 pm


please don’t go away. and your comments don’t warrant deletion. not compared to some of mine, which probably should be deleted.

i think your comments enrich the dialogue. you sound like the meyers-briggs type that operates more intuitively but is abstract in speech and thought. i would agree that some of your intuitions are spot on, but probably you find them difficult to articulate. you probably feel most comfortable using metaphors to describe your ideas. (just a guess.)

i stick around because i think truth often lies outside of rational arguments and intellectualism. and that intellects often can’t find the truth for the undergrowth in their minds. sometimes it takes someone like yourself to point it out.

avatar Jason Peters January 19, 2010 at 8:17 am


A late reply here. I thought it best to let the thread play out or die the death it deserves ere I polluted it again.

I think it’s a mistake (not that you’re making it) to forget the fact that we all live from the topsoil, regardless of how much our making or fixing things enlarges or alters the economy. The economy–our housekeeping–is ineluctably land-based. I would say “topsoil-based.” The further abstracted from the land we are (and the further in our consciousness we drift from this fact), the greater will be our abuses of the land and therefore of ourselves.

Several small colleges are struggling mightily right now. The country is broke, and this means than many more colleges will struggle. What girl can afford forty or fifty K a year to sort out her gender identity in a Womens Studies major? Not a liberal art, I know, but we all know what we’ve become.

Hunkering down, as you say, will in part mean doing without the many useless things we’ve had the luxury in “higher” education to indulge. Reading Gloria Steinem was never as important as knowing how to produce food and rebuild soil. So, in a manner of speaking, you are exactly right: who cares if RaceClassGender University or East Jesus State College of Packaging fails?

But we’ve got work to do–”that which before us lies in daily life.” Let’s hope Literature and History and Classics survive when the Age of Wealth ends.

Medaille: I expect you have some thoughts on this.

avatar Bob Cheeks January 19, 2010 at 8:29 am

“What was it like, back then,” the girl asked?
Eli looked away, starring…then said, “We had so much, we threw away things that people would kill for today.”

avatar John Médaille January 19, 2010 at 4:30 pm

You are right, Jason: I always have some thoughts, which no mere lack of knowledge can deter. But I would not be surprised if half of the tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges closed their doors in the next five years. Most will say that the cause is economic, but I think the economy is the occasion, not the cause. The economy forces us to re-think the value of this education, and not just the economic value. And the value, both ultimate and economic, is shrinking.

This is all good news, unless you happen to be in the academic profession. But the truth of the matter is that when you look at the vital professor/plumber ratio, you find too much of one and not enough of the other. Which leads to Woody Allen’s acid quip, “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on week-ends.” We have made ourselves irrelevant to the social order, and society has returned the complement. The liberal arts used to be the foundation of all the professions, but now we consider all that stuff beneath us.

The irony is that we made ourselves irrelevant by trying to be relevant. At first we would be “scientific.” The essay satirized in Dead Poet’s Society was a real essay, by a real critique, I. A. Richards. Richards at least recognized he was wrong, and tore his own essay out of the book, but the pseudo-scientific attitude outlived him. Then we became politically relevant, which is the worst kind of irrelevance. That is, we were not relevant to the polis, but to the partisans.

All of this has no economic value because it has no intellectual value. You don’t need a four-year degree to me a utility-maximizing actor in a dog-eat-dog system. But you might need the degree to critique that system and offer alternatives. But our critics have killed the market for criticism, and there is no room for alternatives.

avatar Cecelia January 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I find that the more I try to learn and understand – the more complex everything (well, most things) seem. Solutions which ignore that complexity seem useless but so many approach the solution side of tings without acknowledging that complexity. FPR being a notable exception – which is why I keep coming back. I also love Prof Peters irreverent and acidic take on things ( I can’t wait to read what your alternative profession will be).

It seems to me that the loss of some of our liberal arts colleges and capacity in our Universities won’t be altogether a disaster.

As for topsoil and population it also seems to me that a defining characteristic of the modern era was that no longer was most of the population involved in the production of food. That disconnect between the carrying capacity of the land and the size of population was broken. We can have only as many people as we can feed – but globalization has permitted expansion of population beyond the local capacity to feed. One must be willing to at least acknowledge that a return to a local food producing social order will impact population. I am not married to this notion but it does seem that perhaps our industrial manufacturing society created an abnormal environment which supported the proliferation of the species in abnormal ways. Before the modern era -local population responded to alterations in the local food supply.

One other note re: land based economies – in our past when agriculture was the primary occupation for most humans said agriculture relied on slavery, serfdom or some form of exploitation of an underclass. Even now we rely on migrant labor – usually illegal migrants. A topic worth some discussion I think.

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