From Athens: The Dangers of agoraphilia

23 Jun

Last night on the Athens metro I started a conversation with a young man because in this trip to Athens, I am more eager than ever to learn about the current mood of the people, how they feel about Syriza, the economy, and the E.U. It may just be me, or because I tend to talk mostly with immigrants, but Greece has a much more open feel to it, a markedly different atmosphere than when I was here in 2009 and 2012.

I was heading to the same place I stayed last time, with friends in a residential neighborhood, but in the last year a new metro station has opened up near their home so I no longer have to wait to transfer to a bus from the metro. I asked if they were still extending the subway even further, and how it had differed from ten years ago, but he said he only really started riding the metro seven years ago when he was at university. I asked him what he studied, and he said, almost apologetically, political science and history, with a special interest in music, even though these days there isn’t much he can do with that in terms of work. I asked him what his job was, and he said he hands out leaflets (although there was some humility here on his part, or literalism, since it came out later he is a guitarist in a band). He wanted to pursue his studies in post-graduate school, but there was only one program in Greece that dealt with these interests, and they take only 20 students a year, “and you need money.” I’ve learned that at least undergraduate education is free here at public universities, if you have the scores to get in. I asked him about studying in another country in Europe, since his English was quite good. He said, yes, with money anything is possible, but without money, well, no.

He didn’t know about political music in the U.S. of the rock era, and though he knew Pete Seeger he did not know Phil Ochs (and I later sent him websites about Phil Ochs, who I suspected would be a kindred spirit).

I told him in the U.S. it is possible to study for a master’s or doctorate, with money of course, but that even by us the possibility for finding work in a field related to this is difficult. (The default for us is law school, among the educated class, but I didn’t say this.) I did tell him the rough statistic – I think I saw it somewhere – that even among Ph.D.’s only one in eight is in a full-time teaching or university position. We came up the escalator and though it was nearly ten p.m., a man was handing out leaflets about working from home. My new friend took one, and said to me, “We are misleading the people, telling them they can make money from home.”

For some reason, this conversation and the issues it raises lodged deeply within me. No mystery there, as I was and am one who has wagered everything on pursuing the questions I am interested in. That is the life of the scholar, though it need not – and should not – be restricted to scholars. Still, therein are the catch and the contradiction. We have, anthropologically speaking, two worlds: the world of youth, in which questions of history, politics, science, philosophy, literature, the arts and music, matter, and the world the adults have made, which channels everyone into wage-based occupations.   The round and open-ended questions of the student do not fit into the square cubicle of the workplace. There is no place for so many students like the guitarist, like myself, unless one is extremely lucky, privileged to be connected, and tenacious, in some combination that borders on the magical. What future is there for anyone to ask questions, in places and ways that matter, in the constant slog for reliable wages?

There has to be more that we can do than shrug and say, “Too bad, brother. Now grow up and go hand out some leaflets.”

The so-called “free” market has created, and continues to re-create, a system that is anything but free. The market dictates what is considered a worthy use of time and intellect, and that most worthy use is, of course, profit. Within that system, where is the space for the most imaginative and curious minds, unless – again with luck, privilege, and connections – one can find a way to spin that yarn of curiosity into gold. The irony is not lost on me that here in Greece there is no use for philosophy, and almost no place for it either.

And what about “use” for that matter? Even within the scholarly community, use-value is not a primary criterion for good scholarship. In an ideal world it need not be, and in fact, we need scholars and teachers of every aspect of the world. But in terms of cultural studies and historical studies, where does the spiral of knowledge lead, if not often down a chute from which there is no connection with application?

The Market has not yet realized, and will not realize until it is too late, that we are in a global crisis, particularly generated by climate change but also by the over-consumption of natural resources. It is precisely at this time that we need political scientists and historians, social scientists and social workers, ethicists and philosophers, artists and musicians, in addition to natural scientists to avert the coming extinction of our species, and of many others along the path.

In the social sciences there may be no more compelling problem than the question of mass migration over the next 35-50 years. With an 8 million increase in the number of refugees and displaced people in the last year alone, that crisis is not only beginning, but shows little chance of abating on its own. It represents, among other things, a complete abdication of responsibility and humanitarianism and brotherhood (if I may use that term in a gender-neutral way) on the part of all of our national and state governments. We don’t need 10 universities where those problems are being studied and solved, we need hundreds. We don’t need a handful of scholars engaging in research and the rest teaching as adjuncts or teaching too many classes with too many students to provide individual feedback. We need thousands. We need grants and start-up funds not just for a few tech innovators and “geniuses” who have already established themselves, we need seed funding for thousands of young people and the mentors with whom they will work, not in lecture classes of fifty people, but small research seminars of four and six.

There is tragedy in the fact that we cannot support our most curious and imaginative young thinkers, and that the pool of people who will be tasked with coming up with the solutions to the crises facing us will be so small as to limit the amount of research and interaction that can take place (not to mention the vital task of educating the young and ignorant not to follow blindly and in mindless hatred). If we want to find a cure to a disease, for example, we do not limit the number of people working on the problem to just ten or a hundred; we want thousands of minds engaged. So why are social problems, cultural problems, economic and philosophical problems any different?

How many thousands of young people are saying, I studied this in university because this was what I was interested in, but now the market tells me this is of no value? How many more thousands are saying, I am going to university, but I can only afford to study and master the material that will land me a job? And how many still more thousands are saying, If only I could go to university, this is what I would like to learn about and think about?

If Allen Ginsberg wrote that he “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” then I am seeing the best minds of my and subsequent generations destroyed – consumed – by the market.

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