When I read physical books, I have a tendency to rip off pieces of whatever I’m using as a bookmark to mark interesting sections. The trouble is, I rarely actually return to them, so even my favourite books feature lots of little bits of paper sticking out of the top.
I recently finished Wintering by Katherine May, which I enjoyed immensely. Reading it at the right time of the year certainly helped. I’ve already shared a quotation from it about the liminal space between Christmas and New Year. I thought I’d share a couple more from towards the end of the book.
The first involves May’s reflections on beehives and how they’ve been used as a metaphor for human society:
[B]efore we’re too enchanted by the machine-like efficiency of the utopian human beehive, we must remember the true lives of bees. They are certainly astonishing. Their specialisation — and their sheer will to survive — is miraculous. But their lives are also full of stark efficiencies. In the middle of winter, the area around my favourite beehive is littered with the corpses of the bees that were no longer useful…
Let us not aspire to be like ants and bees. We can draw enough wonder from their intricate systems of survival without modelling ourselves on them wholesale. Humans are not eusocial; we are not nameless units in a superorganism, mere cells that are expendable when we have reached the end of our useful lives. Katherine May, Wintering, p.235
Writing pre-pandemic, May couldn’t have had our society’s COVID-19 response in mind. However, I can’t help but think of that when reading this.
The second quotation references Alan Watts, someone who pops up time as an influence on people who influence me:
As I walk, I remind myself of the words of Alan Watts: ‘To hold your breath is to lose your breath.’ In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Watts makes a case that always convinces me, but which I always seem to forget: that life is, by nature, uncontrollable. That we should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life. Katherine May, Wintering, p.263
This chimes well with my two biggest insights from last year, and reminds me of one of my favourite ideas from pre-Socratic philosophy:
This is often rendered as something like, “You cannot step into the same river twice” but I prefer the simpler, and more widely-applicable two word version. It is only when we try to stop things flowing that we run into difficulties.
This post is Day 81 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.
My latest post for DML Central was published yesterday. Entitled Why It’s Time to Let Go of ‘Meritocracy’, it’s an attempt to explain why a belief in something most people see as unproblematic can actually lead to unforeseen issues.
Building an education system around ‘meritocracy’ as it is commonly used post-Thatcher may be a function of those in power being so privileged that they are not in a position to see their own privilege. Those who have never witnessed people having to work three jobs to keep their family afloat may not understand why parents can’t do more to coach their children through an entrance examination.
Click here to read the post in full.
I’ve closed comments here so that you can add yours to the original post. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts!
Earlier this week I came across Seth Godin writing on the truth about admissions to elite universities. I’m not sure where he got his data, but it would be difficult to argue against his central point:
What would happen if we spent more time on carefully assembling the pool of ‘good enough’ and then randomly picking the 5%?
It’s difficult for the picked, for the pickers and for the institutions to admit, but if you don’t have proof that picking actually works, then let’s announce the randomness and spend our time (and self-esteem) on something worthwhile instead.
Entrance to many professions and walks of life is far from being the result of a strict meritocracy. I think we’d all accept that.
Thinking about this further, I remembered a Twitter conversation I’d had with Mozilla contributor Stefan Bohacek. Over a series of tweets he took issue with a short post I’d written entitled $1 for the X, $9,999 for the expertise. In it, I’d quoted a (probably apocryphal) story about Tesla and Edison.
Well I just totally disagree with what the person is saying. Just because you cashed in on your privilege and spent a few years in college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should make more than people who didn’t. Salaries need to be completely rethought. Do sports player and actors deserve vastly more money than teachers? If I want to have a comfortable life, I have to become a brain surgeon or start my own company? Who is going to bag our groceries and cut our hair once everyone is a lawyer? I agree — value is hard to measure. But the way it’s usually measured nowadays is completely wrong.
I still have reservations about salaries being centrally controlled via some kind of planned economy. However, the phrase ‘cashing in on your privilege’ has haunted me these past few months.
The phrase has stuck with me and been nagging at the back of my mind as it explains a lot of what I’ve seen as a teacher, as a parent, and as an participant-observer in our society. It’s the reason why, even as a political ‘centrist’ I oppose private schooling and believe that inheritance tax should pretty much be set at 100%. Like the proverbial goldfish noticing ‘water,’ privilege is something that’s not usually observed by those enjoying it.
But the thing is, we’re all privileged in the West / global north. I was struck this week by some research Mozilla has been doing in Africa about mobile phone usage. There’s many excellent (scary) points in that report, but something that stands out is how careful people have to be about their data plans. Yet here I am walking down my local high street, able to get a free wifi connection via around 40% of shops I walk past. I don’t think twice about some of the things that people have to obsess over.
It begs the question: what would it like to do the opposite, to divest oneself of privilege? Would it be a life similar to elf Pavlik, someone (intentionally) moneyless and stateless for the past five years, working for the good of the world (and most certainly not profit)? Would it be to spend as much time as one is able volunteering to help those least fortunate in society? What about reverse-tithing your salary?
I have no answers here, only questions. In my head I’m a lot more radical, consistent in my views, and morally upstanding than I actually must appear to others. Perhaps we’re all like that, I don’t know. What I think we all need to do is to think carefully about what constitutes privilege. We’re always going to be less well off – financially, socially, emotionally – than others, but then to another group of people, we’re the ones who are well off.
Final point: it’s easy to give money. What’s really missing in the world is time, attention and care. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who didn’t have the parents or the education to build networks of people they can rely on and use reciprocally to build cultural capital.* That’s why I was so impressed with Bryan Mathers when I interviewed him recently. He’s providing a bridge for young people to do things they’re good at but otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve due to the obstacles unwittingly placed in their way by society.
So I’ve no real conclusion other than I’m going to try and find ways to help others in non-material ways. I’m not sure what that will look like but feel free to ask me in a few weeks/months what I’ve done to further that aim. Please.
Image CC BY-NC Dave Wild
* Listen to this excellent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed.