The Age of Unreality

All too many years ago, when my brother and I were growing up, my parents, and even my grandmother, piled on the aphoristic practical platitudes, such as… “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “An honest day’s work…” With those platitudes came a no-nonsense attitude. My father insisted that we do the best of which we were capable — in everything from academics to athletics to what he termed “the necessities of life,” matters such as lawn and tree and mechanical maintenance, simple woodworking, basic electrical repairs, house painting… and the need to approach everything in a practical, realistic, and — most important — an honest way. For him, dreams were possible, but only if one prepared and worked hard and long to achieve them. One didn’t achieve success by merely wishing or saying that it would happen. Nor by cutting corners, either practically or ethically. In addition, we were not allowed to be bored. If any word even hinting at boredom even came up, various tasks were immediately assigned, monitored, and the results were inspected. At that time, this approach to raising children was not in the slightest unusual. It was close to the norm, and it led to a generally realistic outlook on life.

So… what happened?

Today, we’re weathering a recession created largely by incredibly unrealistic assessments of how housing and securities prices would perform over time. Never in the history of mankind have the values of real estate and structures continually appreciated upward for more than a few years, if that. So why did so many people buy into the unreality the values would continue upward at high rates indefinitely? Stock and security prices have fluctuated widely over time for as long as there have been such financial instruments. Yet some of the supposedly brightest and best minds in finance not only bought into the idea of continual rising securities’ prices, but they developed instruments that magnified through leverage both gains and losses — and never considered what would happen when the inevitable transpired. And, worse yet, for this lack of competence and foresight, hundreds of them were granted million dollar plus bonuses.

The same unreality permeates state and local politics. Through legislation and referenda, the federal and state governments promise more and more in the way of programs and benefits while the electorate demands — and largely gets — tax levels that are in no way able to pay for the programs people insist are their rights. California, to no one’s surprise, leads the way, and political experts across the spectrum [except, of course, from the far, far right, who are even more unrealistic] have declared the state essentially ungovernable — with a deficit approaching more than $50 billion and a legislature unable and unwilling to act because to do so would indicate to voters just how unrealistic they’ve been. Everyone wants to tax everyone else, but no one wants to pay more taxes, and no one wants his or her program cut or eliminated. And the simple, and unrealistic, answer is to tax the “rich” and to stop waste and fraud, never mind the fact that such a simplistic solution won’t raise enough revenue without grinding the economy to a total halt.

The polar ice caps are dwindling. Meltwater from the Greenland ice cover is at an all-time high and increasing annually. Ice sheets are melting and breaking off the Antarctic icecap in chunks of hundreds of square miles. Most of the glaciers in the Alps have either disappeared or melted back to a fraction of their previous size. The legendary snows of Kilimanjaro have vanished. Over the centuries, goats and overgrazing have turned the Sahara from an arid grassland into a true and total desert. The combination of disease, pollution, and warmer seawater has devastated the world’s coral reefs. Increasing temperatures have resulted in literal transformation of the mountain forests of the southwestern United States into high desert. Cattle and grazing in the previous century destroyed most of the grasslands in the Great Plains all the way from the Dakotas to Texas, changing the climate so much that we’ve experienced one Dust Bowl and are continually fighting against another, while the once massive Ogallala Aquifer is pumped dry. There are huge dead zones in the Caribbean, and areas in the Pacific hundreds of miles across where human floating trash clogs the waters. In less than two centuries, human beings have used up 30%-50% of all the oil created over hundreds of millions of years and raised carbon dioxide and methane levels to heights not seen in hundreds of millions of years, if ever. And yet… tens of millions of Americans, among them highly educated individuals, persist in the illusion that there is no global warming and that human activity has no significant impact upon the planet.

This unreality has infused the younger generation, in particular. Everywhere is the idea that any student, if she or she wishes, can do anything he or she wishes, and that each of them is “wonderful.” This unreality is boosted by: (1) the plethora of television “reality” shows that suggest that success has little to do with anything but ambition, desire, and immorality; (2) educational institutions that punish those teachers who actually assess student performance realistically and who insist on results; (3) the increasing reliance on tests that measure assorted facts and basic intelligence, but not the ability to think and learn; and (4) greater and greater reliance on pleasing parents and students than upon imparting skills and the ability to think. On top of these factors has come the change of education from a social good to a consumer good, where the consumer demands a specific product, and in the case of education, with the advent of student evaluations, eighteen year old students are telling seasoned and experienced professionals what they — the students — need to know when those students, and often their parents, almost always have no knowledge of the field. This is reality?

Now… I’ve seen studies that show the current “collegiate” generation is more “results-oriented,” but the problem is that getting results is difficult, if not impossible, when students have inadequate skills and unrealistic ideas about their own capabilities and about the amount of work it requires to accomplish anything of worth.

Distorting an old aphorism, Rome was not built by wishes and mouse-clicks…

… but it, too, fell when its people lost sight of reality and basic values.