by Dave Witherow
I hadn’t seen Siggy for four years or more – since well before the Big Wuhan Wankarama – and since the pubs were open we went in for a quick one which soon expanded into an afternoon of companionable inebriation.
Siggy is a bit of a doomster. His favourite book is The Decline of the West, which accords well with his pessimistic view that, as a civilization, we’ve pretty well had it. Spengler got the big picture right, or so Siggy thinks, but he was badly astray in imagining we had another two hundred years.
How so?, I queried.
“Well, you can just about smell the rot these days, so I’ll be surprised if we last another twenty”.
The government, you mean?
“Yes, the government, certainly. But governments are temporary – they’re like weather, or fleas. You can get rid of a government if you wake up in time, but what can you do about the no-justice system, or the no-health-service, or the so-called universities?”.
What’s wrong with the universities?
Siggy grunted in amusement and rolled his eyes. “Did you know, he said, that just a couple of generations ago – back in the mid-twentieth century – only about four percent of kids went to a university? But now more than half of them do — what do you think that tells you?”
I’m not entirely sure. . .
“No, of course you’re not. So let me explain. For about forty years after World War Two there was the biggest expansion of prosperity in all of human history, and it seemed like we were well on the way to some kind of scientifically-brokered utopia. And yet during that whole unprecedented era hardly anyone went beyond high school.”
Well, I suppose you’re right, but the numbers were going up all the time.
Siggy nodded. “Yes, they were. And with every increase the quality of education declined”.
Siggy paused and took a swig and grinned at me inquisitively. “Do you remember D.H.Lawrence?”
Yes, I do.
“Well then, you’ll possibly recall that Lawrence was a schoolteacher before he got into the writing game. He didn’t like teaching very much, and he soon worked out that for most kids beyond the age of ten or so, formal education was worse than useless”.
Are you sure about that?
“It does seem paradoxical, I’ll admit. But Lawrence wasn’t the only one who came to the same conclusion. Kingsley Amis reckoned that as far as universities were concerned, more could only mean worse”.
Meaning what, exactly?
“Meaning that every time the numbers go up, the average student gets dimmer”.
I said nothing more, and Siggy went on, bolstering his argument with facts and figures I had no way of disputing.
“The average IQ of students these days is about 112 – a ten-point drop on a generation ago. And if you take out the maths and science departments it goes down even further, to around 105. And that’s the average, don’t forget – which means that a substantial proportion of our best and brightest are actually below normal in brainpower”.
And this, Sig says, means we’ve just about reached the level where if you can count your toes and sign your name, and hang around the campus for three or four years, they’ll give you a degree.
I doubt it, I said, reminding him that when we were students they kicked out hundreds every year when they didn’t pass their exams. So you’re saying this isn’t happening now?
“Not really. A few drop out at the end of year one, but after that you can’t go wrong. Pass-rates at Otago, for example, are close to a hundred percent. Which they have to be, because the universities are businesses now, with the students being the customers, and the degrees the stock in trade. You can chop the odd drongo early on, but beyond that you really can’t get away with it. The punters – or their parents, more likely – will rightly claim that you’ve taken their money and failed to deliver the goods”.
Yes, I can see there might be a difficulty there.
“A big one for sure. And the way they deal with it is to make the courses so simple that everybody passes. It’s not quite so easy in the hard sciences, and engineering and maths and maybe medicine, where they still have to pass on a few clues – otherwise the bridges will fall down and you’ll be a dead duck if you go near a doctor. But the rest of the stuff has been dumbed-down, and in fact there are hundreds of new courses specifically concocted to appeal to the low-wattage end of the market”.
Isn’t that a little bit cynical, Sig?
“No, I don’t think so. The universities have devolved, you see. They’ve turned themselves into something else – something rather interesting, in fact”.
I thought you said they were stuffed.
“I did. But measured in anything but purely academic terms, they’ve been enormously successful. Just look around any campus – new buildings going up all over the place. They’re probably the only growth-industry in what’s left of our economy”.
And now you’ll tell me there’s a problem.
“Well, only if you associate universities with intelligence and imagination and what they used to call critical thinking. But there’s no money in that any more. It’s all about throughput and cash-flow now, and if you happen to have any wit at all you’d be well-advised to skip the whole deal and go straight into something useful, or interesting, or at the very least financially rewarding”.
“Like Silicon Valley – or any of its equivalents around the world. That’s where you find the brains these days – clever people working on robots, mining on the moon, or building rockets to bugger off before somebody starts World War Three. That kind of thing. Or – if greed is what gets you going – head straight for the banks. There are trillions of dollars in the finance industry, and even the fifth-rate operators end up stinking rich”.
That’s hardly a laudable ambition.
“Well, I didn’t say it was. I just threw it in to complete the picture, and anyway what’s particularly laudable in doing a Sociology degree and ending up on the dole?”
They’re not all on the dole.
“Well, no, that’s true. Some of them stay on and become professors, which is a kind of step up, I suppose. Or they get one of these new government jobs, handing out public money”.
So the universities are buggered?
“Ultimately, yes. But in the meantime they’ve reinvented themselves. They managed to figure out, quite early on, that unemployment would be a massive problem once automation and AI really took over. And they could see that just paying hordes of people to do nothing would never work in the long run. It costs too much, and the taxpayers – or what’s left of them – eventually smell a rat. And on top of that, most people – even the halfwits – like to think there should be more to life than just sitting around on your arse. They get restive, you see, and after that they’re liable to start breaking things and causing all kinds of trouble. You can toss them in jail, like the Americans do – but it’s so much easier and a lot cheaper to persuade them they’re university material and sign them up for a joke degree.”
You’re exaggerating, Siggy. It can’t be as cynical as that.
“Alright, think about it this way. A professor, right now, costs less than a full-time prisoner in Paremoremo. So why wouldn’t you do it? It makes total sense, economically and socially and in every other way. Park the surplus labour in the ex-universities, call them students, and charge them enough to run the whole schemozzle and come out in the end with a profit. That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?”
Maybe. But there’s something a bit screwy here that I can’t quite put my finger on.
“Not at all. The whole business runs like clockwork. And as a cure for unemployment there’s never been anything to touch it. How can you lose? You feed them any old half-baked crap, and hand them a piece of paper at the end. It’s bulletproof. And here’s the really cunning thing – the so-called students are nearly always broke, so you lend them the money to pay the fees”.
What’s so cunning about that?
“They’re in debt, that’s what. They owe you large amounts of loot, so you’ve got them by the nuts for years and years. And if you happen to be a politician, what could possibly be better?”
Come on Sig. This is no laughing matter.
“Not yet, maybe – but it will be when the academics get on to their next wheeze – decolonising the curriculum. You’ve heard about that one, I take it?”
“Well, it’s in the Treaty – or the Principles of the Treaty, I’m not sure which. Anyway, they’ve discovered that the English language is racist. It’s a filthy underhand colonist plot and the university dorks have decided it’s no longer acceptable. So all teaching is to be be done in Te Reo by 2029 at the latest. There’s huge enthusiasm among the Profs, and if all goes well the High schools will be next – then the Juniors. Then everybody else. You must have seen this coming?”
I suppose I should. It’s hardly the most brilliant of ideas though.
Siggy wiped the foam from his upper lip. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too sure about that. It might put us out in front again”.
“You’re kidding me now.
“No I’m not. If you’re going to collapse you should do it in style – like the Romans, or the Aztecs. There’s no point in pissing against the wind, whinging and moaning and living on recycled sewage. Where’s the fun in that? Why not relax, take it easy, get yourself a big Vee-Eight and burn some gas before they make it illegal. It’s not every day, after all, that you get to see the end of civilization”.
Lots of good people have been . . .
“Lots of good people have been a pain in the ass – slowing things down when we should be speeding them up. We’ve had an amazing run and now we’re stuffed. And if the Profs pull off this Te Reo stunt we could steal a march on everybody. We could be leading the world again – just like we did when we flattened the curve and eliminated the virus. Remember how pleased we were then? No more virus! Well, screwing up at that level isn’t as easy as it looks. Things can go wrong – all sorts of things. You can get outbreaks of competence. You can get throw-backs still able to think, even in New Zealand. But Jacinda soon sorted that lot out”.
“Jacinda. The visionary skipper of our sinking ship. Think of the sense of pride we had then. We were front-page news all over the world –the Team of Five Million obliterating the wily virus! And the more damage we did to ourselves the more everybody admired us”.
Siggy beamed in rueful glee. “Those were great days. Remember how we all got masked up, and locked down, and were ordered around by the likes of Professor Baker and Souxie Wiles. And the prophet of doom himself, Herr Docktor Bloomfield! Think what a debt we owe to him – his steady hand guiding us down the tubes. And the way we all nodded and went along, scuttling our prospects right and left and sinking like the proverbial brick. We were number one for nearly two years – but then we somehow lost our nerve, and if we don’t pull another swiftie very soon there’s a good chance the Yanks will beat us to the final bust-up”.
And you think Te Reo?
“Isn’t it clever”, said Sig. “The Profs almost never get anything right, but somehow they’ve nailed it this time. Te Reo is perfect. It has a very limited vocabulary, you see, so the same words cover a multitude of things, which makes complex thinking quite difficult, if not completely impossible. It’s our best chance yet – our nuclear option really — and if we handle this right we could be a Stone Age nation in ten years. Maybe even less. And nobody could catch up on us then – not even the Americans”.
Siggy reached across and picked up my glass. “These are very exciting times”, he said. “Little old New Zealand at the head of the pack, claiming its place in History at last. Let’s have another pint”.