Jane Jacobs – the basics of society

Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs, written in 2004
p. 148 In March 2003, a former Federal Reserve governor, Lyle Gramley, was quoted by The NYT as saying that Alan Greenspan, chairman of Federal Reserve Board, had means for pushing thirty-year mortgage rates as low as 2.5 percent and keeping them there, and the Times pointed out, accurately, that this policy would continue to stoke “a storm of home buying and refinancing, promoting consumers to convert the rising equity in value of their homes to cash…. But this easy money has done nothing to rejuvenate business spending, and a growing number of economists suspect that war jitters are not the only reason. [four years after this book was published, the Great Recession hit. So Gramley knew, Jacobs knew, others knew. Why was nothing done to slow the overheating?]

pp. 158-159 When items being processed are identical to one another, like pantyhose or parts for cotton gins, cars, or other machines whose development and design are already accomplished facts, economies of scale are easily achieved. The more identical items that are processed, the less overhead cost each item bears, and so the less each item costs.
But efficiency is not a key to unwinding the vicious spiral of credentialing, atrophy of the scientific state of mind, and failures of professional self-policing. [3 cornerstones of modern society] These are interlocked evidence of cultural failures to teach and to learn.
The close-up clues to wrong turnings in teaching and learning were identified quickly by 1960s students who complained that they were being cheated of their university educations by being treated like raw materials fed into impersonal production lines. [Students at California universities in the 60s rebelled against the assembly-line, factory model of education, fitting students to be cogs in the great corporate machine]
When human beings are nurtured, efficiency and economies of scale don’t apply. Helping individuals become acceptable and fulfilled members of a culture takes generous individual attention to each one, usually from numerous people…. Nurturing and instructing human beings in a complex culture demands redundancy of mentors and examples. Redundancy is expensive but indispensable…. A culture, just to keep itself going, makes voracious demands on the energies of many people for hands-on mentoring.
[Here I would offer the example of the Ojibway, who had to give up teaching their off-spring how to survive in the Canadian winter so they could get modern schooling. Either kind of education required massive effort from everybody. How many of you have experienced a new program introduced into your work place with promises of training and support, only to be informed that all the expectations were still on you, but unfortunately the money for training and support had dried up and you would just have to struggle on and do your best, always subject to strict evaluation. I always wondered if the people in charge of the funding had been held to high expectations….. for providing funding.]

On pp. 162-3 Jacobs outlines the transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to postagrarian societies based on what she calls ingenuity, which generated the industrial revolution, the scientific state of mind and its yields, therise of democracy, the emergence of a middle class.

On p. 166 she shows what happened when Western industrialized democracies tried to export themselves in the form of overseas colonies. Quoting Karen Armstrong: Colonization was experienced by the agrarian colonies as invasive, disturbing and alien. Modernization was inevitably superficial, since a process that had taken Europe three centuries had to be achieved at top speed. Where modern ideas had time to filter down gradually to all classes of society in Euroope, in the colonies only a small number of people, who were members of the upper classes and – significantly – the military, could receive a Western education.. Society was divided… and increasingly neigher side could understand the other… Those who had been left outside the modernizing process… were ruled by secular foreign law codes which they could not understand… Western buildings “modernized” the towns, often leaving the “old city” as a museum piece, a tourist trap and a relic of a superseded age… People felt lost in their own countries. Above all, local people of all classes of society resented the fact that they were no longer in control of their own destiny…They experienced a sinking loss of identity.” Karen Armstrong Islam. [Interestingly, when I heard Armstrong speak at ASU a year or so ago, she said that in all cases of communal/sectarian violence she had studied, a loss of identity was the key element.]

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