'Round and 'Round We'll Go

And everywhere an indecent haste prevails, as if something would be lost if the young man of twenty-three were not yet "finished," or if he did not yet know the answer to the "main question": which calling? A higher kind of human being, if I may say so, does not like "callings," precisely because he knows himself to be called. He has time, he takes time, he does not even think of "finishing": at thirty one is, in the sense of high culture, a beginner, a child. 
- Friederich Nietzsche, "Twilight of the Idols"

I'm not generally a fan of quoting Nietzsche. Entirely too many people do it entirely too often, with no regard to the larger context of their quotes or even the actual understanding of the concepts, that quoting Nietzsche often seems like one of the fastest ways to out yourself as rather on the pretentious side. And yet, while going over Twilight of the Idols (or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer), which for the record has one of the best sub-titles ever, I was struck by the above comment. Much as my liberal utilitarian socialist techno-utopian beliefs are utterly anathema to Nietzsche, and vice-versa, every now and then we can at least agree on a beginning, if not necessarily an ending.

For instance, we both thought this was a pretty bad idea.

But this is Forward the Future, not Forward the 1890's, so why am I talking about Nietzsche? Well, because way back then, at the tail end of the nineteenth century, he identified an issue that has only grown more ludicrous and problematic over the intervening century-plus. Namely, expecting young people to be 'finished' at an early age, to be ready to step out the doors of school and into the rest of their life. As though the shape of 'the rest of their life' could be decided by twenty-three!

The future isn't just about technological change, though of course that's the flashiest and most obvious way things change. Under the flash and chrome, however, there are more fundamental changes, ones that relate to conceptions of 'a good life' and morality and purpose and civil participation. One such change that's just starting to take shape, slowly rising from the rare and occasional to the more common-place, is that of the way we approach post-secondary education. To really understand what's coming, though, it's important to lay out the foundations of the change. 'Why' is always the most important question.

For the first and only times in their lives, these men have the right idea.

There are two forces driving this. The first is the increased productive life-span. The way a society whose people only generally reach forty or fifty, and are often of limited productive value well before that, approaches the labour force is going to be very different from that of a society whose people work until seventy, and live until ninety. Three or four years of specialized education in the early twenties just doesn't work if you're still going to be working thirty or forty years after that. And at the same time as people are working longer, corporations are getting more mobile, forcing labour to grow increasingly competitive to anchor good jobs in a community. As trade liberalization and deregulation continues globally, and there is no reason to think it won't in spite of certain catastrophic results, the competition for the remaining good jobs, which is to say non-retail, full time, benefit-carrying employment opportunities, is going to grow increasingly fierce. The concept of 'good enough' is already falling by the wayside, though curiously it's happening at the same time as so many people are finding themselves 'overqualified'. But that's another topic entirely.

So. We have people who are living longer, and need to work longer, and in order to work need to be increasingly well-educated and knowledgeable. It's difficult to conceive of any resolution to this issue but to have post-secondary education transition from being a one-time, early-twenties endeavour to one component in a work-'retire'-retrain cycle of labour life. Any lingering stigma attached to non-twenty-somethings in first or second year classes will have to fall by the wayside, as older adults are increasingly forced to supplement their existing accreditation or even branch out into entirely new areas of study and work. And with that will have to come a change in the construction of post-secondary, itself. As a twenty-something with a fair amount of time and relative economic security, I can afford to spend half the total time for my Political Science degree on non-Political Science courses; if I were a forty year old looking to brush up on my understanding of public policy or international relations, on the other hand, spending half my time filling up electives with history and english classes would be as wasteful as it would be expensive. At the moment it makes a certain amount of sense for universities to drag degrees out like this; each 'customer' will probably only be there once, for a limited amount of time. It's in the university's best interests to extract as much money from them as possible. But as university transitions from a once-a-lifetime endeavour to something you return to every fifteen or twenty years, a whole new understanding of the value of an education is going to come into play.

Nietzsche and I aren't exactly on the same page, of course. From the rest of Twilight of the Idols, and his other writings, it's likely what he meant was that young men shouldn't worry because the true man sets his own path in life, regardless of what anyone around him thinks. Its unlikely in the extreme that he thought, like I did, that life was going to be long enough that every man, and woman too, would have to have not just one 'calling' but three or four or more over the course of their life. But wherever we may diverge along the path to our answers, we certainly agree that rushing twenty-somethings out the doors to start their 'real lives' is pointless at best, and potentially problematic at worst.

Yeah... 'Potentially'...

Of course, Neitzsche might have put it a little more artfully than I.

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