Monday, March 20, 2006

After the Flood

I had a very vivid dream last night, in which I was visiting my friend Greg Livingston, who is working on his doctorate in Chinese medicine in China. In my dream, I was sitting in the back of a large classroom. Everyone, including me, was wearing black uniforms kind of like Japanese high school kids wear. At the head of the class was a senior student, who pretty much ran the class. To the side of the class was a large vat bubbling on a gas flame. I asked Greg what it was, and he explained that it was boiling oil, "in case we get attacked."

Like I said, it was a very vivid dream, down to the detail of Greg giving me a pinch of some freeze-dried pickled mustard greens - very delicious, with that yummy MSG flavor that most Asian prepared foods have. The dream was so vivid that it woke me up, and kept me up, my mind racing. I had this sudden appreciation for learning, for scholarship, for universities, for the accumulation of knowledge that they represent. When people go to school, they join a stream of knowledge that has continued onward from the earliest days. And, if they go on to earn their higher degrees, to publish and teach, they continue the stream, and even create their own rivulets of knowledge that continue on. There are thousands, no, millions, of these rivulets squirming into the future, streaming repositories of our civilization's knowledge. It doesn't matter that many of these rivulets are utterly trivial (does society really benefit from another doctorate on the poetry of Lionel Ray?). Surplus has been the luxury and the fuel of civilization ever since agriculture, and our surplus of knowledge is a mark of the richness of our civilization.

Maybe our universities are worth defending with boiling oil. When the jihadists come rolling in, after Tel Aviv is nuked with Iranian weapons and we destroy Mecca in retaliation, after they open an Al-Jazeera station in LA but before they visit Vegas, they will surely come after our universities. After all, they are citadels to infidel blasphemies. Arm the undergrads, I say! Or maybe the graduate students - they're less likely to riot in peacetime.

It may never come to that, of course. It may be global warming that does us in, or the dreaded bird flu gone airborne. Whatever it ends up being, the universities should prepare. There should be a federal mandate that each university create a 100-DVD set, "Essentials for rebuilding apres le deluge." It would force researchers and academics to focus on stuff that'll really come in useful later, and break it down so people other than their proteges can understand it. You know, things like how to make a photovoltaic cell. Or basic obstetrics. How to build a house. Permaculture. Things like that. Keep all the rest, too, if you can. But in the little black box, put the 100-DVD set along with a few solar-powered DVD players. I would've said, "A hundred-volume encyclopedia," - you know, books - but you never know, the survivors might be unable to read.

I like to think that, if we have to rebuild from scratch, we'll come to appreciate not just the millions of rivulets we have lost, but some of the deep and ancient rivers that have persisted. Like the Chinese medicine that Greg is studying in Hangzhou. In order to earn his doctorate, Greg may very well have to create an obscure rivulet and write a monster thesis on "The Effects of Microcurrent Electroacupuncture on Mouse Cowper's Gland Contractions," or "Analysis of Verb Usage in the Huang Di Nei Jing." But, more importantly, he will be thoroughly trained in a tradition that treats sick people with a minimum of technology, that will benefit humankind even after the infrastructure is gone. I like to think that, after the flood, barefoot doctor acupunks will be scurrying among the rubble, quelling infectious disease with their homemade extracts of coptis and isatis, treating the injured with their thin metal needles, telling the survivors that it's all going to be OK.

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