Thinking in Systems
So you’ve graduated from high school. Some people call it the best years of your life, but you know better. It’s time to step out, in fact, it’s time for life to begin. Your life.
But dusting yourself off and walking out to greet the world is just the beginning. Nothing in school has really told you how to live. Yes, there were plenty of demands, but now they suddenly seem petty, things only a child would care about.
And then there’s the big school, the university. Why should it be any different? Isn’t it as well going to be filled with small demands according to it’s own needs, and not your own? It speaks of offering something for everyone. That is, in an sense, what the term ‘university’ even means. It has the word universe inside it.
But if you go inside, where will you fit in? This is the first time no one’s forcing you to be there, and no one knows who you are. This can be liberating, but it can also be alienating, mirroring the architecture of our wider society. And freedom is not so abstract as to allow you to simply live without doing anything at all. Some people say ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’, but either way, you’re going to have to make a choice.
And you won’t have a lot of time to make it. Now that you’re an adult, there’s no more free rides. If you can be anyone you want to be, the other side of that coin is that no one cares if you’re anyone at all.
So let’s lay out the most common options that you are faced with, right up front: one, you could forget about the university entirely. Maybe it’s just a bigger high school after all. And after high school, who’d want to take a chance that it isn’t? But that means you have to find a job, and without anything more than a high school diploma, statistics tells us that over the life course, your career, if you get one, is going to stagnate. Even if you imagine yourself to be a born again pilgrim, that life isn’t going to be easy, and might even be unfulfilling, lacking meaning. And two? Well, that requires a big commitment back into furthering your education. Most people find they can’t do the kind of work necessary to get a Ph.D., so why bother at all? And forget about ‘Dr. You’, what about those stats that show that up to thirty percent of undergrad students drop out way before they’ve obtained even the lowest degree? And for those who do finish, the average degree completion time is over six years!
Neither of these options sounds promising. Many young people mix and match, working up to three part-time jobs just to pay for school. And then, if you are going to take the plunge, paying for it is just one challenge. What, exactly, are you going to be paying for?
It’s a cliché that the parent will advise you to take a degree that will ‘get you a job’. Anything else seems like a waste of time and money. But most jobs lack meaning, and most workers feel unfulfilled by them. How could it be, when you have your entire life ahead of you, that once in that life it often doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? And older people will tell you that, sure. But when they do, it’s not just a cautionary tale – don’t let it happen to you! – no, there’s something else in there, something born of bitterness and borne on resentment. It’s another version of what in previous ages the older told the younger; I was beaten as a kid, it didn’t do me any harm.
Well, fortunately, in most countries, no one can touch you these days, but even so, watch your back; there’s a bigger whip on the horizon and its two-tailed: work in a low-status job for the rest of your life, compelled simply by having expenses and in so doing, accomplish nothing much; or get a bunch of degrees, if you can, and pay off your debt for much of that same life, working in better jobs but feeling just as compelled to work.
You might learn in philosophy class that communism, amongst other social ideas, promises an end to all of that. But starting a revolution is no easy business. Far too many of us benefit greatly from the system we have now, so why would we desire to alter it? No, you’re going to have to learn how to ‘think in systems’.
What we mean by that is also two-fold. Thinking isn’t encouraged in our society, indeed, in any culture that we know of. At most, ‘figuring things out’ is acceptable, and only when such ‘things are broke’. Now, this kind of practical reflection is indeed important. We wouldn’t have come so far as human beings without it. But the one thing it doesn’t do is help us adapt to change. In a word, we can’t tell, by practical reflection alone, if something actually is broken or not.
So, one the one hand, a system is a way of thinking as it has always been. Sometimes this is called tradition, custom, ‘what is done’, ‘the way things are’, even and most brashly, ‘human nature’. But history tells us that there is more than one human nature, and that such ‘nature’ that we might inhabit as human beings is subject to change. The question: ‘can we change with it?’ is one the entire world faces and faces together. Ask yourself right now how good a job you think we’re doing with that?
But on the other hand, a system is also a manner in which to think; that is, I am going to think systematically about this or that. I’m not going to simply accept what has been, or what has been done, or even how it is done today, right now. Thinking systematically about a system of thought helps you dismantle it, piece by piece. You’re going to find that revolution is not about politics after all, but rather simply, and much more accessibly, about human reason.
But you have to use it. Perhaps ironically, the university is the only place where this kind of thinking is allowed, and only in a very few kinds of courses. Fittingly, these types of courses will not help you get a ‘good job’. Who reads philosophy? How many ‘thinkers’ does a society need? Why do people who think they know how to think, in turn think they can tell the rest of us how to live?
We’re not telling you to become a professional philosopher. If you’re already independently wealthy, then go for it, as long as you’re also prepared for the ensuing facts that hardly anyone will listen to you and you will have very few friends. No, it is better to learn to think as a universal birthright of who you are: a human being. Reason is the chief characteristic that separates us from other animals. Human beings can think things through, whether it is fixing a machine or fixing the world. We are telling you to join us in the name of human reason, for that is the key to human freedom.
So, you might ask, this ‘reason’ thing, I think I like it, but how do I learn about it without killing my career chances? The simplest way to balance survival and meaning is take a shorter-term diploma or degree in an up-market field. Yes, the market for employment changes regularly, but usually not within the span of two to three years in specific regions. This is why more and more colleges and universities are offering theses kinds of programs. And within many of them, there is some space to take those other courses; you know, the spaces in which revolutions are born.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, and more recently, fiction, and was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.