Why I’m going to university

As you may have guessed from the oddly parochial note in my previous article, I’ve begun studying at the University of Otago. I’m now into my third week of lectures in French, History, and Law. Next semester comes Anthropology and Geography.

To those who know me, this seems rather odd. I already have two degrees from the University of Canterbury. Why am I starting again, as an undergraduate, at a separate university? Two of my sisters are also studying here, but that’s not a reason. Studying law could qualify me for a high-paying job, but lawyering doesn’t particularly interest me right now, so that’s not a reason. And university life sure beats working at an Internet cafe, but it costs more too, so that’s not a reason either.

This is the reason.

A couple of years ago I came across the books of Daniel Quinn, including Ishmael, My Ishmael, and The story of B. Basically, Quinn says that the development of organized farming (in his words, the introduction of totalitarian agriculture) about ten thousand years ago was … a mistake. Growing more food than necessary led to an increase in population, which led to territorial expansion, which led to more land being cultivated, which led to a surplus of food, which led to an increase in population, which led to territorial expansion — and so on over the next ten millennia until about 150 years ago, when civilization reached places like Africa and New Zealand and had covered most of the habitable world.

But we didn’t stop producing all that surplus food, and we didn’t stop having babies, so the population is still growing exponentially, and getting more dense. Over the past ten thousand years, Quinn says, increasing population density has led to the introduction of mass warfare, slavery, crime, famine, mental illness, plague, revolution, and terrorism. Civilization, he concludes, just isn’t a good way for humans to live.

There are all sorts of ways this argument can be disputed. You could argue that the advantages of civilization — longer lifespans, dental hygiene, recreational sex, the Internet — outweigh the disadvantages. You could argue that human ingenuity will ensure we never run out of resources. You could argue that ten thousand years can’t be wrong. Or, like most people, you could just ignore the issue entirely.

I went through all these arguments, and they seemed plausible. But the subject kept nagging at my mind. Eventually I realized that I didn’t know beyond reasonable doubt, and if I didn’t prove Quinn wrong to my own satisfaction, I’d be uncomfortable for the rest of my life.

And what better place to study this than at a university? I can pick the brains of experts in all sorts of social sciences. I can be subjected to viewpoints I might have filtered myself from if I’d been studying alone. And I can read many books and periodicals that don’t have equivalents on the Internet.

It’s quite possible that in a couple of years I will have convinced myself that civilization is fine, and I’ll get on with living and loving and working and dying in it. But I can’t convince myself without evidence. So for the next few years I’ll be researching these things I must know. And in the meantime, I’ll be writing about things I do know.

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