By the spring of my sophomore year at Villanova I was disillusioned with the school, both socially and academically. The sense of alienation, inadequacy, and fear that I hid beneath a veneer of intellectual confidence should have made me susceptible to conversion by the disciple of Lyndon Larouche who interrupted my trudge back to the dorm one breezy afternoon, but luckily for me his sales pitch was pretty awful.
He held a ream of pamphlets, and he earnestly showed me a sheet covered with inexpert renderings of the Platonic solids, which he claimed were the foundation of a superior modality of learning.
“Do you see,” he said, “how having kids discover these would be a better type of education than making them just memorize the alphabet and addition?” I agreed that such a pedagogy would be interesting, but my new friend proved disappointingly vague when pressed for specifics, and the conversation soon petered out. Coming into this encounter I only knew one fact about Larouche’s beliefs, and since we’d done all we could for the educational system I asked about it.
“Is it true that you guys think the global population is way too small?”
The long pause that followed, as well as his downturned mouth and wrinkled nose - an expression that made him look like he had just stepped on a dog poop - suggested both that this was the case and that he had little interest in talking about it.
“Yeah,” he eventually allowed, removing his thick-framed glasses and rubbing them on his t-shirt. “More people means more creativity, which is good for everyone.”
We went back and forth a few times, as I tried to get him to acknowledge that, the earth being a finite system, there must be some theoretical limit to its population. Even if a much higher than current number proved optimal, he couldn’t be arguing that the planet was capable of supporting literally unlimited humans. For example, might 100 billion people be enough for him?
“No,” he said quietly, barely more than a whisper. “At that point we’ll be colonizing this solar system and maybe others.”
Obviously, I’m writing about this because I found it funny at the time, and I find it even more so thirteen years later. But lately I’ve been noticing discomforting echoes across the cultural landscape. The issue is not just that every area of human life, from diet to medicine to international relations to politics, has an ever-growing raft of claims and conspiracies lashed to it, but rather that these views are often expressed with a vindictive certainty.
The existential threat that a country might well face as a result of its populace agreeing on ever fewer matters with ever greater certainty is obvious and depressing and thankfully beyond the purview of a post on a blog that purports to be about farming.
What I’ve been thinking about is more personal and more mundane. Though I don’t know how it would be quantified, my sense is that the constant availability of both information and interpretations of that information is changing how many of us construct and edit the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I’ve touched on this topic before, and I’ll reiterate that I believe these personal narratives are not just good but foundational to human identity. But when they become too fixed and too emphatic they can be painfully limiting.
My son Ellis is sixteen months old, and his infant lizard brain has decided that any time Alanna or I try to feed him something it will taste absolutely awful. If I put a spoon with a bite of plain rice on it in front of him he’ll make basically the same face as the Larouche volunteer did when asked about optimal population levels. Last week we went down to Gilbertsville for ice cream, and he wouldn’t even look at it when I offered him a bite, and soon he retreated to the windowsill to watch cars go past.
Few of us face anything so dire as depriving ourselves of delicious strawberry ice cream on a hot summer afternoon. But comfort with what we know and certainty in our beliefs prevents learning and, even more importantly, it deadens human interaction. I can think of several times in the past few months when I had lengthy conversations that were in reality hardly more than dueling monologues, with me basically reciting ideas that had precipitated in my mind. But I've also had conversations that have shifted my views on something, or at least have made me question a preconception.
The latter are more satisfying, but the reason why, I think, is not obvious. The stories I tell myself about who I am usually presuppose that I am at the very center of the entire universe. The discomfort with acknowledging I may be wrong about something or perhaps am just ignorant is that it puts the lie to this premise. But being the center of everything is ultimately lonely. Beyond the brief pain of acknowledging my human fallibility is the wonder of seeing the stories of others that intersect with my own, and even more broadly the stories of the world and its manifold creatures, all of which are going about their lives in blissful ignorance of my neuroses.
I can’t confidently tell you how to cultivate humility and uncertainty, for obvious reasons, but I’ve found it gratifying and useful to attempt. And there is reason for hope - when left with a spoon of his own for several minutes, Ellis finally did take first one bite, and then a couple more. It wasn’t his favorite, but at least he had the experience.