Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: Dark Age Ahead

Among architects, Jane Jacobs is best known for her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961 but still influential today as a warning against urban renewal and the destruction of communities. If not for that book, countless other cities across North America would have perished in the onslaught of the automobile, and the preservation movement may have never happened, or at least not early enough to save generations of buildings from demolition. In 1968, Jacobs moved to Toronto where she continued the fight to preserve communities and published many more books before her death in 2006. Dark Age Ahead is her last book, published in 2004. 

In the book Jacobs argues that western civilization today, in particular North America, sits at a turning point between continued prosperity and a slow and painful degradation, or dark age of the kind that followed the fall of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. Then as today, degradation is not an overnight collapse but a culmination of numerous erosions in society, which one by one add up to a society no longer recognizable as its former self and no longer able to remember what made it great in the first place. Jacobs calls this mass amnesia, wherein even the memory of what was lost is lost.

Perhaps one of the book's best insights is into university education, or credentialization as Jacobs calls it. While she does not doubt the good intentions the system once had, a series of events have led to universities no longer being the centers of learning they once were, but rather stepping stones into the corporate world. Jacobs goes so far as to say a degree is little more than a proof of basic competence for recruiters. While once a personal relationship with professors was common thanks to small class sizes and a culture of seminars, the huge upswing in students after WWII has led to huge lecture halls with little opportunity for critical analysis. Furthermore, whereas one would assume the nation's top universities are bound  to teaching moral ethics and legal practices, they in fact arm their students with methods for avoiding the law, teaching "don't ask, don't tell", which has helped dozens of executives and even presidents such as Reagan and Bush to avoid scrutiny. 

It isn't always clear where Jacobs is going with a particular point. Sometimes she can go on for pages about one thing or another without a definite conclusion only to tie it together in a further chapter to prove a point. The book is a built-up of numerous small examples to convince the reader of a spreading rot in society which if not addressed could single-handedly first settle and possibly collapse our fragile society. She makes her points using examples for recent memory, such as a growing trend of corporate accounting fraud of the kind we saw with Enron. Or the killer heat wave in Chicago in 1995, which the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) blamed on unprepared elders who didn't seek out help, completely ignoring that death rates were much higher in low-density neighborhoods than in lively high-density neighborhoods with a strong sense of community. It took a young graduate student, Eric Klinenberg, to discover this overlooked but vital flaw. 

In a society so focused and devoted to modern science, Jacobs says there is a growing resistance to time-tested scientific methods, with dogma increasingly creeping in where it should not, as with the CDC, which did not even consider that the problem may lie in the greater system rather than something that individuals had or had not done. And so one of the problems our culture faces, according to Jacobs, is a lack of vigilance regarding our own flaws. We fail to see our failing education system, corrupt corporations, and deteriorating families as a danger which could dissolve everything we know.