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Stop learning and save the species

Educating yourself could be the downfall of civilisation – seriously. That’s the message from a US academic from the University of Connecticut who believes that over-educated ‘elites’ pose a threat to the stability of western societies. 

Professor Peter Turchin (peterturchin.com) heads research using a mathematical model called cliodynamic, which measures historical events as statistical data. While it is no crystal ball, he argues, ‘History needs to become an analytical, predictive science.’ 

His theory centres around social indicators, which he says are related, despite not appearing to be. They include ‘stagnating or declining real wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees and exploding public debt…’   

In a 2008 essay, Turchin explained how patterns cut across historical periods and regions. One pattern is the oscillation between population decline and instability, such as peasant uprisings and civil wars. 

He writes, ‘Applying the above approach to eight secular cycles in medieval and early modern England, France, the Roman Empire and Russia, we find that the number of instability events per decade is always several times higher when the population was declining than when it was increasing. 

‘The probability of this happening by chance is vanishingly small. The same pattern holds for the eight dynasties that unified China, from the Western Han to the Qing, and for Egypt from the Hellenistic to the Ottoman periods.’ 

Important factors in twentieth-century revolutions were the rapid demographic change and elite over-production (or over-education), he says. ‘When Tony Blair was Britain’s prime minister, he set out to increase the proportion of youth getting higher education to 50 per cent. He was presumably unaware that the overabundance of young people with advanced education preceded the political crises of the age of revolutions in western Europe, in late Tokugawa Japan and in modern Iran and the Soviet Union.’

But Turchin is optimistic – he says records show that societies can avert disaster. 

‘We need to find ways to ameliorate the negative effects of globalisation on people’s wellbeing. Economic inequality, accompanied by burgeoning public debt, can be addressed by making tax rates more progressive. Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly.’ 

Seven years ago, he predicted on www.nature.com that ‘the next decade is likely to be a period of growing [political]instability in the US and western Europe.’ And three years ago he said the peak of political turmoil will occur in the 2020s.

While Australia is thankfully a more egalitarian society, we may be on a similar trajectory, thanks to a merchant banker PM in a shrinking top hat. At least Australia’s falling education standards align with Turchin’s theory that we need a dumbed-down population to avoid catastrophe.

– Hans Lovejoy


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