Robert Heinlein: un-American Rebel With A Cause
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
– Robert A. Heinlein, American science-fiction author (1907-1988)
That’s outrageous! Why, look at what our experts have done for us.
Our expert chemists have created chemical fertilizers and pesticides to put on our agricultural crops so megafarming agribusinesses can produce lots more food than our ancestors ever dreamed of. And diseases and weaknesses such as diabetes, allergies and heart disease at rates never previously imagined because our bodies can’t cope with the chemical attacks over long periods of time. (Tests are usually over three years, seldom longer, as if nothing could affect our health over a long period of time.)
Other expert chemists, medical specialists, have developed drugs to rescue us from the ravages of those chemicals, which have also made their way into our air (over half a million kinds) and our drinking water (over 300,000 kinds).
Our expert medical doctors happily prescribe those drugs for the rest of our lives so we can stay on our feet and work harder than our ancestors ever dreamed. And, so they won’t forget what to prescribe, many of them accept reminder gifts from the pharmaceutical companies. A comfortable arrangement for the experts.
Our business specialists, MBAs tucked neatly in safe locations, figure out how to manufacture things to make our lives easier. Our communications specialists devise ways to sell those products to us through advertising, making us believe we need stuff we seldom use. The facts that our lives are not easier, that we have more stress than any previous generation, take more drugs than any previous generation and buy so much we don’t need that we have to have yard sales and to give other stuff to “needy” people in neighbouring countries is never mentioned, so we forget. (Donations by Americans are often sold in Canada, and vice versa, a fact seldom noted publicly.)
Our expert architects design skyscrapers so well that most people who have to work in them have their health compromised. Sick building syndrome–no one knows how it will affect our length of life–stands as a hallmark of modern architectural progress.
Our legal specialists are so good at defending bad guys with cash to spread around that few go to prison and the ones who do have short stays. Our lawyers have reputations worse than used car salesmen of the old days. Their accounting specialists advise them how to Hoover every available dollar from ordinary folks who know so little of the skills of relationships they don’t know how to stay married, so little about money management that more cash goes out than comes in for too many people and so little about getting along with neighbours that whole television courtroom series have cropped up to document the conflicts and allow the rest of us to be voyeurs.
Our specialists have made us the great Western World are persuaded those who are not part of it envy to such extremes that some of them want to murder us because of it.
We are, in short, the epitome of progress. We have our specialists to thank.
Let’s take a moment to consider the parts of their lives that our experts and specialists don’t want us to think about. Would you expect to see one of them changing a flat tire? No, because they have roadside assistance insurance. Or is it because they have no idea how to change a tire? Or because they fear getting their hands dirty. Ask one.
Most pay little attention to their diet until they are diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, have a stroke or are told point blank by their doctors that they are obese or dangerously overweight such that their lives are at risk. They know little about nutrition, what their bodies need to stay healthy.
Most have no idea how to fix their own computers, even how to keep dust out of them, and many don’t even keep their security programs up to date. They don’t change the oil in their own cars because they don’t know how. They can’t change a washer in a leaky tap/faucet. They have to call a plumber when their toilet plugs up because they have no idea how to use a plunger (or how to avoid plugging the toilet in the first place).
They don’t plant their own gardens where they can grow pesticide-free and chemical-free veggies and fruit because they “don’t have time.” In fact, most don’t have any idea how to tend a garden.
On the other hand, a high school dropout may know how to do all of these things and hundreds more. Does this make the dropout more fit for life in the 21st century than the highly educated person? Not necessarily. But maybe.
Consider this possibility. Something happens that causes the power to go out in your part of the world and you learn that it will be out for a whole year or more. Would you rather have the high school dropout who has had to survive by the seat of his pants for many years as an ally or one of the experts or specialists mentioned earlier in this article?
Of course you assume that such a thing will never happen, even though a terrorist bomb could accomplish it. The 30 million people of the US state of California believe their state will never sink into the Pacific either, even though scientists have been warning it would happen for years from a split of earth’s tectonic plates along the San Andreas fault. Many Americans are unaware that what is known as a super volcano is brewing under Yellowstone Park, even though a blow that would darken the skies of the world possibly for years is overdue. These things can happen. Eventually one will. Some call it Armageddon, but it’s really just nature in action.
Am I suggesting that high school and post secondary education is worthless or counter productive? Not at all. What is needed is a change of focus in our elementary and high schools. We need to teach children life skills, not stuff they know they will never need or use. How much do you remember or use of what you learned in high school? Would you have willing traded much of it for some of the life skills you have learned by experience since then?
Adolescents and young adults have trouble in high school often because they see how useless what they are forced to learn is and will be to them in the future. They know they need to learn life lessons–that desire to learn is instinctive–but they don’t know what those lessons are or how to get them. They rebel. They drop out. They take drugs or alcohol, get tattoos, listen to music that could destroy their hearing, and so on. Eventually, most of them learn the lessons they need, get back on track and become upstanding citizens. But not quickly enough. Those lessons often come the hard way, by making mistake after mistake and learning from them. A few don’t make it.
As radical as Robert Heinlein’s suggestion in our opening quote seemed when you first read it, it makes more sense now. We have time to teach these life lessons and more. We simply need to eliminate what was better suited for 18th century schools than it is for today’s world. In the 18th century kids learned life lessons at home. Today’s kids can’t learn them at home because many of their parents don’t know the life lessons themselves to teach. With both parents working to earn enough to buy the fun things of life as well as what we believe are necessities, we need someone to teach the life lessons that used to be taught at home.
They aren’t being taught at school today because the curriculum is too crowded with other (often unnecessary) stuff. They aren’t being taught at home. And our young people experience more problems at school and outside of it than any previous generation.
This is a simple connect-the-dots problem and solution. By the way, I still don’t know how to set a bone, but I can do most of the rest of what Heinlein suggested. It took me six decades of life to learn these lessons. I should have been able to learn them in school, before I needed them. You too.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, an easy to understand guidebook (with a threatening sounding title) for parents and teachers who want to grow children who know how to manage their lives. It includes specific lessons.
Learn more at