Originally published:
Kurtzman NA:  Lubbock Magazine
(July):6-7, 1999.

It is axiomatic that the Western World has been in inexorable decline since the circumcision of Pericles. But this decline had not included a diminution in life span, until this cen­tury. I know people are more often reaching a grand old age, but are they really living longer? Or are they spending most of their time in vegetable frustration or rage mode? We have structured our lives so that from the dawn of sentience to the dusk of senescence we rarely do anything useful or enjoyable; thus we progressively shorten effective life expectancy. The mil­lennium threatens not a silly computer bug, but a meaningful life duration zeroing in on zero.

Parents mistakenly think they can, after the moment of conception, make their children better. They fail to acknowl­edge the Niagara of data proving they can only do the reverse. The child smiles, sits, stands, walks, begins to think. His mother, convinced he must be exceptional, helps him to realize his po­tential; she puts him in front of the television. If she’s enlight­ened, he watches Sesame Street and Teletubbies. His introduction to a life of boredom begins.

How many years of the letter C can an imaginative child withstand? The Teletubbies don’t have a sexual orienta­tion; they don’t have any orientation. Disorientation is their forte. A TV character who’s got a TV in his belly. An infinity of television. If the kid gets to go to preschool, he may have a life for a while. Kindergarten’s not too bad either. So, by the time the nipper is six he’s lived two or three years. The next 12, however, are worth only one or two, less if mom makes the child play soccer. Grade school, or whatever it’s called these days, spreads one year of content over six. Maybe a year’s worth of useful stuff in junior high and high school combined. Thus, the high school graduate is effectively five years old at the most. Some kids learn nothing over these 12 years and are only two at graduation, if they graduate. Then things really start to slow down. Our five year old goes to college.

More than a century ago, some wag said that France had one university, England two, Germany four, and Ohio 114.  Nobody knows how many institutions of higher learning are spread around the U.S. They are everywhere – more numerous than cockroaches in a dormitory. Almost none of them has any serious educational purpose, rather they keep pre-humans away from normal people, allowing teen psychosis to scar over. What is the use of four years of college? A liberal education? That’s self refuting. Preparation for adult life? Impossible. Well, if you want to go to a professional school you have to go to col­lege. Why? I don’t know. Every professional school I know of assumes that its matriculates have learned nothing at college that would prepare them for any profession and therefore starts from scratch. Medical schools go so far as to call their students “undergraduates.”

Clark Kerr, once the chancellor of the University of California, said his job was to provide athletics for the alumni, parking for the faculty, and sex for the students. He thus de­fined the function of virtually every college in the country. The average undergraduate does nothing useful for four years, longer if he’s red-shirted or particularly dense. I’ll assign one year of effective life for college assuming that a student is sufficiently intelligent to avoid his studies enough to devote 25% of his time to dissipation. Our graduate is now no more than six years old – ready for the world or graduate school. Assuming the latter, he’ll find that graduate education is no better run than was un­dergraduate. The same folks run both. Military Intelligence, as the latest war once more proves, is usually conceded to be the ultimate contradiction in terms. It’s not. Education is. It’s the only one-word contradiction in terms.

That most universities operate schools of business shows how fuzzy is their thinking. How can a university teach how to run a business when it’s constitutionally incapable of running a business? Here loom the twin killers of government imposition and academic bureaucracy. All universities in this country, whether public or private, get money from the govern­ment. It is virtually their only reason for being. With the lucre comes an ever-greater list of regulations designed to prevent any activity except cashing the check. Whatever meager hope of useful activity that remains unextinguished by the govern­ment is slain by the university’s manic proliferation of adminis­trators. In the last century the ideal college was said to be a log with Mark Hopkins on one end and a student on the other. To­day it’s an administrator at both ends and as many as can be squeezed in-between. So we’ll give one year of life for all post­graduate education regardless of duration – but nothing if you went to business school and minus one for law school.

Facing the world at seven years of age is daunting, es­pecially as you might not make it into double figures. But now you’ve got to make a living, file an income tax return, find a spouse or take care of yourself, bathe every day, pay rent, call your mother regularly, start thinking of retirement, return calls from insurance salesmen, get enough dietary fiber, worry about the distribution of your body hair, try to force yourself to have a position on the important political issues of the day, try to force yourself into believing there are important political issues, learn how to tie a bow-tie, join the NRA and carry a gun, refuse to join the NRA and surreptitiously carry a can of MACE, get seven credit cards, take supplemental calcium, get frequent flier numbers from all the major airlines, try to re­member what they are, buy shares in a mutual fund, get 30 minutes of exercise daily, use dental floss twice a day, care that every business you deal with is screw­ing you to the sucker wall after taking away your screwdriver, change your underwear without a re­minder, make car payments, ask yourself for the car keys, etc. Then you’ll get married and have two kids and you’re still seven years old. Before you could sensibly waste your youth, it’s over.

Now you’ll have to watch Sesame Street and the Teletubbies yet again. But this go around you’ll make mortgage payments and go to preschool graduation. Time will refuse to cancel your sub­scription. Piano lessons, braces, gymnastics, ballet classes, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, will keep you at seven years until catastrophe – the Titanic. They’re teenagers. And you’re stupid. You lose two years and are five when the divorce body slams you. Lose another two years. You remarry and take on two more teenagers losing another two years. You give up and pay attention to nothing but the Dow Jones Average. It goes up and you get a year back. The kids go to college and you give it back. The tuition bills are so high that you think you’re being charged for your college roommate’s stepchildren. You take up golf and are obsessed by it. The lower your handicap gets the more unhappy you get. Two more years in the red. The stock market crashes; the bear market that follows lasts 10 years leaving you minus three years old. The only quality time you have is in airports. At night you have recurring dreams about American Eagle’s buses.

The internet makes your job obsolete and you’re fired. You lose your health insurance. Your daughter gets her nose pierced and runs off with an insurance salesman; he sends her back. Your pen­sion plan folds and the government raises the minimum age for social security to 85. Medicare coverage is limited to diseases which affect only the left side of your body and which start on days divisible by the last two digits of your Social Secu­rity number. Your children never phone. But you don’t notice because the nursing home they’ve put you into doesn’t have a phone. You’re now so many years younger than you were at birth that you couldn’t total them even if you didn’t have Alzheimer’s Disease. You die and the kids forget to remove your gold crowns before they cremate you.

Every day La Traviata is performed some place in the world. One performance can erase ten trips on the Eagle, six homecoming games, and half an IRS audit. But not if you’re not there.