Walking from Omelas: The first village

This is fanfiction, based on Ursula Le Guin’s ‘story’ “The ones who walk from Omelas”

On the west side of the mountains, just over one of the passes from Omelas, lies a pair of villages. The older one lies around several springs which are the first source of water under the pass. The newer one is two winter days walk downstream. The land around the old village is fertile and the old village is prosperous. The land downstream is rocky and barely fertile enough to support a village, but the old village frequently and generously shares all it grows and makes with the new one. However, the new village never gives anything to the old. If any gifts are attempted, they are first wrapped so they cannot be seen, then returned. Those from the new village may not even give the gift of stories or music. If someone from the new village speaks or sings or plays an instrument in the presence of someone from the old village, the person from the old village will close his or her eyes, stop his or her ears, and make enough noise to avoid hearing anything.

When someone arrives at the old village from over the pass, usually exhausted and hungry, they are told to keep silent, directed to a comfortable hut just outside the village, and provided with food and water. When they are recovered, they are directed to the village downstream. Attempts at thanks are met with a reminder to keep silent.

The storytellers say that, not too many generations ago, there was only one village around the springs, and the downstream village did not exist. The village had some reason to send ambassadors over the pass. When they returned, the ambassadors, without explanation, told the village they must expel all those who had come from Omelas, provide for them as needed, but never receive anything, and particularly neither stories nor music nor artwork, from them. That is how the present arrangements arose. It is said that the ambassadors themselves joined the exiles in the new village.

It should be noted that, while the newcomers are welcomed in the new village, and almost all at first stay and work and participate in that community, most of them leave to continue again downstream, destination unknown, within a year or two. Even some of those who grow up in the new village will strike out alone, or more rarely as a couple, for no apparent reason.

There is one exception to the rule prohibiting gifts from the new village to the old. When a childless couple in the old village wishes to adopt a child, and the elders agree they would be good parents, they go down to the new village to request a newborn. Without fail, the next child born in the new village is given up for adoption about ten days after its birth. The infant is left without notice or contact or ceremony, appropriately swaddled for the weather in a basket, at the same upper entrance to the village where walkers from Omelas are greeted and helped without welcome.


Possibly more from me about this from real me in a few weeks, if I can find local collaborators.

The real argument against Hobbes’s notion that the natural state is one of war of all against all isn’t the argument of Locke about natural rights or of Rousseau about the social nature of humans.  It isn’t even an argument in the sense of rational dispute with the truth of statements.

One cannot take seriously the commandment to “Love your enemies” and assent to the war of all against all, whether one takes it to be the natural state or not.  At this level, the details of interpretation are unimportant.

(I will add that a war of all against all does not preclude the possibility of alliances or even gangs.)

Election thoughts

I wish I’d taken the time to write this a week or two ago, so I can’t be accused (by myself or anyone else) of being influenced by the election results as they come in.  Oh well.  I’m pretty sure that I’ve been thinking the same things all along, but maybe I wouldn’t have written about it.

Today, somewhere between 60 million and 70 million people have voted for Donald Trump.  I am very sad that this number is anywhere near this high.  Whether this number is closer to 60 million or 70 million I don’t care nearly as much about.

I’m not sad directly about the people voting for Trump.  I’m sad that we have been creating a society in which voting for Trump is a reasonable choice for so many people.  I’m sad we’re creating a society where someone of average intelligence and average abilities has no future.

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with many young people of average intelligence.  After I get to know them a little, I can see the desperation.  They know that the self-driving truck and automated McDonald’s is coming, to be followed by remotely controlled semi-automated plumbing machines that will let one plumber do the job of five.  They know that you can’t make it as a farmer now if you can’t understand the basics of the futures market (with a little help from a stockbroker), and soon you’ll have to learn to program your tractor and use linear programming to figure out what crops to grow.

As mentioned in my last post so long ago, I taught Algorithms last semester.  My best students got it.  Some students slacked off and took their C, or their F.  A number of students worked hard and managed only a C or a D.  Could they have worked a little harder and memorized a few more factoids for a B?  Sure, but what’s the real use in an age where every factoid is available by Google?  They couldn’t grasp concepts, any concepts, at an abstract level and vary them, even in very minor ways.  If they had an idea, they could only randomly guess whether it was correct or not.  They saw their smarter classmates handle this kind of work with no trouble.  They tried hard.  I tried hard.  It didn’t work.  What are they going to do when the self-driving truck and automated warehouse destroy all the jobs at Costco?  They see this coming as well as I do, only they might not admit it to themselves.  Hence the desperation.

If I were a white, 45-year old, former autoworker who couldn’t hack it through college (and didn’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously), it would seem to me that voting for Mr. Trump would be very reasonable.  What’s Mrs. Clinton going to do for me?  Let me declare myself “disabled” to collect Social Security?  Make sure I get adequate food and health care?  Make my wages a little higher when I manage to get some minimum-wage job working alongside smart and perky teenagers who actually have a future?  Fuck.  Give me the needle now.  Or put me in the Coliseum with a Mexican and two swords, and the one of us who manages to crawl out can be shift manager at the last Taco Bell still employing people.

All the people thinking of UBI or whatever other form of welfare as a solution miss the point.  UBI might let people live a comfortable life, but it can’t give people a place in society.

Let me make this clear.  I don’t have a solution.  There might not even be a reasonable solution; I’m a mathematician, and a recurring theme of mathematics is that some problems have no solutions.  People are starting to acknowledge the problem, but I don’t see anyone propose a solution out there.  If anything, Mrs. Clinton is pointedly ignoring the problem, figuring she’ll die before it really hits us.  Mr. Trump sees the problem and wants to blame the Mexicans, or the Muslims.  Well, at least it’s true that if we paired people off and stuck them in the Coliseum, we’ll put off the problem for a lot longer.  So what if we accidentally handed a pair some tactical nukes?  That’ll just put off the problem longer still.

We have to solve this problem though, or we’re going to deed the Earth to the cockroaches.  If you’re a former coal miner with no future, and your children have no future, and your whole community has no place in the larger society, having a few nukes popped off seems as reasonable as anything else, and, frankly, feels like a satisfying way to give the finger to the world that’s condemned you to this fate.

Whether we elect Trump or not, we have lots of towns full of former coal miners and former autoworkers, and we have lots of computer science students who can’t understand any algorithms.  They, too, are made in the image of God, and they, too, are owed a place in our society.  All of us need to work together to find what that is.

What education is for, for half my students

Sorry for the lack of a proper first post or anything like it.  I guess I’ve set this up just for comments that are too long to fit nicely in comments sections.

This is a reply to

What is education for?

In some ways, this is also a reflection on


and maybe also


For most of my students, education is not for anything.  They are not for anything.  They are too far behind.  The cognitive abilities they needed to be born with, or to attain by age five, or ten, or fifteen, they never have quite gotten.  They are unnecessary.  They will always be unnecessary.

To be useful today and tomorrow, you need to be able to perform a task that cannot be automated.  Better yet, you might create something that can then be reproduced cheaply and automatically.  Either that or you need to luck into a job that dozens of essentially unemployed people are equally willing and able to do.  (Connections help.)

To be above automation, you have to be able to come up with ideas, and you have to be able to get a reasonably accurate sense of whether your ideas will work or not.  My best students can do this, and, as far as I can tell, they seem a little better at it at the end of the semester than at the beginning.  My average student cannot.

Every semester, one or two of the many very confused students summon up enough courage to visit my office and ask me to take the time to explain carefully what, for example, linear independence means.  We read the definition carefully.  We read all the definitions of the words in the definition.  They try to understand it.  By the time they understand the last word, they have forgotten the first word.  Well, actually, we have the book open or wrote the definition on the board, so they know what the first word is, but they have no idea what it means.  They go back and work to understand the first word and forget about the last words, or any of the words in the middle.  Forget about trying to see what any of the words have to do with each other.

At this point, it’s been an hour, and I can see the smoke coming out of their ears.  I suggest coming back and trying again tomorrow or the day after, which they do.  I try starting with examples this time.  They understand that the facts we deduce about the example and can verify them.  They look at the definition and forget everything about the example.  They look back at the example, forget all the conclusions we made about it, and forget the definition.  Never mind about trying to make any kind of connection between the example and definition beyond a vague feeling that they must have something to do with each other, since I talked about them at the same time.  On the next exam, when I ask for an example of linear independence, they produce this one with some garbled nonsensical explanation.  I feel obliged to give them a decent amount of partial credit.

They thank me for my time.  They appreciate what I am trying to help them do.  If this isn’t their first course where they’ve been asked to do something other than memorize facts or procedures, they’ve been through this before.  If this is their first such course, and sadly quite frequently this is the first such course for a senior, they see that trying to work with ideas is new to them and understand why learning to work with ideas is important.

They ask if it was this hard for me.  I’m not a very convincing liar since I can’t very well make up stories of spending hours every week in my professors’ offices semester after semester.  Besides, they see the best two or three students in the class waltz into my office, ask a quick cryptic question, get a short cryptic answer in reply, and waltz off with a perfect idea of what to do.  Sometimes they ask me to explain the cryptic question and reply, and I’ve already told you what happens if I try to explain.

More than anything else, they learn they are just not good enough.  They have thought more intensely for two or three hours then they ever have in their lives.  If they’ve just barely managed to get linear independence, they see no way to get the next concept, or any concept, on their own or in a reasonable amount of time.  Maybe they might keep trying a few more times.  It makes no difference.  They never quite get it, and they work hard to get their C for learning to be an okay imitation of Wolfram Alpha, or sometimes a B for learning to be a good imitation of Wolfram Alpha.

To talk about something a little more directly useful than a conceptual understanding of Linear Algebra, I should mention that I recently taught Algorithms.  A few students could handle it.  Most students will never be able to look at a description of an algorithm or a piece of a program and understand what it is doing and how and why it works.  They program by copying snippets of code from the Internet and trying random modifications until it passes the tests it is supposed to pass.  Unfortunately, India graduates 10,000 programmers a year, all capable of doing that (and many capable of doing more) for less than half an American salary.  For that matter, code generators can pretty much do that now too.  If they talk their way into a programming job, they don’t last very long.

You might think they are just not good at math or at computer science.  Occasionally I look at a transcript just out of curiosity.  Almost always it’s filled with C’s and B’s in challenging classes, A’s in the classes that seem not to demand any grappling with ideas, and maybe D or two when they made the mistake of trying a class that absolutely demanded it.

Don’t get me wrong; I get some slackers, and some very smart slackers too.  They also have B and C averages, and they are also frustrating, but for different reasons.

So maybe I have a second answer to the question of what education is for.  For half my students, it’s for them to come to understand that they just do not have any of the talents needed to be useful, and to understand how and why their abilities are inadequate.  To echo Calvin, the role of education is to teach them to praise society for its justice in condemning them to damnation.  Even better, they can teach their friends and family who never even made it to college in the first place to praise society for their damnation.

This is absolutely borne out by employment outcomes.  Our B and C students mostly graduate and end up working odd jobs, at best becoming shift managers for fast food.  They might try, and mostly fail at, selling cars or insurance.  They do better at keeping full time employment than most non-graduates, but you would expect that just from their willingness to work hard.

Hopefully, they believe God loves them and finds them useful, whether they put it in those words or not.  Hopefully they have family and friends (and professors) who love them and find them useful, even when society finds them, and all their family and friends, unnecessary.  Thankfully, I haven’t yet had a student who decided that their best option was a bullet to the head or an overdose of oxycontin, though I expect some of them will be voting for Trump purely out of nihilism.