When I was in my late 20s — at an age when I knew Utopia was just around the corner if only we could complete the task of perfecting the human race — I discovered Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
It was the perfect bible for those of us who had achieved casual self-enlightenment through “I’m OK, You’re OK” a few years earlier. (Reject your inner parent and inner child! Embrace your inner adult! That’s all you need to know.) Discovery need not be painful if the right guide can be found.
As a spiritual guide to Zen, the book was a little fuzzy, mildly preaching quality in life over quantity and vaguely extolling the virtues of becoming one with our activities. It was a small pebble sent skimming over philosophical waters, comfort for those who could talk endlessly about meditation but never bother to actually do it.
But I glommed onto the motorcycle maintenance part as a useful way to come to grips with the technological age.
The book is an admittedly fictionalized account of Pirsig’s cycling odyssey across America’s backroads. Two of his companions had a sleek new motorcycle. They did not understand it, leaving its maintenance to experts, and it was always breaking down on them. Pirsig had an old beater, and he did all the upkeep and repairs himself, always in control of his own destiny.
We don’t have to worship technology, but neither should we be intimidated by it. We can embrace it on our own terms. As the Amazon.com description puts it, the book provides an illustration of “how we can unify the cold, rational realm of technology with the warm, imaginative realm of artistry.”
Since then, unfortunately, technology has moved far beyond our control. Our lives are consumed by the services delivered digitally from ever smaller but more sophisticated devices — little blips from the ether representing books and record albums and all our everyday chores from photography and long-distance conversations to map-reading and mathematical calculations. It’s a flashlight. It’s a tape measure. It’s a stopwatch. It’s a heart monitor. It’s a dictionary and an encyclopedia.
We are more and more dependent on all that software but less and less comfortable with the hardware that delivers it — know anyone who can open up a smart phone and tinker with its innards? Our heads are in the clouds in more ways than one.
All of which makes “the art of motorcycle maintenance” a compelling metaphor for what is happening now with civics, the study of the rights and duties of citizens, or rather what is not happening.
The president of the Purdue Fort Wayne chapter of the American Association of University Professors says she “is uncomfortable with” Purdue’s new rule making civics literacy, including passing a basic test, a graduation requirement. She claims students are already being grounded in civics and the requirement is “an unnecessary hoop” for them to go through.
Seems like a weak argument to me. Students have to pass tests in all sorts of subjects to graduate, so surely a grasp of the government they live under should be one of them. In a survey from a few years ago by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, only 36% of American adults could pass a basic U.S. citizenship test, modeled after the one taken by immigrants in the process of naturalization.
We might achieve 25% for the next generation, so cheers to Purdue for trying to reverse the trend.
Speaking of which, President Biden has rescinded the Trump administration’s revised citizenship test. Pre-Trump, immigrants had to study 100 questions, then answer correctly six out of 10 of them chosen at random. Trump increased the number of study questions to 128 and the pass rate to 12 out of 20 questions.
The Trump version, it was said, was aimed at discouraging immigration and was somehow “skewed conservative,” whatever that means. I don’t get what the big deal is. In 2019, we had 834,000 legal immigrants, an 11-year-high, before the pandemic shut the whole process down. Illegal immigration has declined in recent years, but there are already about 12 million undocumented here who have answered zero out of zero questions on a citizenship test.
Civics is the hardware of the commonweal.
We enjoy the software of citizenship and demand more and more of it — more privileges; more support, financial and otherwise; more equality of results but also more freedom of choice; more safe spots where we won’t be offended, criticized or challenged.
But that software depends on an infrastructure, an intricate system of checks and balances called federalism, the nuts and bolts of which give us an unbounded opportunity while protecting us from both the tyranny of the majority and the whims of a demented minority.
As citizens, we must understand the relationships between citizens and the government in that system. We have to know the moving parts of the hardware.
Because there is no software without the hardware to deliver it, so whoever controls the hardware controls the whole system.
If the tower is down, our phones won’t work. If the Internet is hacked, our credit will be at risk. If someone doesn’t like our politics, our social media accounts will be suspended. If a censor decides a book isn’t appropriate, better have a hard copy on hand.
We can’t just leave the hardware of our polity to the experts — the politicians, bureaucrats, academicians and journalists who increasingly seem more interested in dividing us over the country’s perceived wrongs than in uniting us around its strengths. They can change the software in a heartbeat, and a government of, for and by the people will be stalled on a backroad of the failed republic.
So, appreciate the moving parts, become a part of them and make them a part of you until you are one with the system.
Little Zen there. Meditate on it.