Despite the contemporary narrative surrounding the decline of low-skill manufacturing jobs, specialization as the only source of stability and career path is the historical norm. During the Colonial era, the standard professional arrangement was tradesman, and with it apprenticeships. As part of the apprenticeship process the final stage was achievement of Master status obtained either through a licensing procedure through a governing body of a tradesman's association or through having spent a certain number of years as a journeyman. If one considers that the total amount of time from apprentice to journeyman took twelve years and that journeyman phase was around four years, then it required sixteen years to go from apprentice to master tradesman. That is exactly as long as the modern education from kindergarten or first grade through the bachelors.
Upon consideration what this speaks to is an urge to specialize. The industrial revolution largely cancelled out the specialization paradigm, not because specialization was annulled as such, but because many of the recognized trades were made redundant, and people could find work immediately without having to go through a specialized training process. Now the paradigm for specialization has returned. Granted it now occurs in the centralized education system as opposed to say the more localized apprenticeship process of the Colonial era, but it is still one and the same structure.
In an interview for Tim Ferriss’ book The Tribe of Mentors and in response to the question “What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the ‘real world’?”, Matthew Ridley said:
The adult world is not full of gods, just people who have acquired skills and habits that work for them. And specialize – the great human achievement is to specialize as a producer of goods or services so that you can diversify as a consumer. Self-sufficiency is another word for poverty.
Initially, Ridley’s advice is counterintuitive. After all, human instinct is to argue that if one is “self-sufficient” then one owns all the means of production necessary for personal sustenance and therefore is independent of others.
In theory, such a situation might look ideal on paper; in reality, it is hardly practicable. Lest one think that such self-sufficiency might be effected in an idealized agrarian society, or that it is the fault of industrialization that people are unable “to do for themselves,” here is a true example from American history.
Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867 – 1957) authored a series of children’s books about her (highly fictionalized) youth on the American frontier, a world in which agriculture was dominant. Of these books, only the second Little House on the Prairie received widespread recognition; however, she recorded her life all the way through the first years of her marriage, with the last book titled, appropriately, The First Four Years. The following story comes from the final, and least known, book.
Her husband, Almanzo Wilder (1857 – 1949), came from a wealthy family of horse breeders and trainers from upstate New York. For reasons that she never discussed – after her death, their daughter, journalist Rose Wilder Lane (1886 – 1968), revealed that her mother had deliberately suppressed or outright lied about many of the details in the books, in an effort to maintain social respectability – Wilder fell out with his parents and moved west, intending to start his own farm. However, he was completely inexperienced at large-scale farming of crops and the region was unsuitable to the breeding of the type of livestock with which he was familiar.
Desiring “self-sufficiency,” which his wife identified with a view of American values, Wilder illegally staked three different claims (the law allowed one claim per person; he claimed one for himself and one for his wife but committed identity fraud for the third, signing his sister’s name to the deed.) and planted three different types of crops on each property. Technically, he chose the crops, wheat, corn and timber, well. But almost immediately things went wrong. With his resources stretched thinly among his properties and crops, he lost all of them because he wasn’t in the right place at the right time. The trees died from drought since he wasn’t there to water them, and the wheat and corn crops were flattened by hailstorms when he was away trying to save the trees. In keeping with Matt Ridley’s statement, the situation ended with the Wilder family mired in poverty. Yet these catastrophes could have been avoided if Wilder had specialized in one crop and given it his undivided attention.
For anyone who is wondering, his family stepped in and took custody of Rose but refused to help him on the principle that “he dug himself in, now let him dig himself out” – his committing identity theft probably didn’t help the family dynamic either. Further, it was Rose Wilder Lane who solved her parents’ financial problems, when she, as a young journalist, returned to visit them and recognized the literary potential of her mother’s stories and later arranged publication through her connections in New York City. Interestingly, Lane’s own dedication to the principles of personal responsibility and the nobility of ambition caused her to become one of the leading figures in the development of American libertarian ideas. It also accounts for the contradiction in which she acted as her mother’s editor, sanitizing the stories and colluding with the suppression of certain unsavory details about her parents’ modii operandi, only to then reveal all of the metaphorical skeletons once her mother died.
The Wilders’ sad story is an interesting study of American “values,” familial and social. There is no doubt that the Wilders believed that they were pursuing independence, a fundamental American ideal, with their ill-conceived attempt to grow multiple cash crops, rather than specializing in producing one in great abundance. But when the venture failed and the extended family refused to help on the principle of personal responsibility, according to the narrative crafted by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this refusal was punishment for not being successful. The crime was failure (not identity theft); they were “not good enough” for the wealthy, high-achieving, principled (read: responsible) family back east. And, in this narrative, the extended family became the villains as they, to the best of the Wilders’ knowledge, could afford to “help us get back on our feet” but chose not to do so. The conflict exemplified in the story between different interpretations of fundamental values - independence at any cost versus personal responsibility - is reflective of much of broader social fracturing today.
End of Part I