Give Me Slack

My parental worries, ca. 2021.

I was a mere lad of fifteen when I first encountered the Church of the Subgenius, a joke religion started by a group of prankster surrealists out of Austin and parts elsewhere. The faith is represented by J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, a grinning, square-jawed salesman with a pipe clenched in his square, white teeth, who promises “slack” to all who profess the faith.

Slack was — and is — an enticing concept. I always interpreted “slack” as a synonym for “forgiveness,” that is, the idea that our systems would have graceful failure modes, in which errors and failings were never terminal, and could always be redone. A philosophy for an age of “Save Game” and ⌘-Z.

I needed slack. After five years in a groovy public alternative K-8 school in Toronto, I landed in a highly structured secondary school that I found impossible to navigate. By the middle of my first term of ninth grade, I’d stopped attending classes: instead, I’d take the subway to the Toronto Public Library’s Metro Reference Library and spend my days requesting esoteric books from the library stacks and looking up odd news stories using the microfilm machines.

It took a couple of weeks before the high-school administrators noticed that I hadn’t been gracing the campus with my presence. They notified my (long-suffering, infinitely patient) parents, triggering an all night up-and-downer of a fight, in which I argued that I should be attending the local alternative secondary school.

I prevailed, and embarked on a seven-year high-school journey that saw me transferring schools, taking off a full year to organize street demonstrations against George Bush I’s invasion of Iraq and a second year to live in Baja California, Mexico and write. I graduated at the age of 21 as an “Ontario Scholar” and was admitted to the first of four undergraduate programs that I would attend over the next 2.5 years before I finally dropped out for good without attaining a degree.

Today, I hold an honorary Ph.D. in Computer Science. I’m the author of more than 20 books, including many international bestsellers. I am affiliated with three universities on two continents, have been a delegate to the United Nations, and have given expert testimony to the legislatures of a dozen or more countries.

It’s all down to slack — the ability to take a second, and third, and fourth bite at the apple.

I have a (nearly) 14-year-old daughter. She is a great kid and I love her like fire, and I am so very worried for her future.

Not because of her character or lack thereof — but because of the total absence of slack in the world she’s growing up into.

My first clue as to the elimination of slack came in 2006/7, when I had a Fulbright Chair at the University of Southern California and found myself teaching classes full of brilliant undergrads and grad students. These were some of the smartest kids I’d ever met, and it was a pleasure to teach them, but when I asked them about their journey to USC, I was left boggling and aghast.

According to my students, the path to admission to an elite school like USC starts on the first day of the ninth grade, when your guidance counselor tells you that your college career depends on a straight-A high-school record, and advises you to only take electives that you have already demonstrated aptitude for. This prefigures your whole secondary school career, with your course-load tilted toward whatever you happened to be good at on the first day of your freshman year.

Of course, those courses also determine your suitability for an undergraduate major, and since a year at a fancy university costs as much as a luxury car, switching majors midway through your degree is a prohibitively costly indulgence.

Thus it is that your entire undergraduate career is based on whatever you happened to be interested in when you were an incoming high-schooler, at 13 or 14 years of age. This, in turn, determines which grad-school programs you can expect to gain admission to and/or what careers you might expect to pursue.

Thus it was that I found myself teaching brilliant, driven Ph.D. candidates in their mid-20s, carrying six figures’ worth of debt, who had not been permitted to take a single intellectual risk since they began puberty. To make matters worse, they were headed for careers that might well no longer exist by the time they entered the job-market.

My weird, 100-student alternative school in Toronto didn’t even have a full-time guidance counselor, just a teacher who undertook the mandatory “guidance” tasks assigned by the Ministry of Education. My sole interaction with this guidance was taking a computerized career aptitude test that advised me to pursue a career as a “geriatric nutritionist” — that is, a cook in an assisted living facility. The people who have that job are doing incredibly important work, and to be fair, I do enjoy cooking, but I don’t think it was the job for me.

Today, I am the father of a nearly 14-year-old in the ninth grade at an excellent public school in a well-funded public school district.

She has terrifyingly little slack.

To hear her school’s guidance staff tell it, university admissions are even more “competitive” (read: brutal) than they were for my USC kids. I don’t need to ask those guidance counselors about the cost of a tertiary education today — it’s even higher than the eye-watering costs my students bore 15 years ago.

And so it is I find myself fretting endlessly when my kid misses a day of school, worrying about how it will hurt her ninth grade school record, which will prefigure her tenth grade courses, and on to her eleventh grade, and twelfth, and onto university and beyond.

My kid needs some slack, as does yours.

As do all of us.

An unforgiving system, designed to work well but fail badly, is monumentally unsuitable to the chaotic world we’re inhabiting.

How can we ask 14 year-olds to choose their future paths for the next two decades in a world where climate chaos means we can’t even predict which cities will remain habitable over that timespan? How can we ask anyone to commit to irrevocable future plans in a world where a viral variant can liquefy whole industries, cancel moves and business plans, shutter schools and close borders?

I want my kid to be able to goof off, fail courses, take others, switch majors, drop out, drop in, take a year off, start up again. I want her school to train her for the fluidity and unpredictability of a chaotic future. Instead, she’s growing up to a world where everyone gets one guess at what they should do for the rest of their life — and the best case scenario for the majority who guess wrong is debt-servitude and a life where curiosity is a bug, not a feature.