Education for Non-Entity

(A True Materialist Society)

Alan presents his argument that the United States—often referred to as the ultimate materialist society—is anything but: it lacks a sincere appreciation for the material world and inadvertently destroys it in an attempt to “live the good life,” chasing after ever greener pastures just beyond the horizon of time.



Throughout Asia and Europe, Americans have the undeserved reputation of being authors of the most materialistic civilization that ever existed. The undeserved reputation: because never was there a culture so completely un-materialistic. I define a materialist as a person who loves material, and who reverences it, and who delights in using it to its best advantage. And if you will examine the system of education through which most of our children are compelled to pass, you will discover that it imparts almost no knowledge whatsoever of any kind of material competence. Our education is exclusively bookish, and is designed, on the whole, to train people to be bureaucrats, bankers’ clerks, insurance salesmen, teachers, and—we hope—intellectuals. It is a curious thing, but in its weak moments it admits that there are a lot of people going through the scheme who really will never qualify for graduate school, and not even, perhaps, for college. And for these it must provide, rather regretfully, some courses which train them for other things. It’s always a joke among Europeans that, in American colleges, you can get credits towards an A.B. for courses in basket-weaving.


And this isn’t really so funny as it looks, because when it is the ideal that—sort of—everyone should go through college if possible. You have to adjust to facts: you can’t have a nation, you can’t have a society, in which everyone is always occupied in intellectual and computational pursuits. A few people have to be around who know how to handle the material world in a gracious way. And for these people we provide only regretfully, as an afterthought. The people who might otherwise be dropouts in high school should be given some courses which would prepare them for trades in carpentry, metallurgy, even, perhaps, auto mechanics, furniture makers, cooks, and so on. But, as a rule—because these kinds of education in the academic world are provided only with regret, they are provided in a slovenly fashion. We do not—we simply do not—relate to the material world, and we are increasingly lacking in any kind of competence in handling physical matter—except in such far out cases as people who make jet aircraft and certain very sophisticated types of scientific instruments, where it is absolutely necessary that there be the highest degree of mastery—aside from that, because of the lack of material competence, our life is extremely drab. It is simply astonishing that the wealthiest nation on Earth simply does not know how to enjoy itself in a material and obvious way.


Now, you would think, you see—if you were just an ordinary kind of a horse-sense kind of person—that the richest nation on Earth would have a whale of a good time. You would think that, with all the money one earns—even at doing a factory job—that, when the hours of work are over, that people would go home with all the money that they earn—which makes them princes by comparison with Indians and Chinese—that they would go home to fantastic banquets, marvelous orgies, and riots of pleasure all the night through. This would simply be common sense to people who did not suffer from a Protestant ethic.


But in fact what happens is this: that we’ve got life strictly divided into two categories: work and play. Work, on the whole, is something that you do to get money, and you are paid to do it because so much work is so deplorably boring that nobody wants to do it, so they’ll pay someone else to do it instead. So, while you do it, you watch the clock. You put in your hours, and then you get money for having done it. Then you’re supposed to go home and enjoy yourself and have fun. Well, what do you do? You get home, and instead of having fun, the main thing is to watch TV. And TV is an electronic reproduction of existence, which is cut off from you by a glass wall. It has no smell. If you are very rich it has color. But you are as in a zoo, where you look at something beyond the bar where it says Do Not Touch The Exhibits. You cannot touch it, you cannot mingle with it, you merely witness it in a passive way. And while you do this you are served a TV dinner, which is something that was originally animal and vegetable that has been frozen so as to deprive it of almost any taste at all. It is then warmed over, and you eat it not because you enjoy eating it, but because it’s good for you. It enables you to continue living, because it has been carefully studied; it has in it exactly the right amount of calories, carbohydrates, and vitamins, and many of such preparations are served with a small label which contains a scientific formula on them as to all the good things for you which it contains. It tastes of nothing whatsoever, and you eat this while you watch this show going on. You may wash it down with a soft drink that’s vaguely alcoholic—called beer—and, in the meantime, you get absorbed by the spectacle going on in front of you—in which you do not participate, you merely witness it. And it goes on long enough for you to be tired enough to go to sleep. This is supposed to be a life of pleasure.


Generally speaking, you see, we really are not materialists at all. We don’t love material, we hate it. And we are devoted to the cause of converting it as fast as possible into junk and poison gas. We are not people who love time (which is one of the measurements of material) and space (which is another), we want to abolish it. We want to get as fast as possible from one place to another; to get rid of space and to get rid of time. And the result of this is, of course, that—as we get rid of space and time, as we make all places almost immediately accessible by jet aircraft—all places become the same place. So naturally, the tourist who is beguiled into taking a holiday in Honolulu asks, “Is Honolulu still ‘somewhere else?’ Is it still a land of girls in hula skirts, and naked breasts, and palm trees, and luaus, and so on?” Well, they’ll make it like it is, vaguely. But of course it isn’t. Honolulu is the same place as Coney Island, Atlantic City. Tokyo is just the same: it is simply an extension of Los Angeles; one of our suburbs. Because the faster you can get from place to place, the more you have conquered the limitations of time and space, the more everywhere is the same place. So the differences between different cultures, the differences between people, the things that we want to see when we go to foreign places are increasingly unavailable, except as something provided in a phony way for the entertainment of tourists to deceive them into the idea that they really did get somewhere else.


And look at another aspect of this: one of the basic things about material existence is, of course, eating. Food. And as I just indicated, we eat—as in the case of the TV dinner—food that is good for us. You know, it’s always said that the French eat with gusto, but the British eat apologetically, and we’ve inherited the British tradition. We eat—in a way, it is rather animal to eat. It’s a little vulgar that you have to chew food and stick it down into your stomach, and it passes through your intestines, and so on. That’s rather degrading. It means your are, after all, an animal, not simply an angel. And therefore, there should be good reason for doing this vulgar act. And the good reason is that it’s healthy, and, therefore, when you eat food—really, ideally—it should all be concentrated into a pill so that you wouldn’t have to waste valuable time over meals, but take in the necessary ingredients for the rather shameful fact that we have to exist in physical bodies, and get rid of it.


And so, therefore, when you study, in general, the art of cooking in the United States—from coast to coast—it is pretty poor. It is not something that is done out of love, that it’s something that is done out of duty. And so we are great adepts in what I will call eating the menu instead of the dinner, because the dinner itself is thrown together in a hurry; it’s simply a job. All sorts of people who have a certain amount of professional training cook not because they like cooking, but because it’s a job through which you can make money. Money, which is perfectly abstract and inedible. This is a fallacy, you see, this division between work and play: that anybody who regards being a cook in a restaurant as something which is simply a job—which you have to do in order to make money, and therefore can go out and have fun in something else besides cooking—has been absolutely deluded. He has been persuaded to spend a very substantial part of his life doing something which he hates doing in order that he may earn the wherewithal to do what is really fun later on.


And this—insofar as our education is oriented towards training people for jobs—this is the colossal fallacy in it. The only jobs worth working at are those which you thoroughly enjoy. And it is possible to enjoy thoroughly being, say, a cook in a restaurant if you are allowed to take delight in it, and to reverence the fish, the flour, the vegetables, the fruit which are provided for you to work with. But as things stand, what happens is exactly the reverse. You go into a restaurant where they give you a menu, which probably has colored photographs on it of each dish. And it says something like this: “Filet of Colorado Mountain Trout, fried to a delicate golden brown in breadcrumbs, garnished with fresh garden peas, French fried potatoes, and lemon wedge.” The last time I encountered this it was in a restaurant where they had the nerve to keep an open kitchen, and when I saw the so-called Filet of Colorado Mountain Trout—incidentally, this was in Wyoming—it was a severe rectangle of some off-white substance which rattled when it hit the griddle. You know, the whole thing was completely mechanical because there was—in this process—absolutely no love for the work itself. The cook, in other words, was wasting his precious time in life by going through the motions of being a cook in order to get money for enjoyment.


Now, the thing that has to be understood fundamentally in the whole process of education for life is that money is an abstraction. It cannot, of itself, buy any pleasure whatsoever because all pleasures involve skill and love. Enough love to discipline yourself to enjoy the pleasure. I live in—as was told during the introduction—in Sausalito, which is a lovely waterfront town north of San Francisco, and we have harbors galore filled with pleasure craft—sailing boats, motor cruisers—which, for the most part, nobody ever uses except for cocktail parties aboard when they’re tied up. Very few people go out on them because sailing is a difficult craft. These boats were advertised as something you ought to have to enjoy yourself, but when you got them you found that you couldn’t enjoy yourself unless you knew how to sail. Well, you didn’t have time to do that because you were so busy making money. So all these boats just stand around, but nobody really enjoys them at all because they won’t take the trouble; having been persuaded that money is wealth.


Take another case of this delusion: you could make a lot of money, say, in the grocery business by turning out shoddy products in excellent packages. You cheat on the weight and you cheat on the quality. You make more and more money; fine! But when you got it, what are you going to buy with it? Other people’s shoddy products! We have cars with built-in obsolescence which are nothing but toy rocket ships. We have—as I said—various kinds of foodstuffs which are increasingly lacking in nutritive elements. We have houses which are made of ticky-tacky. We have entertainment in which there is no participation; you’re not allowed to join, you just watch. We are busily fouling our own nest. Have you smelt the air today in this town? It all smells of some kind of funny acid. And this is supposed to be people who are rich, and wealthy, and know how to enjoy themselves. It’s a farce! And, to some extent, the reason for this farce is the whole philosophy of education through which our children are being processed. I want to look at this, but I want to look at it—first of all—from the standpoint of bringing up children in this culture and the whole structure and nature of the family. Because that’s where the puzzle begins.


Have you noticed that, over many years, a large number of the jokes in most of our popular magazines where they print cartoons have to do with father as a clown? Take Dagwood, in the comic strip. The incompetence of dad, who is always some kind of an idiot, whereas mom has to handle the real problems of the family, and is therefore the realist in the picture. Dad is a clown. Why? Because he goes away to a mysterious place called the office or the factory, in which the family as such have no part and no real interest. He brings back a thing called money, and they want more of it, see, back at home. They don’t care how you get it just so long as you bring it back, because they’re not interested in what you, as a man, do. And when you come back from the various rat-races in which you are engaged making money, you’re supposed to be a good pal to the children and play with them, and look after your wife and appreciate what she’s done all during the day. They have no interest in what you do; they couldn’t care less. And furthermore, you as a father, and you as a mother, are expected to live for your children. Americans have an enormous sense of guilt because they have not done right by their children, and they’re trying more and more to do right by their children. And they always feel they haven’t quite succeeded somehow. We are child-centered families. Guilty—constantly feeling guilty—because we haven’t brought them up, and therefore we call in every kind of specialist and expert and advisor to tell us what we should do with our children.


The difficulty is that the family, as an institution, is not surviving in industrial culture. It is an institution designed for an agrarian culture. The family was built around the farm, where the children worked on the farm and understood and were brought up into the interest of the farm, the small shop—or the workshop—such as you find in an agrarian culture. It’s fascinating to notice today the transition from agrarian to industrial culture in a country like Japan, where it’s been extremely rapid.


Let’s take the craft of carpentry in Japan. The Japanese have been some of the best carpenters in the world—absolutely marvelous: knowing how to make the most complex joinery constructions without even using a blueprint, doing it by feel and by eye. In order to train a person to do this kind of carpentry, he has to begin to learn when he’s seven years old. But as it is now—because Japan is transferred to being an industrial culture—you may not bring up your child in your profession as a carpenter, you have to send the child to school, where it can learn to be an insurance salesman. The child gets through school, goes through high school. When the child gets out it’s not interested in carpentry, it’s interested in girls—has to fool around with that for a while and then get married, and then begin to learn the carpenter’s trade, and it’s too late to be anything but somebody who follows a blueprint. And therefore, this marvelous craft which the Japanese cultivated for centuries is being lost. For what? I know many carpenters in the United States today who take enormous pride in their work, who love to produce a beautifully finished object made of wood, but they cannot find jobs because no employer can afford that time for this workman to finish a product. It has to be turned out looking good on the surface, with a sort of veneer and varnish, but anything thrown together on the underside. So it’ll wear out and they have to do another one. So nobody has any satisfaction in the job.


And the reason is that the family no longer holds together, because the man in the family has to go away and earn a living that has absolutely no relation to his living relationship with his wife and his children. And therefore, naturally, he’s regarded as a clown. When he comes home he’s not really a very good pal to his children because the children would find a real relationship with their father in joining in his work with him. Every little child wants to join in his parent’s work. They go into the kitchen—they would much rather play with the pots and pans than anything else. They want to help; they naturally want to join in, but they cannot. And therefore, instead of being allowed to join in with the real work with their parents, they are given propitiatory objects called toys. You may have a toy stove. You may have toy dolls and pretend that they are babies. You may not actually look after the baby, because there might be an accident. So the children are propitiated with every kind of fake plastic thing that adults are supposed to use, especially those real adults who go out and fight the wars, you know? Then they have a plastic gun.


And the children are not satisfied with this. They are absolutely frustrated with it because all these toys fall apart in a hurry, they don’t really work, they don’t do what’s expected of them, they are not real. And the child knows they are not real and is—you should see Christmas Day: when you really think about Christmas Day in the average family and realize that, after the children have opened all their fake presents—which were dolled up to look as if they were the treasures of princes—and they get the plastic toys, and they find everything doesn’t work, and by time for Christmas dinner they’re in a screaming tantrum because they know, inwardly, that they’ve been insulted. They are not allowed to participate in the real world. “You are children, doo-dee, doo-dee, doo-dee, doo!” You see? “You don’t really count.”


And so, as the whole educational process continues, they are educated for un-reality—for non-entity—by being progressively fooled. You see, it works like this: You know this story of the donkey who has a carrot suspended in front of him, and it’s attached to a stick which is fastened to the donkey’s collar? So he’ll always chase it but never catch it. So this is what we do: we send a child into kindergarten and make him literate, more or less. “Run, Spot, run!” And all that. And then the inducement is: if you learn this, you’ll get into first grade. And wowee! If you do well there, you’ll get into second grade. And so there’s kind of a come-on, see? You’ll go through the step-by-step educational process. There’s going to be a big event when you get out of grade school: you go to high school. And the pace is coming on now, see? And you’re going to get, step by step, up through high school because of something at the end of the line. You haven’t got it yet. There’s a thing coming! Go to college. Whew! Made it that far. And step by step you go on. Then you get to graduate school. If you are smart at this point, you stay there. But if you don’t get into graduate school so that you can just stay in the academic scheme of things, you go into business. That’s “getting out into the world.” That’s graduation. See, now you’re really—you’re an adult. Well, then the first thing is: you get into a sales meeting where they say: “Make that quota!” And if you do, they’re going to give you a higher quota. And that thing is at the end of the line. It’s there, and all the advertisements say by the time you earn this and get that, you’ll be able to have the right kind of car, the right kind of speed boat, the right kind of tract lot, the right kind of clothes, and everything. The right kind of drinks. And you’ll be there! And finally, you work along at this. You’re earnest.


And about the year 45 you end up as vice president of the company—maybe president—and you say, “Whew, I’ve arrived. I’m there! But I feel vaguely cheated, because I feel just the same as I always felt. I’m there, but I haven’t caught up with that thing I was always promised.” And suddenly, an insurance man comes around and says, “Tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk, wait a minute! You’re going to retire at 65. We’ve got a program for you so that you’ll be just right. When you’re 65, you’ll be able to drop all this business and do what you really want to do.” By that time you’re not interested. Prostate trouble, bad teeth, all of you is just falling apart—because you ate all of the stuff (that you were making) to make money with. Money goes nowhere; it’s absolutely useless.


So, you know, you end up feeling you’ve been cheated. And the reason was simply this: that education was regarded as a process of preparation for something which never happened; never is going to happen. But you were always getting prepared for life. A real education is an entirely different thing. Education, in the real sense, is not preparation for life, it is actually living. It is participating. It is the child participating in adult concerns, and doing it now, and realizing that the point of the process in which the child is engaged is not to prepare the child for the future, but to enjoy doing the thing today. Because the whole point is that there is no point whatsoever in making plans for the future except for those people who are capable of living in the present. If you are not capable of living in the present, plans are useless, because when those plans come to fruition you will be incapable of enjoying that fruition. Don’t worry. If you are not capable of living in the present, don’t make any plans. If you are capable of living in the present, then some plans may be useful because they will produce something which you can enjoy and take part in. But it seems to me that the absolute point of any educational system that has any worth whatsoever is the progressive allowing of children to participate in activities that adults consider real and important, and that should begin very early. Instead of saying to children, “No, you go away and play while we do what’s important,” let them in on what we consider important at once.


This is very difficult in we call the child-centered family. If, you see, you regard what you do in life as not the (say, your profession, your vocation, your job) if you regard that merely as a means to an end—supposing you are making money in a factory producing something worthless and trashy, but it pays. And you justify this on the grounds that it will give you money to bring up your children to do something better than you are doing, you are fooling yourself. Because your child will copy you, and if you exist simply to bring up your children for something better than you have, then your children will do nothing but exist to bring up their children to do something than they have. And they’ll always be frustrated. If, on the other hand, you are doing something in life—you have a vocation, a work which you are doing—which you are really interested in and which you thoroughly enjoy, and it’s this that you live for and not your children, then your children will catch your enthusiasm and they, in turn, will find something that they can live for and be really interested in and, in turn, their children will become interested in it. But we are unfortunately a culture—because we always have the sense of guilt that we haven’t brought up our children properly—we do everything possible we can, theoretically for the good of the children. You should not live for the good of your children. You should live for your own good, and then your children will learn—from your example—how to live.


So education, then, is a progressive letting of children into adult life, not a preparation for adult life. The whole idea of preparation should be discarded; there is simply increased participation in what we are doing. I have just come from Mexico, from a very primitive area, where the educational system is sloppy—thank goodness—and I watched builders at work, and they are wonderfully skillful with brick. Here are the older men working on a house, surrounded with little boys who are their children. And the little boys are running errands, and doing things, and they are learning how to build while they help their fathers. And they feel one with their fathers. Dad isn’t some obscure being, off there, who they occasionally meet in the evening, and who does something completely mysterious, and is supposed to chum up with them on a purely play basis.


See, what is d— what it is in our families: dad comes home and he plays with the children about something children. He reads them a story about the mousey and the teddy bear. And, having done that, he’s satisfied his duty, he’s done his penance for having had them. But these so-called primitive Mexicans have their children working along with them, and those Mexican children—I’m not, of course, speaking of Mexico City and the great industrial slums of Mexico, I’m speaking of a very far out village, where they’re mostly Indians—those children are not children in the sense of cutey-children. They’re little men, the boys, with a curious competence and a curious wisdom. Little men who can be trusted to do all kinds of things. But they are really related to their parents because they are engaged in the same work as their parents.


But, you see, we have abandoned all responsibility for our children by sending them away to be educated by other people and other children; especially by other children. All equally—I mean, it’s the blind leading the blind! And so we’re increasingly oppressed by guilt that we somehow haven’t done right by our children, and we want to give them the best that we can have. But the whole trouble is we’re—may I say—ass-backwards: we are living for the children with nothing to give them because we do not have a real enthusiasm for our own vocation, or profession, or whatever it is in life. If you make it central—the idea of the Hindus, of your svadharma (or, in the Christian terms, vocation), and that’s the thing you really live for, not children—if you really have that with you, the children will catch it from you, and be inspired by it and join in with it. But the problem is, you see, that in industrial culture there are very few opportunities to bring about that state of affairs. Imagine going to the bank and bringing your children along with you to peek over the counter while you hand out the cash, put in the checks. We, you see—in any important thing we do—we get rid of our children. We get the babysitter. And when we’re going to have fun in the evening: get the babysitter and keep the children out of it for heaven’s sakes! And this is simply symbolic of the fact that children are utterly excluded from real life, and they’re put in these completely artificial schools where they learn to be cerebral and merely literate. They learn nothing of the fundamental art of handling matter.


Now, what are the fundamental arts that we need in this life? If we are to be comfortable, if we are to enjoy ourselves, we need good food; well cooked. Isn’t that fundamental? Do you live to eat or do you eat to live? Both, of course. But if you don’t live to eat, the food that you eat won’t be very nutritive to enable you to eat to live. You won’t take any trouble over it, you won’t love it. Look: when you get materials—you’ve got some onions, you’ve got some fish, you’ve got a slice of beef—you can’t cook that properly unless you love it. All those are dead creatures which have died in your honor; what’re you going to do about that? The only way to deal respectfully with a creature that has died in your honor is to give it an honorable cooking. The dead cow you are eating is becoming you, and the least you can do for it is to let it enjoy itself as you. And therefore, the stove in the kitchen is an altar, and you are a priest at that altar, and you should reverence that gorgeous thing. Look at a beautiful mackerel that has been caught and prepared for you; handed out by the supermarket: you’ve got this thing; it’s a living being that’s died to give you life. The best thing you can do for it is to prepare it royally, and you should brood over your stove with an act of love and see that it’s exactly right. Most people have no idea how to cook fish in this country. They overcook it so that it’s dry and tasteless, because they don’t watch it, they don’t wait until the exact moment when it’s right. Because cooking is regarded as a chore, something that poor wives have to do.


Look at the kitchen! Most kitchens are like bathrooms! You know, you go into the bathroom to clean up, to excrete and so on—which is sort of nasty, so you put it out of the way. The kitchens also, in most homes, are whitewashed places with white refrigerators, and white white washing machines, and white sinks that look like surgeries or bathrooms. I have always found a formula: wherever you find a colorless kitchen, you will find tasteless food. Now, in any real life, any real home, the kitchen is the center of the house. There’s a great hearth where things are bubbling, and everybody gathers around that, waiting with eager appetites while they watch this thing prepared, that’s gonna be just great. Everybody’s just waiting there, sitting around the fire, to begin. And instead of having—you see, most houses are nowadays designed so that you pretend you still have servants. So there’s the parlor—or the living space, which is prepared off from the kitchen—where you are ladies and gentlemen, see? And then you have a room downstairs where the children play, in the basement: the rumpus room. And you have this thing that you’re ladies and gentlemen in the living room, and there’s a kitchen off there where, actually, the lady of the house shoots out all by herself—harassed—has to get all this stuff ready to present it as a big show to the guests as if there were butlers and cooks and everything. Bring it on!


There’s nothing of the kind. Poor wife is alone, rushing—say, when you’re entertaining people in the evening—she’s fixing all this stuff. Whereas, if we were realistic, the kitchen would be the main room of the house, and everybody would gather around and watch it all being done, because nothing increases your appetite more than watching cooking. And we would treat this as a sacrament; a beautiful thing being done to get the food ready for us. But this simply doesn’t happen, except in very few far out bohemian homes where they’ve returned to this kind of thing.


So cooking, then, is one of the arts of material competence, and we do not teach it! You take a course in home ec, dietetics, and so on, in the average school, high school, or college, it doesn’t teach you how to cook. The class of dietician and the class of cook are mutually exclusive because the dietician is taught to measure everything with a test tube, whereas a cook is taught to measure everything with the tongue. And you may have the right amount of this chemical, that chemical, and the other chemical in the food that you’re cooking, but unless it is cooked with love rather than chemistry it will give everybody indigestion and their hair will fall out.


What’s another important thing in life of material competence? Well, obviously, the house itself: the home, the building, the place you live in. A materialist—a person who thinks that the material, physical world is important (as we are supposed to think)—would therefore take a great deal of trouble to see that he has a house that is lovely to live in. Take a look around Los Angeles. We’re living in clapboard, thrown-together places that are an insult. We have ruined the Hollywood Hills here by leveling them off into terraces, so that you could the kind of houses that are designed to be built on a flat area. And they’re put on the hills, and then the watercourses are all changed, and when it rains heavily, alright, Kim Novak’s house is inundated with mud—which serves her right. I’m sorry, I like her very much, but she shouldn’t’ve bought a house like that. Because they’re not adapted to the hills. If you like to live in the hills, you want to live in hills. Therefore, don’t turn them into flat areas. Therefore, design a house which is appropriate to a hill. A house which will not disturb the hill, which will fit in with the contours of nature and the vegetation of nature as it already exists. Which is what you wanted to live in and enjoy anyhow, wasn’t it?


Take another important aspect of material life: furniture. Whew! Have you ever looked at the furniture in Dagwood’s home? You know, it’s… really, one of the things that we suffer from is we have too much furniture. We have these enormous couches, and armchairs that look like they were gun emplacements, and overstuffed monsters of things, and all kinds of fake antiques, and fake modern stuff, too. Because it’s simply things that have been thrown together by people who didn’t like doing it. Much better to have a very few pieces of furniture made by an artist who enjoyed making it, than all sorts of claptrap that was thrown together, and is always invariably advertised to be more than what it is, and causes frustration, bitterness—and disappointment, in the sense of having been cheated when it all falls apart and the drawers stick. And we have many amazing pretentious beds with all sorts of headboards and ornamentations, and they’re impossible to move around. When it comes to moving house, they’re a great weight and an inconvenience, and they’re—unlike practical materialists, such as the Japanese—we never learned how to sleep comfortably on the floor.


Well, what else is important from the point of view of material competence? Well, we’ve considered—well, let’s think of clothes. That’s important. Here we come across something fantastic. We just don’t know how to dress. All men in the United States—with some exceptions on the West Coast—look like funeral directors. Look here: I’m wearing this thing as a concession for propriety. I don’t know what’s the matter, but it absolutely is a violation of the nature of cloth. Cloth naturally is a two-way system with warp and woof, and it’s woven in rectangles. That’s the convenient way to weave cloth. And therefore, cloth is straight stuff which will hang upon the human body with great dignity and fall naturally into folds if made in, say, the form of a Japanese kimono. But this thing is a bastard uniform, with buttons on the sleeve which serve no other purpose than a relic of the days when they were there to prevent servants from wiping their noses on their uniforms. This thing simply cannot be folded or packed away without making it a muss, so that it has to be sent to the cleaners, or your wife has to iron it in order to be fit to wear. Because it is a fake which is designed to fit the human body, to fit the contours of the male figure, which is not in the nature of cloth. Cloth should hang on you, and then it is dignified. But when it is shaped in this way it doesn’t fit you. You have violated the nature of cloth, and therefore you’ve got yourself a kind of a silly garment.


And, furthermore, it is not comfortable. Let’s take, for example, trousers: trousers are designed for women, not men. Not all women look good in trousers, but, certainly, they are very uncomfortable for men. Men should wear freely flowing skirts, because that suits their anatomy. But we consider that sissy for purely abstract reasons. We wear all kinds of complicated neckties, and buttons, and everything to make us uncomfortable. And furthermore, our clothes are mostly badly sewn, rottenly put together, and very quickly fall apart. So that if you want really good clothes today, you must buy them from peasants. You can go, for example, to Mexico and get gorgeous woolen clothes: serapes, sweaters, that are absolutely beautiful. You can still go to the Orient and buy magnificent clothes made by people who enjoy making them, whereas here we dress in a colorless, drab way. And we wear this symbolic necktie, which is really a nuisance we’re strangled with. We, in other words, don’t enjoy clothing. We ought to enjoy clothing. What’s the point of going around in clothes unless you enjoy clothes?


What else is a matter of fundamental material competence that everybody ought to know about? Well, let’s take lovemaking. That’s very fundamental. This is something that our children learn through whispered hearsay, or through a few courses in hygiene in high school, which tell the bare facts but nothing of the art. And this is picked up in a sloppy, slovenly way because of this weird—I mean, here is the real payoff in this culture where we say we are materialists; ha-ha. In fact, what happens is this: everything to do with sexuality is regarded as fundamentally dirty. It’s associated with the toilet. And therefore, it is something basically prohibited. But men brought up in the WASP culture know that it’s really supposed to be fun, and so they sort of snicker about it. And it’s always on the side; it’s something that you don’t really enjoy unless you feel it’s dirty. You’re doing something you’re not supposed to do—then, then it’s kind of fun. And so, there’s a perpetual hypocrisy play about the whole thing, and nobody ever… I mean, the most banned, the most reprehensible thing you could do in this culture is to come out, say, with a book on the art of loving—which would be comparable to a book, say, on the art of music or the art of cooking—that would be beautifully instructive to show every subtlety, every loveliness that is possible in the contact between male and female, that would be serious, that would be almost religious in its approach to the subject. That would be the most dangerous book imaginable because it’s alright so long as it’s dirty, it’s alright so long as it’s filth, but the moment it’s something that is really important and really reverent, then we’re afraid.


And this is the test of the whole thing, this is the root of the matter. This shows where we are not materialists and do not love material, do not love mater, the mother. Materia. So, as a result, we have a culture which—instead of being materialist—is abstractionist. Which, for example, confuses money with wealth. You know this situation: you go the supermarket and you fill your little cart with all sorts of goodies, and then you push it up to the counter and the girl goes clickety-clickety-clickety-click, and a long, long strip comes out and she says, “Please, $30.25.” “Uugh.” You feel depressed, and not, perhaps because you thought you were paying too much for what you got, but you just lost thirty dollars and twenty-five cents! Your bank balance went down, see? But instead, you got the cart full of the stuff you’re going to walk out with; the real wealth is in the cart! You know, not mentioning how much of it is fake, but it is—essentially—that is your food, that is the stuff you’re going to live on. And it’s in your cart and you’re going to go away with it, but you lost the money. So, in other words, the abstract thing—the amount of money, the figures, the status that you have—all that is more important than the actual, physical situation.


So, likewise—going back to the subject of sexuality—the way things look: the way the girl is packaged is much more important than what she is underneath. She must look right, she must have a figure of a certain fashionable kind, hair done in such a fashionable way, put a wig on her so that she really looks like… of course, she has to take it off when she goes to bed, I guess, and then there’s kind of a let-down. In other words, the point to understand that I’m trying to get across is that while we are priding ourselves on being masters of the material world, we have not mastered it at all except in a few engineering dimensions where we really have done a good job. A jet plane is a remarkable triumph, even though it abolishes distance, even though it makes every place the same as every other place, it is—in itself—a triumph of material competence. But in all the fundamental things of life—in clothing, in cooking, in housing, in raising children, in lovemaking—we are the biggest material incompetence that ever existed because our values are abstract instead of concrete. How it looks rather than how it feels. How it appears rather than how it tastes.


And so I would think what I’m saying is that we need an education which brings us back to nature in the sense—not of the birds, the bees and the flowers, and all that sentimentality—but of being focused on the material present, and knowing that this is where you live, and this is what you have to deal with. To be completely related to the physical, natural, material—or whatever you want to call it—here-and-now. To know that’s the only place you live—you don’t live anywhere else—and to be able to live richly and fully in that situation instead of constantly preparing children for something else later altogether. I think this means the easing of the school burden, first of all, by throwing a lot of it back on the parents. A school system is a huge babysitter system. But that, in turn, requires that parents be in a position to take care of their children. As it is, you see, they’re engaged in occupations which necessarily take them away from their children. What does that go back to in the line of cause and effect? It goes back to the fact that people are engaged in occupations which simply make money, and which they do not really enjoy, and which they do not really live with.


And that is why—among young people today; under 25—there is, increasingly, unwillingness. Corporation job hunters—I mean, you know, people who are looking for bright talent for the corporations going around our colleges today— are having an increasingly difficult time, because the brighter the student, the less they want to get involved in the traditional kind of corporate life. Because that completely takes them away from any form of work which will involve the participation of the woman they love and the children they love. So people are looking for ways of living whereby they don’t live this fragmented, abstract, work-life that is completely cut off from all the rest of their truly human associations. And so we are facing a very big revolution in which our young people want to return to reality. And even though what they do may make very little money, it will at least have the satisfaction of being an actual relationship to the real world in which we live now. I don’t know the detailed answers to all that, but this is what is coming. It will be very disruptive of things as we know them, but better by far. Better by far to live in contact with the actual here-and-now than to live a life of perpetual suspense, waiting for a gorgeous thing that’s going to turn up—but never, never does.

Education for Non-Entity

Alan Watts

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