I began reading Norman Cantor's The Civilization of the Middle Ages the other day. It's a tad dry so I'm not exacty sailing it through it. It is, in fact, the perfect book for reading just before going to sleep. It doesn't take many pages before I'm turning off the bedside lamp and starting to snore.
However, one thing did stand out in the section on the lead up to the Middle Ages (basically the period from the 5th century into the 15th, i.e., 400 A.D. to sometime after 1400 A.D.). Cantor discusses the fall of the Roman empire: the dwindling power of the Roman aristocracy, the shift in control over who actually held the title of emperor, and the gradual splintering of the various pieces of the empire, and finally the loss of the western portion of the empire to Germanic tribes in the 5th century. If I recall correctly, the city of Rome fell in 476.
So how did Rome go from being the most powerful country in its part of the world to a gradually shrinking has-been? Cantor mentions a number of factors other scholars have described: the rise of Christianity, for example, meant that many talented men who a few generations earlier would have gone into politics and government chose to become priests and bishops instead. In both power and material wealth, you could gain more by being a priest than by going into government. End result? A lot of mediocrities and incompetents taking up space in government bureaucracies and administration.
And then Rome started outsourcing. The wealthier and more powerful the empire became, the less interest the elites had in doing any actual work themselves. The educational system prepared the Roman equivalent of the 1% to read Greek philosophy and to argue Platonian ideals; it did not prepare them for any involvement in the real world. The idea that a real Roman would be involved in anything remotely resembling "work," which apparently meant anything to do with commerce or industry, was anathema. I'm not sure where the wealthy Romans got their money from -- rents on property managed by minions? -- but for sure they didn't work and they didn't go into the military. End result? The military wound up being comprised mostly of mercenaries who were not Roman by birth.
As I was reading this, I found myself thinking about the United States. As a nation, we've spent decades devaluing any work that involves actually getting our hands dirty. We do a lot of talking about jobs "Americans won't do," like working in meat-packing plants, doing farm work, lawn care, housekeeping in hotels. . . it's a long list. We're adamant that every American high school student should go to college, as if our economy is bursting at the seams with jobs that actually require a 4-year degree. After all, god forbid that a real American would ever have to work at a job that resulted in him or her having to shower after work instead of before. If you work at an occupation where you actually get your hands dirty, somehow your work isn't as important as that of a white collar worker.
The parallels with Rome are intriguing, except we're managing to raise a much larger generation of people who don't think they should lower themselves to engage with the real world. We just had an election in which a lot of people voted for a candidate they're convinced can perform a miracle and bring back manufacturing jobs. Only one problem with that magical scenario, folks, even if the Yam in Human Form could somehow revive the rust belt or expand coal mining, none of your kids would want to work there. They're being raised to believe they're all destined to be managers, not workers, so if and when the jobs ever come back, you know who's going to be willing to take them?