February 6, 2017

A friend of mine asked me the other day if there are any broad underlying explanations that unite the various narratives about how our country got into this mess. He mentioned many of the discrete explanations we on the left have used to help comprehend both how Hilary lost and, more generally, how we have lost so much power. His list included racism, sexism, xenophobia, opposition to taxes, the vilification of Hilary, the ‘welfare queens’ trope, the myth that success and hard work are causally inseparable, the Electoral college, and gerrymandering. We could add anti-intellectualism, resentment of ‘the Bubble,’ and—perhaps most importantly—an economy that is rigged in favor of the top 1%.

If you know me or have been reading my blog, however, you know that I always come back to education. I believe that, if the United States had continued to invest in a vigorous public K-12 education system and had kept college and graduate school within reach for most Americans, we would not be in this mess. Simply put, a huge percentage of Americans have become, through lack of good education, increasingly susceptible to false narratives that explain their pain in simple ways—with consequences that, sadly, worsen their pain.

So then I wonder how it is that so many Americans stopped caring about education. I will present one theory in this piece. I’m not saying this is the only or the right theory. I’m sure the causes are WAY more complicated than those I propose, but so far this idea feels like it has some explanatory power. I’m aware that I am both oversimplifying U.S. history and making sweeping generalizations here. You kind of have to do these things if you’re trying to come in under 1,300 words. Oh, and lastly, this idea is also probably not original; it’s just original to me.

In studying U.S. history, I am often drawn to the second half of the 19th century. This was a time when the “self-made man” and “rags-to-riches” memes became embedded in American culture (Horatio Alger’s famous “Ragged Dick” was published in 1867). Reform movements, including their amalgam, the “Progressive Movement,” focused on “betterment” and “self-improvement.” Huge fortunes were made as the country closed its frontier and filled in its interior with booming industry and millions of settlers looking for a better life. In the first thirty years of the 20th century, immigrants poured into the country also seeking a better life. Blacks began moving northward in huge numbers on the same quest, and women finally pushed their way into more equitable representation at the polls.

Meanwhile, the country as a whole continued to expand, adding new states, conquering foreign lands, building the Panama Canal, helping Europe extract itself from the utter hell of WWI, and sowing the seeds of the military-industrial complex that would reach adulthood during and after WWII. Out of the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War came constant growth, widespread prosperity, military might, and superpower status. In order to defeat the Soviets at something tangible, we raced for the moon and got there. Many Americans strove to further democratize power and promote greater recognition of people of color, workers, women, American Indians, other species, the environment as a whole, and so on.

The one theme that unites all of these disparate phenomena over more than a century is forward movement, a yearning for progress, a constant striving. The country as a whole and as a collection of component constituencies had work to do. We had unrealized potential, and all of us, or most of us, or some of us (or sometimes just a few of us) were 100% committed to realizing that potential. With obvious exceptions for certain places, people, and times (Reconstruction/Jim Crow, the Great Depression), the United States had momentum to do more, to be more, and to provide more for more people.

Then this forward momentum slowed, and I wonder now if somewhere in the last 30 years or so it has halted. When the Berlin Wall came down, the U.S. considered itself, and was considered by most of the world, to be the only Superpower. Maybe that was the moment, when we knew we were the best, when we started to feel less in need of getting better. If not that moment exactly, then at some other point between then and now we lost our inclination to strive. We lost the drive to better ourselves as a nation and, to a large extent, as individuals.

What has replaced the striving force? I think that one’s obvious: the acquisition impulse. I may be making a big assumption here, but I suspect that the average U.S. citizen thinks significantly more now about what to buy than about how to improve. Maybe that was always true, but if so, then I bet that at least the ratio of ‘buy thoughts’ to ‘improve thoughts’ has skyrocketed since the middle of the 20th century. In other words, as the country achieved a position in the world (and indeed in world history) as the “greatest,” perhaps we all to some extent lost the edge that kept pushing us forward into our enormous potential. Instead, our enormous reality made us complacent. It made us increasingly satisfied with acquisition and less interested in betterment.

Simultaneously, our governmental and economic institutions have reinforced this transformation by making it easier for those who acquire wealth to keep it. The complacency of the populace has further exacerbated this trend by substituting apathy for involvement, and we have let corporations take over our government by buying our representatives. The institutions that were once breeding grounds for the striving philosophy and reform movements—school systems, including higher education—have become machines for churning out under-educated Americans destined to be chewed up by the system or cookie cutter professionals looking to hoard their advantages.

You wondered how I was going to bring this back to education? Well there it is. When our national and personal outlook switched from striving for better to getting-and-keeping, we lost our enthusiasm for education. We were willing to see it dismantled, de-secularized, and privatized. Today’s fight over the appointment of Betsy DeVos to be the next Secretary of Education marks a kind of natural nadir in the evolution of the American education system, which was once the envy of the world (though always far from perfect) and is now in danger of utter ruin.

So, to my friend I say this: I believe we are in this mess because as a nation, and in many cases as individuals, we stopped striving to be better. We began finding more meaning in the passive consumption of goods, services, and entertainment. And we stopped paying attention to how society was being shaped by the increasingly powerful purveyors of those goods, services, and entertainments. Education, the primary engine creating American citizens capable and desirous of betterment, began to wither. This created a downward spiral in which more and more people became preoccupied with surviving in an economy designed to keep them down. People just trying to survive are themselves more susceptible to simple, self-defeating messages.

So I guess this is why I’m so focused right now on expanding the scope of my teaching and writing. I want to help this country regain its striving force, its desire to be better, and its belief in education accessible to every citizen. Even if we somehow come out of this current mess relatively unscathed, a nation of uneducated passive people with no critical thinking skills and no desire to fulfill the untapped potentials of people and country will undoubtedly find itself in a similar mess every decade or two.

I wonder if it is only a renewed commitment to education that can save us over the long term. In any case, I hope it can, and will.