June 27, 2012

In a Nutshell

-----Original Message-----
From: Mr. X
Sent: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 10:16 AM
To: mauricio@morrisberman.com
Subject: Thank you
Mr. Berman,

In the last few weeks I've read The Twilight of American Culture and the first half of Dark Ages America, and I feel compelled to write and thank you.

I'm 56 years old, and for most of my life I've been haunted by the sense that, between the world I grew up in and the world I ended up in, something went terribly wrong. Don't misunderstand - I'm not a nut. I'm a management consultant working with large arts organizations around issues of strategy and innovation, and pretty successful at it by the standards of an economically oriented world. But I have been haunted (it's the only word that works) by a bone deep sense that something very fundamental went amiss in my lifetime. Your work has helped me to understand the source of my disquiet.

I think there must be millions like me facing a terrible choice. On one hand we can face the triumph in our time of a global consumer culture, and the soul sickness it creates and depends on, and live with the misery that nothing we can do can turn that historic tide. On the other, we can indulge in the delusion that if we just recycle enough, or embrace our inner child, or save the white tigers, or indulge in any number of anodynes, that we can change the world and redeem our species.

It's really a choice of miseries - the misery of seeing a terrible truth, or the misery of denial. I have envied people who could do the latter, and tried to myself, but with no success. Your work has helped me realize that, for me anyway, the misery of denial is the greater of the two. Thank you.

Dear Mr. X,

Yeah, that does summarize the choice, n'est-ce pas? A few things to check out, after you finish DAA:

1. The sequel, Why America Failed.
2. The 1st half of A Question of Values.
3. My essay, buried somewhere in the archives of my blog (late 2011?), called "La longue duree."

Briefly, the way out is thru. We can't reverse this corporate-consumerist tide. Nothing can. It has to play out to its full self-destruction. But while this is going on, there are independent alternatives that are sprouting (including, in the US, secessionist movements), experiments in nonprofit and steady-state types of economy, that will become increasingly attractive as the colossus we live in cracks up. This is 30-40 yrs away, but they are, I believe, a viable future--simply because we shall have no other choice than decentralization and eco-sustainability (accompanied by significant austerity). We are fast approaching a world of limits, in short.

Folks on my blog thought I was kidding re: my enthusiasm for a Palin presidency (for example); but the fact is that Obama's destruction of the US has been ad hoc and desultory. With a full-fledged nut like Palin or Bachmann in the White House, the whole process would be greatly accelerated. The notion that the ills of the US might be cured via the ballot box is quite mad, in my view. Hence, might as well have a Herman Cain or Rick Perry at the helm, to get the job over with. Romney will move in this direction, of course, but as in the case of the late Roman Empire, better to have a completely mindless buffoon in charge. In the meantime, there are only two options for the aware American (all 453 of them) that I can see: emigrate (my solution, in part), or take the NMI option outlined in the Twilight book (the other part of my solution).

Hope this helps. Thanks for writing.


June 24, 2012

Higher Education in America

Andrew Delbanco, who teaches American Studies at Columbia, recently wrote a book on the sorry state of higher education in America: College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, in which he maps the distance between Is and Ought in the U.S. college system. The college experience, he writes, should be a formative one, in which students are "deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility." Reviewing the book in the June 10th NYTBR, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan, adds that Delbanco believes that college should be a time for them "to see things from another's point of view and to develop a sense of ethical responsibility...[to turn] the soul away from selfish concerns and toward community." "At the core of the college idea," writes Delbanco, is the notion that "to serve others is to serve oneself."

Something like that may have existed in America at one time, but if so, that era is long gone--as most analysts of our educational system clearly recognize.  A study of American college students conducted by the University of Michigan over 1979-2009 revealed a 40% drop in empathy during that time period, along with a fundamental inability to grasp another person's point of view. Another study--the source of which escapes me at the moment--recorded that while in 1965, something like 75% of college freshmen stated that they were in college to develop a workable philosophy of life, by 1985-1990 75% of them said they were there to get rich.

Along with the collapse of empathy is the collapse of learning tout court.  In Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that after two years of college, 45% of American students haven’t learned anything, and after four years, 36% haven’t. Most students, they discovered, define college as a social, not an academic or intellectual, experience; half the students in their study said they hadn’t taken a single course in the previous semester that required more than 20 pages of writing, and a third said they hadn’t taken a course requiring more than 40 pages of reading. A Marist poll released on 4 July 2011 (appropriately enough) showed that 69% of Americans in the under-30 age group are unaware that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776. 

All of this, of course, is central to the decline of the United States that I have documented in my own work. After all, you can't have much of a future if this is what American youth has come to. There are many reasons for this catastrophe, but to my mind the major one is the conversion of education into a business, and the university into a corporation. Once the corporate-consumer model of education took hold, all those previous ideals described by Delbanco went up in smoke. Interviewed by the NYTBR in the May 27th issue, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust identified Clark Kerr's (in)famous study of 1963, The Uses of the University, as "the best book she had read about academia." In response, Jeff Zorn, who teaches English at Santa Clara University, commented (NYTBR, June 17th) that Kerr's book 

"welcomed the very developments that have made American higher education so generally lame: the denigration of teaching; the loss of a center, academically and spiritually: the selling out to Big Business, Big Government, Big Foundations...[and] the redefinition of liberal education...to a vocational major."

Kerr, he concludes, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, and president Faust doesn't seem to notice (or, perhaps, to mind). As Slavoj Zizek recently put it, we now live in "a new socioeconomic model of potentially unlimited application: a depoliticized technocracy in which bankers and other experts are allowed to demolish democracy." I'm not sure how "new" all this is; we were always, as I have argued, a nation of hustlers; but imported into education, the results are quite obvious. It's hardly an accident that the class of 2012 is out to make money (in point of fact, they can't even find a job), doesn't give a damn about anybody else, and knows virtually nothing; or that (according to a Newsweek poll of 2011) 73% of Americans can’t give the official version of why we fought the Cold War, and 44% are unable to define the Bill of Rights. Indeed, how many even care about our now-shredded Bill of Rights, courtesy of Mr. Obama? Awareness of (for example) the National Defense Authorization Act, with its provision for "indefinite detention," is practically nonexistent, and I'm guessing that less than 2% of American college graduates know what habeas corpus is (make that, was).

Finally, let's not talk of "repairing" the system; under the corporate-consumer model, it can only get worse. Real education--Bildung, in the German sense of the term--can get no traction in the technocorporate state, which is not exactly a breeding ground for creative, independent thought. It can only be pursued by misfits, by the marginalized, by the very few who still think that learning for learning's sake, and the sake of the larger community, is a meaningful ideal. In the America of today, there aren't too many of those around.

(c)Morris Berman, 2012