The moment has finally come. We’ve been heading this way for decades, but it’s time to make it official. This country is not all about freedom; it’s mostly about money–making it, getting it, using it, keeping it, growing it. Why don’t we just be honest about that? We’re the United States of Amoneyca.
I had this revelation a couple of days ago, but the perception had been in the making for a while. I mean, if you look at the presidential campaign, the dialog is mostly about money–on the one hand about how it should be invested in the well-being of the collective and on the other about how the “makers” must be protected from the “takers.”
This is oversimplifying, of course, but I thought I would join the crowd roiling in this money-soaked election year. And let’s imaginatively take a look at where we’re heading. We’re on course to decide to quit wasting all this time on the so-called democratic process and convene registered billionaires and let them say who the next president will be. To be fair, maybe they would come up with somebody good, somebody who is a real thinker, idealist, and inspiring moral leader.
The thinker, idealist, and inspiring moral leader is possible because, after all, the compensation for president is pretty crummy on the increasingly grand scale of things–just $400,000 per year with a $50,000 nontaxable expense account. Of course, you do get to live in the White House for free. But according to the latest available tax findings, even some private college presidents make a lot more than the president of the United States–$4.6 million at Columbia University, for example. And when the president of Yale University left in 2013, he got a payout of $8.5 million.
If the big wheels wouldn’t want to make a financial sacrifice to become president–provided they can’t figure out some way to profit through office–maybe we would, in fact, end up with a series of presidents who care more about values than money.
Anyway, you’re probably wondering about my dual focus here; and that is because you are very intelligent, very well educated, and inclined to be a critical, analytical thinker. This is a capacity that seems to be ebbing in the United States due, quite simply, to the evolving, obsessive focus on making money. Let me explain.
An alarm is sounding among those who have always valued learning for its own sake. Colleges are increasingly being ranked by the average starting salaries of graduates. Fuming in his article last September in Harper’s Magazine, former Columbia and Yale professor William Deresiewicz attributed this focus to the advent of neoliberalism. He describes this as “an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of a thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person.” And further, “The purpose of education in a neoliberal age is to produce producers.”
“Well, yeah,” one may think. “This is understandable. There is a lot of fear afoot. Technology is eliminating jobs right and left, and the competition is intense for the ones that survive onshore. And business should be running the show, letting universities know where the jobs are and telling them the skill sets they’re looking for.”
Hmm. Is that why the elite college presidents are making so much money–because they have begun to cater to big business? Deresiewicz sure thinks so. From his point of view, elite university presidents “are little more these days than lackeys of the plutocracy with all the moral stature of the butler in a country house.”
Wow. But if so, they’re not the only ones, according to a recent article by Patricia Cohen in The New York Times. Let’s take state governors. Matt Bevin (R) of Tennesse recently proposed a change in college funding to discourage students from going into the humanities because they’re not “job friendly.” Governor Patrick McCrory (R) of North Carolina was even more blunt: Higher education funding should not be “based on butts in seats, but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” Governor Rick Scott (R) of Florida is on the same page and would like to charge liberal arts majors higher tuition at state universities. He sees no use whatsoever for the field of anthropology. Too bad. It’s very interesting.
My fundamental idea about learning is that there is nothing more fun when it happens through some subject that you find fascinating. But we’re all different. We have different interests and gifts, and there is unfinished business educationally with identifying and cultivating the greatest potential of each child. And if I were a young person being forced by a neoliberal ideology to focus on technology, math, engineering, and science in order to get a high-paying job with a multiglomerate, I would probably get into drugs.
My breed is, in fact, being forced out into the cold. According to Deresiewicz, the percentage of college students majoring in English has plummeted since the 60s. However, the percentage is worse in the physical sciences like physics, chemistry, and geology, etc. Deresiewicz points out that “As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of those subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math.” Another example of declining diversity but perhaps a relief among those who have heard enough from scientists already.
The declining interest in liberal arts and the humanities is visible in our national conversations. For one thing, there has been a visible decline in empathy. You can see all the movies you want, but empathy really comes from getting inside the mind of someone very unlike the reader, which only happens in reading novels. And if you have a long view of history, you may understand the historic basis of conflict with another nation, which may well challenge the simplistic conviction that whatever we do is right just because we do it. If you’ve studied other religions than your own, it’s not so easy to dismiss the beliefs of billions of people who have a different spirituality. The wholesale condemnation of Islam afoot is based primarily on ignorance about its actual teachings.
Most importantly, if you’re well informed and accustomed to using your own brain on issues, you can’t easily be led around by idealogues. And the better informed you are, the more likely you are to realize how complex every issue is. This is the ground on which negotiations between differing perspectives can prove fruitful, a possibility this nation desperately needs.
So it seems to me that, with the benefit of the long view of history that I share with all my generation, America has gotten way off track as a result of this obsession with money. Time to lower that flag of the United States of Amoneyca and raise the old one again. And time to reclaim the privilege of learning what excites you, that develops your greatest potential, and that will lead to work that is, above all, fulfilling. The focus on making as much money as possible does not, after all, usually bring out the best in us.