Friday, January 07, 2005

Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 1
   Life is a market economy

The fact that they are powerful does not mean that they are sane, and the fact that they speak with intense conviction does not mean that they speak the truth.
Thomas Merton


The meaning of school is to get a well-paying job

Years ago when I was a beginning teacher, I read an elementary school newspaper in which the children had been asked why doing well in school was important. Even first graders reported that they should do well at school so they would be able to “get good jobs.� While the seven-year-olds that I know are far too intrigued by the world in all its aspects to believe that the main thing is getting and spending money, their testimony indicated they had heard this story so often it seemed self-evident.

Students are told implicitly and explicitly over and over that the meaning of school is that they need to be nice and work hard so they get good grades, they need to get good grades so they can get into good college, they need to get into good colleges so they can get good jobs, and they need good jobs because otherwise they’ll be losers.

Like most myths that have staying power, this one has quite a lot truth. It’s true that work–effort toward a goal–is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves has much to do with the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young seldom realize how true this is, so guidance into wise and persistent work should be a foundation of the education we offer them. And, yes, it is a truism that we need things–food, clothing and shelter.

But from this truth it’s a small step into an old error: seeing the economy, which is a means of providing the materials of a good life, as an end in itself, and seeing the jobs it offers as the only work in town. Neil Postman notes that this story “is rarely believed by students and has almost no power to inspire them.� Besides, he says, “any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.�

The story doesn’t motivate most students

Postman is correct that this story doesn’t motivate most high school students. Competition motivates those who think they might win. How hard would you practice your basketball skills if someone told you next week you would play Michael Jordan one-on-one and the winner would receive a thousand dollars? You’d have to be a far better player than I am to break a sweat over your chances with that.

By the time they get to high school, students who never make the honor roll know who they are. They know someone else will always have the answer more quickly or in a form the teacher likes better. A cliché among experienced teachers is that threatening such kids with bad grades is like beating a dead horse.

For a good many kids, school becomes quite grim. They get along by pretending to take no interest in class work. A first-year teacher told me that she was frustrated with some students in her class who simply refuse to read or write anything. One young man was daydreaming through a test, not bothering to write answers on his paper. “This test is going to have a big impact on your grade,� she told him helpfully. “I know,� he said. “I never pass English.�

The do-well-in-school-so-you-can-win-in-the-marketplace story also fails to motivate other kids: those whose families are well off and who expect things to come naturally, those whose parents have never organized their lives around jobs and who have only a vague sense of what that means, and those who see that this story simply has poor answers to the questions that actually drive them–questions about how they will matter and who will love them.

The mistake of becoming anti-capitalist

Lots of teachers understand all that, but then make a serious mistake. They begin to think capitalism is a problem to be solved. It isn’t. Poor people do better under capitalism than under socialism/communism. Capitalism increases wealth, leading to better food, better health, and more educational opportunities. I appreciate capitalism and have no desire to see people lose the freedom to start enterprises, or to buy and own the things they want.

People who want economic equality badly enough to trade their economic freedom for it usually find themselves in a predicament similar to that of a parched hiker crossing a desert toward a mirage that glimmers like a blue lake.

Unlike socialism, capitalism isn’t the product of an ideology. There is no Marx who dreamed it up. It emerges out of human nature wherever human societies exist. Chairman Mae had to repeatedly give orders to put a stop to the capitalism that occurred wherever poor farmers got a little ahead. They wanted to trade their surpluses for things they didn’t have but needed. This made them criminals, even though trading is universal among people. Teaches should distrust ideologues who would outlaw human nature. Even people with stone age methods of production engage in acquiring wealth and trading. Sea shells from the Caribbean have been found in ancient caves in the Sweetgrass Hills of the northern Great Plains along side lithic points.

One of the truly disheartening aspects of schooling in America today is the thoughtless habit many teachers have acquired of speaking contemptuously of “corporations” and “capitalism.” These mental habits are easy to acquire in university humanities departments, where soft Marxism often permeates the culture. In fact, capitalism is the best economic strategy to improve the lives of poor people, and it is the only economic system that makes the preservation of democratic freedom possible. Corporate structures represent the best development of our powers of social organization, and without the organized societies they make possible we would lose many things we ought to preserve and enhance: the miracles of modern health care, worldwide systems of food production and distribution that bring us fresh vegetables in the winter, centralized heating that frees time to read, and so on.

At the same time it’s true that modern capitalism is the scene of great dangers as well as great blessings. But the dangers are not created by capitalism. They are created by character--greed, ruthlessness, faithlessness--and these character traits are not eliminated by switching to any of the forms of socialism. No socialist society yet has managed to eliminate inequality or poverty or human suffering. As difficult as it may seem, if we want to improve the plight of poor people we have no viable choice but to focus on improving the character of humanity. Since this is the real work of teaching, I trust teachers will find at least some good news in this view: we will not run out of work any time soon.

The mistake of letting profitability serve as a substitute for morality

Since profitability is relatively easy to measure and easy to agree upon as a goal, most companies base their decisions upon what will be profitable in the market. Profitability is certainly one of the things that matters. We are better off using our resources to produce ball point pens that people do want rather than beautiful quill pens that people are not willing to buy.

Markets do a better job than planning committees at getting the right number of houses built--factoring in variables such as changing birth rates, in- and out-migration, employment opportunities--but they provide no guidance at all for questions of right and wrong.

Most of us pass up chances to make money if we would have to do rotten things. We hold some things too dear to place on the market–our relationships to loved ones, our honest opinion, our vote. We use markets to make decisions when morality seems to have little to do with the decision--should I buy this bicycle for $400 or this similar model for $350--but we subordinate our concerns about money when moral questions arise. Capitalism doesn’t require that everything be for sale, and it does not require us to allow the love of profit to overcome other values.

But there’s no doubt that the love of money has become a morality and religion substitute for many people. All societies are religious, worshiping what they understand of power. People have always sensed that the real powers of the earth are, like gravity, invisible. We see their effects but we do not see them.

The earth has never known a people who did not believe in the invisible powers, who did tell stories that promised insight into how to manipulate, appease, or extort power from them. People who organize their lives around the stock market tend to be as enamored of invisible forces as any other pagan tribe. Whatever the current mania for profit--downsizing, merging, bribing, peddling things that harm--spokesmen for profitability utter the words of their faith with the same cold-blooded certainty that must have accompanied the incantations of Aztec priests performing human sacrifices. What was being done was ordained and required by higher powers: “We need to remain competitive; if we are not competitive the gods of the economy will devour us. To save ourselves we need to devour each other.”

Money originated in temples, one of the power strategies of the priestly class. People have always granted it sacred powers. “Like spellbound savages in the presence of the holy,” William H. Desmonde tells us, we endure rituals of high finance, watching “in wonder the solemn proceedings, feeling in a vague, somewhat fearful way that our lives and the happiness of our children are at the mercy of mysterious forces beyond our control.”

The wealthy understand clearly that money is not primarily about buying things. It is primarily about power. With money we can bend the forces of the earth to serve us. Disease, social turbulence, and disaster are held at bay for those with financial might, and those without it are vulnerable and naked.

As profit becomes sacred, its demands become harder to ignore. We must bow or be bent to the dictates of global financial markets, the sanctity of unconstrained competition, and the glory of quarterly profits.

Though some students buy into the Vegas-like excitement of money-lust, there are more who see through it. Like “D” students sitting at the back of the room, they may not say much, but they understand quite accurately that the unconstrained love of profit is an attack upon them. They know it is a story that will strip them of dignity and more.

We need virtue that constrains the lust for profit

Teachers have always busied themselves with the inculcation of virtues because the vices are so powerfully ingrained in our nature.  In every generation teachers teach children not to take things that don’t belong to them because the desire to take whatever we want comes to us so naturally. We do not teach chastity out of hope that people will no longer procreate–there’s scant danger of that–and we do not teach thrift out of hope that people will become misers. Rather, we seek to balance strong natural tendencies with prudent forethought.

Most societies have taught their young to resist the profit-as-religion story, teaching that greed and unbalanced self-interest are bad. Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, used iron rather than gold for money to put an impediment in the path of those seeking gain. Accumulating vast stores of iron made one a laughingstock in other cities, and transporting enough of the money to make much difference was so difficult that even thieves tended not to bother. Lycurgus didn’t want people distracted by their financial prospects from the pursuit of virtue (though his set of virtues might seem questionable to us).

When the story of schooling is understood to be that winning the money competition is the main project in life--in other words, that the meaning of school is to gain access to better and newer cars and houses, then we may be teaching children a morality that has only weak sanctions against crime, or, for that matter, war.

If we were wise, our young people would hear from us often that good food, good housing, comfortable clothing, well-made tools, quality productions of the intellect, moments of ease brought about by work well-done are not products of a zero-sum game. The fact that we have these things does not mean that others do not. We should want them for our neighbors, across the street and across the planet, as well as for ourselves. We can increase the supply of all these things, and we should.

To oppose greed is not to choose poverty but to choose relationship. The work we can all share is not simply making money, which often isolates us from one another. It is Civilization–in the singular–not as an existing state so much as an idea that can be progressively realized. America and what we have called the West is one civilization among perhaps ten in the modern world, and its history and ideals will play a significant role in any universal civilization we might yet construct, but for that to happen we need to believe that America is more than an economy.

We don’t need to believe that America has found the complete or the only truth to believe that its lessons have permanent worth. Serious discussion of such lessons should play a central role in education. For example, one of the idolatry of profit is that markets don’t necessarily create the conditions markets need to thrive. Merchants as a group do best in systems of stable laws, but when the law is for sale in competitive markets, as is increasingly the case as the free market ideology overwhelms those who would moderate and balance it against other goods, no one can be sure who will prevail on the morrow. The law becomes more volatile, like the markets, and though some businesses cash in, business in general suffers.

Questions for discussion

We could deliberately teach and demonstrate to young people how lasting prosperity is related to good character–the most basic meaning of which is that people hold some values too dear to offer them for sale. We might examine the way people have met hard times in the past, seeing how often the community rather than the individual has been the unit of survival, providing for members through shared action and generosity, doing as a group what no one could do alone. Maybe living in an altruistic community is the ultimate security.

We could talk about the economy as something that we make to serve purposes we have chosen and consider how a well-made economy might help us against our oldest and deadliest enemies: poverty, hunger, superstition, greed, ignorance, pride, selfishness and fear. All these have developed virulent strains that are barely slowed or deterred by the paltry education we throw against them.

We might talk about the complex ecology of interacting forces that make the global economy the way it is, driving corporate leaders to believe that if they don’t do what is most profitable, their competitors will, and money will flow away from them leaving them unable to survive let alone to accomplish good works. This could lead us to wonder how much of the pressure they feel is not caused by the amorality of their competitors, but by millions of individuals buying goods and services and stocks without wanting to know more than where the best deal is to be found. What if people quit exporting from themselves the blame for greed and began wanting to know more about the ethical practices of the companies they traded with? What institutions to provide that information, which already exist, might grow and flourish?

We might consider what it means that half the eggs sold in Denmark today come from free-roaming chickens. They cost 15-20% more, but people are willing to pay that to be sure the chickens are free. We could discuss how in time not just the chickens will be liberated, but also girls in poor countries who work in factories for less than subsistence wages, inhabitants of landscapes decimated by industrial practices that ignore the costs of cleanup and restoration, and citizens of cities built with more heed to profit than to safety, beauty, health and sustainability.

We could ask seriously what would happen if we chose to invest in or purchase from companies that took care of the environment, had humane labor practices. Is it possible that capitalism might undergo dramatic changes, without more lost freedom in the form of denser networks of rules and regulations? Could such a world be our future, one that we can have whenever enough of us choose it?

As we have abandoned morality to the markets, fewer and fewer young people can make sense of old arguments against prostitution, drug deals, or pornography. It’s all just business. And beyond these old-fashioned prohibitions lie realms of the forbidden that we have barely begun to transgress.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/07 at 05:39 AM
(0) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalinkE-mail this page
© 2005 Michael L. Umphrey
Page 1 of 1 pages