Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Food for thought

I'm going to quote the following at length because I think there is something broader about the contemporary American Zeitgeist that the author discusses:
What I am asking for, in the short term, is perhaps just a little more regard for a beleaguered and largely defenseless class of people. I often can't decide what is worse in the endless round of videos and animations and essays describing these tough realities, the openly mocking and hateful, or the crocodile tears of those who merely resent the impertinence of those who want to live the life of the mind. There are plenty who talk about this situation out of deep principle and real concern, of course, but many do not. Academics are my people, and whatever mockery you'd like to come up with, I love them.

Ultimately, though, I doubt that arguments, or qualifications of arguments, like this one will penetrate. This is in part because of the persistent and rampant anti-intellectualism that pervades American life. There is something about the implied judgment of educating yourself that really brings it out of people in our country. (I have friends who are graduate students in other countries, and they always ask me, "why do Americans hate higher education?" They particularly can't understand it because American higher education is the envy of the world.)

But that's not the only thing going on here. Going to law school, long the definition of practicality and the sober pursuit of capitalistic success, has become in a few short years a numerically bad bet, and the boo birds have descended with a frenzy on law students. The absolute glee with which others mock their condition is, frankly, shocking and ugly. Yet it's a perfectly common way of acting these days. I loved this little post from Conor Friedersdorf. Conor recognizes the stale mean-spiritedness that seems to be the order of the day when talking about anyone else's professional or academic choices. What I would ask those who mock anyone for facing an uncertain job market, in this economy-- who are you? And what are you doing that's so great? I don't think that there's [ever] been a time for a person of character to mock wannabe lawyers, scholars, artists, actors, musicians, or any other. But if there ever was, it wouldn't be now, when the idea of full employment seems to be collapsing around us.

Here's what I think: I think everyone is scared. I'm not yet quite 30 years old. I look around at my peers and I see a generation that is rapidly losing any faith in the American social contract. I know many, many people who have been looking for work literally for years, and found nothing. Not nothing as in "nothing that offers the package of salary and benefits they want" but nothing full-time, period. This is an entirely common situation. And I'm sorry to say that, rather than coming together, people are allowing their fear and anxiety to be delivered outward, preempting examination of their own difficult situations by mocking those who are attempting to gain employment in fields where it is very difficult to do so.

If I could do one thing to change the American people, it would be to revive the spirit of solidarity. Solidarity is, I think, essential to the democratic process, but ours has been systematically degraded by the commercial ethic of hyper-individuation. Everyone is a rugged individualist, which is another way of saying that everyone is alone. Solidarity is humane, generative, and liberal, but it doesn't have much place in modern American. There's no money in it.
My emphasis added. The lack of solidarity has bothered me for many more years than I care to count. Suffice it to say, even though I am considerably older than Freddie, I can think back to my late 20s and lament the lack of solidarity that was already apparent. The days when concepts such as solidarity and collective action had any currency had long passed by the time that I was defending my Master's thesis. As a Gen-X-er who began serious pursuit of an academic career when Dittoheads were all the rage, I had already concluded that our nation's history of anti-intellectualism was taking a turn for the worse. We are a coarser, cruder people now than ever before. Don't believe me? Spend some time absorbing our cultural artifacts: talk radio, cable "news", and reality shows. Ours is a culture that offers incentives for displaying willful ignorance, with a healthy dose of behaviors that can be best described as narcissistic to downright psychopathic. Tearing down one another is a national pastime. It's not the sort of environment likely to nurture aspiring scholars and professionals. Arguably, it's not the sort of environment to nurture much of anything.

I certainly harbor no illusions about those who choose more scholarly pursuits. We're all human. Obtaining a Ph.D. or any other advanced degree does not make one a "better" person per se. Degrees will not paper over whatever character flaws or baggage one might have. That said, I was brought up to respect the effort and intellect required to successfully pursue an advanced academic or professional degree. It's not a life for those seeking simply to be rich and famous. It is, however, a life that offers plenty of its own rewards. Given our own cultural Zeitgeist, I'm often amazed at how many of us get to make a living in the academy. That we still have a higher education system that is the envy of the world is a minor miracle. I sincerely doubt that will last much longer as more of our "leaders" in politics and the mass media - many of whom are themselves openly hostile toward academicians - seem to be of the opinion that in desperately hard economic times, higher education (and really education in general) is expendable.

But back to the topic at hand. Cultures don't change overnight, but they do change. If I were to suggest a much needed change for our culture, it would simply come down to ditching the hyper-individualism. The "everyone for themselves" mentality is not one conducive to the long term survival of our society, especially a society adjusting to diminishing expectations and living standards. I'd also suggest ditching the anti-intellectualism. I would be the last to suggest blind reverence for our nation's scholars, but I do think that the self-discipline and critical thinking skills exhibited by academicians are ones that would be far better to model than what is currently modeled. Bottom line: we're going to hang together thinking clearly or hang separately in a fog. So, what's it going to be?

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