Saturday, March 26, 2016

Our Educational Caste System

I said in an earlier blog that the ascendance of Donald Trump is an embarrassment to our educational system. Donald Trump is an uneducated person. He appeals to people who are also uneducated. Given his large-scale support it is obvious that this country is awash in uneducated people in spite of the fact that we have a functioning public education system.

I still stand by that but it does need some explanation. I must begin by pointing out that being uneducated has nothing to do with ability. Most of our fellow citizens are capable of much higher achievements. The ability to think straight demonstrated by many of our leaders is put to shame by the same ability displayed by ordinary citizens. Our schools fail to develop the abilities widely distributed among us.

Many of our schools fail in transmitting elementary information to our students who often do not read well, do not write well,and have little information about our history or our political system.
What is worse, our educational system is constructed to maintain an educational caste or class system.
It is really instructive to listen to call- in shows about the political primary. Clearly thoughtful persons call in and admit that they are supporting Donald Trump. Sometimes, interestingly enough, they vacillate between Trump and Sanders. Most of these callers will add a sentence or two saying that they are not well educated. Americans are very much aware of what educational caste they belong to. They are very much aware of the educational caste of the persons they are talking to. Our people is divided into separate strata that are never mentioned but are rarely out of mind.

Many years ago when I was a more alternative teacher than I may be today, I asked my students--most of whom belonged to the well-to-do middle-class--to address me by my first name. They tried but could not do it. In some way that never got spelled out I was too different, my world was too different, they were not able to address me as, in some important way,  equal. Although I was obviously older and knew more about some things than they did,  I was not actually that different but the world in which they saw me and the figure I cut in the world was totally extraterrestrial for them.

You may think that is an insignificant anecdote but I do not think so. For a college student to call the teacher "Professor" provides important security by clearly marking social lines and social differences. From their perspective my world, how I talk, what I talk about, are unknown lands, for which they have no maps and where their compasses do not work.

I am reminded of a friend from college who told me of her complete shock the first time she saw one of her instructors eating lunch. It had not occurred to her that this person would eat. Because professors are completely different.

There are many different important implications of this caste system concealed just under the surface of our lives. The sharp line between the learned and those who are not means that those who do not know something cannot, by themselves, find out what they want. They need to take courses. Ignorance is not easily remedied. You'll need help to do that.

If you work, say, for a nonprofit organization and are doing an exceptional job, but the other person in the office has an advanced degree and you do not, the other person, however incompetent will be the queen and you will be the working bee. In order to get more powerful, better paying jobs, it is not enough to know things, a recognized institution needs to certify you. There is no easy transition between layers of the educational caste system. You may be as smart as anyone, who may read more and think better than many people with higher degrees than yours, they will get the power and the prestige and you will get the minimum wage.

The educational system with its different institutional levels has become a means for choking off access to positions of power, to positions of directing institutions, to prestige, and social recognition.
The educational caste system gives the lie to our protestation that we are dedicated to "liberty for all" because liberty and power depend on educational credentials.

Our schools cooperate in this system of progressively restricting access to the most desirable positions in this society and our educational system cooperates with other forces to limit social mobility and to keep many people in the working class. (Calling them "middle-class," as is now customary, is just a way to conceal this issue.)

Our schools do a very specific job: they teach our young to internalize the caste distinctions of the educational system. They must learn to apply the differences between the educated and the not educated to themselves. They must learn to feel powerless to remedy this situation. They must learn to blame themselves for not knowing more than they do and for belonging to their specific layer of this pyramid.

If I were a person who found myself uneducated, confined to the lower layers of the educational hierarchy and if I were one of the millions of people who felt apologetic and in some way incomplete for that reason, I would love Donald Trump who is in the same educational layer. But that does not hold him back from being a loud braggart, from talking about himself non-stop, from glorying in his real and imaginary accomplishments. What is not to like about a man who does not hesitate to parade his ignorance and take pleasure in it?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Blame Game

Now that it seems quite possible that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for President and both Republicans and Democrats are panicking, the question is: who is to blame for this disaster? There are different answers. Some people blame the media. Some people blame the Republican Party for not taking Trump seriously when he first started campaigning. Others blame the people who support Trump.

The question is important. Some of us are old enough to remember when, in 1933-- the Germans voted Adolf Hitler to be Chancellor --the German equivalent of president in the system they had then. No one is saying that Donald Trump is going to commit genocide. But it is hard to overlook his tendency to be racist and sexist, to be quite supportive of violence, and to be utterly irrational. What will happen to us, should Trump become President of the United States?

The first thing we need to notice is that the people playing the blame game begin with the implicit premise that they have nothing to do with this, they are blameless. But it is useless to ask what caused this disaster if we are not willing to consider that everyone has some part in a move towards something that looks a lot like fascism. The question in what way we are responsible is  only useful  if we are looking to prevent similar failures in the future. But we cannot prevent future failures if we are unwilling to  say  honestly: We did this. We did it in this way. We need to do this and that and something else to avoid a future repetition.

What does it take to produce millions and millions passionate supporters for Donald Trump? One thing it requires are people who are ignorant, who don't see an ignoramus when he's talking to them, and who, worse, don't care whether Trump knows what he's talking about. To support Trump you need to be really uneducated. One source of this terrible event is the massive failure of our educational system. We have not been willing to pay for good schools. We have not been willing to pay our teachers decent salaries.

Eight years ago we had a president who was not as nasty as Donald Trump but he was not very smart and equally ignorant and nobody seemed to mind that. His first election might not have been quite on the up and up, but we saw him in action and he got re-elected even though there was no question of his limited education and intelligence. That too was a clear failure of the American educational system.

Lesson number one: if you want reasonably intelligent presidents in the leadership you need to see to it that all voters get a decent education. We don't do that.

But that's only part of the problem. American society is clearly divided into classes. There are families with money. They can send their children to good schools and good universities to become skilled professionals. They tend to run the government. And then there are a lot of people who are poorly educated, who used to have good manufacturing jobs and now have low skill  service jobs that don't pay a lot of money, that are not very steady. Since the early 1970s --almost 50 years ago --wages for this segment of our people have not risen substantially. For them, work has not always been easy to find. It has not been satisfying. It has continued to pay very little.

The upper class, the well educated professionals, who have political power have not been interested in this working-class. They have not cared that their wages have not gone up while pay on Wall Street has gone through the roof. They have not cared that people who used to have skilled and honorable manufacturing jobs now have service jobs which are not interesting, which it is difficult to be proud of.  They have callously ignored this working-class.

Four years ago when Mitt Romney was running against Barack Obama, he told his rich friends that 47% of the American population did not work , that they were on the dole. 47%, Mitt Romney said in so many words, were not people one needed to have respect for. They were not people who took responsibility. One would not consider inviting them to join one's club.

In this unfortunate comment, Romney put into words what all working-class people in the US know perfectly well, that we do live in a class society that the upper class runs the country for its own benefit and could care less for the well-being of working people.

When you bring this up, Republicans will start talking about "encouraging class warfare." They don't want you to talk about class distinctions. They will deny their existence. But they also deny that they have any responsibility for their fellow citizens who are all working men and women. They deny that they owe any respect to the men and women who do much of the work in this country.
Well now they get what they deserve. These ignored, abused working people have now found a voice and it is Donald Trump's. The patrician Republicans, like Mitt Romney, are appalled by vulgarians like Trump but that's what you get when you don't educate people and simply ignore or denigrate them. They will get their revenge in some way and they are getting it.

Lesson number two. An upper class that denies that there are people they exploit and despise will sooner or later have to confront a rebellion of the maligned lower-class.

These are some of the reasons why Donald Trump is flying high. Every one of us is to blame because it is a failure of the American Society, a major failure. It will not do to say: it is not my fault, it is the fault of those other persons or institutions.

We will have many Trumps, perhaps worse ones than the Donald, unless we build schools that educate children and not just warehouse them, unless we are honest about the class distinctions in our society and learn to respect everyone not only the super-rich and upperclass Mitt Romney’s of this country.

Monday, March 7, 2016

                                Death of Democracy

In Mitt Romney’s frontal attack on Donald Trump you can find this interesting paragraph:

“Ronald Reagan used to quote a Scottish philosopher who predicted that democracies and civilizations couldn't last more than about 200 years. John Adams wrote this: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." I believe that America has proven these dire predictions wrong for two reasons.” (http://www.politico. com/story/2016/03/full-transcript-mitt-romneys-remarks-on-donald-trump-and-the-2016-race-220176#ixzz41xdjpx5E) Mitt Romney cannot, of course, take James Madison’s ominous prediction seriously. Being a politician, he must insist that our democracy is as vigorous and flourishing as it was in 1789. But it is very important for us to try to understand what Madison had in mind and to consider his forecast more seriously than Romney does.

We frequently think of democracy as an electoral system in which the citizens have to go to the poll one day every two years to select their Congress persons, one day every four years to elect a president and one day every six years to elect their senators. That is not very burdensome but, if that is all citizens do, ours  is going to be a fairly poor sort of democracy.

Citizens going to the polls by itself will not accomplish a great deal. If citizens are not well informed about the issues before the voters, if they have not considered their decisions carefully in the light of the best information available, political elections differed little from the Grammys or the Oscars or some other popularity contest. The original idea of our democracy was not  that people choose the most popular person as their leader, but that they chose the person they regarded as the most competent, the person with the best judgment, the person with a suitable calm and impartial temperament to make the difficult calls that most presidents and Congressional leaders will confront in the course of their political careers.

Citizens have to be well informed. That means that they are willing to dedicate a good deal of time and energy to reflecting about the issues confronting the nation. They have to be willing to discuss current issues with people who have different opinions. In these conversations they need to be open-minded. They need to make real efforts to understand what moved their political opponents and what shapes their thinking about current problems.

This requires a serious commitment to democracy, to self-government by all the people. Sometimes that is boring. Sometimes it is enormously aggravating to listen to people whom you can't help regarding as prejudiced, ill-informed, irrational and overly emotional. Participating in a democratic government is not all fun and games. It involves a willingness to work hard for the sake of the general well being.

And this brings us to the heart of Madison's dire prognostication about the death of democracy. The democratic process works if people are willing to do things they themselves don't particularly like but which they believe to be important for the common good. Democracy works only if people think about what is good for everybody and not just about what is good for them individually. Frequently when people talk about democracy they talk about people voting their interests. Madison was quite clear that a people whose citizens vote their own interests will soon lose their democracy: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” (http://www.veterans violent-death/) The citizens of a democracy must be moral, they must be willing to put the common good ahead of their private interests. A functioning democracy is run by active hard-working citizens who are interested in taking measures that benefit everybody even if those might be against their own private interest.

Madison was clearly aware that this made extraordinary demands on human beings. Democracy makes extraordinary demands on all of us. Those demands are even more difficult to fulfill in a country like ours dedicated to capitalist competition. The central dogma of a capitalist economy holds that a country flourishes when everybody pursues his or her private interest. In his praise of the free market, Adam Smith, an early advocate of free markets, pointed out that we are supplied with bread and meat not "through the benevolence of the butcher and baker," but because each was doing what was best for them and their business. The leaders of capitalist enterprises must put the interest of their own businesses above everything else.

Our children are brought up to work in capitalist enterprises and if they are fortunate to lead them. They must learn to be good competitors and to look out for themselves. But, as democratic citizens  their orientation must be the opposite of their orientation as capitalist enterprises. As citizens of a democracy they must look for what is good for everybody. They must be, in the words of James Madison, "moral"-- not self-interested by dedicated to what is good for all.

James Madison thought that it is hard for fallible human beings to be good citizens. He did not live long enough to see that being a good citizen of a democracy is particularly difficult for those living under capitalism because they are constantly being steered to consider their own good at the expense of that of everybody else. People like that may thrive in capitalism and become billionaires--not mentioning any names--but they are not suited to be good democratic citizens.

Where everyone pursues his or her own private interest, agreement is very difficult to reach. Few people want the same thing and the more people are involved in decision-making the more different interests have to be reconciled. In order to get a capitalist democracy to work, it is best to reduce the number of people who have real decision-making power. Most members of Congress count for very little. Their leaders are, to put this very bluntly, bribed to take positions favorable to large corporations. In the end the number of genuine decision-makers becomes quite small and the affairs of all American citizens are run by a very limited number of corporate leaders. Democracy comes to an end.

James Madison's prediction of the death of democracy foretold with precision what would happen to a self interested citizenry. It has come out just as predicted.