Tag Archives: American culture

Who Are We?

Today is Sunday. And Father’s Day.

Believers who celebrate Sabbath on Sunday will go to church and hear exhortations about living a good and moral life.  Depending upon the denomination, the focus will be on love and compassion, charity and social justice.

In most families, Fathers will receive sentimental greeting cards from their children thanking them for their patience and love and support. Some will get sweaters or ties or sporting gear; others will have a family dinner.

These Norman Rockwell experiences make us feel good about ourselves. We’re good people, family people, caring citizens.

So here is my question: how many Americans will go to work tomorrow for an employer who has cut his or her hours in order to avoid paying for health insurance? If we are to believe the media reports, it’s not an insignificant number.

At Indiana University, where I teach, there’s a new rule that Graduate Assistants–already poorly paid–cannot work more than 29 hours a week, because then they would be eligible for health insurance. The Indianapolis Star recently reported that several Indiana school districts were planning to cut back hours for many staff positions, so that they could avoid insuring the people in those positions. Private employers, of course, have been engaging in such practices for years, in order to avoid compliance with a number of regulations that apply only when employees work a certain number of hours.

This response to an effort–however flawed–to extend basic health services to people who currently can’t afford those services tells us something about our culture. And what it tells us isn’t consistent with that Norman Rockwell version of ourselves.

Culture Matters

Eugene Robinson is one of the more thoughtful members of America’s “pundocracy.” This morning’s column is an example; in descriptive paragraphs that suggest our politicians are fiddling while America burns, he says

“The central issue is the prospect of decline. For much of the 20th century, the United States boasted the biggest, most vibrant economy in the world and its citizens enjoyed the best quality of life. The former is still obviously true; the latter, arguably still the case. But there is a sense that we’re fading — that tomorrow might not be as bright as today.

Our systems seem to have become sclerotic. The United States still has the finest colleges and universities in the world, but now ranks no higher than fifth among 36 industrialized countries in the percentage of working-age adults who have at least an associate degree, according to a 2011 report by the College Board. We have the most expensive medical care in the world yet rank 50th in life expectancy, behind such nations as Jordan and Greece, according to the CIA Factbook. Our society now features less economic mobility than is found in Canada and much of Europe, according to the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Our manufacturing sector is just a shadow of what it once was, and that’s not China’s fault. Because of automation and the globalization of the labor market, rich countries can only excel at high-endmanufacturing that requires more brains than brawn. Our future lies in knowledge and information. So let’s go there.”

Well and good–it’s difficult to disagree with him. Certainly, this college professor isn’t going to dispute the importance of education. So why can’t we seem to “go there,” as Robinson urges?

I certainly don’t have a dispositive diagnosis for what ails us right now, but I think I can identify one piece of the problem. We have developed a culture that sneers at intellect, that dismisses expertise and knowledge as “elitist,” and that elevates impulse and “gut” over rationality. The popular culture elevates belief over knowledge (the Founders were all “bible-believing” Christians; there’s no such thing as global warming, etc. etc.), and minimizes the Enlightenment virtues–empirical investigation, respect for evidence, belief in human dignity–that animated our origins.

I don’t know how we got here (although I have a couple of theories), and I don’t know how to turn things around, but I know where such a culture will take us if we cannot reverse course. Anyone who has ever raised children understands that they aspire to the goals and live by the values of their environments, primarily but not exclusively the values held by their families. “Do as I say and not as I do” rarely works. Children know what sorts of achievement are genuinely valued, what sorts of behavior will really be admired.

Right now, the message our culture is sending is not conducive to intellectual rigor–or to intellectual honesty, for that matter.

And that matters.

Schizo America

Lately, I’ve been noticing how schizophrenic American politics are.

We talk endlessly about democracy and the importance of citizen participation while we enthusiastically endorse efforts to erect barriers to voting; we celebrate the ideal of meritocracy while supporting economic policies that enrich the privileged at the expense of the poor; we lecture welfare recipients about “personal responsibility” but never utter the phrase to corporate fat cats profiting from corporate welfare.

And then there’s our absolutely schizoid approach to “standards” and “elitism.”

Public schools are constantly criticized for lacking adequate standards for achievement. Reformers have insisted on high-stakes testing, teacher benchmarks, and a whole range of other measures all geared to improving performance–to measuring up to a standard.

Meanwhile, people who have achieved academically are routinely dismissed as out-of-touch elitists. One of the most common accusations leveled at President Obama is that he’s an “elitist”–an accusation based not upon his lower-middle-class upbringing, but upon his academic performance and the provenance of his degrees.

It’s not just Obama, of course. It’s anyone with a couple of degrees or demonstrated expertise. (When someone doesn’t like a column of mine, an email calling me an “elitist academic” is commonplace–presumably, simply teaching at a University makes one an elitist. In a related phenomenon, in some minority communities, getting good grades is derided as “acting white.”)

When the acquisition of a measure of expertise routinely generates scorn, it sends a very mixed message about what it is that Americans really value.

When we compare the test scores of American students with the scores of students from other countries, we might want to inquire into the cultures of the countries whose students do better than ours. Perhaps the cultures of such countries support academics in ways American culture does not.

Maybe those countries have cultures that are less schizo.