15 May 2012

A Nation of Cynics

“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Oscar Wilde


I had no idea that in 2001 an elementary school in New Jersey became America’s first public school “to sell naming rights to a corporate sponsor,” Sandel writes. “In exchange for a $100,000 donation from a local supermarket, it renamed its gym ‘ShopRite of Brooklawn Center.’ ... A high school in Newburyport, Mass., offered naming rights to the principal’s office for $10,000. ... By 2011, seven states had approved advertising on the sides of school buses.”
Seen in isolation, these commercial encroachments seem innocuous enough. But Sandel sees them as signs of a bad trend: “Over the last three decades,” he states, “we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organizing productive activity. But a ‘market society’ is a place where everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where market values govern every sphere of life.
Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded. [Emphasis added.]

In a post on the autism of economics, I theorized that economics had lost its way by basically trying to put a price on everything.  I now think that this mindset has already made its way into the broader culture.

I’m not sure why this is the case, but I think that this tendency to put a price on everything is indicative of a social disease.  As Friedman notes, the message is that everything is for sale.  In a sense, this is true.  But that should not necessarily mean that everything can be purchased with money.

Getting back to the disease, I think the biggest problem society faces is that of materialism.  Everyone is focused on getting things and having stuff.  As with above, schools want money, presumably to buy things for students and teachers.  The idea is that having more pay for teachers, or having smartboards, or having more ergonomically-designed desks, or having whatever else is theorized to improve students’ scores will lead to a better educational process.  In each case, though, the root assumption is that things lead to better results, not people.  Ultimately, this mindset is one that is predicated on denying people’s humanity.  Students are not individuals with their own personalities, quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and interests.  They are merely throughputs in the industrial machine of public education.  Thus, if there is a problem with students, it is not because the system is flawed, but because the system doesn’t have the right blend of educational components.  The solution, then, is to buy more components, even if that means raising money by selling naming rights to the school.

Now, my lament is not that the state should “do something” about this problem—from what I can tell, the state is actually at fault for a good portion of the problem—nor do I actually care what a school is named after.  In fact, the problem of selling naming rights of schools is not actually of much interest to me, since school names tend to be arbitrary anyway.  No, what concerns me is that everything is being reduced to a number.

This is, I suppose, an extension of the science fetishist mindset, wherein everything has to be made into objective, sortable, analyzable data.  The science fetishism of modern society pervades every aspect of society, as everything and everyone has to be broken down into their base elements and converted to an equation. Students cease to be humans and instead become numbers:  test scores, subject grades, and desk rows.  Teachers are also turned into numbers:  salaries, average student test scores, and so on.  Likewise with principals, schools, districts, administrators, and so on.  People—human beings—are reduced to easily digested statistics, which are then bandied about by the politicians and talking heads, as if simple numbers adequately represent hundreds of thousands of human beings, their drive, their ambitions, their talents, their abilities, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  When people become mere numbers, it should come as no surprise that everything else is reduced to numbers as well.

Thus, the fact that schools are turning their schools into giant billboards indicates not only has the world gone mad with materialism, it has gone so completely mad with it that even students and teachers are reduced to mere objects—throughputs and inputs for the assembly line of modern education.  Everything has a price, but nothing has value.  Everything is reduced to a number, to a statistic.

I suppose that this is the inevitable result of a society where everything is increasingly centralized.  Small business is hampered by federal laws, which are often enacted at the behest of major corporations.  (Incidentally, small business owners are far more personal and personable than CEOs of giant corporations, probably because they interact with their employees and customers on a daily business, and get to know them as humans and not mere numbers.)   The role of educator has been mostly stripped from parents and given first to state governments and, increasingly of late, to the federal government.  Even the religious world emphasizes centralization, embracing mega-churches and extremely hierarchical organization: those who make the rules and those who have to live by them often do not know each other personally, at least in churchianity.

Quite simply, the personal is frowned upon.  The large-scale, central organization is worshipped.  Leftists worship big government (who else can so efficiently save people from their humanity?); the right worships big-business (because economies of scale are so efficient, which is why the government has to subsidize them with regulations and special market protections).  Everything must be big, which means the end of the personal.

I suspect that we would not suffer all that much if we scaled back everything.  Government would be more accountable if those who ruled lived next door to their subjects (imagine suggesting this to Obama or Romney).  Businesses would be more concerned about quality of products and services if owners lived next door to their customers* (having worked for a Fortune 100 company and a couple of small business owners, I can testify that this is indeed the case).  Education would be more effective if parents and administrators lived next door to each other.

Actually, education would be more effective if parents and administrators were the same people.  The reason why homeschooling is so effective is simply due to the fact that most parents who homeschool do so because they care about their children as fellow human beings.  Personally, I can testify that while my parents were concerned about me mastering, say, long division and spelling, I could always rest assured that at the end of the day, my teacher (mom) and principal (dad) would still love me and take care of me regardless of what I scored on my math test.  Quite simply, I mattered to them.  I was not merely a number to them, but an actual human for whose intellectual, social, moral, emotional, and spiritual development they were responsible.  Try getting that from a public school teacher who spends as much time attending worthless seminars and filling out trivial paperwork as she does actually interacting with two dozen students.

At the end of the day, society is built on personal relationships.  When those relationships erode, so does society.  And when everything becomes reduced to a number, it is safe to say that society has become increasingly impersonal, and is thus in the beginning stage of decline.

* I will have more to say on this in a future post.

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