Monday, October 21, 2013

Oh my sad home place
Torrey Orton
Oct. 21, 2013

Oh my sad home place in me…how you look from here…

…is what I wrote to myself some nights ago as I finished reading the sudden capitulation of the temperamentally optimistic Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, among others,  who bewail (no longer just bemoan) the decline of their exceptional country in the face of the rising tides of its fundamentalist progeny (the backward and truthless Tea Party and its religious (e.g. evangelicals) and  greedy (e.g. Kochs at al) facilitators) of the late capitalist days of the West (and maybe the East, too, long before they got to have more than a taste of it). I felt sad - just that for a while - and it came back a week later. I’ve often been outraged and despairing of my country of origin’s systemic faults, but sad was new. As if something is passing, maybe passed, as they now say of the dying. And so something in me which has long felt an endangered remnant I feel is sinking into the dark night of spirit.

This something I think is a gift of my upbringing – an education – no longer available even from the bastions of educational quality which I worked through 50 years ago and more. At the time I despised the boarding school and subsequently loved the undergraduate and post-graduate institutions I traversed between my 13th  and 27th years (with a four year timeout as a teacher).

I see all this from far away, not just in space but also in preoccupation. I have been busy learning other things about cultures and peoples and occupations that living around the world make necessary - most especially my times in China at various junctures between 1978 and 2008.

I guess this loss was predicted by Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (US $6.36 at the Harvard Coop remainders table a year after publication announces the purchase receipt still occupying the Foreword by Saul Bellow) which I bought when it came out years ago and never read until I was recalled to Bloom again by a retread of his argument in the NYRB a couple years ago.  In the last chapter of the book was a section titled “The decomposition of the university” in a chapter called The student and the university foreshadowing a string of book length theses confirming Bloom’s fears in the early Noughties, including one by an undergraduate philosophy colleague now Yale Prof. Anthony Kronman (Education’s End Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given UP on the Meaning of Life – Yale, 2007). Harry Lewis at Harvard published Excellence WITHOUT A SOUL How a Great University Forgot Education -Public Affairs, 2006.

That a 30+ year old Williams College grad at Heritage Action is a leading manipulator of Republican reps and senators with Koch bros’ $$ and the mindless certitudes of the under-educated masses they manipulate without remorse for the sake of power is confirming of my loss. He remains nameless though nameable because he could have been of Yale or MIT or choose your establishment’s provenance The American inhabitants of the international Top 50 universities ratings have for decades been churning their precursors out of their undergrad societies. Skull and Bones for dinner?

And this was not predictable from the Sixties. Who could have thought that the standards which ruled my days in the learning yoke of the best would have corroded so thoroughly and so unnoticed by their very core supporters – my teachers and we who learned from them, our generation of leaders of thought. Almost without a joint whimper anywhere but the books mentioned above they succumbed to the Circes of late capitalism and its strange facilitator relativism, polished by positivist science. There were counter tremors in various fields but few moral outbursts to be found as the language and practice of learning was suborned by that of “productivity” and customer service.

There’s a tremor of the same here in Whackademia (NewSouth, 2012), Richard Hil’s indictment of the greater and less great Australian universities in similar arguments to Kronman and Lewis, with a down-under flavour. Recently the staff of Sydney University went on strike against the administration’s latest efforts to “reform” the place. Among the issues were:

“ … commodification is just one facet of the disastrous hijacking of universities by corporate interests and ideology. It might have been hoped that senior academics would show some critical distance from the corporate shibboleths of our age. Far from it: vice-chancellors and their deputies now enthusiastically enact the values of competition, league-tables, performance indicators and similar managerial fetishes with all the fervor of recent converts.

Students, correspondingly, are increasingly encouraged to view their education as a commercial transaction, and themselves as clients. Except that they’re getting an increasingly shoddy deal, with cost-cutting bringing reductions in the number of course offerings and increases in casually employed teaching staff – a trend the union’s current campaign has successfully opposed, in the face of strenuous management resistance.”

But it’s a bit late. The entire discourse is corrupted, it seems. Sad countries.

Paul Krugman, a somewhat less positive scribe says a few days ago in his closing remarks on the resolution of the  U.S. default discussions:

“Things could have been even worse. This week, we managed to avoid driving off a cliff. But we’re still on the road to nowhere.”

Mad country?

For a counter argument of sorts see Ely Ratner deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and Thomas Wright a fellow with the Managing Global Order project at the Brookings Institution  here:

There’s the judgment problem of incommensurable measures between them and the others…but what’s new? Same country, different worlds. One the world of economies and the other of influences.

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