The last generation’s successes become the next generation’s problems
An interesting recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that explains one effect of California’s epic budget crisis on its college system spells out a principle with much wider applications for our culture and civilization at large.
“California’s ‘Gold Standard’ for Higher Education Falls Upon Hard Times” (June 15) explains how the fabled California Master Plan for Higher Education, which was enacted in 1960 with the intent of handling the Baby Boomer surge by enabling and encouraging more people than ever before to attend college, “served as a blueprint for public systems across the country” but is now called severely into question by the state’s budget disaster. The end result for California’s colleges will almost inevitably be messy, chaotic, and destructive.
What really struck me as I read the article, though, were its closing lines, which dovetail with something said earlier in it to frame California’s situation as a virtual parable about the wider civilizational and cultural problems we’re all facing right now. A paragraph in the middle of the piece explains that the state’s current college problems “are a far cry from the ones California faced in 1960, when 90 percent of the population was white, the state was flush with cash, and the main challenge was designing a higher-education system that could absorb a tidal wave of new students in the baby boom.”
Then, after a number of meaty paragraphs exploring the specifics of the situation, the piece closes with this:
But even if the master plan were revised [says Jane V. Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability], the document carries so much baggage that it might be better to come up with a new name instead. Solutions that made sense 50 years ago, she says, are now getting in the way.
“The last generation’s successes,” she says, “become the next generation’s problems.”
If that doesn’t capture the essence of an enormous portion our current economic and civilizational troubles, wherein certain programs and policies were enacted and pursued with abandon and hailed as huge successes but later revealed as having a short shelf life, after which they’re actually detrimental but still difficult to get away from because of their mythic momentum, then I don’t know what does.
I’m talking about things like America’s wholesale adopting of neoliberal economic policies, the complete financialization of our economy, our transition from a culture of savings to a culture of investment risk-taking (cloaked in the lie that such investments are inherently safe), our willing civilization-wide enslavement to fossil fuels and therefore to infinite military spending and neo-imperial expansion, our adherence to and reliance upon an economic philosophy of infinite growth, and so on. These and other moves resulted, on varying time scales, in huge material benefits for a lot of people, but they turned out to be predicated on a fundamental ignore-ance of the fact that such policies are not sustainable in the long run, or even, in some cases, in the short run.
And now there’s hell to pay.