Awake inside the American Nightmare

In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Dr. Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, examines the way in which America’s liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally been based on “a uniquely American higher education ideal” embodied in “small classes led by professors devoted to teaching and mentoring, in a community dedicated to learning,” and which “produce a stunningly large percentage of America’s leaders in virtually every field of endeavor,” have come under assault by the culture-wide shift toward vocational education. Here’s the official description of the book and its argument by its publisher, Harvard University Press:

A former college president trained in law and economics, Ferrall shows how a spiraling demand for career-related education has pressured liberal arts colleges to become vocational, distorting their mission and core values. The relentless competition among them to attract the “best” students has driven down tuition revenues while driving up operating expenses to levels the colleges cannot cover. The weakest are being forced to sell out to vocational for-profit universities or close their doors. The handful of wealthy elite colleges risk becoming mere dispensers of employment and professional school credentials. The rest face the prospect of moving away from liberal arts and toward vocational education in order to survive.

Yesterday in a brief piece for Pacific Standard, Dr. Ferrall argued — compellingly, I think — that this trend has dire implications for an American polity already afflicted by a raging pathology:

Today, the U.S. Congress is dysfunctional. The nation is mired in a mind-numbing political season, bombarded with often wildly inconsistent, wantonly dissembling, and obviously impossible claims. Beliefs are uncritically accepted as facts; prejudices asserted as truths. The possibility there could be even a scintilla of validity in what an opposing candidate or party says is rejected out of hand. That we might learn something from history that is useful now is routinely ignored. Just as an educated workforce is needed to overcome economic challenges, so to an educated citizenry is needed to overcome the governing crisis we face. Thoughtful citizens, capable of thinking critically, alert to the lessons of history, and unwilling to blindly accept unsupported assertions, are desperately needed if leaders are to be held accountable. The question is will the critical thinking skills responsible citizenship demands be inspired and nurtured by vocational courses of study such as new media or electronic game design. It seems unlikely.

— Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., “Are Vocational Education, Liberal Arts on a Collision Course?Pacific Standard, October 3, 2012

In leading up to this assessment, Ferrall smartly identifies the driving force behind America’s higher educational transformation into a gigantic job-training program. That driving force is the ideological reframing of education’s value in purely economic terms:

Young people are being advised to pursue directly career-related majors, rather than “impractical” liberal arts, by almost everyone — nervous parents; high school counselors; educational consultants; business leaders; and local, state, and federal officials. Anthony Carnevale, who heads the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, says American colleges and universities “need to streamline their programs, so they emphasize employability,” meaning that the college years are explicitly “preparing for an occupation.” President Obama concurs. “Education,” he says, “is an economic issue. Folks need a college degree. They need workforce training. They need a higher education … to make sure our graduates are ready for a career, ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century economy.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan adds, “The challenge of producing the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world is not just a question of national pride, it is an economic imperative.”

This is an excellent and nicely concise statement of the basic problem that is destroying American education. It is also, like so many other, similar statements, completely useless in practical terms, if by “usefulness” we mean “useful for changing the trend if identifies.” The fact that the economic reframing of education is a long-running development in America, with a decades-long history of being noted and lamented by a host of indignant and horrified critics, is, I think, an indication of where the future lies. There will be no late-in-the-game turnaround, at least not on a large, society-wide scale. The system itself, consisting of the intertwining of government, corporate economic power, educational administrators, and — crucially– the corporate-controlled media that frame what and how the majority of us think and talk about these matters, inherently prevents such a possibility. So does the basic mental-emotional attitude embodied by each of us. We’re all carriers of the virus. We are the enactors of the devastation we so often decry.

And of course the trend in education is simply part of a wider trend affecting everything else, for the same reasons just noted. It’s not just a disease with a long tail. In a very real sense, the disease is the whole animal. The American Nightmare has, by and large, become America itself.

Morris Berman argues in Why America Failed that the United States was born out of a tangle of competing motivations that can be reduced to two basic worldviews and ways of being: the hustling, economically driven worldview that elevates economic gain as the chief end of life, and a more laid-back worldview based on leisure, honor, refinement, and the pursuit of “the good life.” These existed in fundamental tension with each other right from the start of the American experiment, but now, says Morris, the former has finally and definitively gained the upper hand. The hustling way of life has emerged triumphant, and any other ways of seeing and being have either been eradicated entirely or relegated to the margins of America’s national identity, where they subsist as Sheol-like shades of ideas with no real effect on material conditions.

Jane Jacobs observes in Dark Age Ahead that entire nations can become afflicted by a kind of cultural “hangover” based on traumatic past experiences, and that this has happened in America with the issue of jobs, stemming from our near-death experience during the Great Depression. Thus, we’re gripped by a perpetual and all-pervasive sense of fundamental economic insecurity, a kind of post-traumatic stress reaction that makes us measure virtually (or literally) every national issue in terms of its impact on “job growth.” And so all other ends and goals are effectively subjugated to the One Imperative to Rule Them All: keep everyone employed, which today and for the apparently indefinite future means keeping everyone employed within an ever-complexifying and -intensifying system of multinational corporate capitalism.

Combining these two analyses, we can see clearly that here in America both our philosophical/psychological origins and our historical experience have colluded to transform us into a people possessed by the notion that the purpose of life, and all value therein, lies in the pursuit of material gain and “full employment.” For us, “success” means money, and vice versa.

And now, as laid out by Ferrall, we have begun in earnest the project of transforming our liberal educational institutions, whose traditional mission has been to produce thoughtful, reflective, historically and artistically informed individuals, into agents of this very ideology. Pair this with the late-20th-century rise of America’s consumer-based religious culture, embodied most prominently in the phenomenon of megachurches looking like Vegas shows crossbred with shopping malls, and you have a situation where the very cultural institutions that might serve as the most pointed sources of alternative values are themselves purveyors of the dominant worldview of market-based corporate capitalist triumphalism.

“The responsibility for being a real person instead of an economic zombie-drone rests entirely upon you. Only you can wake up. The organs of the American Nightmare can’t and won’t do it for you.”

Again, there will be no turning this train around. Any resistance to or awakening from the mass trance will only happen on an individual level, and may lead from there to groups of individuals who freely find each other and recognize a sympathetic resonance. The responsibility for being a real person instead of an economic zombie-drone whose raison d’être is employment by and for the system and its goal of indefinite self-perpetuation rests entirely upon you. Only you can wake up. The organs of the American Nightmare can’t and won’t do it for you, and this includes the colleges, including, increasingly, the liberal arts ones.

But of course the fundamental impetus to awaken has to come from outside of the system, which categorically and inherently cannot generate the awareness of its own deathly dreamlikeness, nor the desire to awaken from it. That system includes your own self, your own psyche, your own personal cosmic order. For any of us to recognize or seek anything more and better, it’s necessary for something to enter from the relative “darkness” lying outside that shell of personal identity. We require some sort of extra-cosmic call to a way of being that is better than, or at least different from, our current one, a kind of bolt from beyond that drives home the realization that what we have now may essentially be a good facsimile of hell. This is something I’ll say more about in my next column.

Image: “The American Nightmare” by Steve Caplin under Creative Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on October 4, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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