It’s worth thinking about how, in spite of the maximization of educational opportunities, we have gotten into the mess where the least intelligent US President in history is running the country into the abyss with the consent of the Congress, and with a substantial minority of the population in agreement even as their rights and protections are being ravaged. At the same time, something perilously similar is undermining countries as diverse as Great Britain, Italy, Indonesia, Austria, Israel and Columbia. The list is long.
One set of factors is the Massification of Higher Education. The second set of factors is the puerile influence of Post-modernism. The combination has led to an entire span of generations who obsessively believe things which are clearly wrong and are not working.
Misplaced faith in IQ. Hardly anyone under the age of 90 in “developed” countries doubts that intelligence is good. Access to education is based on it. But continuous examples show that bright people in key positions with no conscience are bad for society.
You CAN. Our role model is the stunning individualist who sets off against all odds and does amazing things nobody believed possible. But the message is that whole societies should be composed of this sort of self-directed diva. It’s the merit trickle-down theory that this kind of person benefits those lesser endowed. Still, sooner or later protectionism prevails and the benefits become expensive so the newly wealthy can become more so.
I am what I do. The value of a person is measured by what the person accomplishes. What I do is what should be celebrated. Moral character is devalued in behalf of what is pragmatic. But when there is little value placed on building social harmony, society crumbles.
Institutions are disparaged. The most egregious gift of post-modernism is the conviction that institutions are untrustworthy. We have a public that has withdrawn not only their respect for such institutions as government and corporations, but also their belief that they can relate to those institutions. Without public accountability institutions become what they are imagined to be, greedy and flagrant.
Difference is the goal. We do not need to look far to see what goes wrong when a society refuses to appreciate diversity. But diversity is not the goal. The point must be that different people and their cultural perspectives are important to achieve a common purpose. When the point of being a large society is lost, there are only small exclusive societies left.
I am indebted to David Brooks for his May 28, 2018 opinion column “The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite” in the New York Times for his insights which I have adapted. Brooks identifies with the “Boomer” generation, and acknowledges its failure to have civic consciousness. He advocates, “… a new ethos … to redefine how people are seen, how applicants are selected, how social roles are understood and how we narrate a common national purpose.”
How to get there is the basic question. Surely education is the way to introduce “a new ethos”. But that will take a pedagogical revolution, and if we continue with the social fragmentation brought to us by post-modernism we will never get there. As long as the sole purpose of education is the production of factors of production, even if you call graduates “professionals”, there is little room for character building. For societies composed of individuals without character the downhill trajectory is steep.
Meanwhile, authoritarian societies avoid the perils of meritocracy by sticking to aristocracy. In an authoritarian society, like Thailand, upward mobility is grudgingly encouraged as long as everybody rises without dislodging the elite and upsetting their ability to pass their privileges along to the chosen of the next generation. Change is OK, as long as nothing changes about how the rich and powerful stay that way.
Obviously, in authoritarian societies the dangers of post-modern, entitled individualism are prevented. But how they do it is also (as with neo-liberal societies) at the expense of character development. Those are honored who exemplify the duties of their status and designated function. Those who strive to rise are obstructed. Mediocrity is to be preferred to turbulence, even that disturbance which comes from critical thinking and social innovation. It is all about short-term acquisition. An aristocratic, authoritarian society is just as oblivious to the impact of its actions on any future generation as “liberated post-moderns” are.
The mess can be cleaned up. Education can once again involve heart, mind and soul. It can again be about building social harmony and shared well-being. But stake-holders will need to regain power to hold each other accountable. The generators of collective conscience must make this need their focus.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.