When I was a grad student many moons ago, I was enrolled in a summer session course. I was nearing the end of my degree program and many of the course titles and experiences have blended together in my memory. But this one stood out… not because of the content but because of one exchange that occurred between the professor and a younger (than I) student. After the prof had shared what he considered to be the salient facts about our upcoming experience, this young man asked the equivalent of “what will we have to do to get an “A”? The professor looked at him in silence for what seemed like an eternity and then replied, “Son, I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.”
During the past few years that exchange has crept into my thinking with increasing frequency. I find myself echoing the thinking of my grad professor and am becoming increasingly convinced that our “current” is not working and our future doesn’t look all that great either.
“Wait!”…”What?” Stock market’s up. Unemployment’s down. The economy continues to grow. GDP and GNP figures are good. By traditional quantitative measures, we’re doing swell. But what if traditional quantitative measures are the wrong measures? What if qualitative measures are not so great. What if the things that make Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, etc. unimaginably wealthy are not the things that are improving the quality of life for the majority of us? Do the quantitative measures matter to those whose life expectancy is dropping to levels unheard of for rich countries? How about rising levels infant mortality, rising medical costs, rising levels of indebtedness, loss of job/retirement security, shrinking middle class, increasing concerns about access to quality educational opportunities, or over 40 consecutive years of involvement in foreign wars, etc.?
What if the story of the American Dream is no longer a reality/possibility for an increasing number of Americans?
I find myself wondering why we aren’t asking these questions. Why haven’t I been asking them? My answer is not one I’m proud of. The short form is this… these things didn’t touch me or at least they haven’t yet. I earned good money, have a nice home, have a boat, have a somewhat dependable public retirement pension with paid health benefits and have a family whose members are also doing well. I donated to some charities, volunteered here and there and learned (perhaps without realizing it) not to look too closely at those around me.
In short I was “fat and happy”.
Then along came the election of 2016. I have always tended to pick and choose my ideologies… sometimes I identify with libertarian ideas that challenge the need for big government, at other times I think of myself as a fiscal conservative – i.e., don’t spend what you don’t have — and, at still other times(and perhaps most strongly), I tend to identify as a social liberal. I am most certainly a pacifist, having never struck another person and shying away from most conflicts. But in the aftermath of 2016, I found myself perplexed. It seemed as if the values that I grew up with and have accepted as guideposts for living were being challenged. At one point I described the feeling that we were fighting a battle (more use of warfare language…more about that later) for the soul of a nation. Not finding the words I needed to express this out loud I decided to explore my response. I began to read more things outside of my “vocational” area of education. My reading was pretty undisciplined and eclectic. I read people from very varied walks of life and perspectives. I read Marianne Williamson, Umair Haque, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Charles Eisenstein, Will Richardson, among others.
What did I learn?
I learned first and foremost that I needed to act. I need to avoid the “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There” trap. I need to “do something”. (BTW…This is one of those actions.) I learned that 2016 wasn’t the year of the attack on American values. The “American values” that were part of the story with which I grew up were, at best, embellished as a part of the “story of America” and, at worst, were mythical.
I revised my beliefs and, hopefully, my approach to responding to this awareness. I’m not certain that you will accept and/or share these beliefs. I’ll leave that to you. At this point, I wonder what will happen if we all at least spend some time examining what we believe, what has informed such beliefs and how such beliefs inform/limit our actions. I’ll start with my beliefs… beliefs that come not so much from reading the work of others but by working backwards from actions to discern the rationale for those actions. I find reinforcement for this approach in schools I have visited across he country during the last 15 years or so of my work. In these experiences, I’ve learned that the beliefs that guide a school or a school district are not found on the mission statement that are posted on the wall by the entrance. No. The beliefs are found by observing the practices, policies, and actions that guide everyday behavior. I hope you’ll scrutinize my beliefs using that same approach… how we act reveals what we believe.
To help with that reflection, here’s an example of the frequent disconnect between statements and actual beliefs. Not infrequently one can find some variation of the following as a mission statement in most schools.
We are dedicated to the development of independent, responsible citizens who can contribute positively and creatively to our society.
- In not one school did I find a survey of former graduates to assess their contributions to the society they entered.
- In virtually every school the policies, practices and procedures screamed compliance, not independence.
- In the vast majority of these schools if one wanted to find practice in creativity, one better head for the art classroom. Creativity building experiences were in short supply in most other places.
But first: You’ll notice that these beliefs are not very positive. That’s the point. It’s not that we don’t all share positive beliefs, positive traits. We are humans that share a basic goodness, a historical trajectory towards self improvement , an innate desire to help those less fortunate, but our actions have become driven by those that I list below.
We are in the process of writing a new story and that new story, right now, is being shaped by beliefs that we have been reluctant to confront and, often, by a sense of our powerlessness to write a more positive story. This has a predictably bad end. My goal here is not to define an action but to create a space in which you might be able to reflect and choose an action that best fits you.
We are a violent nation. While we abhor the instances of mass shootings, we have relied on violence as a solution to problems from our very first landing on the shores. We continued this with our response to Native American resistance, with our normalization of slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese/Americans, and with wars fought to increase our holdings and/or expand our country. We continue embrace a language of violence in our conversations, in our policies and practices, etc. We wage “war” on drugs, poverty, illiteracy, etc. We refer to money raised by candidates to win elections as “war chests”. We “battle” for slots on the party ticket. We make films that lionize the “reluctant” killer (see the Taken series, the Bourne movies, etc.) who grimaces in regret as he snaps the neck of a bad guy. We glorify violence and then we wonder why our children respond to emotional anguish with school shootings. We spend unimaginable amounts on the defense our nation and our interests around the world and laugh at the suggestion of a candidate who proposes the creation of a cabinet level Department of Peace.
We are an arrogant nation. We have believed our own press clippings about American “exceptionalism”. We are so convinced of our own national superiority that we are unable to even look for answers to issues of health care, retirement security, immigration, etc. in countries that have already resolved or have begun to resolve such issues. Our arrogance also extends to a belief that we can inflict significant damage to our planet, firm in the belief that when it gets bad enough we will pull another rabbit out of the hat and all will be well.
We are impatient. We have little patience for deep problem analysis, gravitating instead to a reliance and faith in quick decisive action. Andrew Bacevitch, in his book, Limits of Power, focuses on our tendency to be seduced by a reliance on the promises of messianic leaders… leaders who announce/sell their ability and commitment to resolve issues which have remained stubbornly resistant to previous, similar approaches.
We are a country founded on principles of patriarchy. We continue a culture of male superiority. Almost without exception, females who rise to levels of corporate or political leadership have had to “out male” their male counterparts. Strong willed, decisive men are characterized as leaders. Women with similar traits are labeled as difficult.
We are a nation founded on the principle of white supremacy. This is an inherited perspective. In his book, The Imperial Cruise, James Bradley describes Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter’s cruise to the orient and the continuation of the European “mandate” to bring civilization to countries of other races. While this cruise took place 40 years after the conclusion of the civil war and the emancipation of the slaves in our country, it reveals a deep-seated belief in the superiority of the white, European race. There has been much written about this notion of white supremacy in recent months and I have little of consequence to add to the story. I see our relationship with peoples of other ethnicities and colors to be closely related to the belief I’ve included a few paragraphs from now about the transactional value of human life.
But these might not be the most critical of our national beliefs. Perhaps most important is the acknowledgement that we have accepted, even as the richest nation on earth, that we live in a world of scarcity. Life in our country is a zero sum game. In the wealthiest country the world has ever known, we feel we must continue to acquire because of the belief that there’s not enough for all of us. Those who acquire much are praised and cited as proof of the reality of the American Dream. But in a time of scarcity what someone else gains, I can’t have – i.e., we can’t give money to poor people; if we do I’ll have less. We believe that if someone gains, I must lose. There are winners and losers. Winners worked hard, losers not so much. Those who didn’t achieve as much or perhaps not even enough to enjoy the middle class version of the American Dream have only themselves to blame. They didn’t work hard enough.
Closely related to the zero-sum belief is the belief that life has no inherent value beyond its contribution to the economy– i.e., the value of life is measured by what one contributes to the economy. This, in effect, makes all life transactional, a part of the deal. A direct result of this belief is the consequence that the majority of people in our country report feeling unvalued. We need to at least consider that, increasingly as individuals, we have simply become resources for profit driven quantitative measures of progress. In my own chosen field of work, education, we have come to value education not because of the contribution it makes to living a good life or how it contributes to the betterment of our society, but to the extent that “good” education (again measured in quantitative terms – i.e., large-scale assessments) provides good workers for the economy. It is no accident that business leaders and business organizations – i.e., Chambers of Commerce – have become key policy setters in past several decades.
As I get close to wrapping this up, I’m going to add one final belief for your consideration. I want to give credit for this to Charles Eisenstein. Charles spoke about this at the gathering I attended and has written about it in his essay, The Age of We Need Each Other.
We are living in an Age of Separation. Let me share more about this.
Over the course of my lifetime I have seen us grow increasingly separate from one another
- It’s not uncommon for us not to know even basic information about our own neighbors, let alone people of different races or ethnicity.
- We have become increasingly polarized in our opinions – i.e., the chasm between the position that our national security/identity is threatened by the current large influx of refugees vs. the reconciliation of such positions with the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor – your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
- We see increasing examples of our inability/unwillingness to engage in civil discourse with people with whom we disagree… better to circle the wagons of our own tribe.
I’ve seen us become increasingly separate from our institutions.
- We no longer trust our schools.
- We no longer trust our elected officials.
- We even find it increasingly difficult to trust our clergy.
I have also see us become increasingly separate from our own planet.
- We cannot agree on the threat of global warming or even the accuracy of the science.
- We have eliminated a huge percentage of the insects on our planet… not acknowledging that if we kill something approaching half of the actual life on the planet, we may be placing our own survival at risk.
- We continue to treat the planet as a source of unlimited natural resources – i.e., oil, precious metals, fresh water, forests, etc.
You might think this is a pretty dismal conclusion. But I’d suggest it’s not the conclusion. Rather it’s an observation. It’s not cast in stone, unless we opt to continue as observers in our own demise.
The conclusion is that we can forge a path that can be a positive response to these beliefs. It is the path that focuses on empathy rather than anger. It is the path that seeks connection rather than separation. It’s a path that moves the conversation beyond our agreement/disagreement with the actions of a single leader. It a path that requires us to identify what matters and who we want to be. It’s a path that suggests that we answer questions such as…
- I wonder why in the richest country on earth, we feel and act on a sense of scarcity?
- I wonder what would happen if we were to seek answers to critical questions rather than respond with rigid ideologies?
- Couldn’t we at least try make this a land of sufficiency for all?
- What would happen if we acknowledged that solving problems is not aided by “win/lose” thinking?
The path to these questions requires an action… an action beyond seeing our future unfold on the nightly news or being shaped by the opinions of cable news pundits. What that action is isn’t for me to define. It’s for each of us… as an “each” and as an “us”.