Thursday, March 8, 2012

More on Capitalism and Education

Not to belabor the point much more, but I believe there are some basic misconceptions within university humanities departments. I fear theoretical capitalism is being conflated with the modern "conservative" movement and "consumerism" which is, sadly, the dominant perversion of capitalism in practice.  

First, our "Culture of Work" was not capitalist in origin so much as it was religious in origin. The notion that "idle hands and minds are the Devil's playthings" emerged long before modern capitalist theory. The religious zealotry of our earliest immigrants gave us that legacy, I would propose.

Second, the "job skills" movement in universities is not a capitalist push to alter education. The managerial education can be traced to the early progressive ideals at places like the University of Wisconsin. For example, Woodrow Wilson praised Wisconsin for preparing the next generation of "administrators" for our nation. The technocratic idealism of the 1920s was spread across the political spectrum, though I do agree that many of our politicians are now so focused on employment skills, including our president, that they've forgotten the purpose of a liberal education model. We have forgotten that "progressive" in the 1920s meant embracing "managerial science" (quoting Wilson) to produce an administrative class of men. Now, we have had generations of managers produced by the system.

Liberals write of "individualism" being capitalism, which is not an accurate description of a core concept in capitalism. Allow me to expand on that. In theoretical capitalism, the "individual" controls his or her capital, including labor and knowledge. However, there is no value at all unless the individual or group selling a good or service is within a community. So, there is "individualism" but not some mythical individual apart from the community.

The individual must be able to explain and communicate his or her unique value to the community. The individual must also be a skilled evaluator of products and services, able to discern what is a true need and a good value. Unfortunately, corporatism (again, not pure capitalism) doesn't want consumers to evaluate products too closely. The last thing corporations (or most governments) want is evaluation and analysis. I'm not even sure some universities want too much analysis of the value proposition offered.

Beyond communication skills, in capitalism the community must be educated and skilled enough to allow for specializations that are to be distributed amongst the members. For example, if I live alone and off-the-grid as many radical "conservatives" do, I cannot be a capitalist. The fringe militia members I've met don't buy or sell anything. They are religiously and socially conservative, but they are not capitalists.

To be a capitalist, I have to engage a larger group of people with specialized skills. The idea is that specializing, instead of generalizing, allows me to be the best of the best. You start as a generalist, though, to become that specialist.

A capitalist relies on community and cohesion to market services and products. If I'm the best baker in town, I want everyone to know it. I want to sell or trade my baked goods with everyone I can, especially with those people specializing in skills I might need: a builder, a plumber, a doctor, whatever. I need to know my community well so I can find and purchase the best goods and services at the best price/trade.

Community is key to capitalism. The rugged individual is a lousy capitalist. If you live in isolation, growing your own food and making your own clothes, you're not a capitalist. 

This leads to an obvious question: Why are our universities stuck with a nineteenth-century work-based ethic if not capitalism?

Our universities, starting with Harvard and Yale, were created to train religious and cultural leaders. The shift to technical training didn't happen until the land grant institutions came along and expanded after the Civil War. Even into the 1940s, our university enrollments in the United States were dominated by religious scholarship, not career paths in private industry. (Greek and Latin were required at Yale into the twentieth century because you had to prove you could read the Greek and Latin scriptures, not because they loved the great philosophers.)

Stephen Prothero's book Religious Literacy offers a great history of the switch from religious higher education to skills-based education (p. 101-3). "Over the course of the late nineteenth century, faculty fiat gave gave way to student choice, and the old emphasis on learning content yielded to acquiring certain skills (101)." People have forgotten that Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois were all "officially nonsectarian Protestant" universities, which only later became secular.

Now, to compare the religious historical underpinnings of the university system in America to our current social and economic mess:

Corporatism / consumerism (as opposed to Adam Smith's capitalism) runs counter to most traditional American religious ideals and what our universities taught until the 1940s. Our universities trained men (and a few women) to be moral role models: church and civic leaders. Our universities were all about self-sacrifice and restraint. Until recently I can't imagine any religious leader arguing in favor of conspicuous consumption. That's a strange new breed of Christianity, an outlier historically.

The rise of "electronic media" changed America. I listen to Old Time Radio and am a collector of shows. When you listen, the commercialization was constant. Product placement was a given, from Johnson's Wax to Signal Gasoline, every show included a product name in the title and within the scripts.

Once we had "ad men" and modern marketing, consumerism took hold. The original theory of capitalism was create a great product to fill a need and sell it for maximum profit via informed and open bargaining. The new theory, thanks to marketing, became "Sell a mediocre product nobody needs for an obscene profit." Forget a well-informed transaction between equal parties. Nope, now it was sell something based on Tom Nix endorsing the product.

I'm a defender of capitalism and classical liberalism, as I've stated, but like Hoover I'm willing to admit that "The worst thing about capitalism is the capitalists."

Then again, a basic philosophical point on which most capitalists do agree is that the nature of mankind isn't uniformly wonderful. Only a few bad actors can destroy an entire community.

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