What killed people’s sense of mattering was the growth of very high levels of inequality. What caused such high levels of inequality was the rise of the postBretton Woods global economic world. What ended the Bretton-Woods world was ultimately new technologies that created a world were individual and corporate greed were freed of local, national, and international social constraints like the Bretton Woods Agreement. When this happened, people and institutions could have made other choices. So, why did greed win and not a concerted effort, across all classes, to make a better world out of the ashes of the old one?
I argued above that in the Wonder Years the ends of different sorts of institutions were various: health, justice, knowledge, spiritual needs, and material. Profit making was meant as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. It does not matter whether it was true that these various institutions actually served these needs and, indeed, greed has always been with us. What matters is that a great many people believed it and that fact gave both meaning to their lives, to their work, and to society. It made them feel like they mattered to society.
The new global world created great inequality. In turn, this inequality eroded people’s sense of mattering and lowered their trust in institutions of all sorts, a trust already undermined by the Sixties. This in turn had two effects: First, it made people less likely to fight back and cooperate to create a new meaningful order. Second, it freed status based on wealth to be the only trustworthy source of continuity and mattering in the new global world. When “higher ends” like justice and knowledge disappear as sources of meaning and mattering, then all that is left is every person for themselves (and their kin) and status seeking based on wealth that, in turn, makes inequality ever worse. And that’s what we got.
In the end the basic idea I am trying to push here is this: A conjuncture of events (the death of Bretton Woods, the Sixties, attempted reforms, and the coming of casino capitalism) destroyed our beliefs in the core values of our institutions beyond greed and profit. The response could have been pulling together for renewal, but it was not. When core values—however illusionary they may or may not be—die and are not replaced (often at the cost of great risk) then what is left is individualism, greed, and status marked by money. This is the fallback position for humans when they cannot think of deeper sources of meaning, sources that require trust in, and sharing values with, others. And, too, many who are left behind by other people’s greed and will seek to find meaning and mattering in shared ideologies that demonize others in an attempt to find culprits, in the act usually blaming the blameless. This is itself a form of self-serving.
The only way out is not to get rid of free markets—there are none. The only way out is to lower inequality, to heal people, to let them rediscover a sense of meaning and mattering. There is the danger, of course, that the meaning they find will be a toxic one, based on insiders versus outsiders and a general blame game. Meaning making for humans is a vexed, vulnerable, and a never perfect project. Perhaps, then, it might be a new end for our broken colleges and universities to shepherd new and more humane meaning-making and mattering for all.
Colleges and Universities
Many colleges and universities have ruined their brands as well. Just recently (April 27, 2017) Purdue University announced that it had acquired the highly troubled for-profit Kaplan University. Kaplan, like many other for-profit universities, burdened its students with unsustainable levels of debt and spent more money on advertising that teaching. Purdue’s faculty was informed of the acquisition only an hour before the announcement. Purdue paid only $1 to acquire more than 100 Kaplan academic programs, ranging from certificates to doctoral degrees. Its looks at this point that Purdue plans to let Kaplan continue to run pretty much as it has, while giving it whatever validity Purdue still has left, and collecting a share of the profits.
Purdue’s President is former Republican Indiana governor Mitch Daniels.
Bret Robertson had this to say about the acquisition
Daniels’ rhetoric mirrors common right-wing media defenses of
“innovative” (actually troubled) for-profit institutions that take advantage of students and often underserve communities that need accessible higher education most. Kaplan’s track record is no different.
Like the case of Wells Fargo, the Purdue story is just one of many. Colleges and universities today exploit hordes of adjunct faculty, stress grants over ideas, cater to sports and fancy facilities to attract full-paying students, and take money from all comers, even when this money undermines what used to be the core values of good colleges and universities. They cater to the rhetoric that college should be about jobs and they have little real interest in honoring ideas important to the liberal arts but not attractive to donors and grants in an age of casino capitalism. They are top heavy with administrators, whose job is largely to raise money, and light with full faculty engaged in discovery and ideas that are not necessarily top grant getters. They claim that they honor teaching, but engage in precious few real reforms, beyond insipid e-learning, leaving it to staff and administers to attract more students, especially full-paying ones, with rhetoric or the simple status of the college or university. Many colleges and universities have become more about warm bodies and cold beer than about knowledge and intellectual challenge.
The enclosed Catholic world I described above gave deep meaning and mattering to its members. But it was not fully enclosed. We trusted and had great faith in the United States and its institutions. Ironically (given how things are today) this was because of deep—and we thought widely shared—principles like the Separation of Church and State, freedom of religion, equal justice for all, and the possibility of upper mobility regardless of one’s religion, region, race, or class. We felt that we were with others—Catholic and not—co-citizens. Of course, we may have been dupes to believe such things, but it was just such beliefs that fueled the Wonder Years, because they constrained (though never eradicated) greed, asocial profit making, and capitulation.
When I was an undergraduate (a first-generation college student) I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara for free, as anyone who was a California citizen could, if they gained admittance. I majored in philosophy, taking courses that many now would consider irrelevant because they do not “lead to jobs”. I took these courses from a department that was much larger than it needed to be financial gain had been the motive.
I went to graduate school at Stanford University free also. At that time California had a policy that the state would pay the graduate tuition at any California graduate school for anyone who graduated from a campus of the University of California with a B+ or better grade-point-average. Stanford gave me a generous living allowance, as well, with no need for me to teach or work to earn it. I was just supposed to study. I studied a subject, namely, theoretical linguistics, that many people today also feel is an esoteric waste of time.
These things do not happen today. They meant that people then believed that knowledge—even knowledge we today consider esoteric or unrelated to jobs— was valuable enough to sustain, even if no great financial gain was to be made and even if money was to be lost. I was not a person of privilege, since I came from a home with little education and no books. I had “white privilege”, of course, though only of the “white trash” variety.
In our casino capitalism world, a large number of people no longer see “knowledge” as the end of a college education. And, too, today, the different ideological sects on campus—let alone in the world—could not agree, even if they cared to try, on what sort of knowledge—or whether it would be knowledge at all—that ought to be the end of college as an institution.
In the absence of any feeling of co-belonging in an enterprise whose values and “higher ends” we share with our fellow faculty and students, it is not surprising that status, grants, and filling seats have become the measures of mattering, the things we can count and count on, and not “knowledge” or some other now so ephemeral seeming goal.
Of course, it was the wealth of the Wonder Years that allowed Baby-Boomers like me to have the luxury to study linguistics free of charge. And, indeed, we spoiled Baby-Boomers most certainly helped lead the way to our current miseries and many of us took to greed, when the opportunities came, like a duck to water (Gibney 2017).
The belief in people and institutions mattering beyond money may well have been an illusion, one more way, at a certain time and place, to empower some and disempower others. Nothing is perfect and humans are frail. However, my point is that something—even if it is an “illusion”—needs to let people find meaning and mattering in things beyond money and status based on money. Otherwise, we get various combinations of capitulation, self-seeking, and poor health. We could have imagined a response to the new casino capitalism—and the collapse of the Wonder Years—that collectively sought new, slightly less illusionary, and better beliefs. But no such thing happened.
Once greed was freed, there were ample numbers of people who knew what they wanted and they left most of the rest of us in the dust.
What’s the solution? The way forward? Discuss.