The Myth of Democracy, Part II

In The Myth of Democracy, we dove into the fact that the human condition is based on the quality of our narratives and their ability to inspire a reason for a large group to exist. In America, our narrative is inherently not religious as many of history’s and pre-history’s narratives have been; we believe in the great American experiment – can a nation made up of people from diverse backgrounds come together around the idea of liberty in representative democracy supporting freedom of belief and speech to the utmost extent possible? Our question in this case is: Does education need to have a stronger role in preserving our narrative through enlivening its principles and pride in the narrative itself? “In a republic, there is a perpetual danger that citizens will neglect our responsibilities and take our liberties for granted,” writes current Senator Ben Sasse, “or that the up and coming generation of Americans won’t even understand why these freedoms exist or the purposes they serve. There is a danger that we will forget our history, our shared story.”

To understand if and how to ensure the survival of our Nation’s narrative, we need to examine trends within the narrative a bit more deeply. In doing so, we must also examine some of the other narratives that contribute to the power (or lack thereof) the representative democracy narrative. One of those narratives is that of ‘The American Dream.’

For many people, the American Dream is summarized as ‘work hard and you will live a happy life full of all the things you need, or even more than you need.’ Others paraphrase the Dream as ‘going from rags to riches.’ The latter version misses a key component of the dream: the process. It misses the ‘work hard’ part of the equation, and gives the impression of an ‘end game.’ To say the least, that line of thinking just goes against pure human nature! From Duhigg to Pressfield, journalists, scientists, and creatives themselves have cataloged this fact: if we desire ‘success,’ it’s important for us to focus more on the process necessary to get there than the end game.

In his book Boys Adrift, MD and PhD Leonard Sax catalogues the eye-opening trends in blue-collar work in the United States by interviewing plumbers, craftsman, concrete construction companies, and more. In one case from Fredericksburg, Maryland, a plumbing company owner tried to recruit more skilled tradesman to the profession by working with the local school district. From over 40,000 students in the district, he recruited by selling the facts that apprentice plumbers (straight out of high school) make around $50,000 a year, have no twenty to forty thousand dollar student loans after four years, and that this job cannot be outsourced outside of the U.S. “If you learn this trade, and you do honest work, you are set for life,” he told the students. He was successful in recruiting 10 students, 3 of which remained in the program a month and a half later when it was shut down by the district due to the low enrollment. The large concrete company he interviewed, Miller & Long, gets the vast majority of its employees from El Salvador and other Central or South American countries despite having an American-recruitment program – they claim that American youth just don’t want to do blue-collar work anymore. Of course, these blue-collar companies acknowledge this is a cultural trend as a whole – more and more students are going to college (a path away from blue-collar work) because their parents are requiring it and helping to pay for it rather than because the students themselves are making a conscious decision to go. However, they also make no bones about the fact that they believe a big reason is also because American kids just don’t want to work hard anymore for a comfortable living. Essentially, the American Dream has melded – we believe we deserve our moderate success without the hard work necessary to achieve it. It feels to me like this trend is true – we understand that if we want to become rich or invent the next iPhone, we have to work really hard for it, but most middle-class kids I work with seem to be fine living comfortably, playing video games every day, and they don’t recognize the value in working hard to achieve even those moderate standards of living because they were always a given in the students’ lives.

Upon diving into these trends on a deeper level, Sax found that overall, youth from families that recently immigrated to the U.S. are less anxious or depressed than American youth and have a stronger sense of purpose in their lives. However, those statistics begin to fall away from those populations within three generations of living in the States. He attributes this trend (essentially) to the fact that recently-immigrated students have a stronger ‘narrative’ in their heads – in this case, the American Dream. They know about the alternatives, and are willing to work hard to achieve what they define as success. The same idea may be holding true for the statistics on how much Americans know about the way our republic works as we discussed in the first post on the topic; recently immigrated students are choosing to be bought in to the narrative of the republic, whereas people born into it take it for granted and then don’t think as deeply about it or buy into it as much.

Before we think about where all of these trends leave us as educators hoping to both serve the public and our country in the best way possible, it will be valuable to return to Tocqueville’s 1831 trip to America (which lead to the prescient 1835 treatise Democracy in America), where there was another factor that emerged in 1839, soon after his departure, the likes of which he could not have predicted and we cannot ignore. With the invention of the first practical method of photography, Louis Daguerre set off what would become a ‘technological revolution’ of sorts, as the telegraph, phonograph, telephone, movie, radio, and wireless message would follow in short succession. If America was founded on the language and power of the printed word, one piece of the puzzle becomes understanding how these new medias (languages) created by the technological revolution change our perceptions of reality. And make no mistake, language (in all its forms), does change our perception of reality. What I am claiming is that the foundational structure of the democracy itself is intricately interconnected with the media form that produced it or is sustaining it; accordingly, it becomes necessary to study how ‘new languages’ (different media forms) interact with our perceptions and modes of thinking to understand how it will change the way our Democracy is functioning. “The way to be liberated from the constraining effects of any medium is to develop a perspective on it – how it works and what it does,” Postman wrote in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, “Being illiterate in the processes of any medium (language) leaves one at the mercy of those who control it.”

If we start with the simple photograph, it’s quite easy for us to understand the different flavor of information that photographs provide in contrast to the printed word. We can think of them as ‘worth a thousand words,’ in one sense; they can capture so much information in one, 4 by 6 inch frame. However, the information we get from photographs is also limited in two ways: by reality and by our own attention. The photograph is limited by reality because it, in a sense, cannot be argued with. The image itself is a section of reality, captured in time. I mean to say that we cannot argue with the validity of a photograph or question its truth; I may question the photographer’s motives or choice of subject (we’ll get to that in just a moment), but ignoring modern technology like PhotoShop, I cannot argue with the fact that the image represented something that once existed in reality. Secondly, photographs can be limited by our own attention: we only create those thousand words if we choose to generate them by focusing on different aspects of the photograph. Aside from the fact that we rarely do analyze all aspects of a photograph, the format itself can be used in combination with a knowledge (conscious or not) of human heuristics to create a medium that quickly gives ‘snap judgements’ of what the photograph is supposed to represent. This is done through choice of subject, focal range, exposure, etcetera by the photographer. Again, photographs can be critically questioned; whether we do critically question them remains variable; some might argue that the energy needed to analyze a photograph is so much lower than that needed to actually sit down and read a book that we are more likely to analyze photographs less critically – after all, our minds are already primed for ease rather than toil.

A similar but exaggerated phenomenon occurs with the dynamic and audible photograph now commonly consumed as television. Like the photograph, television presents us with a source of information that has an overwhelmingly low ‘barrier to entry.’ It takes no skill or energy to sit on the couch and watch television. Again, this is not to say that we cannot consume T.V. critically, and in fact we are often critical of television, though this may also be a function of the low barrier to entry – the T.V. will not debate back at us if our logic is faulty or our argument incoherent. The second thing that television does is keep moving. Whereas a photograph is static, almost waiting for you to take a second look and analyze it on a deeper level, the television does not slow down to let you ponder a point. It moves right along, hoping to lull you into the use of faulty heuristics (those ‘snap judgements’) in order to keep up with the assault of information it continues to pile on. The problem with this is that heuristics and snap judgements are more likely to rely on emotion than reason, and when the viewer goes back to the ideas to critically analyze them afterwards, they may have forgotten the arguments but remembered the way they felt during the moment of their presentation.

The third and perhaps most pernicious effect of television builds upon this emotion-based trend: it turns information into entertainment. “[It] is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience,” Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” The mindset of an ‘entertainee’ is, without a doubt, different from that of a scientist, or (I would argue) an engaged and informed citizen. It should be stated that I am not trying to argue against comedy used as a mirror of truth to our society – as a tool it can be quite effective. I am trying to argue against entertainment consumption (and not production) as a way of life, because the implications go further than one might expect. The entertainment mindset, prophesied Postman, leads to a fear of the wrong enemy. In comparing two of the world’s major dystopian novels, Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, he noticed that we are geared up to fear Orwell’s top-down controls on our freedoms more than the bottom-up process of drowning in a ‘sea of amusements and irrelevance’ that we have created by our own doing.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.

Well shit. If all this is spawned from just T.V., you might as well stop reading before we get into the internet. But be patient – there’s an upshot if you stick with me for just a bit longer. To keep things short, there’s a lot that the internet does to our minds and narratives – the Degeneration Effect and the Dopamine Sabotage are just two examples among many. But what the internet does to our narrative is most useful for the present discussion. Theodore Roszak wrote in The Cult of Information that “like all cults, this one has the intention of enlisting mindless allegiance and acquiescence. People who have no clear idea of what they mean by information, or why they should want so much of it, are nonetheless prepared to believe that we live in an Information Age, which makes every computer around us what the relics of the True Cross were in the Age of Faith: emblems of salvation.” Look around you – if you are at a coffee shop reading this you will almost certainly see worshipers around you. The question is: do you think those worshipers are so awash in a sea of information – a sea of amusements – that they can no longer stay engaged in the narrative that birthed this very way of life for them? Has the false god of the internet and smartphones overtaken our attention to the point that we cannot (or don’t care to) focus on the representative democratic processes underlying our way of life?

I can specifically remember taking a civics class in my senior year of high school; it was one of my favorite classes – ever. Mr. Herzig made it so. He was simply so alive, so passionate about his content matter, and yet so serious about the implications of it all. His passion and energy lasted with me for about four years after taking that class… and then, it just kind of faded into the sea after that. I explained away my lack of civic engagement: “well, I am just so busy with research that I don’t feel that I have time to be informed enough to vote in smaller elections… I still vote for President!” The research I was working on was related to the big three environmental cycles: carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous – how ironic is it that I didn’t have time for civic engagement!

The point is that during a period of time in my life, I believed strongly in the Myth of Democracy. And like many people, I eventually let that energy dissipate. I feel thankful that at least it was instilled in me early in my life by the sole efforts of Mr. Herzig, but the point is threefold:

First, education is a pathway to the creation of narratives, which are strongly associated with values. Education is also, at its core, about facilitating learning and thought, not about someone who knows more implanting content in the head of someone who knows less. We teachers are blessed with the gift of always learning far more from our students than they learn from us. So if we are all about facilitating thought, we need to recognize that teaching is an art form of the highest degree and stop devaluing the profession. Mr. Herzig, I can tell you, was an artist of extraordinary skill, and frankly, I can’t believe he chose to put his talents into the field of education in the United States – he must be a truly pure soul. For that matter, let’s stop devaluing blue-collar professions too! Perhaps then the ‘work hard’ part of the narrative of the American Dream will return to being a phrase worthy of respect. So if we want to improve our representative democratic process in the US, let’s start valuing teachers and putting more energy and money towards their art forms and to manual crafts now largely removed from curriculum (and not to all of the BS labeled as ‘education’ that serves no purpose in facilitating learning and thought) in order to create a strong narrative as the foundation of our system. This is not some 1984-esk plot to implant beliefs in our heads (though if it were, Postman tells us, that would be a safer route than the sea of irrelevance we are headed towards now – at least we know when prison walls are closing in around us and can react!) – its an urge to let youth choose what narrative they want to believe in, but to give them all of the information and depthful connections in the most engaging ways possible before they make a choice they don’t even realize they are making.

Secondly, we need to use the art form of education to let students understand the languages of technology so that culture may begin to change. As Postman put it:

If the schools do nothing, most of the population will know how to use computers in the next ten years, just as most of the population learned how to drive cars without school instruction. In the second place, what we needed to know about cars – as we need to know about computers, television, and other important technologies – is not how to use them but how they use us. In the case of cars, what we needed to think about in the early twentieth century was not how to drive them but what they would do to our air, our landscape, our social relations, our family life, and our cities. Suppose that in 1946, we had started to address similar questions about television: What would be its effects on our political institutions, our psychic habits, our children, our religious conceptions, our economy? Wouldn’t we be better positioned today to control television’s massive assault on American culture?
I am talking here about making technology itself an object of inquiry, so that Little Eva and Young John in using technologies will not be used or abused by them, so that Little Eva and Young John become more interested in asking questions about the computer than in getting answers from it.
I am not arguing against using computers in school. I am arguing against our sleepwalking attitudes toward it, against allowing it to distract us from more important things, against making a god of it.

What I mean to say by this is that I don’t believe our representative democracy, at least in its originally-conceived manifestation, is long for this world unless we, as individuals and a nation, understand that the Open Systems we are dealing with require reading and understanding compromises and shades of gray that cannot be captured in a Tweet. We need to read and write rationally developed ideas, and discuss and debate those ideas with non-attachment to our egos to develop them further. We cannot blindly accept the snap judgements and emotion of the entertainment way of life. We cannot ‘hole-up’ as individuals who choose to only interact with those who have similar beliefs to us; after all, for all the magic Mr. Herzig worked, there was another half of the success equation in that classroom – the other students I was required to work with in order to both flourish and learn the rules of civility in society. We cannot assume that we just deserve and not that meaningful work is an important part of that equation. “It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights,” Toqueville wrote, “the ‘right’ to education, the ‘right’ to health care, the ‘right’ to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery – hay and a barn for human cattle.” Technology may have accentuated the trend toward the feeling of deserving. “Education thus has assumed great importance today,” Montessori wrote “and its role must no longer be limited to furthering the progress of material civilization, which may indeed have become too highly developed.” Instead, education’s role will be to enhance the human personality to the same advanced level that our technology has risen. This is no small task.

And finally, we (the Old People) need to accept that ‘the times they are a changin’,’ and we don’t know everything. Sure, we can be concerned for the future. But very smart people have been concerned for the future and prophesied things that never came to be. It may indeed turn out that the media languages that shape the way our democracy functions will indeed further change things, but those changes will be better for more people than they were in the past. Who knows? It’s hard for me to imagine a world where less people are engaged in representative democracy on a real level (thus, power in the hands of fewer people) and our opinions are controlled by emotion being a good thing, but technology can work in astounding ways.

The point here was never to offer some silver bullet solution to this complex topic, but to explore the dynamics and influences on the strength of the American Myth. What do you think: How do educators make the ideas of representative democratic process and dialogue into Roszak’s ‘emblems of salvation,’ or should we?

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