There’s a strong connection between the health of a democracy and the social cohesiveness of its community life. That’s why tyrants of all kinds, from time immemorial, don’t want their subjects talking to each another. Currently, in the United States, this social fragmentation is achieved through a punishingly long workweek, and an education system (increasingly corporate dominated) that “trains” students to be obedient workers instead of critically thinking, humanistic, and dialogical beings.
No, the shift from college Humanities studies to the now ubiquitous business major was not just a random sociological trend. It was, in fact, deliberately engineered by elites frightened by the huge upsurge in critical thinking, emancipatory social movements, and political protest against the status quo in the 1960s and 70s. Let’s put the kibosh on this in hurry, was their reasoning, and deny future generations the ability to think critically, connect the dots, and to know (as Marvin Gaye put so beautifully in a song) what’s going on.
If you don’t believe me, you need to read the infamous Lewis Powell memo from 1971. Powell, a future Supreme Court justice appointed by Nixon, used to chat with his wealthy Virginia neighbor Eugene Sydnor, head of the far right-wing US Chamber of Commerce, about how the country was going to hell in a handbag due to the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements. They thought America was suffering from an “excess of democracy,” and created a battle plan to put the democratic genie back into the bottle.
Their goal was a deliberate dumbing down of society, to produce a nation of passive, obedient consumers and workers who lack the cognitive capacity to question the status quo. They succeeded fabulously. For a 35-year period (1980 – 2015), financial elites managed to reassert their dominance—until this election cycle, that is. Given the Bernie Revolution, with Hillary running to the Left and even a Republican (Trump) decrying trade deals which devastate the working class, all of a sudden it’s cool to be a populist again.
The third factor impeding genuine social and political agency in America is the sorry state of our media, and of our cultural life in general. Glib TV anchors spew out the so-called “news,” even though they’re owned by the 1 percent oligarchy who care more about profits than the common good. To quote Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel “The Jungle” helped ignite America’s first Progressive Era, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
To reclaim our democracy, in addition to removing the nefarious influence of big money on politics, we need a powerful new non-corporate media. Along with a resurgence in humanistic education, and new social spaces to overcome isolation and promote real learning: i.e., discussion groups, book readings, critical lectures, open dialogues, and film screenings. Democracy, community, and education are 3 deeply interconnected processes that must be nurtured together. We neglect either of them at our peril.
Educator and talk show host