Saturday, October 31, 2009

Education, the economy, and the Second Commandment

I used to be Oirish Catholic, eventually wandering over to the local United Methodist Church (where my wife and our children worshipped). I left that when my pastor appeared (to me, anyway) to hold the words of Eli Siegel, the founder of the cult-like Aesthetic Realism, on the same plane as the words of The Christ.

Along the way, though, I've found a lot of good things in the Good Book. The things that most interested me were the bits that directly contradicted the words of the folks leading us in prayer.

The Second Commandment takes on a variety of forms--heck, major Christian divisions cannot even agree what the Ten Commandments are--but here's the start of the King James variety:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

It goes on to describe a jealous God ready to spew all sorts of venom at even the great-grandchildren that dared to cross the line.

Well, we crossed it, and He's spewing venom--welcome to the 21st century.

Well, that cleared the room in a hurry.


Arne Duncan believes that education is going to save the economy.

It's the educated folks that got us into it. An MBA from a decent business school was the ticket to riches. We live in an extractive economy, and with the right pedigree, you were once guaranteed a huge disproportionate slice of the pie.

We can give out 300 million advanced degrees in this land, and it will not change how many bushels of corn an acre of land will yield in Topeka this year. It will not change how many billions upon billions of water molecules will seep into the great aquifer below our heartland. It will not affect how many pounds of honey will be produced by the bees in Michigan this year.

The custodians did not screw us. The bus drivers did not blow us. The plumbers did not eff us up. The family farmers (all 17 of them left) did not crap on us. The pump jockeys did not rip us off. The cashiers did not piss on our mothers' graves. The women working the line did not job us. The fruit pickers did not rook us.

We were (and continue to be royally) screwed by the functionally literate, the monied, the educated class.

Yep, I'm part of the problem class--but I am not going to pretend that more people like me are going to solve anything.

If you wonder why a lot of "uneducated" folks get a little rumbly every time someone takes a cheap shot at their official schooling, take a look at who's doing the useful work around here.


The Second Commandment was written before the printing press, before the camera, before television.

"Graven" might be the loophole, but "any likeness of any thing" seems pretty tight.

Also seems pretty impossible--but it's not. It's only impossible if you choose to live in our culture.

It was a lot easier when you lived in a nomadic tribe. It was easier to go pick a handful of flowers and toss them back to the ground when they wilted than it was to lug around a painting of the same flowers.

Still, it's unlikely that the commandment was developed as a way to ease your luggage woes. ("Really, Micah, you really have to leave the Dogs Playing Poker behind--Moses says so!")


Images have tremendous power. We intellectually know a photograph is not real, but we respond viscerally anyway. If we did not, the gaming industry would collapse in a day. Most of us spend a good chunk of our days living in worlds that do not exist outside our own skulls.

This is a dangerous way to live. The ancients knew that the more we turn away from the world, the less we know.

We've become a nation of educated fools.


Our recent economic disaster was entirely predictable by many of the uneducated. If you run up debt beyond what the Earth gives us in a lifetime, it does not matter how you account for the debt--you can inscribed it in stone, write red numbers in a book, or store it as binary language in the soul of a machine. You cannot cash a check the Earth cannot produce.

There are odd exceptions, of course--some people would rather have a lump of gold than a bushel of wheat. So long as most of us fall under the same illusion, the gold holds power.

Me? I'd rather have the bushel of wheat. It's easier on the digestive system.

We are lost--we are lost in a world of graven images, of iPods and monitors and internal worlds that will not matter the moment your neurons stop sending intricate, pointless signals inside your skull.

And yes,I keep fiddling while the world keeps burning. Time to go out and catch dinner--the tide is ebbing, the clams will be waiting.

The stock market dropped a chunk yesterday--the DJIA sank by 250 points. Not one clam bothered to check.

The Earth will feed us if we let it. The clams are eating tiny critters that ate tinier critters fueled by the sun, the closest thing to God we can see.

We have enough sense not to stare at the sun--it will blind us.
Staring at the monitor screen will blind you as well.

Moses with Tables of Law by Rembrandt--he's not available anymore for permission.
The Dogs Playing Poker by C.M. Coolodge.
Both are in the public domain.

Yes, the DPP was part of an ad campaign.
Yes, it's the cultural epitome of tacky.
I like it anyway.


Unknown said...

The dialogues of Socrates, the stories of Pandora and Prometheus and Icharus - the Greeks, for all their slave-owning hypocricy, understood this as well.

(Though I do find it a bit strange that I'm referencing Greek mythology and you're quoting Scripture)

Kate said...

Last week LeAlan Jones came to speak at our school. This was his second visit. The 8th grade reads his book Our America and last year he told us that we needed to do something with the privilege that we have and considering the many young people who had died violently that year in neighborhoods less than 30 minutes away.
This year he challenged the "social elite" who raise money for causes but are so entrenched in bureaucracy that they accomplish nothing except to feel good. They sit on boards of social service organizations and still can accomplish no change in the life of kids in his neighborhood. He read from W. E. B. Dubois about the toll violence took 100 years ago on the lives and education of young people. One of my students asked to clarify who the social elite were. He said,"You know who they are. You sit across from them at dinner every night."
Some of my colleagues thought Jones was a bit harsh. I though that we can stand a hard truth or two.
A student was killed outside a CPS high school by other students. With a 2x4. Mr. Arne Duncan? Do we still have a Chicago miracle?
Mr. Jones is running for Senate. I hope that his campaign succeeds.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I was reading the end of your excellent book today--it may well have influenced me.

I want to quote your story about the kid who would be thrilled if his last message to his dying grandmother was text, so that it would be preserved. I almost blogged on it today--instead, this erupted. I think I'm coming down with the flu, so fever may have had some influence.

BTW, your book is wonderful. It's like Rafe Esquith without the bullshit.

And the Greeks were not nearly as far from the words of The Christ as we are today.

Dear Kate,

Wow! How did you get him? And we are, indeed, the social elite--it's little wonder that Rush Limbaugh is popular. People are not running to him as much as running away from a crowd that sees them as inferior. Rush is a hustler, and a good one.

He could not exist if the "educated" did not polish the glass frames holding their degrees every week or so.

Charlie Roy said...

I finished "Catching Up or Leading the Way" by Zhao. It's worth a look. All this focus on being an economic power and how important education is to that end is taken for an interesting ride. Zhao points out that in 1964 the first international tests began giving the fear mongers their fodder. But low and behold those scores were negatively correlated to GDP growth.

Our schools work best when we develop human beings who can think critically, live humanely, and lead effectively. A group of point jockeys and a den of thieves have much in common. American education has a storied tradition of developing whole people. Balancing the arts, the co-curricular activities, and athletics help develop well-rounded creative people. As a nation if we begin to value people more than GDP growth perhaps we will have the proper framework to reframe education.

It always amazes me how business has all the answers for education. I think a group of 1st grade teachers should track on over to Bank of America or JP Morgan Chase and ask for some time with their CEOs to go over some character development plans.