Friday, March 28, 2014

Did America Lose the Cold War?

Mystery novelist Tyler Dilts, who moonlights as an adjunct English instructor on the Left Coast, has recently posted several articles to his Facebook page about the shameful treatment of adjunct instructors in American universities. Adjuncts work for universities on an “as-needed” basis, often making below minimum wage when amortized for their hours, with no health benefits or job security. Considering his career, Dilts’ interest in this subject is unsurprising.

But other forces have weighed into this debate recently. From Jim Hightower to President Obama to the Catholic Church, powerful advocates have have loudly declaimed “the Wal-Martification” of higher education. Having played the adjuncting game myself for several semesters, I feel I should support my brethren in this well-earned fight. Yet a throwaway reference in a tangentially related book persuades me we’re seeing a bigger battle unfolding here.

Rhetorician Gerald Graff, my favorite source for overviews of academic culture, notes that the government began pouring funds into American universities after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik in 1957. Leaders and elected officials feared America could win the military conflict with the Soviets, and lose the brain game, a true Pyrrhic victory. Universities became battlegrounds for fighting the Cold War, and philanthropists quickly followed government’s lead.

But that makes university spending part of a larger matrix. Politicians competed to spend more money more effectively, subsidizing public broadcasting, interstate highways, public arts projects, urban renewal, and NASA, all in pursuit of moral and ideological advantage over the Soviets. Look, America told the world. Admire our roads, our schools, our Moon rockets! Red aggression and Stalinist statism could never offer you such well-earned grandeur!

And America was right. America tied abstract moral and intellectual goals with real-world consequences. Interest in pure science drove developments in technology that continue driving global economic markets. The web-connected computers that permitted me to write this essay, and you to read it, derived from government spending, targeting investments in new technologies whose ultimate implications wouldn’t become visible for decades. The future was worth our money.

The American government, and flag-waving capitalist philanthropists, were literally willing to spend money on investments with outcomes they couldn’t foresee. Generous donors might endow scholarships, knowing students they paid to educate might choose to work for their competitors. Educational tracks with no measurable market value, like English and Physics, nevertheless merited massive charitable gifts, because America’s future education was worth it.

After the Soviet tent folded, Americans apparently stopped caring. NASA, which at its peak in 1966 consumed nearly five percent of America’s federal budget, is now too cash-strapped to send humans into space. Authors have written books and books and books about how Neil Armstrong’s televised Moon landing reversed global anti-Americanism during the Vietnam war. Now we ship astronauts to Kazakhstan if we hope to chuck them into orbit.

We previously believed that a well-educated, scientifically advanced, economically mobile society defined America not just as a people, but as a distinctly superior choice to communal Soviet mediocrity. Though we frequently fell short of our best ideals, Americans believed that, in Jim Hightower’s words, “Everybody does better when everybody does better.” And though it’s hard to tell when that ethos ended, clearly it has ended.

Perhaps we could say Liberal Arts or Astrophysics contributes little to American society. I disagree, though we could say that. But can we really say that about grade schools, good roads, and safe food? We’ll pay billions of dollars to salvage bankers who treat their banks like personal casinos, but every nickel spent fixing potholes gets called creeping Bolshevism. Congressmen cross-examine scientists spending public funds exploring the nature of reality.

But money is never just money. As Christ says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

This week’s preliminary NLRB ruling, permitting college football players to unionize, reflects something beyond sports. Since the NLRB rigidly forbids graduate students to unionize, the government has thrown its tacit support behind the idea that sports matters more than learning in today’s America. This is just the latest, most blatant declaration that America no longer values any investment that pays off in the indeterminate future.

“Inequality” has become today’s political watchword. Everybody, we hear, deserves equal opportunity to climb society’s ladder. But there is no ladder anymore. We climbed that ladder to best the Soviets, then we didn’t just kick that ladder over; we chopped it up for firewood. We won the Cold War, then abandoned the values that made that victory possible. If that’s true, did we really win anything?

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