The Americanization of Us

ignorance

Any form of Anti-Americanism is a simplistic explanation of complex realities, and a dangerous manifestation of intolerance. Far from this, we have to admit that we are at a point where we need to see what Americanization involves for other countries and cultural entities and for the future of citizens across the world. The main reason is not only that the American popular culture was influential and adopted widely since 1950s, even in countries where anti-Americanism is prevalent (in West or other countries), but most recent developments in the US politics, culture and civic life require a very serious and objective examination.

In this context it should concern us all that the US popular culture, in a unique fabric that is weaving together on Internet and TV, music and movie industries, various corporations and their lobbying strategies and campaigns, lead now to a place where the Brave New World is looking longingly towards a dystopian 1984. Glorified ignorance is widely accepted along with authoritarian solutions; an obsessive focus on superficial and fast results and the invasion of entertainment in all aspects of life. Reality TV is shaping personal behaviours and Jerry Springer Show can only fail to impress in the current landscape of junk ‘journalism’, obsessed to impress and secure audiences at all costs. In effect, last US elections and the triumph of Trump and his neo-Fascist characters that surround him represent just one terrible symptom of diseases that went ignored for a long time. It is also an effect of the ubiquitous effort to see the ‘positive side’ in all, even when this involved overlooking dangerous risks. The paradox is that the American ‘optimism’, fondness for happy endings (even if it screams “artificial”) and tremendous effort to see ‘silver linings’ in every disaster, is a strange feature for a nation so dependent on anti-depressants. Nevertheless, too many are taking American narratives as legitimate and coherent stories.

Resistance against Trump and what he represents stands beyond politics; it is the point of separation between immiscible values. Is the difference between mutual respect and glorified hate, between values of progress and civilisation and glorified ignorance. When Trump stated in a victory speech “I love the poorly educated” he did not shocked the audience. His massive group of followers was not offended to be looked at as a witless herd following someone’s else’s mind. What a failure for education! What a shame for universities and schools to have so many people let to ignore how much they don’t know and think that ignorance is a sign of strength. Nevertheless, American solutions for education are adopted by many countries and key decision-makers.

The American solutions influenced for a long time the rest of the world. The Reagan-Thatcher influence on schools and universities is undeniable, and it all started with what Reagan found good to impose on American universities. The reduction of education to economic arguments is a terrible legacy of this influence, and we can see now that profits may not solve all problems in the world. A good reminder here is that the highly entrepreneurial Nazi regime was doing very well with the economy… for a while! What a terrible lesson to ignore or forget.

The current US Secretary of Education is a religious zealot, with a stunning lack of knowledge on education policies, research or what can lead to an educated mind. Amazingly, in America of 2017 this is a great virtue: media shows that ignorance is fresh and good, knowledge is putrid, elitist and dangerous. The new Secretary of Education believes that guns should be part of school life so we can protect children from “potential grizzlies.” It is also a fanatical believer in the value of profits and neoliberal solutions. We are all warned.

Major trends in education are set for the last 6-7 decades by what was designed in the United States, ideas and values promoted by American scholars and schools (for example  Tyler and Bloom, Taylorism in education and so many others). Today this influence comes in strident forms, such as the obsessive focus on testing or – more subtle – on the constant decline of social status for the teaching profession. OECD studies show that US is the most important country leading in the devaluation of the teaching profession, in the way it is paying teachers and in their working conditions.

At the same time, universities across the world dream (openly or secretly) to be next to Harvard, and this is a strange tendency. Especially now, when is not very clear when looking at current tensions and evolutions what good was for the American society to have the impressive Ivy League universities. It also stands unclear to see what institutions like Harvard make of real social responsibility, civic values and contributions to give graduates a balanced and harmonious life. Maybe that model is flawed. Maybe these widely praised values lead to other bizarre reality TV characters that should remain insignificant in a functional democracy and educated society.

Glorification of ignorance and cult-like solutions are always devastating for the Polis and for every single one of us who are still thinking that we have to defend and promote humanistic values, democratic citizenship, intellectual and technological progress. European universities hold a troubled history on how institutions of higher education and academics supported the rise of fascism and the Nazi ideology. It may seem now extreme to think about that, but we have to stay alert and see if our models are good and healthy; just a year ago it was unthinkable for many to imagine a world where a reality TV character is the US President and his top advisers are people like Steve Bannon, with a worldview that leave sane people speechless. How was it possible to imagine in 2015 or 2016 a world where Breitbart – a relatively obscure far-right website – will be creating news in February 2017. As painful as it is, we have to admit that it is all happening now.

It is still time to consider a radical rethink of current models and possible solutions for our challenges. Maybe the light on the Statue of Liberty is shining somewhere else now. We can be grateful that the guidance came from those shores for a while, but now we live very different days. Ignorance  – as attractive as it may look for many – is always leading to immense suffering and disasters. The americanization of our universities, media, education and future require a solid challenge! Because a society where Trump is President and the Education Secretary is the personification of glorified ignorance and religious obscurantism cannot provide models that can lead to a better future for others. This should make us all think, especially those who are working in universities. It is time to look at other ways, beyond what ‘makes America great again’ – if not for our students and new generations, at least for universities and our own future.

 

*Photo credits: Flickr (Japanexperterna.se); Creative Commons
**DeVos family was ‘generous’ to give $200 million to the US Republican Party, including funding campaigns of 10 of the 12 Republican senators on the committee that vetted her for the position of Education Secretary. We can simply call this crude corruption! 

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