Friday, May 27, 2011

Culture and Values

Culture and values, two huge words in terms of their potential meanings and breadth of applications, or also perhaps potentially huge because of their possible lack of meaning, but they are commonly used and in that sense, at least, are meaningful enough. It is an obvious truism to report there is something to the idea of cultural relativity, values certainly are different in different cultures. Human sacrifice, for example, was valued by the Aztecs and a few others, headhunting was highly valued in many different parts of the world, in some rare instances ritualized male homosexuality was valued (to promote fertility, strength or other male virtues), in still other cultures practices such a suttee were valued, while completely abhorred in others, monogamy is the norm in some places whereas polygamy is common in others, and in more rare cases polyandry was valued and practiced. While these things are true it is not always easy to understand the relationships between values and actual cultural practices. There was a brief TV report on education in Finland today that I believe helps to understand at least one such connection.

Finland is now believed to have the best educational system and the most educated population in the world, or is at least in the top two or three nations in this respect. This was not always so, so how and why did it come about? Finland is large in land mass but small in population. As much of the country lies above the arctic circle, and there are also large area of taiga and water, it is not blessed with an abundance of resources other than timber. In brief, the Finns realized their most precious resource was their children, and if their children were going to be able to survive and compete in a world economy it was critical for them to become highly educated. They made education a high priority and invested substantially in it. They raised the standards for teachers, insisting that if a teacher was to teach in certain areas they should be themselves expert in those areas (this is not a policy well followed in our current schools). Teachers were required to get degrees, even advanced degrees, and certain Universities were designated primarily to train teachers. Salaries for teachers were raised to encourage more capable candidates to choose a career in teaching. Needless to say they invested generously in their schools and in the equipment and materials required. In addition to their degrees Finnish teachers were also expected to attend additional special courses in pedagogical techniques and practices. In a few years Finland went from much further down on the educational ladder to the top. I would suggest the primary reason for this is the fact that Finland has always valued education as well as teachers of all kinds. The teaching profession was not looked down upon and denigrated as something only the less fit chose to engage in (indeed, even now Professors in Europe are held in high esteem). The Finns also valued intellectualism and intellectual endeavors. And of course they valued their children and were concerned about their future. These were values that were present in Finland all along although they were not as highly developed as they subsequently became.

I would argue (as I often have) that such values are not present in U.S. culture (although they were perhaps somewhat more prevalent at an earlier period (the Schoolmarm, for example, was usually looked up to and was a sort of cultural icon, although male teachers, not being cowboys, were probably not so much). Although children were expected to attend school, this was mostly only if school was available and they could. “Book larnin” was separated from “the school of hard knocks.” Children often, as my mother and father both did, and as we now joke about, had to walk or ride horseback to school. Higher education was rare and only available for the wealthy. Many children who would have liked a better education could not be spared to seek it (as they had to work on the farm) and did not, in any case, have the necessary resources. Even in the 1950’s, in the Army, I encountered young people who had not attended school at all and were completely illiterate, and many who had attended school only briefly. Somehow over the years our interest in education, insofar as it ever existed, began to become even less than it was. Teachers in the U.S. for many years have worked for small salaries, have been poorly trained, looked down upon, and the teaching profession has not, in general, attracted the best of our students. It is common to hear, “them as can’t do, teach,” and other such ideas. Professor are often described as absent-minded, fuzzy headed, or “pointy headed intellectuals,” with no practical experience. Our schools have been terribly underfunded for years and have deteriorated badly. They are currently under attack in virtually every state, denied funding to be used for other purposes (like corporate tax breaks). Whats-his-face, the fat Governor of New Jersey, has had to be told he cannot slash 50 million from education to balance his budget, so much for the Governor’s value of education in New Jersey. The dropout rate in our High Schools and Colleges is huge, and those who now do manage to graduate often have crippling debts to pay off, with little chance of finding employment that might even allow them to pay. Large numbers of them have neither jobs nor futures. It certainly appears to me that we here in the U.S. do not value education, are unwilling to pay for it, and are willing to throw our children (and the future of our nation) to the wolves (for short term profit).

Our political system that features so prominently one person, one vote, also implies that all votes are equally well-informed, but that is just not true. I would suggest that many people who vote are probably terribly ignorant and misinformed about what they are voting for or against. But if you were to suggest to them that someone with a PhD in political science, having studied politics for years, might have a more cogent grasp of things than they do from listening to Rush (or not listening at all), they would be outraged, even though it would be true. They would tell you there are lots of “educated fools” coming out of Universities and they are no smarter or better able to vote than they (who have often never been more than 100 miles from home, don’t read, and only listen to right-wing radio or watch Fox {pseudo} news). In one sense they might be right, lousy schools and Universities turn out lousy products, and they turn out lousy products because they are supported neither by sufficient funds nor by people interested in funding them to do otherwise. Generally speaking, however, I believe that some voters are far better informed than others. I am not suggesting there should be different categories of voters, or that some votes should count more than others, what I am saying is that we need a much better educated electorate than we have and a much better educated citizenry in general. To modify a quote from John McCain, cultural survival in the contemporary world “is not bean bags.” The Finns realize this, we apparently do not.

In Finland the cultural conditions were firmly in place to allow the creation of a superior educational system to emerge, in the United States these same cultural conditions do not obtain. It used to be said, and sometimes still foolishly is, that the U.S. has the best educational system and Universities in the world. We don’t, although not so long ago we might have, but we have allowed them to decay, disintegrate, and deny the future to our children. From the standpoint of the nation this an absolutely suicidal course, the facts are clear, the judgments are in, the collapse, while perhaps not imminent, is inevitable. Perhaps it is just as well, a society that so disvalues its children probably doesn’t deserve to continue.

In this world of sin and sorrow, there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.

H. L. Mencken

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