Monday, September 21, 2015

Worshipping Money

It's in our country's dna, this conflicted view about wealth. The Puritans believed that money and wealth and stuff were unimportant, that anything that glorified the person and not God was bad. But the Puritans also believed that God would watch over His chosen individuals, and so wealth and stuff were a sign that you were one of God's elect.

We also have a history of misplaced disdain for money, like the stereotypical Boomer hippies who could turn their nose up at money because they would never really have to do without it. It is easy to make fun of people who care too much about money when you're not worrying about how you'll get money to feed your kids this week.

But there is a difference between a respect for money and the worship of it. There is even, I'd argue, a difference between greed and the worship of money.

Greed is about the desire to Buy Stuff, to Have More Stuff, to use money for its power of acquisition. But the worship of money is something more. The worship of money imbues money with power and value that it simply does not have.

The worship of money says that money is how we keep score. The worship of money says that acquiring and having money are the only way to Be Better than other humans. The worship of money says that money is the only worthy system for sorting humans into the great, the good, the terrible.

The worship of money attributes to wealth a sort of God-like intelligence, the ability to seek out those who deserve it and run to them. "I would not be a wealthy man," says the worshipper of money, "if I did not deserve to be a wealthy man." What may look like luck, says the money worshipper, is really the Better People getting what they deserve.

The worship of money says that we judge people based on their wealth. There is literally no difference between the campaign blasts of Donald Trump and the ravings of a confused squeegee guy in any major city, but because Donald Trump Has Money, he simply must be wise. He must be a Better. Trump is the ultimate exemplar of this philosophy, because there is literally no reason to listen to him at all-- except that he has a bunch of money.

It is in large part the worship of money which has assaulted our public education system.

It's a two-pronged assault. First, reformsters have built themselves a voice (in some cases, the voice) in the education discussion by simply flashing a bank balance as their credentials. "What do you mean, have I ever taught? Do you see how much money I have??" Their money proves they're Better, and their Betterness entitles them to run the show.

Second, reformsters have been redefining the purpose of education-- well, two purposes. On the top tier, the purpose is to help position young people to get money. On the bottom tier, the purpose is to help those who will never deserve to be wealthy, to make them better able to get enough money to get by while more effectively serving their Betters.

The money-centered education reformster system can be hard to parse because the dots are never connected-- the students will score well on the Big Standardized Test, which will lead to college success, which means leaving college to get into a job that provides stacks of money. How do each of these steps lead to the next? Will getting a high score on a BS Test really lead to a great job? Well-- no. But each of these steps is a signifier that the student is Deserving. And money-worshippers believe they're still democratic because they believe in a system where the deserving few can rise up above the undeserving rabble (who should get what they deserve-- which is nothing. if the rabble deserved to have money, they would have it).

Money worshippers know that traditional public education cannot be good. The self-evident proof? Nobody gets rich from it. The people who work in it aren't rich. The people who run it aren't rich. Why should we ignore teachers? How do we know they don't matter? Because they're not rich. How do we really know that charter outfits like Success Academy are successful schools? Because they are making people rich.

When the wealthy reformsters play the "Don't throw money at schools because it doesn't matter," what they mean is that it's a crime against nature to make money flow to people who don't deserve it. You are feeding a system that doesn't serve deserving people-- neither the students nor the teachers.

Look. Money is a great tool and a great way to make civilization function smoothly. Money is nice to have; during my years as a single father with two kids, and even now, as I slowly pay off those college bills, I think money is just fine and I'm not afraid to want some. Money can provide freedom, choices, opportunities, great experiences. I do not hate money.

But when we fetishize it, center on it, worship it-- that's just messed up. When people think that the worst possible thing a government can do is take their rightfully possessed money away, something is messed up. When people think it's worse to make money flow toward folks who don't deserve it than to let those folks live and die in squalor and poverty while their children stall in crumbing underfunded schools-- that's deeply unjust and morally bankrupt. Money cannot be our only measure of success, of value, of worth. Money makes a terrible yardstick for a life well lived.

I don't claim to have easy answers. You may be shocked to read that I do not support having the government take money from some citizens to "redistribute" to other citizens; that fails for so many reasons, not the least of which we're living through right now-- a "redistribution" that ends up cycling the money right back to the rich. But our economy is messed up, and it is taking many of our most important institutions with it, including schools, and at the root of that dysfunction, at the bottom of that banal blob of festering evil, is the worship of money. When we worship money more than we love God or man, we end up tearing down the world we live in and our very hope for light and life and growth and true human success. We have to do better.


15 comments:

  1. From "If I Were a Rich Man" in "Fiddler on the Roof":

    "The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
    They would ask me to advise them,
    Like a Solomon the Wise.
    'If you please, Reb Tevye...'
    'Pardon me, Reb Tevye...'
    Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!
    And it won't make one bit of difference if i answer right or wrong.
    When you're rich, they think you really know!"

    Even as a teenager, when I first heard that line it immediately resonated with me. 54 years of life have not changed it's fundamental truth.

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  2. it's = its (I really do know English)

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  3. I do "support having the government take money from some citizens to "redistribute" to other citizens"; that's what taxes do. Even in the hunter-forager groups the power resided in who distributes the resources, and it needs to be equitable.

    Very insightful post, especially all the connections. The most salient point to me is that society judges people's worth as a human being by how wealthy they are, and that's just wrong.

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    1. Read Robert Reich's new book, SAVING CAPITALISM. He does an excellent job of explaining how "redistribution" is already happening in the way the market is structured for the benefit of the rich and powerful. He advocates against "redistribution" through taxes, but rather by re-working the laws of the market back to what we had in the post-war period. I'd argue that taxes are part of that, but I also agree with his ideas on front-loading the process so more of the money goes to the people in the first place.

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    2. Thank you again for recommending this, as I am forgetful. I have to get to that. With the internet, I'm so out of the habit of reading actual books!

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    3. You might be interested in watching this video by Robert Reich:
      http://billmoyers.com/2015/09/29/why-we-must-upend-pre-distributions-to-the-rich/

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  4. I don't consider myself Christian exactly (I call myself "Christian agnostic" if that makes any sense), but from my understanding, one of Jesus's fundamental messages is that we don't get what we deserve (and we'd better be glad we don't because we'd all find ourselves quite toasty). We get what God chooses to give us based on what we need. The birds of the air don't work, yet God feeds and clothes them. The prosperity gospel stuff pretends that God favors the rich, yet I'd say Jesus would probably be God's favorite, and look at the life of poverty and misery he led. It's the whole "God is my co-pilot" thing. If that's the case, you're in the wrong seat - in fact, I don't think God wants us sitting on the plane at all, except maybe take-off, landing and severe turbulence. According to the New Testament, our role on earth seems to be more like flight attendant.

    Of course, for those who aren't Christian (and don't pretend to be), all of the above is irrelevant. But so many of these money worshippers claim to be Christian, completely overlooking the camel and the eye of the needle thing.

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  5. In response to Rebecca's last comment to me, I will humbly throw in my two cents: Dienne expressed it beautifully. Unfortunately, American culture confuses blessing with money. For most people, piles of money brings them down in one way or another, but I guess the definition of blessing is debatable. Peter, do you really think that policy makers don't want to fund schools in poor areas because they think the families don't deserve it? I've read those words so many times from you. I find it hard to believe that Rahm doesn't think people in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods deserve good schools, despite his harsh policies. I also don't think Arnie Duncan thinks like that, despite the bottom-of-the-barrel idea, "Race to the Top" which made me sick the first day I heard it. That said, I can't figure out why they behave the way they do. I really can't. I know you are thinking of greedy business types (mostly Republicans) who don't want to "throw money" at schools which "don't get results". But Chicago is a Democratic political machine and so the rich people there (and they are there, although Oprah left and auctioned off all her stuff) are supposed to be concerned with the poor. They are. I grew up in the community that supported, even produced Chicago's community organizers and social justice workers. Most of them ended up moving away (including Obama...he won't be back). But, as the child of an immigrant family, I guess my notions of money, of power, of education, of all those things don't fit in with the mainstream American ideas of government and money. Besides the problem of greediness being evil and devastating to society, money oriented people are incredibly boring. They bore me to tears. Can't take it. Snore. Really.

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    1. I try to stay away from the suggestion of greed, because I don't think that's it. I do think it mostly comes down to a believe in (at least) two strata of society, and I think these folks really do believe that in this world there are just some people who are better than others, and while the Betters have a responsibility to look after the Lessers, that means deciding for the Lessers what they need and what they're entitled to, and, since they're Lessers, they don't need/aren't entitled to the same kind of things the Betters are.

      So, yes, I suspect that many of them think that they are truly concerned about the poor, but I think they also believe that the poor are a different sort of people who were born to live a different sort of life (unless they can somehow grasp the qualities that make Betters better). So Rahm may believe that the poor deserve "good schools" but

      1) Good schools for the poor are different from good schools for the wealthy (and the Betters will tell the poor what they need-- their Lesser input is not needed) and

      2) Good schools can only happen if run through competitive charter-style methods. Because anything business-style is better. Yes, it will leave a bunch of poor children behind, but those are just the Lessers who couldn't be saved, but at least we gave them a chance, shake head sadly.

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    2. But I think that they're probably not aware that they think that way, of "Betters" and "Lessers". It's just a part of them. So they don't realize they're not doing things the way they should.

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  6. I share with you your belief that worshipping money ends up being destructive, and am in fact glad that someone, apart from a pastor, is willing to express it. It is also good to hear your comments on Duncan, Obama, and others. It is my feeling that those in education, teachers, professors, have waited a very long time to voice their opinions on the best direction for education. Teachers are now striking, and speaking up but while they were waiting the greedy ones have been going at their goals. People like Ms. Ravitch, Darling-Hammond, and others are not enough in numbers; we need more. The voices of ‘Dyett Hunger Strikers’ show us that this thing has to be resisted stridently.
    The BATS seem to be putting forward a plan which sets out educational goals and are they are also making attempts to communicate with senators and congressmen on the issues. That seems the way to go, and I hope that other unions would do the same. Glad to read your views.

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  7. Another fine and insightful post.
    Perhaps the reason why money is enjoying such unrivalled influence at the moment is this: We've not come up with a competing story for education. As Neil Postman said, we have public schools because we think they serve a social purpose. But what purpose? What story are we passing on to students, and what's the goal? What is education for?

    Good teachers can always tell you what they think they're doing in the classroom. But I don't feel like the culture as a whole is clear on the purpose of education. Is it for job training? to receive what some critic (can't remember who) called "the full Western self?" To cultivate our individual interests? To improve the economy? To carry on the great American project? - It's no good saying "All of the above," because cultivating individual interests creates a very different curriculum from job training. They might overlap, but they're different goals.

    Where there is a vacuum, the most confident voices always get amplified. Money worshippers are perfectly clear about how to set priorities, and what for. Hence, in part, their tremendous appeal - even to people who should bloody know better.

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    1. The trouble is, just as in this country a national curriculum really doesn't work, neither does a national goal. Our country is set up to have local control, according to what the community wants and needs.

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    2. Perhaps - but perhaps that's the vision: that every district decides on its own goals.

      I'm not talking about curriculum or academic goals. I mean the basic: Why do we fund public education? What's it for?

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    3. I think that's what I was thinking when I was writing, that perhaps the vision is that each community decides its own goals, its own vision, which is the opposite of what's happening with Dyett.

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