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.