A friend alerted me to an essay called, “What Are You Going To Do With That?” by William Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz—who, I should mention, has just reached Ed Nerd Hero status—taught English at Yale for ten years. The essay was adapted from a speech to Stanford freshmen in May, 2010. The message was for students to have “moral imagination” to, basically follow their bliss.
Deresiewicz uses the term “moral” to mean having a choice. He encourages the freshmen to embrace their “moral freedom” to decide on a path right for them: painter; musician; economist; doctor; engineer. However, they are to choose with full volition of the necessary losses involved and to “resist the seductions of the cowardly values our society has come to prize so highly: comfort, convenience, security, predictability, control.”
The essay recounts the seemingly pre-destined events leading to the sure success awaiting the students. Parents, teachers, and peers nurture a series of self-fulfilling prophecies: the best schools; special lessons; competitions; awards. Then, students “get into” Stanford and “go from being a political-science major to being a lawyer to being a corporate attorney to being a corporate attorney focusing on taxation issues in the consumer-products industry.” He says there is nothing wrong with any of those things, individually. However, the focus on specialization “cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself.” And then the midlife crisis hits.
I love the message. However, what happens when these people have children? Will they go against the grain of what parents, peers, and society call for when raising a child? That is, will they push their kids into the best schools, special lessons, and competition? Is there any way to combat “the cowardly values our society has come to prize so highly?” Will the cycle be broken?
I do not think I am wrong when I say that capital is amoral. I use the term amoral to mean without any sense of right or wrong. I do not think it is wrong for me to say that corporations are amoral entities—potentially immortal and devoted to the accumulation of capital. I think I am right to say that corporations are amoral entities with the rights of personhood which were granted in the 1886 Supreme Court case Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad.
In his book, Life, Inc., Douglas Rushkoff says that a clerk (a CLERK!!!) included an ‘oh, by the way’ statement—called an obiter dictum—in the decision that effectively granted personhood to corporations thereafter. “The elevation of corporations to personhood,” writes Rushkoff, “was accompanied by a slow, corresponding devolution of human beings to something less than personhood.”
The president of Southern Pacific Railroad at that time was one Leland Stanford. Stanford also happened to be a United States Senator and a former governor of California. Leland Stanford, like pretty much every other robber baron, gave a sizable amount of his fortune to fund education, from the public model to the elite universities.
So leading industrialists funded public schools—at once gifts to the working class and powerful tools for growing a more docile labor force. They hired education reformers, like Stanford’s Ellwood P. Cubberley [Ed. Crazy, huh?!], to design a public school system based on a Prussian method that sought to produce what he called “mediocre intellects…and ensure docile citizens.” Cubberley modeled our public schools after “factories, in which the raw product [the children] are to be shaped and fashioned…according to the specifications laid down.”
–Rushkoff, Life, Inc.
I cannot, for the life of me, understand why Rushkoff did not explore this line of inquiry further given the premise of his book. I guess he wanted to get to the part where he joined a farm cooperative and started a babysitting club that illustrated how alternative currencies could work. I think this was his proposed solution to end the vicious cycle of corporate encroachment.
In an earlier essay titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” Deresiewicz wrote the “liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.” Yet, Deresiewicz would suggest that students can have the “moral imagination” to eschew those cowardly values embodied in the corporate university. He says there are many choices after entering a Starbucks. One of the least considered is turning around and leaving. William Deresiewicz implies that students might consider their choice of university in the same way. For that, he is a heretic—therefore, a hero.