Jared Witt | Oct 15, 2020
What John Adams said:
"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
What ended up happening:
"I must study politics and war, that our children may have liberty to study politics and war in order to give their children a right to study politics and war."
Yes, yes, I know. There are plenty of individuals who go to college and study music and painting, if probably a score or two less who study porcelain now than in the 18th century. But if you listen to our public discourse (or skip whatever excuse this is for discourse and dig right into the national budget), our priorities clearly haven't nudged an inch from where they were in Adams' time. That's why those who do go to college to study music and painting are a privileged minority. You don't hear of a lot of art history majors from working class families, because they have no familial safety net and need spend that time on a more "employable" field.
It does happen sometimes. My Dad was a good example. He was able to obtain scholarship money to study music education through grad school. Basic tuition and cost of living in and around your average campus have skyrocketed since then and the scholarship pool is no match. Less than 0.2% of scholarships for undergraduate study are more than $25,000. The average scholarship recipient now receives between $3000 and $4000. Do I need to tell you how far $4000 gets you in a university nowadays?
My uncle talks about how he put himself through college bussing tables in the dorm cafeteria and came out the other end with $5 in his pocket. I remember as a little kid, hearing this story and being awed by his grit and determination. And for its time, it is a very inspiring story. Then I went to college in the mid-2000s and did the math on your average kitchen hand's wages verses the cost of an education (to say nothing of rent and food). Five dollars in the black sounds like a small fortune to most college grads now, who come out $30,000 in the wrong direction. He and I went to the same school.
I was fortunate that my father started saving for mine and my sister's tuition since before I existed. That needs to be the norm now, rather than the exception, for middle class parents who can even get ahead of the mortgage enough to contemplate it. That 18 years of squirreling away savings is exactly the kind of sacrifice that rarely gets mentioned now when we talk about the infeasibility of public, higher level education or a public healthcare option. For some reason, the math counts when it regards tax dollars but not when it regards individuals and families paying unregulated, for-profit institutions.
Now, even those who are so privileged, study music or painting at great personal cost (and debt), and the fact that they do so is largely ridiculed by a huge sample of the American population who seem to want to pretend as if we can sustain a 21st century nationstate on 18th century models of economy, healthcare, education, and labor. They see such pursuits as idle even as the pursuits which match up with their own professional skill sets are quickly drying up, and idleness may soon be their only option. They've been convinced that these pesky and elusive "illegals" are taking their jobs, when in fact it is computers and machines that have replaced them, a trend which isn't about to reverse itself no matter how much you conjecture about the "brainwashing" that must be infiltrating your average French lit class.
They mock the much maligned trope of the "art history majors" as if it's a good thing that nobody can afford to be so impractical. They say these espresso sipping hipsters in these liberal art schools don't know how good they have it. And that's probably true. The irony, of course, is that the reverse is also true: the ones doing the mocking seem not to understand how bad they have it. They've been fed a steady diet of "freedom" and "greatest country in the world" propaganda and seem untroubled by the fact that dozens of other countries around the world have solved 21st century questions like: Should gaining or losing company healthcare be the primary determinant of a career change decision? How can I afford a high quality education for my kids if we happen to live in a poorly rated school district? or How are we going to afford grandma's nursing care as her dementia deteriorates?
Some decadent nations have even gone so far as to decide that working class kids should have the ability to study painting and music in the university if they so choose. And forget John Adams, many medieval people would agree with them. Lot's of people studied art history back then. Whenever there is discourse about the public responsibility to our quality of life, half of America seems to have assumed a rung on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that not even medieval people would accept so fatalistically.
In the states, whenever we voice these questions, we're quickly told that they're far too impractical. How spoiled are we to even mention such frivolity? There's no money for it. And so, the ironies abound--we are told this by individuals who have amassed more personal wealth than any humans in the history of the world--far more, in fact, than the richest people in the very countries which have decided that these suggestions are not frivolous at all, countries that have less money per capita than this one.
If it all still sounds quite luxurious to you, you're entitled to think that way. Just understand that you are taking the position of a pre-medieval person. If not having to forgo a much needed surgery because the deductible is too high or not placing the burden of paying for elderly nursing care solely on the backs of individual families is considered fancy, then I suppose the rest of the developed nations have decided, "Sure, let's be a little bit fancy." I suspect that John Adams would agree with them. We've had two and a half centuries at this "experiment." Maybe it's not wrong to suggest that our lives should be improving.
A blog that is too churchy for your drinking buddies and too drinky for your churching buddies.