Not Tocqueville After All These Years

CALABASH, North Carolina – It was no surprise that a roomful of adults turned to a 9-year-old to demystify the computerized kitchen range at our rented beach house near here. But it was flat-out eerie that she also could have corrected our Chinese grammar had we known any to correct.

At our first meeting, she froze me rigid with a patronizing sneer; I got her name wrong. Later, she warmed up with a friendly kid smile when I disgraced myself playing cacophonic harmonica backup to my nephew Jon’s guitar mastery. After that, we were buddies.

Little S., in a fancy school for smart kids, fits a pattern I’ve noticed in trying to make sense of the generational shifts I see in serial snapshots, like time-frame photography, when I come from abroad to teach journalism students and to probe into a foreign society I once knew well.

Lots of young people sparkle with brilliance, self-assured and curious about a world they’ll have to un-fuckup. They are, however, the exception. The United States has come a long way from its raw-boned frontier days when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his hoary tome, Democracy in America.

In 1835, the iconic French sociologist noted “a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom."

Today, he would find many of those weak wanting to suppress the weaker, believing that raises their own level. And that reduces them to preferring inequality in servitude to a wealthy few, which squanders their freedoms and imperils democratic institutions.

In Calabash, an old-timey hardscrabble shrimp port, not all necks are red, but the politics are. Tom Frank’s incisive book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, resonates as loudly here as it does in  impoverished Midwest states, the rural West and urban pockets across the country.

Go figure. Guys apt to fire shotguns at cars that cut them off in traffic defend the right of banks and businesses to screw them at every turn. They’d rather die of treatable disease than let “socialism” taint their lives with universal health care, common to just about every democracy in the world.

The problem is education, and that is no accident. During the Reagan years, schools headed in two separate directions. Social-engineering plutocrats wanted smart young people who believe money is how you keep score -- and a lot more credulous hewers and haulers who buy stuff.

Today, rather than trying to restore the balance, we have billionaire Betsy DeVos pushing to privatize the fast track, leaving public schools at the mercy of state legislatures that starve teachers, favor religious doctrine over science, ignore the outside world, and program kids not to question.

If you ask hardcore zealots why they like Trump, jaws tighten and brows furrow. The answer, if you get one, is that he says what he thinks and makes the world respect us. Or, he’s a successful businessman who will make us better off. These rock-solid beliefs impel them to the polls.

At the other extreme, on a stop in New York, I doubt anyone at the noisy table near me at The Ribbon on the Upper Westside likes Trump. But I’m guessing. The three young couples’ raucous banter was limited to their high-paying techie jobs, their newest toys, and who lusted after whom.

I knew they traveled because of the European restaurants they mispronounced. Yet none of these would-be masters of the universe seemed aware that countries they visit face existential crises because of quixotic policy from America’s Crazytown. People like them are less likely to vote.

It’s a tossup. Trump might be the shock treatment America needed. In November, sentient citizens might begin choosing leaders who understand nature – and human nature. You can’t drain swamps, which are a vital part of ecological balance, but you can prevent reptiles from taking them over.

The overriding question is whether the right-wing “libertarian” plan to make America ignorant has already achieved its goal. We’ll have an answer in November’s referendumb.

Assuming all is not lost – it likely isn’t – it seems past time to consider the après-Trump. As I bat this out, I keep hearing those Crosby, Stills and Nash lyrics from 1970: “Teach your children well.” That line resonated loudly with me back then after three years of reporting mayhem across Africa. 

Notable differences aside, we might learn from so many post-colonial African states that started out with such promise: functioning democracies, balanced books, populations inured to hard work, and a history of old civilizations like Great Zimbabwe, the Kongo kingdoms and the Mali Empire.

I repeatedly asked U.S. diplomats why education was missing from foreign aid. That, they invariably replied, was too long-term. America wanted to rent friends with big flashy “development” projects that entrenched corruption but bought U.N. votes to thwart the Soviet Union.

The result was inevitable. Dictators diverted billions to European properties and foreign bank accounts. They educated military officers and a political elite to suppress populations that were taught just enough to keep societies functioning as, to use Trump’s term, shitholes.

The Congo, at independence in 1960, had six university graduates. Belgian colonial schools had taught a lot about Belgium and simple skills to equip low-level civil servants. Imagine how many brilliant minds were wasted in a vast nation of incalculable mineral wealth and rich farmland.

Closer to the point, look at Finland today. Its middling schools became the world’s best when all education was made public. Rich and poor kids alike learn to think, to ask questions, to use their imaginations, and to understand global realities beyond their own line of sight. America, in contrast, ranks 51st worldwide in literacy.

The United States, far more complex than Finland, needs fast tracks for prodigies like 9-year-old S. But it also needs a higher common denominator for public schools, with motivated teachers and world maps on the wall, where kids learn that skin tone and bank balances are not what count.

In much of the world, universities are free – or close to it. In America, combined student debt is around $1.5 trillion. Corporations have just given back about that same amount to investors in stock buybacks and dividends.

A little intellectual curiosity and analysis blows all to hell a demagogue’s empty braggadocio. Macro numbers mislead. As Paul Krugman notes, if Jeff Bezos walks into a bar, the average income of the joint shoots up by several billion dollars. But you’ve still got to pay for your own beer.

One in three Americans have $5,000 or less socked away for retirement. The Waltons (a different breed from the TV family that scraped by in a little house on the prairie) just pocketed another $11 billion. Or was it $15 billion?  They got rich from hard-pressed families struggling to make ends meet.

To Improve education, American needs a president, a Congress, state legislators and local school supervisors who get their priorities straight. The problem isn’t cost. For starters, we might stop blowing up schools in Afghanistan and build more classrooms around Calabash.


(For a look at how American teachers fare these days, here is a sampling: