On ‘Changemakers,’ Education and Democratic Self-Governance

New York Times writer Frank Bruni began his February 10, 2018 column with the following observation:

What a herky-jerky mess our federal government is. What a bumbling klutz. It can’t manage health care. It can’t master infrastructure.  It can’t fund itself for more than tiny increments of time. It can barely stay open. It shut down briefly on Friday for the second time in three weeks. Maybe it should just stay closed for good.[1]

While this argument certainly captures the reader’s attention, it is far too sweeping, even as an opening statement There is no reason to suppose that government has suddenly broken or to adopt long-time Republican assertions that democratic governance has little or no place in our political economy, as Bruni seemed to do here. Instead, one must point to the choice by a share of our elected officials—particularly, though not exclusively GOP partisans—not to govern, or to govern with a corrosive and increasing cynicism aimed at manipulating the body politic for electoral or material gain.

That is, the situation Bruni highlighted has nothing to do with the innate capacity of self-governance per se to function and has everything to do with elected officials choosing not to govern. One must also recall that a share of the citizenry has installed the officials perpetrating this ongoing scenario and has often repeatedly returned them to those positions of trust, albeit often representing terribly gerrymandered jurisdictions. Put differently, none of the woes to which Bruni pointed need to occur, as they are not inherent to self-governance. The extent they are occurring owes everything to leaders’ choices and their perception that hobbling democracy will be tolerated and will prove electorally beneficial and, for some at least, including the President, will be personally financially lucrative as well.

Bruni went on to observe that corporations are taking up some of the slack in domains, in education particularly, in which government has been faltering, very much in keeping with the Republican Party’s regnant ideology that only market institutions possess legitimacy in society,

In an effort to make sure that employees have up-to-the-minute technical skills—or are simply adept at critical thinking and creative problem solving—more companies have developed academies of their own. That’s likely to accelerate.[2]

This contention struck me as strange, too, as it was offered at a time when American educational institutions at all levels have never focused more intensively on preparing students for jobs and offering purportedly “practical” workforce-related curricula. Bruni offered this argument concerning corporate substitution as tens of thousands of parents are sending their children to colleges and universities each year demanding not that these institutions educate their youths for life, professions and citizenship, but that they focus instead on providing the students “saleable” skills for their first position. For the lion’s share of those young adults, that will be with a for-profit business.

More broadly, the neoliberal public philosophy underpinning the claims that have prompted parents to advise their children that philosophy, literature and religion-related classes, among others, are of no practical value, has long promoted the commodification of knowledge. That cultural demand is now being pressed ever more relentlessly on educational institutions by employers and families alike. And make no mistake, those organizations have responded. Learning now is tested by and oriented toward examination as never before, and lawmakers have for decades pressed schools at all scales to offer only curricula perceived as vocationally relevant. During this same period, public higher education has become ever more dependent on corporate contracts and related philanthropy as governments have disinvested in those institutions, prompting their leaders to become increasingly willing to respond to company claims to undertake specific initiatives and curricula.

Given this long-term reality, one now must ask whether the guidance of market ideologues and firms toward instrumental and commodified knowledge has been mistargeted. That is, reading Bruni, I found myself musing how, after decades of initiatives designed to ensure that education better serve the market, one could still find officials and corporate leaders suggesting that more of the same remained necessary. This strange situation leads one to wonder whether the promoted cure is, in fact, the source of the supposed malady.

Two days before Bruni published his essay, David Brooks, also a columnist for The New York Times, reported that he had interviewed Bill Drayton, who coined the term “social entrepreneur,” some decades ago. Brooks recounted that Drayton had recently suggested that the nation needed a differently equipped work force than it has been producing.  More precisely,

Drayton believes we’re in the middle of a necessary but painful historical transition. For millennia, most people’s lives had a certain pattern. You went to school to learn a trade or a skill—baking, farming or accounting. Then you could go into the work force and make a good living repeating the same skill over the course of your career. But these days machines can do pretty much anything that’s repetitive. The new world requires a different sort of person. Drayton calls this new sort of person a changemaker. Changemakers are people who can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action and then continually adapt as situations change.[3]

Brooks then argued that for individuals to play this role, they had to possess what I have       elsewhere called empathetic imagination, which Brooks, following Drayton, described as:

‘… cognitive empathy-based living for the good of all.’ Cognitive empathy is the ability to perceive how people are feeling in evolving circumstances. ‘For the good of all’ is the capacity to build teams. … Social transformation flows from personal transformation. You change the world when you hold up a new and more attractive way to live. And Drayton wants to make universal a quality many people don’t even see: agency.[4]

Two things stood out for me as I considered Brooks’ and Drayton’s contentions and compared those to the concern Bruni had raised. First, cognitive empathy requires deep personal consideration and reflection concerning who one is and what one believes, as well as considered regard for how and why others may live and evidence different values than your own. It demands imagination, perception and sensitivity of a sort grounded in continuing reflection on the human experience. That requirement, in turn, necessitates developing the highest order forms of communication and reasoning both to practice it and to bridge differences among those with whom one is relating. One cannot presume to serve the commons as Drayton’s would-be changemaker without an awareness and an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of one’s community, and a capacity to identify its concerns and how collective action might be harnessed to address them.

More, one cannot so serve and unleash the agential possibility latent in all individuals with whom one might relate and with whom one might serve, if one fears difference or lacks the analytical wherewithal and emotional maturity born of continuing reflection on one’s own and humankind’s strengths and frailties. Cognitive empathy demands a deep rootedness in what joins human beings a well as a considered awareness of humankind’s propensity for both good and evil, justice and injustice. It also demands the capacity to analyze knotty social problems that are likely to evidence all of those propensities and others at once, especially as those relate to self-governance challenges.

In short, if Drayton and Brooks are right, we need an educational system that encourages and elicits the empathy and cognitive imaginations of those engaged in it. Our nation needs curricula at all scales that encourage students to develop the intellectual wherewithal to address the human needs in their communities and that helps each understand the fundamental dignity that inheres in all with whom they might cooperate to realize their aims. And yet, for decades, many of our nation’s public officials have preached atomistic individualism and argued that curricula should serve the market. As officials have pressed these utilitarian claims, they have convinced many of their constituents that deeper knowledge, self-awareness and analytical capabilities are dross. But, the lesson of Bruni, Brooks and Drayton is that, far from rubbish, citizen acquisition of these capabilities constitute the population’s future as both a productive and democratically self-governing people.

The lesson here is that lawmakers must stop trivializing the complexity of the human experience and begin to demand afresh that educational institutions prepare Americans to participate in the market and self-governance as changemakers. Happily, it appears that these domains demand the same capabilities of the nation’s individuals. The question now is whether the majority of elected officials will demonstrate sufficient imagination and courage to press for their adoption as a foremost social and educational aspiration for all. Should they do so, it appears the “market” will embrace their effort. So, the issue now is whether they can overcome their own emotional fears and intellectual smallness to acknowledge this necessity, having worked for decades to delegitimize its centrality in the nation’s consciousness.

 

References

[1] Bruni, Frank, “Corporations will Inherit the Earth,” The New York Times, February 10, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/10/opinion/sunday/corporations-will-inherit-the-earth.html Accessed February 11, 2018.

[2] Bruni, “Corporations will Inherit the Earth.”

[3] Brooks, David, “Everyone a Changemaker,” The New York Times, February 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/08/opinion/changemaker-social-entrepreneur.html Accessed February 8, 2018.

[4] Brooks, “Everyone a Changemaker.”