The Iconation of Everything

The abuse of the word “iconic” has become absurd. Its overuse indicates either a depth of ignorance on the parts of speakers and writers or a callous corruption of language inflicted on the ignorance of listeners and readers.

An icon is a thing inhabited or imbued with the spirit or meaning of something it represents. As a religious object, it might be inhabited with the saint or god of which it is an image. Thus, to speak to it is to speak to that saint or god directly. In a more mundane life, it may be an image that not only represents an action, but is actually a connection to it. Thus to click on a computer icon actually initiates a process in the computer system, such as starting a program. So an icon is a sort of vehicle or portal showing its purpose in its appearance.

In more recent usage, an icon has come to be a representative of a broader set or greater domain of sense or meaning. Thus Mt. Everest, whether it is the tallest mountain in the world or not, is an icon representing all that is majestic about the Himalayas or about great mountains around the world. Leonardo de Vinci is an icon of the Renaissance man as the ultimate of that ideal. However, all the mountains of the Himalayas or all Renaissance men cannot be icons of what they are. They do not represent anything other than just what they are.

If a thing or person is renowned, it does not make it iconic. If the person or thing does not particularly represent some greater idea, whether a characteristic of a greater set, a spirit of some power, an action of some result, a tradition of some group, or some other greater meaning than the thing itself, it cannot be thought of as iconic.

It is enough that we use Latinate suffixing rules to create trendy lexical redundancies at the expense of enriching our discourse with a powerful vocabulary. It eviscerates a rich language to serve up ground scraps as Salsbury steak. We are turning our prime lexicon into the haute cuisine of a fast food drive thru.

Iconate that Madison Avenue!

Participating in Community

Millions of dollars are regularly delivered to solving social, educational and economic disparities. That’s good, and much good is achieved by it. Research, training, investment get injected into communities and impact many lives. The scale of these projects is essential for what their donors hope will be achieve, but that scale is also a throttle, limiting the depth to which their work can effect change, and a regulator, narrowing the range of impact to a categorical norm.

There is another way that lives are impacted in communities lacking resources to move their members into the full light of American society. When one person enters the world of another and shares her or his “excess of resource,” that entry helps to balance the advantage of those less lucky. Such an act is not a gift, nor is it an investment; it is a sharing that assures mutual improvement. And because the resource being shared is seldom money or goods or materials, it is in far greater abundance among a large segment of society. These resources are such things as time, experience and compassion, resources freely given and yet undiminished. Such resources are in the hands of many people, even among those in communities in need.

In recent years, I have volunteered my time tutoring Latino students in my south Minneapolis neighborhood. This effort has helped several individuals rise substantially in their school experience. Furthermore, my tutoring is personally rewarding. I tutor in the spirit of meeting my responsibility of citizenship, serving the community from which I also benefit. At the same time, I am rewarded with the personal relationship which develops in tutoring. The power of an individual sharing time and knowledge with one or two others in an ongoing and personal relationship is simply astounding. The outcomes benefit all. The student benefits in his or her academic career, the tutor benefits in the rewards of appreciation and purposefulness, and the community is raised that little bit higher.

One-on-one volunteering is highly efficacious. However, by its very nature, it has a relatively small impact on a community as a whole. That means numbers of volunteers are necessary to make real and lasting change. This should not be confused with scale. Think “crowd sourcing” not “corporate sourcing.”

Scale, as we have used it in the tech-age, brings with it a number of wasteful characteristics. Scale brings bureaucratizing and administering. What are not needed and are not productive are more cadre organizers, schedulers, communicators and chiefs. These often financially attractive boss roles exist in plenty already. These administrators are not volunteers and seldom do the work they administer. They collect a percentage of the dollars that you and I are asked to pledge to their organizations–organizations that offer to help those in need. They sell us a clear conscience while shielding us from actually doing anything, coming face to face with unpleasant things, or getting our hands dirty. They allow us to buy off our responsibilities to our community. They are social indulgences. As a result, large scale operations diminish the sense of community and our role in it. Less good is accomplished in the community, more time is spent collecting donations, and donors remain detached from any personal or spiritual reward.

Additionally, scale leads to standardizing and mandating. The power in the volunteering relationships is developed by uniquely individual interactions between the participants. The individualized goals of the sharing mean that success is achieved by a continuous give and take on both sides. No one outside the relationship is deciding what goal should be sought or how it should be reached. There is no single one-size-fits-all goal or standardized procedure for reaching it. Humans come in unique sizes, after all, and have unique goals. And just as their goals are unique, so are their stories. Every person has had her or his own path in life. Pursuing that individual path is every person’s right, assuming that it does not impinge upon the rights of others, and should be supported in whatever unique ways are needed.

The importance of organizational scale cannot be denied, but numbers of individual community members can bring important change as well. If one person in four-hundred in Minneapolis, about 1,000 people, each made time to help one or two people—disadvantaged students, long-term job seekers, struggling shop owners, overwhelmed single parents, and many more who simply do not have access to the resources necessary to pull themselves up into the light—1 person in 400, helping one or two people each—one or two thousand lives could be changed in Minneapolis every year. And if this were the norm across America, millions of lives would be improved through sharing what many of us have more than enough to share, mostly at no material cost to ourselves.

I have time to tutor, and it takes time, but the tutoring is its own reward. And if you think you don’t have enough of anything, think about how much we have that we take for granted. Time? How much non-productive time do you spend in front of a computer? Or in front of a television? Knowledge? How much do you know about starting and running a small business? My wife has met with a few of my former students, many new Americans, to help them get started in their job searches. If you’re a computer user, could you track down places for someone in distress to get help? Research and provide resource lists? Automobile? Could you give rides? Make sure young or old get home safely? Deliver meals? We have so much, there is no reason so many human beings who live within reach have to live in such need.

We can all do more, but even one in four-hundred would mean so much. You can give a few dollars here or there and feel you’ve met some obligation, or you can give a little time, effort or knowledge and know you’ve made a difference.

The Problem with the “Achievement Gap”

Words carry baggage. A gap in a society has a near side and a far side. We put people on one side or the other. “We” are of course on this side and “they” are on the other. So a gap forms groups, absorbing individuals into one group or another. “Gap” and “group” are constructs imposed on reality, not derived from it.

If the separating measure used in creating a gap is achievement, it ignores the fact that achievement occurs on a continuum. So “gap” is a false construct, which not only does not accurately reflect reality, but which must serve some other agenda as well.

When we align the achievement-gapped construct with the long-standing race construct, we simply reinforce the notion of racial difference. In addition to focusing our attention on achievement, one very impersonal aspect of education’s many acculturating functions, it turns our attention away from the broader cultural and institutional aspects of a society that so stubbornly exclude individuals from opportunity and access to full and equitable participation based on superficial characteristics, such as skin color.

The achievement gap is only a glimpse of the vastly larger culture gap from which we suffer, and for which there is no self-elevated committee, council or cause resourceful enough to correct us, it seems. Even the good news is bad: we are not the only ones. Almost every culture on this planet suffers the same twisted, albeit self-serving, perspective on reality. Markers of “group” difference are plentiful—race, religion, ethnicity—all social constructs that have no basis in essential reality.

The problem, as I see it, is that there may be no solution to a “gapped” world. In the absence of the motivation of six billion plus individuals, there may only be resignation or eternal angst. Given how many of the world’s people will read this article, what are the chances?

Meanwhile of course, we can use “achievement gap” as a political tool for funding and policy decisions, the other agenda.

Talking to Myself

In a recent conversation with a doctor friend, a man of considerable intelligence and self-assurance, I found myself repeatedly rambling off topic, following one inciting spark after another. And not just wandering off the initial topic onto another, but cascading from topic to topic. I found myself on several occasions dangling among the twigs and leaves, but had little idea how I had achieved my arboreal dilemma.

Well aware at the time of the communicational problems I was creating for myself, I reflected on what had transpired as I threaded my way home along Lake Street. I seemed to have forgotten how to have an intelligent conversation. I had good ideas, but I had lost my capacity for expressing them at all clearly. No. I had somehow disconnected the ideas, many of which were pithy abstractions, from my skill at discourse, assuming I ever had any of the latter. This was not good. Allegorically—and much of the good thinking has indeed been allegory anyway—it amounted to cognitive constipation. A friendly cup of coffee, had been a harsh brain laxative and had produced an abrupt, barely controlled flow of intellectual crap.

And that wasn’t the only such outpouring of well-founded, poorly produced thought. The week before coffee with my friend, I was in a meeting of which I attend perhaps nine each year of any kind. Concerned with the possibility of our group’s constituents perceiving their privacy violated by an action on the floor, I suggested a strategy for forestalling a negative response. In the face of critical review of my suggestion, I planted my standard and drew sword. Later, realizing that I was neither persuading the opposition of accepting my proposed course of action, nor was I getting them even to grasp my concern, I relented. In that moment of deflating insight, I saw that the constituents would be similarly unlikely, to the committee, to sense any privacy violation. I could see that my fear sprung from a distant possibility, but I had charged ahead.

How had I flown so furiously down that dark path? It wasn’t that my fear was unfounded, but only remote, yet it churned into action a deaf passion, not to be reined in and deal to criticism—a stampede of words. Then days later, I found myself over coffee, again astride a runaway train of thoughts. What was becoming of me? I am of an age where considering early onset dementia is not unreasonable. I don’t seem to have this problem when sitting in my recliner, pontificating to the empty chairs across the room on ideas sparked by what I am reading in Erdrich or Hardy or Raabe. And so there it is. Alone, I am privately coherent. While in conversation, disjointed in context, thought and word, I have been called upon to merge these, unsuccessfully, into public coherence.

When my neighbor asks me what a flower is in my garden, I am occasionally stuck for the name of the thing. I know what it is, when it will bloom and how to treat it. I just never say its name out loud when I do these things. So I have pushed its name-words down, beneath more pressing, and non-lexical, information. I know that I often think in the conceptual without dipping into the symbolic. I see a pattern here, and patterns are big with my understanding of things. In my head, in my reading, in my garden, I am fully functional. I can manage, arrange and cross-connect the material, temporal and abstract realms just fine, but when I apply the word producing rhetorical processes into these, I find my results faltering. I have craft in expressing ideas, observations and understandings into words, given time and an editor’s pen. However, I need to practice this craft so that I can fluidly call upon it. There may be some slowing of the processes, due to aging, that bring these rhetorical skills on line, but the skills are still there. Using them well will require more practice before and more time when I need them.

I must therefore write more, for my brain’s sake. Moreover, I must write about how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively, for everyone else’s sake. I have recently started a list of things I think about. I will add “how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively” to that list. I can use this list to prompt more writing. I hope by this means to refine my rhetorical skills and at the same time, apply them to some of my most abstract thinking. I hope by this to keep my brain working well, longer and to make a conversation with me more coherent and perhaps enjoyable.

To do these things, I must simply get out more. I spend too much time alone.

Investing in Your Retirement Income

How is investing in your retirement income like keeping yourself in food? Well, how do you keep yourself in food now?

Feed-Me #3: I eat at my parents’ until they invite (force) me out to work and live on my own. Okay. Partying, social media, Starbucks platinum level may have to back off in place of serious work, rent and utilities, and eating out—but giving up international cuisine is asking too much. After all, you only live once, right? And this is how it will go until I drop or marry into money, the latter of which is not likely to happen when I pass the retirement age of 70+. By then inflation is likely to have out-paced wages by 100%. Hello, cat food.

I had no pension plan, except Social Security, and years of small government conservative shrank that and Medicare to something less than the poverty level and free clinic visits. No one explained to me that not everyone wins the lottery or winds up in the top 2% of wealth.

Feed-Me #2: I make a plan before moving out to own a house by 35, so save for a down payment while working hard and long—a day job plus a part time. I buy smart and healthy at the co-op and learn the best buys in wine and craft beers. I take a cooking class or two and master some pretty good dishes that impress my friends and partner. Our children don’t appreciate the food, but demand much in clothes, sports activities and tech-toys. Our kids go off to very good schools, which we hope will earn them high paying jobs.

By the time we settle in to paying off the house and college loans, we realize that there has never been a time to contribute the advised 20% of income to an IRA. We will be working past retirement age if we can, but those last 5 years of life, which cost half or more of our total life medical costs may have to be covered by the kids. I may be watching a modest life drain away into a long, sad decline. It all balances out.

Feed-Me #1: I live at home, paying costs to my parents until I have a steady career job. I plan on buying a home as soon as I can arrange it. I live as cheaply as I can manage, valuing people over things, parks over concert halls, Mr. Coffee over Starbucks. I use public transportation, which alone saves enough for a down payment on a house in about five or six years. I buy smart and healthy at the Cub. I have learned what foods have real value and are affordable. As soon as I can, I get a garden plot to supplement the expensive stuff I can grow. Once I get a house, I plant an apple tree in the yard and a big garden in the back. These investments, along with running and biking, help keep me fit as well, and will reduce my medical costs even into very old age. Live starts early and ends late after all.

I was fortunate enough to have a public pension plan which with Social Security took about 15% of my salary, and that was matched by my employer. I have paid off my house, and the kids’ public college loans are handled. Since I also saved in 430(b) and 457 plans almost from day one, I will have enough income for the next 20-25 years to equal about 80% of my final working salary. That means travel, visiting the kids, and even reinvesting against expensive final years.

Just as I planted seeds in my garden, I planted financial seeds in my retirement plans, and because I started early and waited, as I did with the apple tree, I can actually wind up with more than I absolutely need. Just as I understand the growing season, I see the value of treating life as a whole process. I could have just lived on the harvest collected by others; then I would have been feeding the others as well, and that would be expensive and would have no end. I could have joined the harvesting, cutting the wheat I could later eat, and that would have reduced the cost, but because of waiting until late in the process, it would have offered too little a return, and even that return could be threatened by a bad crop. Worse, next season, when I wasn’t working, I would earn no return at all.

Even starting early, planning and exercising some prudence, while it could earn proportional wealth compared to those early years, — even that case offers no guarantee. Climate change, mining operations, social disorder, any number of things can spoil the crops or even poison the land. Social Security and Medicare can still be gutted, pension plans can be subverted, or the world economy can collapse.

There are no guarantees; there are risks. The trick is to minimize the risks, and that is best done by pooling our efforts. Going it on your own, no matter how good you are, leaves you the most vulnerable. There is safety in numbers. It doesn’t matter how confident you are in your abilities, the thing that will get you is beyond your control or anyone else’s. Life is a challenge; rise to it; don’t try to play it. Your public employee pension plan is your best hedge against tragedy. It’s your right. Support it.

The More Things Change…

Dickens’ Spirit of Christmas Present said it 170 years ago: if nothing is done to correct it, discrimination and poverty will remain the doom of humanity:

clip_image002“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Some may blame the poor and oppressed for their condition, and thereby justify punishing them further. Or some may use that condition to their benefit, manipulating politics and economics to further separate the victims of poverty and discrimination from resource and power. In just such a way some blame the schools, the teachers and the unions for the outcome of such conditions in education.

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

“Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares,” Motoko Rich, Amanda Cox and Matthew Bloch, New York Times, April 29, 20162

In reality, we have all inherited these poisons to our civilization, and we must all—from the meek and humble to the rich and powerful—join together to rid ourselves from them. We could be the generation of Americans who are truly great enough to face our doom and beat the odds. Yet too often we blame the victims and beat the scapegoats. Meanwhile American’s soul is festering.

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1 The online text: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm#link11 <

2 The interactive graphics show systems that were studied. Find yours. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html <

Morning News

What makes us who we are is not skyscrapers, not smart phones, not war machines, not cars that drive themselves; it is the scope and depth of our intangibles–Son House, Jackson Pollack, Martha Graham, George Gershwin, Robert Altman. When we count these defining achievements as dead history, when we consign our true American history to the trash heap and value only what is new and material, though doomed to ever shortening life spans, we erase our identity; we become creatures of a moment and then are gone. We become stranded in an endless and undefined present, isolated in time, striving to define who we are. Without a recognized course through a coherent past, we cannot project a trajectory into a meaningful future. We don’t see where we’re going or feel any reason why we should be going there. We are resolved to a kind of hopelessness in which we just wait for the next present moment, the next new thing, the next ‘today’ in which we relive the same, as yet, undefined newness. And the worst is that we have become not what we bring with us to each new day, but the ‘pay-to-play’ response to what we are given by the anonymous cosmic powers. We are following a trail of crumbs that was dropped by we know not whom and which leads we know not where.

In Search of Our Dignity

Almost 11 years ago, an Indian Ocean earthquake produced a devastating tsunami that was responsible for roughly 23,000 deaths and 100 millions displaced. Something like $5 billion was needed to provide assistance; $1.8 billion was pledged in emergency aid; and corruption, bureaucracy and nationalism hampered that humanitarian response on the ground and around the world.

Not long after it was clear that the Middle East had moved from unstable to incendiary. Sectarian conflict had been exacerbated, ethnic rivalries had become sharpened, and economic constraints following war in Iraq and sanctions in Iran raised anger as well as vulnerabilities. Once again tens or even hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and millions have been displaced. The birthplace of civilization and many of its most important features from ‘0’ to ‘Z’ is being destroyed in in an enormous and ironic gesture of psychotic religiosity. Criminal destruction and sale of antiquities and brutal human trafficking are taking everything from individuals and from the whole of humanity. Ethnic and political conflicts are being exploited in the turmoil surrounding the Syrian/Iraqi free-for-all. Meanwhile, people are robbed and killed by the truckload, babies are drowned and washed ashore, women are given for rape and abuse as religious rewards, and the world largely stands by, slaps a few hands, drops some more bombs, and argues about how it’s a neighbor’s responsibility.

When did we lose our humanity? Humanitarianism is the highest form of human dignity: the belief that we never have too little to share with those in need; a hallmark of humanity. In Guatemala in 1999, a family living in a single room home with little more than the clothes they wore and the tools they worked with offered me, a comparatively rich American, a meal. Theirs was an act of gracious dignity. In France last week, we prided ourselves for awarding medals to three men who jumped to the defense of a train car full of strangers, yet within a week, train cars full of refugees and migrants are being herded like cattle into camps in Eastern Europe. If we recognize dignity, why don’t we recognize indignity?

Perhaps our humanity was never real. Perhaps it was just a carrot, dangling at the end of a stick before our eyes. We are never more than a few steps away from attaining humanity as we trudge along the treadmill of history, reliving one inhumane absurdity after another. We struggle, or think we struggle, to get ahead and prosper, and we confidently accept that destruction, despair and death is the lot of others and must simply be understood to be part of life in this world. These are the words of an egocentric and cowardly fool. There is no guarantee that disaster and strife will not strike any of us. When that happens, will we expect the humanity of others to come to our rescue?

I hasten to add that there have been many, I don’t know how many, who have individually stepped up to provide the help they could in whatever ways they could. It keeps my hope alive. I direct my words at those who have mistaken empowerment for leadership. These are the times when we can distinguish those who are good leaders from those who simply wield power. Those who have stepped up to help I would mark as showing good leadership.

Living in Luxury

The consumer economy is a marvel in con-artistry. No, no, really; it is! Take for example the idea of luxury cars, luxury homes, and other high end neo-con American dreams. These are the bait images taken by the mass market status shoppers who are clawing and climbing their way above their fellow citizens to a luxury life-style, or at least the appearance of one. In hope of a financial nirvana, they faithfully offer up emulative smoke to their financial gods in the upper classes, to whom true luxury is available. These exalted gods of luxury are, of course, as immaterial as any dreams. We do not know these gods; we never even see them through the tinted windows or in cloud raking towers; and they neither see nor hear us. They are a creation of imagination made manifest through the liturgies of marketing priests—ad men. But luxury dwellers are there, above the clouds, and they know luxury we can only imagine. They know how to get milk from the cow without going to the barn. These are not the Wall Street Moghuls or the corporate super-rich. Most of those don’t understand or have access to a life of luxury. Ironic as it is, many super-rich mistake excess for luxury, and we are duped into the same mistake to our expense.

Meanwhile, the commodities we know as luxury goods are part of this mythology. They are material goods that represent luxury, much as miniaturized replicas represent the genuine pieces, but they are not the materials of luxury living nor do they provide access to a style of living that is luxurious. The marketplace term of luxury is but a glorification of excessive consumption meant to feed our status vanity, while providing profits for others.

A true luxury car, for instance, is a silver Phantom with a driver. Yes, it costs something like the houses of dreamers who think an E-Class sedan is a luxury. Yet neither such a car nor the way it is used is luxury. Here’s an example: a stay-at-home mom (a bit of a turquoise and coral term in itself) doesn’t drive her kid and a neighbor’s to soccer practice in a luxury car. A driver (the term “chauffeur” is a nouveau riche presumption) delivers a wife from the Waldorf to Saks, actually on Fifth Avenue, in a luxury vehicle, and waits at the curb. The children (truly rich people, unlike goats, don’t breed kids) are at boarding school, and if they go to soccer practice at all, they’ll tell Mother about it when they see her over the holidays. Children have mothers; kids have moms. Moms drop their kids off at practice, and then swing by SuperValu to pick up something in a family pack for dinner before returning to pick the kids up. A forty or fifty thousand dollar car does not make this a luxury Life-style. However, such a car could be used by a high school aged child of a home accustomed to living in luxury, especially if were a convertible.

As another example, a luxury home does not have a cash value. Its possession is simply a write-off. A home of luxury has size, location and amenities. It has servant quarters and back stairways, out of sight of the grand hall, the grand staircase, the library, the grand dining room and the breakfast room, and so on. If it is truly a luxury home, it has a pedigree, such as Lyndhurst. Far from shopping and cooking, the lady of the house (we won’t call her Mom) informs the cook, shortly after breakfast, who will be at which meals, what to prepare and where to have it served. Dressing for meals is probably unnecessary, except for special occasions, or lunching or dining out. This lady seldom goes into the kitchen and never into any other work place in the house. By contrast, our mom has returned to a tract of faux-luxury homes via crowded highways, commonplace streets, and a driveway, parked the faux-luxury sedan in the three car garage, gone directly into the adjoining kitchen carrying her groceries and begun to prepare dinner. She has spilled a milk on her hands.

And the man of luxury? Well, the true man of luxury does require wealth. He may go to an office suite, in a building he owns, or in his home, wherein his advisors—lawyers, money managers, etc.—come to him to offer information and take away instructions. These instructions may include the purchase of new cars, new houses, new companies, or more draconian investments, all expenditures that should yield some form of return. Such regal responsibilities may not take the whole day, and socializing, golf, shooting may fill the rest. To one of these he may drive his new Vanquish Carbon, black of course. Our Dad, on the other hand, may have driven himself to his office in a fuel saving hybrid, because fuel, insurance and the environment are at issue. He is willing to defer some appearance of wealth and luxury in his responsibilities to family, the environment and possibly his insurance company. He would have parked in a lot or ramp in a space reserved for him perhaps, and walked into a tower to take an elevator, but not to the top floor. He would also have people in a position advisory to him, but his would be the advisory position to someone higher up. He would probably work sixty plus hours a week, have weekend meetings and be required to travel from time to time, if not frequently, first class at least in a commercial flight, but not in the corporate jet. That would be real luxury beyond his station.

So how does the family in true luxury get to be there? Well, inheriting wealth helps—and inheritance certainly helps with style. We are led to believe that living in luxury is only about acquiring vastly excessive wealth. If that were the case, then spending lavishly must be an indication of living luxuriously. Luxury, however, is understanding the value of things irrespective of their cost. Marketed luxury is valued primarily on its cost.

To achieve the sort of luxury the marketplace offers, aspirants need some form of revenues, and these may be substantial, and since these expectations are market driven, we need only look at how things are marketed to understand how to gain the imageware. In a healthy market, the wealthier, who are already on the luxury ladder, can be gently, maybe pleasantly, bled of some excess wealth. However those aspirants living in the economic suburbs of Luxor must be encouraged to spend big. Bigger price tag items often yield bigger profit margins; luxury goods purchases make the rich richer faster. Those up the ladder, but not at the top, must bleed those beneath them in the economy to afford there faux-luxury goods. Their factories must produce more at less cost; therefore workers must be fewer in number and work longer at stagnant or reduced rates, as they make essential and especially, non-essential goods for the mass-market. Some rungs down, shop owners must put in more time to avoid overhead costs. Hence, we see the stagnation of the middle and lower middle classes at the same time as wealth is diverted from them to buy commodities such as food, utilities and gasoline, and even increasingly, false needs such as lottery tickets, cable TV, trend electronics and other redundant and superfluous technologies. The latter are offered in the name of better and luxury living, leaving out any reflection on the spiritual result of the scramble for luxury. The economic ground dwellers, who are also subject to dream messages, often squanders their resources on non-essential tokens of a more luxurious life. Such strivings hurt those at the bottom materially, while adding no real value to the aspirants’ lives, and not even resulting in true luxury in the super-rich ether at the top.

Here in the middle: is my life better because I have an Apple Watch? The answer is—and we are given this script—“Yes, because it’s so cool.” This is important to understand, because we know the watch would be just as cool whether we paid for one or not, but because the cool thing is now connected with us, we gain that cool. And cool is…well, cool if not truly luxurious. By creating a cool luxury image to which we aspire, promising a reward of acceptance and respect when we meet that aspiration, and providing the materials to do so, at a slightly excessive but just affordable cost, the marketplace has conned us into feeling rewarded for passing wealth up the food chain. Pretty cool, huh? We are being conned into living in faux-luxury, or trying to, which ultimately serves the crust of excessive wealth, where luxury means nothing if it produces no return. Striving for the nirvana of the vane and vexed—economic inequity for the rest.

Yes, these con artists prey on our vane self-interest. How do we get conned over and over? The method is simple. Shape a message that says “This a good thing for you. It will make your life better” Repeat this message over and over in a hundred ways, and it becomes a belief, equivalent to truth, and you have already agreed to this message. After all, life should be fun and feel good. Right? Don’t think about it; just eat your lotus seeds; you deserve it.

Finally, we can perceive some missing pieces to this human puzzle. For millennia, people have seen that life is suffering, and that that suffering is a result of our actions, which are themselves intended to improve our condition. Yet only if we ceased to act in this way can we move away from suffering toward real happiness. We have been convinced that striving for luxury is the thing to do. So our actions are pointed to such an end, but even the end we are aiming for is a mirage. Even if we make it, we will have achieved nothing, “…vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Watching “Downton Abbey,” we may have missed the fairly pedestrian message. Here’s what Bing.com says:

The struggle of the upper classes in contrast to the people in their service pre WW1. We struggle with them as we see their lives take shape and become part of their personal pain, anguish, joy and sacrifice. We see clearly that we are all part of the same human condition whether we are upstairs or downstairs.

Certainly life at Downton defines luxury and the luxury life-style better than any Cadillac commercial. Yet it seems clear, whether you look at it through religion, philosophy, sociology or TV: luxury is not the road to happiness. Luxury is how we live with what we have, not what we have to live with.

Some money is certainly needed in a market based society to avoid undue pain and suffering. However, pushed too far, acquiring the emblems of wealth available in the luxury goods market may be seen as the marijuana of wealth addiction. Rather than leading to a better life with any degree of luxury, it may be leading to an addiction—greed, as it seems to have done for some. These addicts are not only missing the luxuries of life available at the top; they are suffering the constant fear of withdrawal pain as they face increasing competition for wealth—market slumps, corruption in the ranks, government regulations. And they are willing to strip their fellow humans of the means of providing their basic needs, shaping an ironic message that, with your purchase, you can move closer to the life the super-rich get to lead. Really?

These wealth addicts are not living in luxury and they have given up their humanity to be where they are. And this on this basis is the image of luxury living constructed. Can our souls be so easily bought? Is the dollar idolatry so powerful that we would run ourselves and our families into massive debt to attain the appearance of wealth gained at the price of spiritual poverty and moral irresponsibility?

Now when you hear the word “luxury” attached to anything, what will you think about? Are you being conned?

Education in a Post-Modern World

I was struck recently by an article by Terri Seddon (2015) from Australian Catholic University in which she presents a description of a shift in contemporary in education, from an emphasis of teaching to a whole population to one of learning as individuals. I would characterize this as a shift toward a post-modern paradigm, deconstructing the old world. Seddon certainly details a framework of deconstruction of traditional education in Australia, which largely parallels American education.

Seddon uses the following quotation in her summary:

“… teachers are neither ‘gamekeepers’ that protect the balance of nature in a national territory, nor ‘gardeners’ who intervene to redesign a natural order. Rather, the 21st century space of education locates worlds where ‘hunters’ aim to fill their own hunting bag with kill irrespective of others. The hunt, the project-by-project achievement of success, becomes the end in view.” (Bauman, 2005)

This quotation aptly summarizes Seddon’s deconstructed educational institution, and aptly casts a doubt across teachers’ influence over empowering students as independent, free-ranging, life-long learners. There are outriders on this trajectory that cloud the underlying philosophy of contemporary education, in Seddon’s writing and in our observations of the quotation above.

First, learning is becoming a largely outside-in process. While successfully accessing sources of content is vital to learning, the process and purpose of learning itself are at least equally important as simple acquisition. Education is not just loading learners up with tools, techniques and the assumption that they should be used. Determining what content Bauman’s “hunter” should seek and how to use it effectively and appropriately, even civilly, seem critical understandings for learners to acquire, and here Seddon concurs.

We are well aware of the enormous amount of material available to anyone via the Web, a relatively small amount of which is useful or even accurate, and much of which is purely subjective. What is more, we have seen the sour consequences of gathering large quantities of data and then determining what to do with them—occasionally inventing uses well after the gathering. Marketers seem particularly good at framing gleanings from random data into essential everyday consumer “needs.” The shift in learning is a reality to which educators must adapt or become irrelevant. Education could perhaps provide a framework for thinking about a better world in which students learn to become well adapted personally and socially, valuing themselves and others while functionally independent.

Teaching as coaching is an insufficient model. As such, pointing out good grounds to hunters encourages the food hunter, the trophy hunter and the ivory hunter equally. Such a model on its own does not limit the decimating harvest of whales or the choking consumption of gasoline. Reasonable choices in what and where to hunt, and how much to leave for other hunters or other generations are survival decisions beyond the individual. Even fully autonomous individuals must share the planet in some way. And while the individual constructs a world of his own experience and conditions, others are constructing walls and bridges that shape those experiences and conditions. Who creates the choices of hunting grounds, who stocks the game, and who sets the limits? Will not production competitors shape the hunting landscape to their own purposes? Who plants the lures in the Apple orchard or the oil field? How is the hunter to judge? How to respond?

Who coaches the coaches? If educators are not developing a sense of prudent choices and reasonable limits, are they abdicating their role as mediators of the renewal of a culture? Such a question also asks what culture we wish to conserve. On a scale beyond education, we might need to assess and revise what we call culture, perhaps or perhaps not a culture rooted in religiously founded nationhood. Seddon seems to say educators are facilitating access to a landscape that is as much outside teachers themselves as it is outside the students, and because this globalized landscape dismisses a moral common core, it contributes to the deconstruction of a moral common culture, a civil community, resulting in an ever more fractious and contentious set of sects.

We know that learning is not just an outside-in process, an acquisition process. It is also a personal development process. And it is inside that the moral world exists. What growth occurs inside is critical to how the tools and techniques can be used, abused or just set aside. Additionally, learning is, or has been, a social development process. How we develop in a world with others as a part of a greater whole has been at the very heart of acculturation, the Titanic mother of education. The resulting atomization of our society is evidence of a partial failure of our binding social fabric, at least. Without question, we are becoming an increasingly global, our boundaries erased by monetary transactions, trade routes, and satellite signals. Even educational institutions serve local and international student bodies. How will we socialize students for such a global society?

The 19th century not only gave us broad public education fit to its times and places; it gave us the Romantic sense of unity, loyalty to the greater good and a belief that that greater good binds us with a self-correcting power. The natural order would always prevail. The more realistic Modernists response half a century later could see that this binding moral center was not holding us together. Greedy exploitation, brutal colonization and a Great War made that clear, but the notion that there was a universal center that morally binds us to one another and our world remained a real if abandoned thing. Now the Post-Modern world simply denies even that belief. It finds no evidence to support a unified universe, which is simply random and without purpose, a universe in which we must wend through a here and now as painlessly and perhaps enjoyably as possible, a world in which the only constant is self. “Cogito ergo sum.” Period. If each of us defines “the” world as we encounter it, then I must construct my teachers. They don’t construct my world; they don’t construct me.

Seddon begins her paper with a quotation that raises a fundamental questions:

What is the point today of the institutions and systems built in the 19th century to provide various forms of education: the schools, the working man’s colleges, the universities? In the world of the information society is education better left as an unfettered relationship between a consenting individual and their smart phone? (Yates, 2012)

What is the purpose of education, and what the role of teachers? Are we adapting knowingly into a world that has no center, or are we simply being drawn blindly into a vortex of post-modern deconstruction of anything outside our microcosmic selves? The only thing that remains the same is change; anything else that remains the same becomes history.

References:

Bauman, Z. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Seddon, Terri. Learning, politics and globalisation: Why have education? [Das Argument_Submission draft_June 2015.docx, Complied: 20/6/15} academia.edu, viewed 30 July 2015.

Yates, L. (2012). “My School, My University, My Country, My World, My Google, Myself…: What is education for now?” Australian Educational Researcher 39: 259–274.