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To Change a Culture

            American officials in the aftermath of 9-11 have grit their teeth – not just that the terrorists could hit us with such impunity, but also that our intelligence agencies couldn't connect the dots – couldn't see the plentiful, long-coming, and acutely obvious warning signs.

            Our most prestigious intelligence agencies could not communicate with each other. The culture their officials, agents, and analysts inhabited now exhibits itself as fatally flawed, everybody agrees – but nobody has noted how this disconnect among specialist departments in intelligence has equally deep parallel conceits in our nation's colleges and universities.

            Though we can now easily impugn our agencies as aberrant, our academics have long similarly isolated themselves by specialist niches. Our advertising, sales, and celebrity culture moreover serves the same imagination. So we all end up in parallel disconnect. We get it by education – all in separate tracks, all fixed by test-happy quantifiables, all following the same impersonal logic of segmented, modular, corporate textbooks. Our commercial culture then fits us in similar towers of Babel by our marketing demographics.

            My students at San Francisco State thus feel themselves largely helpless. Not all agree, but most feel as isolate units in a system that takes their money, tracks them, tests them, and impersonally passes them on. Only a few appreciate how their individual resourcefulness may match initiatives and interests of some instructors. Most of my students, even in their senior year, have become convinced that the prevailing ethos of academia is that of indifferent exploitation. The values they see add up to victimization cliché.

            To address this feeling that too many harbor, I've learned to start my courses asking for a one-page curriculum vita – CV. I ask students to list the tools and other cultural artifacts they have used to express their public selves at different eras in their lives. I want them to see how we all have multiple selves – various and evolving guises, personalities, and roles we inhabit. All these performances depend on choices (conscious or not) in styles of clothing we wear, accessories we add, gestures and body language we take from film, and diction, rhythm, and timing we pick up from music. We make many other statements about time, social relations, and pleasure by further values evident in food presentations, living environs, and travel modes.

            The CVs initially turn up, however, largely witless lists of consumer items: pop music performers, film titles, designer logo clothing, and the usual fast food franchise names. Those whose cars suit them list those names. Very few cite books or authors. Almost nobody mentions landscape – as if place were incidental, somewhere we find ourselves while aiming elsewhere, inevitably confined to someone else's machinery – like freeway drivers barreling along to goals governed by placement of off ramps.

            Interesting exceptions illuminate values outside the clichés of being trapped in robotic institutional life. One Chinese guy's CV in my most recent class cited a book called Don't Sweat the Small Stuff – and he added 'and it's all small stuff." His parenthetical remark conveyed his scorn of the consumerism addictions that he swam in even while he could see their trivializing power. An older Irish-American student, noting cars from each era of his life, located his earlier beloved sports and racing cars as key to his partying, wild youth, and paired them with his current, settled values, his current car a modest, ten-year-old, fuel-efficient sedan.

            Every student of the thirty in the class with the Chinese immigrant and the Irish-American also to some degree revealed exceptions to the mass market mentality that they all also inhabited. Some mentioned mothers or grandmothers patiently making home-cooked, time-consuming meals back in variously ethnic childhoods. These sometimes showed values of quiet family communing with different age groups and family types. Others celebrated values of more animated sociability, with home-cooked meals widely open to various guests and oddball friends. In either case, whether keying quiet family intimacy or more inclusive traditions, ethnic foods from various cultures signaled values very different from those of America's proverbially commercialized, on-the-go, time-conscious dynamism.

            A few students mentioned religious rites – as if their measured pace and deliberation contrasted with the bottom-line goals and hurry of commercial life. Some Asian immigrants mentioned memories of rural and village life, poverty-stricken, but also accommodating ways whereby little children, old people, and animals all could commingle. Some American-born others mentioned times when hours spent television-watching now seemed to represent closed-down, reduced lives, passivities of being shut in during long winters of the imagination.

            In one way and another, however, everybody's CVs staked out values, or suggested them, even if dimly, inarticulately, which differed from the drone routines and tunnel visioning that most felt college was primarily shaping for them.

            CVs can do this. When written in categories of the cultural expressions that best convey each one of us, CVs initially fill up with the items we've acquired through following the designated scripts of consumer culture. These roles all have basic appeal for us because, like the well-defined niches of corporate academia, they always promise closure. They all beckon to us in the same way. Whether in the tracks of our consumer demographics or those of our school specializations, it's all the same logic. One common imagination results when we buy into styles set by commercial celebrities. The same imagination adds up when we buy into academic styles administered by specialists. It's the same ethics, whether we accumulate some fashionable things by demographic niches, or other things – jargon, modular sequences, and carefully-bounded categories – by mutually isolated academic departments.

            CVs can show inevitable alternatives. The best human exceptions point out of the parallel tracks of corporate academia and commercial culture. Students looking closely at each other's CVs can see each other's escapes from cliché. They can realize their more vital performance opportunities when they rewrite, revise, and detail CVs with forms of cultural expression more individually appropriate for each. As discussions continue, and subsequent essays emerge, students can refer to each other for analogous ways they find in locating themselves outside of originating clichés. Having available a sheaf of each other's newest, best-updated CVs allows most apt, freshest, best-focused reference to each other.

            To change a culture, we first see how we all inhabit some packaged version of whatever current lies promise closure: those of academic specialization or consumer packaging, or others: ambitious careerism, righteous religiosity, sentimental nationalism. They're all the same. They all beguile by similarly falsifying humanity. To change any one of these cultures, we first see the commonality of its trap – then we see how we all live additionally, in more than one culture.

            Our careerists and specialists today resemble the rich of long ago who could get to heaven as easily as one could thread that proverbial camel through the eye of a needle. History hasn't changed, though now our leaders have got us into another war in Iraq. Corporate souls all, they have sunk us in policies that only arouse hatreds from millions in the Muslim world. With names like Bush, Rove, Rice, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Negroponte, and Cheney, these privileged, corporate souls all their lives have lived exclusively in a single mono-culture: the world of hierarchical flow charts, departments isolated from each other, costs fudged by accounting departments, and consciences glossed-over by public relations spin. They got the war they lusted for. But because they know nothing of any culture outside their narrow mono-culture, they got a massive mess, whose costs not they, but the working classes and ruined environments of the world will pay. Bush, Rove, Rice, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Negroponte, and Cheney presumed they could treat another culture as extensions of themselves. In their narcissism, in their corporate world, they have always bought and sold what they see as the same interchangeable properties; they have begun a globalism of outsourcing employees and replacing them with those they only see as undifferentiated units of their debased mono-culture.

            Essaying Differences says no to the death trap of our "leaders" – yes to the startling surprises, decency, and diversity of others who can admit inhabiting multiple cultures.

            Essaying Differences says yes to CVs that list our competing, contradictory, and evolving cultural expressions, and so help us locate each other's values latent in the many styles we show in food presentation, landscape, clothing, music, film, travel, architecture, and literature. Yes to essaying connections amid living cultures.

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