A Vital Change: to our Fulbright Program

A hundred years ago many of our then-best-&-brightest believed in the possibilities of change, as the same hopes hurtle among many of us now. Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, and Theodore Roosevelt counted among the top progressives then, and they effected major changes – in urban social services, industrial conditions, and wilderness conservation.

Another set from that era saw something else – a predicament we see today, albeit in very different terms. Mark Twain, Henry Adams, and Thorstein Veblen saw something like determinism, though they applied themselves with what were perhaps the finest intelligences of that era towards reversing, or ameliorating, these same forces they weren’t even sure could be reversed.

It was Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court then that wildly funned the machinery of industrial production, with his “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”-like madness at its end signaling the possibility that our arsenals of iron and steel had already surpassed any of our abilities to manage. Henry Adams saw the same thing, at about the same time, in his musings before the dynamos exhibited at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893. He guessed, in “The Virgin and the Dynamo” chapter of his Education, that such powerful steam and electrical motors had already taken us over – that we’d forsaken any alternative directions once we’d so built and employed them. Veblen felt the same – ire for him against our growing marketplace materialism, which he called conspicuous consumption.

How little has changed in the century since. We have our reformers and progressives, and many who despair of change. This latter includes millions on the right who to various degrees hate modernity – see it running away with us, as Eisenhower in 1960 warned our “military industrial complex” might be doing (though early drafts of that farewell address also toyed with the terms “military-industrial-academic complex” and “military-industrial-congressional complex”).

While I count myself respectful of the awesome range of forces we inhabit, and respectful of the varieties of rage, frustration, and rue from the many feeling these at home and abroad, I also, like the speaker in Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” weigh in for the other side of things. I believe in change, and our abilities to marshal it. But, though I’ve had a Ph.D. for more than 30 years, and am still charmed by its luster, I don’t align with my friends and colleagues of institutional blessings who see institutional educations positively. I don’t because they don’t prepare us to make connections – not in the way that many southern white boys with guitars learned to connect to black peers in gospel choirs – not in the way many Midwestern folkies learned to connect to Delta or Chicago blues. As opposed to how the arts prompt some to make connections, our educational institutions, rather, prepare us for niches. They flatter our conceits for the ethics of accumulation – whether accruing information by categories in school, or buying things targeted for our identities in consumerland – but such flattery deceives us. It fits us to bubble culture. And our educations routinely – by design – reduce, track, and divide us, with imaginations intended to be shrunk for all niches of corporate America. This includes:

  • those of our mainstream media who saw themselves “fair” as they asked no serious questions of the White House as it fear-and-lied us into Iraq war;
  • our most-sophisticated bankers, financiers, and MBA brighties quick for the deregulation that for years allowed them to play the housing bubble ponzi schemes their fake derivatives floated;
  • our oil companies, the lawmakers they bought, and the U.S. military they borrowed, to cozy up to the world’s worst dictators;
  • all Detroit, and the lawmakers they bought, who paved the way for millions of SUVs buoyed ever-beyond any and all environmental and other world realities.

I nevertheless count myself on the side of change, in spite of this recent history, because I can count one engine – one signally – that more than anything explains and propels our bubble culture. This is corporate academe, and the cubicle imagination it feeds. And while none can do anything now about all its souls in their flow-chart niches – in specialized departments kept in mutual isolation from each other, all in most-corporate conceits of impersonal voice – we can do something about the one entitlement package that strokes all this. We can change the fun-travel-&-adventure bennie program that, could J. William Fulbright see it now, would have him aghast.

When Fulbright set up his eponymous program a half century ago, America had little representation abroad. Sending scholars and cultural figures to other countries filled this gap. Foreigners around the world got in-person familiarity with us, and many thousands of our “best and brightest” got first-hand experiences among “others.”

Since then, however, other parts of American culture have been doing what the Fulbright long did virtually alone. We’ve had a growth industry in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – Amnesty, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Federation, Human Right Watch, and many more that have become key presences worldwide. We’ve had tens of thousands of corporate representatives exporting our franchise food chains, blue jeans and other fashions, and more. And we’ve had billions in dollars in sales from our film, music, and other cultural products in new marketplaces everywhere.

The Fulbright, meanwhile, has not only not changed in more than a generation, it has set itself further to represent the worst of our corporate bubble culture.

Fulbrighters abroad largely do what they do at their home universities. They retreat into specializations. They hew language register and range of attention to departments deliberately in mutual isolation from each other. They posture impersonality – as if, in corporate-land, real humans and messy humanity all take the Kool Aid so as to reduce themselves as students and each other as colleagues. The Fulbright now rewards what has become probably the greatest reduction of imagination in U. S. history. It reinforces literacy stripped of all but the most linear and chronological of devices, and largely confines these skills, such as they are, to remedial, “freshman comp” ghettos on one hand, or decorative, narcissistic ornaments such as “creative writing” and MFA programs on the other. As the late Harvard paleontologist – and eminently successful writer – Stephen Jay Gould observed, not long before his own early death, no one who wanted a university position, or tenure, could anymore write with as wide a range of reference as he himself had. The pressures for getting a job, keeping it, and winning promotions meant everyone learned one’s niche, and stayed in it.

With the new, Obama administration coming into Washington soon, we could reject how corporate America’s god has our Fulbrighters ever modeling cubicle imagination. We could ask change – that some percentage of those getting our sinecures at universities abroad could do things differently. Fulbrighters could do something other than rehearse niche-divided, robotic souls. They could learn and teach the making of actual connections to actual people in actual cultures – these linking, too, to whatever specializations Fulbrighters may also represent.

Not making connections has a cost. As we have seen from the massive failures of our banking and finance sharpies, people who inhabit bubble culture, and then exploit others for greed to pad more greed, are soon helplessly doing the most reckless things to themselves and the world. They go out of control – as George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” described of the linguistically un-tethered. Our oil companies have indulged the same recklessness They have not only manipulated our government for their CEOs, shareholders, lobbyists, and congressional incumbents, but, too, they have spent decades cozying up to the world’s worst dictatorships. This has sown hatreds against us and our culture – and has had our military ever support dictators, from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia, from Indonesia to the central Asian “stans.” Such unthinking militarism for the corporate interests has also meant that, ever since we pioneered the mass-nuking of civilian populations, we could never retreat from the permanent war status “Ike” warned us against. So we’ve been as helpless about getting sucked into more and more wars as our bankers and financiers have swum to the siren calls of hedge funds and empty derivatives – as our mainstream journalists caved to White House war droolings – as Detroit auto makers dug a hole for themselves – and all of us – as fast as they could advertise more SUVs for more sprawl culture.

It could change, and the Fulbright program could be the most vital catalyst for change. Fulbrighters going abroad could learn to weave into their teaching content connections to the students in front of them. They could learn to see students and foreign colleagues in terms of the actual cultures all inhabit. They could serve wider human literacy.

Or, they can’t. Maybe Adams, Twain, and Veblen were wiser in being appalled at our monsters than were Addams, Sinclair, and Roosevelt in seeking to humanize them. We’ll see. Secretary of State designate Clinton has some choices ahead of her.

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