Volume 4, Number 95
29 January 2004

Culture Change

Dear Friends,

In TQE #94 I predicted that in fifty years education would be privatized. I did not say that privatized education was my preferred form (though it is); I merely said that — given trends I now see in education — privatized education would be the outcome in about half a century.

For several reasons. First, those who favor universal public education are mainly the White middle class, nostalgically clinging to a belief in universality. But there is no universality. The upper class can go to private schools, while the poorest — who live in the slums — overwhelmingly favor vouchers, charter schools, or other ways of avoiding the deficient public schools. Second, Western society is increasingly conscious of the poor, partly for religious/humanitarian reasons, and partly because the poor and their votes are increasingly numerous (more by immigration than by birth, in both Europe and the United States). Third, in a society that demands more of its government than it is willing to pay for, as in both Europe and the United States, control of the public treasury requires that those with the least political power suffer the most. The Economist (1/24/04) proclaims: "When universities depend on taxpayers, their independence and standards suffer." The article describes British universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, as lowering their standards for want of finance. No, public education is not going to improve. (Note: I use "public" in American fashion. The British would say "state.")

Over the next decades, increasing numbers will turn to alternative education as public (state) schooling deteriorates, especially in the inner cities. Communities will view empty schools as a drag on their economies, so these buildings will be sold for other purposes — as factories, retirement homes, private education, parking lots, and others.

Western culture possesses many common characteristics, such as democracy, public schooling, freedom of enterprise and markets, social mobility, law and peaceful resolution of conflict, respect for property rights, and the like. All of these must be qualified by the adverb "mostly" because every one is far from perfect. These characteristics grew up over centuries, similar in their liberalism because each was influenced by the others. Historically, they were mainly not imposed by government or other superior power, but were negotiated at lower political levels and later, if necessary, enforced by law.

The same characteristics are not widely found in less developed countries, and that is the main reason they are underdeveloped. They engage more in violence, abuse of human rights; and they go to war more often.

In Culture and Conflict Resolution (US Institute of Peace Press, 1998), Kevin Avruch closely associates culture with conflict resolution. This book has just been brought to my attention, and I have not had time yet to read it. As soon as I do, I am hoping it will confirm some of the differences I see between less developed countries and those more advanced economically.

The biggest error of the more developed governments (such as the US) is to believe we can impose our culture on the less developed instead of leaving them to build up slowly what is "right." (Iraq is a current case.) The next biggest error, often committed by Quakers, is to force others to live by our standards even though they cannot afford them (such as driving women into prostitution by boycotting their only legitimate jobs, in "sweatshops").

Although culture is constantly in flux, nevertheless for the most part it is stable over long periods. Every so often, however, it encounters a severe shake-up, often caused by new technology. Such was the case in the industrial revolution and again in the second half of the twentieth century. The "villain" (better yet, cause) this time is the communications revolution. The rest of the world suddenly became exposed to Western culture and, seeing its superiority economically, politically, and socially, wanted to adopt it.

This superiority is a matter that Quakers and other "liberals" will question, because of our innate modesty and sense of equality. Most of us still believe that the government, which has no Inner Light, will perform these miracles better than the masses of people, who do have Inner Lights.

In testimony to the superior culture of the West, many persons from the less developed world are trying to migrate to the United States, Australia, and the European Union, to partake of the "better life."

As this migration occurs, world culture is shaken. The twentieth century began with the belief, all over the world, that we could collectively control the economy, raising the poor from their poverty by concerted government action undertaken by the elites. This belief was strongest in the Soviet Union, but it was powerful everywhere else as well. It was the underpinning of the New Deal. Being one of these elites, I joined planning teams in Bolivia and Kenya and taught central planning in universities in nineteen Latin American countries, ten African countries, and China and the Philippines, as well as in my classes in the United States.

I discovered that, instead of changing culture, I was enhancing the power of the elites. They used that power to corner wealth, seize property, and corrupt the laws. So I quit. In the early seventies, I moved away from contributing to this sham, but my tiny defection was not the cause of culture change. World culture changed by itself, partly because the earlier culture didn't work, partly because of the growing political power of the poor, partly because of the example of the United States and the European Union, but mostly because of the spread of new technology.

In assessing culture change, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (commonly known as "Lula"), President of Brazil, is "smarter" than Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, and Fidel Castro of Cuba. Before being elected, Lula was champion of the poor, like Chavez and Castro. Once president, however, he was perceptive enough to see that he could not give the poor all he had promised. So he began to retract. He is now being criticized by his former supporters, but he is operating within the means available. This is how culture is changing in Brazil, while it is not in Venezuela or Cuba.

In the rest of the world (including US), we are in a double-headed period. One head is deregulation, or returning power over the economy and society to private enterprise and the market. (India exemplifies this.) This head is working well, and in the United States deregulation has brought lower prices, such as air fares. The other head is the concentration of power in the American Empire, as we try to exercise our will over the Earth, Moon, and Mars. Here we are biting off more than we can chew, like Chavez and Castro but unlike Lula. The next century will be an exciting period. I am sorry I am too old to be part of it, but for those of you who will be — I wish you well.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Great discussion of the privatization of schools!

— Carol Conzelman, Coroico, Bolivia.

Thanks for the insight. I was beginning to think that I was the only one who felt this way. This is an issue that is not going to be a quick(or inexpensive) fix. Current issues require much contemplation. Education at all levels is suffering from the lack of focus and attention.

— Richard S. Parry, Atlanta GA.

Immigrants are not coming here for our "superior culture." They are coming here to try to obtain a fair share of our wealth, much of which has been built on resources taken from the immigrants' countries. I know this directly, from talking to immigrants. Let us not confuse "richer" with "superior" — the correlation is very weak.

— Bill Ashworth, South Mountain Friends Meeting, Ashland, Oregon

The Republican efforts to privatize public schools is mostly a political response to activist teachers unions important in Democratic politics. Notice that outside of inner-city areas, vouchers and charter schools are important only to the ideological fringes that want either a conservative values or progressive educational format. In Michigan, many Republicans from the suburbs have consistently voted to limit expansion of charter schools. Charter schools that take inner-city kids, achieve about as much with them as the public schools did, or less. However, the Charters buy much advertising space to recruit families. They have more un-certified teacher and fewer special-ed kids then their public counterparts.

— Jim Booth, Red Cedar Meeting, Lansing, MI

The debate about who should pay for higher education is so squalid. Everybody benefits, not just the graduate. It is proper that the whole of society should pay for training and education (vocational as well as academic)so that the massive burdens of expense and debt do not discourage and deter candidates from poor backgrounds.

— K.J. Persson, Church of England, Hampshire, UK.

People are better adjusted, healthier, happier and more productive when involved in decision-making regarding their work and home.  Sweatshop factories may provide increased purchasing power for many, but certainly not quality of life, actualization of potential or even social stability.  People are never without choice; the big question is how much the wealthy will recognize this.  In many ways, hunger for cash has attained a moral equivalency to hunger for addictive intoxicants.

— Joel Barlow, Brooklyn NY Meeting, residing in ChiangRai Thailand

You wrote: "the government, which has no Inner Light." The government (any government) is made up of individual people, who are open to the inner light. With the support of 'the masses of the people' they can be encouraged to become more aware of and to respond to their inner light.

— Theo Tulley, Pickering and Hull Meting, UK


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters a week in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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