Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Culture Divide

The following is my reply to someone over the topic of anti-intellectualism.

I agree with you that there's a growing culture of living under a rock, more so since the end of the Cold War and the discontinuation of civics classes.

I think part of the problem is cultural – it's "cute" to be dumb, but "loserish" to be unathletic. A good deal of my classmates in university were foreign and I was amazed how, in their societies, the school celebrities were the 4.0 GPA guys going to math olympiads and the dudes playing sports were simply dismissed as loserish. Part of it comes from the fact that in most societies, but not ours, all exam scores are published on "The Wall". The Wall is a powerful tool in controlling social hierarchy. Anyone listed at the top becomes Alpha, by definition. Somehow, in our society, we stopped publishing exam scores, fearing that studies were becoming too competitive instead of collaborative. Yet, sports scores continued to be published, as were individual highschoolers' sports statistics. Therein undergirds our "jock culture". I truly believe that cultural differences are the consequence of social engineering and not historic reasons; the culture of a country can be changed on a dime, through informed govt. policies in social engineering or an uninformed govt. random walk.

I think another part of the problem is socio-economical. When the U.S. was poorer, certain professions were more valued. That is, the higher paying professions of doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and bankers were seen as intrinsically more valuable than the lower paying professions of cashiers, hairdressers, and performance artists. This stereotype was reinforced at all levels, from politics to media to family values. Quite a few families in the '70s would sit down with their three to four kids and have "the talk" about which one of them the family can afford to send to college. To impressionable youngsters, this sort of separation of the wheat from the chaff can have a profound impact, perhaps exaggeratedly so, on the value of education. In many countries, this "talk" continues; many families still can only send one child to college, and it's important enough that it offsets the ostensible fairness of sending none of the kids to college.

More on socio-economics:   I think the rise of nuclear families has divided our country along ideological lines. We nowadays choose our inner circle, presumably with toady fawners reinforcing our own world views, whereas with family, "you get what you get" – and this means dealing with, listening to, and respecting, a sundry of siblings, cousins, uncles, et al. who probably can never agree on anything other than that family must stick together through thick and thin. The level of compromise and empathy a few decades ago relative to today is phenomenal. With financial independence, an individual in 2007 has gained a lot of freedoms, but has lost, I believe, many of the qualities of interdependency that are necessary to broaden our horizons and to form a cohesive society. Not only that, but when failure is impossible or near impossible, as is true with our advanced society and fondness for safety nets, the Darwinian evaluation of people's choices disappears; all choices pass Darwin's test, and the new arbiter on which choices are "good" or "bad" no longer becomes survival, it becomes the echelon of pundits, priests, and other demagogues using the most specious of justifications.

There's a lot to be said about the power of heterogeneous families in removing barriers between cultures. Although too heavy handed by today's standards, Alexander of Macedon was a shrewd social engineer when ordering his generals to marry Asiatic wives to form Macedon-Asiatic offspring who would bridge the cultural divide. Ataturk ordered his subjects in Turkey to shave their beards and adopt European styles to stem the growing rift between Islam and Europe. There was a brief period when NASA and space research captured the awe and imagination of the nation, so perhaps there is hope for a cohesive future.