An Alien Excellence

A recent debate I had with someone close to me brought into sharp relief a significant reality about our current cultural situation.  The argument was about the privatization of public schools due to the lack of government funding.  This short piece is not meant to address the problem of the lack of school funding specifically, but instead to consider the dangerous overall trend that our culture has been moving in.

The modern world has generally gone away from what is considered a “virtue ethic.”  Even more, we have moved away from the idea of virtues in the Greek sense of the word, meaning the “excellence proper to a particular thing or species.”  This concept of virtue evaluated anything, human, animal, or object, by measuring it against the particular excellence which it was intended to embody.  A hammer is a good hammer, in this view, when it knocks nails into wood well.  A horse is a good horse when it transports a soldier through a battle safely.  A sweater is a bad sweater if it does not keep us warm.  The excellence of one thing is not the excellence of another.

This will, of course, be familiar to those who have studied Plato and Aristotle.  But, this idea of what makes anything “good” in a qualitative sense is inherent in human evaluations of the world.  We know that a good dog is the dog that does what a dog is supposed to.  A good child is the one that acts as a child should, not as he or she shouldn’t.  Unfortunately we have, as a culture, found a new way of evaluating the quality of things.  Instead of having inherent excellence in themselves, we have found their excellences external to their particular natures.  We have defined their excellence, not by conforming to what they ought, but by how much profit they can bring us.

Within the realm of manufacturing, this has been evident for a very long time in our culture.  Cars are rarely made to be excellent modes of transportation, but instead are designed to generate profits for the manufacturer, the sales person, and the mechanic.  Our clothes are not designed to be excellent sources of covering for us, but instead wear out either physically or socially so that we must replace them.  We are all familiar with the term “Planned Obsolescence” as a concept which contains the idea that the things that we buy are going to break by design; so we will need to buy new ones.

And while we may accept this as the due course of industry, we find that it has also entered realms that we may be far less comfortable with.  The old idea of the virtue of art, whether visual or audible, was that it gave pleasure to those who experienced it.  A great artist would have a patron who, desiring to have art for its particular excellence, would provide for the artist’s material needs.  This is true from Michelangelo to the travelling bard going from one Lord’s hold to the next for a night’s food, shelter, and a bit of coin in exchange for his tales and songs.  A good song was one people wanted to hear again because it was pleasing to the ear.  People were not trained to want new and innovative songs all of the time.  They were content with familiar songs sung well.

These days, music is made, by and large, for its profit potential.  Movies are designed to be blockbusters racing for the highest ticket sales.  Video games are made to be “Triple A” titles measured in success by how many millions of titles they sell.  Our art has moved from being valued for its intrinsic virtue, the communication of joy, sorrow, or whatever particular human experience the artist has in mind (or his or her patron desires).  It is now valued for one particular reason: profit.

We see it as well, just as disturbingly, in our news.  The virtue of news is to report the truth with as little bias as possible.  Sensational news is nothing new, especially in the print business[1], but the recent explosion of news channels, websites, and personalities shows that we have moved almost wholly into a realm where what we learn is based more on how many clicks or views a thing gets, and not on its intrinsic worth to us.  More disturbing, we find that the central virtue of reporting, that of telling the truth, is pushed aside for the new central virtue:  profit.

We can move from these fields to one even more disturbing, that of our justice system.  Several new reports and articles outline the miscarriage of justice in many of our new privatized prisons which run, like all privatized industry, with the bottom line in mind.  Here we find human beings treated, not as consumers who must be courted, as in the two examples above, but as a new kind of slave labor[2].  The virtue of the justice system, to give to each individual what is his or hers by just rights, has been redirected to the new mono-virtue:  profit.

The same story can be told of our sports, our hobbies, and terrifyingly our healthcare system.

If we then consider the root of this discussion, my debate about the privatization of our public schools, I think the trend is obvious and frightening.

For the power that has moved the center of these different goods out of themselves and into the realm of profit is simply and plainly the love of money, or greed.  Put another way, it is Mammon that is drawing all things to itself, and turning all faces to look at it.  Each new thing that it turns serves it.  And if it serves Mammon…well, we know what it cannot serve.

Now when we look at a society that no longer finds the virtues of things in their own excellences, but only in their ability to produce profit, we find a few very troubling trends.

1.  The excellences of things, all being the same, no longer serve to distinguish them from one another.  A song is as good as a book, which is as good as a pair of socks, if they will each produce the same amount of profit.  In the past, the virtue of a book could not be compared with the virtue of a pair of socks, for a book does not keep one’s feet warm, except in the most dire of circumstances.  And socks make for very poor reading material.

2.  Since the virtue of a book is found in whether it will produce toys, movies, or sequels, and thus more and more profit, it matters very little that the book is a good book in the old sense of the word.  Any book will do, whether it is drivel or genius, as long as it sells.  It matters very little whether it has something to say, or is a work of brilliance.  The primary question now is not, “Is this good writing” but instead “will it sell?”  The only saving grace, so far, is that people, while they like very many bad books, still do love good books.  And thus good books often, though not always, produce good profits.  This may change, however, if the institutions which teach our children which are good and which are bad books, are more concerned with profit than the virtue of literature.

3.  This brings us to the concept of the dissonance of the consumer and the provider.  For a provider, the point is simply to produce a product that will sell, and sell enough to make a tidy profit.  For those more competitively minded, the goal is to take as much of the market as possible, since this will bring the greatest profit possible.  For the consumer, who still values the old concept of virtue and excellence to some degree, the product is only attractive as long as it still has some semblance of the old virtues.  A hammer that does not knock nails into wood will not sell.  Not yet anyway.

So now we come to the central question of the privatization of schools.  For in the old model, the virtue of a school was to teach children two things.  The first was information that they could use in the world for practical purposes.  The second was to teach students the proper virtues of things.  A book was for literary enjoyment, a basketball for play, and a laboratory for discovering the nature of the universe.  In the new model, a corporately run school has every interest in teaching children that the proper end of books, balls, and Bunsen burners is profit.  Why do we do science?  In the old model, it was for the virtue of knowledge, or the virtue of mastery over the material world.  In the new model, it is to patent new drugs, new technologies, new methods by which we may make a profit.  Why do we write?  In the old world it was to communicate our very humanity to others.  Now, it is to sell books, or get clicks on blog pages to get ad revenue.  Why do we play?  Once we played to express the joy of being embodied creatures in a world with limits.  We were masters of the world by finding joy in the limits of gravity, the firmness of hoops, and the resilience of rubber.  Today we play to get millions a year, and our face on shirts, sports drinks, and video games.

A powerful corporate run school system can choose to not create the well taught humans who have value in and of themselves, but indoctrinated consumers who are designed to serve that ancient god Mammon at every turn.  Every work of their hands, every thought, every joy, will be servant to this all consuming power.  To turn our schools over to institutions whose central tenet is greed when we have seen what they have done to all other areas of our lives that they have touched, would be, in an almost literal way, to bow down to ancient Moloch, the god who ate children.

Of course, things are not so grim yet that no music is made for its own excellence.  Sports are still played for the joy of being embodied creatures.  Books are still written because things must be said, or because a story longs to be told.  There are still women and men reporting the news to us with deep integrity.  The description above of our dire state is the description of the corporate view of these things, both corporation and the corporate mindset, not the view of the community or individual.  These last two still have some idea of what virtues still are.

But how long can this last if we turn our schools over to this power that Jesus described as mutually exclusive to the service of God?  When my debate partner answered that “the schools will have to be good, otherwise they won’t be profitable” he made a very simple error.  How will people know, in twenty years time, if the schools are good or not, if they have been taught to think that the only good is profit?  If the school makes profit, it will be, in this new understanding of virtue, a good school.  In fact, the old school, the one that showed each thing to have an excellence in and of itself, will be viewed as the bad school.  For it produced men and women, not merely consumers.

As a last thought, there is one area that I have not mentioned as being affected by this converting power, because it is one that is supposed to exist with an excellence outside of itself.  That is the church.  The excellence of the church lies in her Bride, the Son of God.  But even here we find that many churches, especially in the mainline protestant expression of the faith, find themselves functioning like businesses, with the bottom-line as the main goal.  This gets shrouded in language that indicates that the reason pews should be filled is due to concern for the immortal souls of people.  But the practical realities are shriveled endowments and shrinking tithes.

Even now, we see the move to turn the church over to Mammon. And we must work and pray to resist this.  For if our schools and our churches are in the service of this terrible God, where will we find the power to resist?  Where could it come from if our children are not taught to love the good and hate the evil, but instead taught to love the profitable?  Where will we find it if our preachers are worried for their jobs, and not worried for the truth of God’s love?


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