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Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

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Institutional Failure in the West

Education, Government, Religion, Business, Environment, Culture

I used to wonder how it could happen that whole societies, or at least their institutional structures could suddenly collapse, as history and archeology show us has happened repeatedly in the human experience. Now it doesn’t seem so incomprehensible.

There is a pervasive failure of fundamental social institutions here in the US, with other Western societies and those that emulate us being gradually dragged down along with us.

Our educational institutions are massively failing to promote deep understanding, critical and creative thinking, or intellectual enthusiasm. To maintain the illusion of reform and improvement, they judge themselves by only the most superficial criteria. They are increasingly under-resourced relative to their primary functions and a growing and ever more diverse population, and there have been no new ideas for radical alternatives in the past 50 years. It seems increasingly evident that society’s powerbrokers do not want, and probably fear, effective education of democratic voters.

Our governmental institutions have been captured, or at least neutered, by private and corporate interests that clearly do fear the power of democratic governments to tax their wealth and restrict their unparalleled greed and willful ethical blindness. The power of money to influence elections through the mass media depends on having voters who were never educated in habits of critical thinking and who are deprived of access to facts about important issues. Governments have borrowed their way into near-bankruptcy because they know voters will not pay taxes to support the wars and corruption that keep politicians in power. Even the most well-meaning governments do not understand that what is in the government’s best interests (secrecy, spying on citizens’ communications, persecuting whistleblowers, preparing for every military possibility) is often not in the people’s best interests.

Our religious institutions are divided between boring, stale traditionalists and fanatically irrational purveyors of simplistic superstition and literal belief in inspiring but ahistorical legends. The rise of “fundamentalisms,” Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and even Buddhist exploits people’s gut revulsion at a society whose leaders value only wealth and power and have long since lost any sense of justice, generosity, harmony, wonder, or reverence.

Our economic institutions have turned from providing better goods and services to exploiting the microsecond volatility of complex computerized markets to allow those who can afford the technical access to drain wealth from everyone else, invisibly and giving nothing in return. The US economy and even moreso the smaller UK economy have become dangerously distorted by new financial “industries” that daily disprove the economic theories of rational allocation used to justify them. Meanwhile, the quality of goods and services accessible to all is falling, with a growing division of markets into high-end for the few and low-end for nearly everyone.

We scarcely even have institutions to cope with dangerous and increasingly global environmental destabilization. Financial and governmental interests do not want to take radical action to prevent the local and global disasters that we edge ever closer to. Future generations will revile them, and perhaps all of us, for centuries to come. No one wants to talk about the fundamental basis of environmental danger: unrestricted human population growth.

California: 2011 (top), 2014 (bottom) 

The arts and popular culture are among our most thriving institutions, but the growing separation of the elitist, backward-looking fine arts from the escapist, profit-driven, adolescent fantasies of mass popular culture is entombing the former in its cultural museums and reducing the latter to the function of the Roman gladiators. The rare exceptions are the gems of our era, but they gleam brighter because of the dreariness all around them.

These observations represent long-term trends at least since the 1980s and in many cases over much longer periods. All of the trends are accelerating. There are no effective economic, political, governmental, religious, or educational counter-movements to be seen. Democracy itself is waning; through apathy, the narrowing of channels for direct participation, mass disinformation campaigns, and the toxic paralysis of decision-making promoted by special interests.

The currently most promising ray of hope, internet democracy, is just marginally able to quickly assemble grass-roots coalitions large enough to frighten politicians into voting for the popular good. But by and large its successes also depend on splits within power elites, dependent on some supporting the internet initiatives. In the longer term, quietly and behind the scenes, the public interest is still defeated by less visible measures that subvert and undo visible and heralded victories. No radical change is going to come from this parallel popular democracy, which still depends ultimately on politicians more beholden in the short term to wealth and special interests than to the average voter. Signing petitions is not going to get capital gains taxed as ordinary income, re-distributive wealth taxes instituted, major reductions in military spending, or the closing down of domestic spying programs.

What will reverse these larger trends? It is hard to see any positive scenarios that are persuasive. Massive social unrest, major climate failures, famine, war, epidemics, economic collapse, and the other usual suspects can disassemble existing, failing institutions. Very unpleasantly. But what will come next? Can we imagine and create better economic, political, educational, environmental, moral and cultural institutions? How long will that take? And how many generations will suffer tragically before it happens?

Absent time travel, the judgment of history cannot harm us. But taking more serious responsibility for the world we bequeath to the future might ennoble us.

Reader Comments (1)

Just feel so thrilled and moved to get the answer from Mr. Lemke! That's so nice of you!Thanks a million for your help!

October 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRain

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