The government does funny things when your back is turned. Back in January, reading Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street, I learned that the government treats corporations as people. It assigns certain rights and privileges to these collectives so that business can thrive without interference. A recent article by Chip Colwell in The Conversation asks, “What if nature, like corporations, had the rights and protections of a person?” This isn’t merely an academic question. As Colwell points out, New Zealand has recently accorded a natural area personhood status to protect it from exploitation. Meanwhile we in the United States live in a country where companies—those nasty people—are chomping to get their teeth into the “natural resources” of our national parks and wilderness areas. Not because it’s best for the planet, but because their corporate person has one of humanity’s greatest evils—greed. Gluttony used to be a deadly sin. Now it’s called economy.
One thing this corporate person doesn’t understand: we have only one planet and it belongs to everyone. Or no one. Our capitalist outlook has given an undue sense of entitlement to those who have the means to take without asking. They can frack the ground under your feet and you’ll never know it. Until the earthquakes or sink holes come. Meanwhile natural areas—as Colwell indicates, considered sacred by many Native Americans—are unprotected from fictional persons that have immensely more power than any individual. We know what happens when the sacred is engaged in battle by the economic. It’s an unfair fight.
When the crush of work stress gets to be too much, nature is our balm. Many times my wife and I will head to the woods on a weekend just to regain the balance that is stolen by what we call civilization. Manhattan has its wonders, to be sure, but they pale next to a simple stretch of “undeveloped” land and a path to walk through it. There’s a reason that corporate executives have their vacation houses far from the towers they build. It’s not a question of whether the sacred forests are valuable, but rather who gets to own them. With the legalization of fiction—corporations are not people, no matter how logic may be distorted—we have doomed fact. The earth is our fact, and, at this moment our only fact. As Colwell suggests, if it were treated like a person we’d have to show it some respect. And with respect true civility can thrive.
Having been in academia for nearly two decades, and having watched from the sidelines ever since being benched, I found Dear Committee Members a little too true to life. This novel by Julie Schumacher is presented as a series of letters of recommendation by an embattled English professor at Payne University. Set over the course of an academic year, the reader watches as the fictional university eviscerates the humanities to make the life of more “practical” departments like Economics much more comfortable. Sarcastic, bitter, and full of pathos, the novel is frequently funny, but it runs so true to life that it would be difficult to say whether it is indeed fiction or not. The book was a national bestseller, but universities continue down this very road, with all seriousness.
I have said before: it is time for those of us who really believe in education to take on, challenge, and overthrow this paradigm. Education is not about making money. There is more to life than that. My reading, which coalesces somewhat coincidentally around these themes (Dear Committee Members was recommended to me by a bookseller that I don’t know personally), paints a larger picture that is disturbing. The capitalist economy is growing out of control, its own dictates now excluding human decision (see my post on At the Altar of Wall Street earlier this week), and one of its strongest investors is higher education. It is a business, you see. The utter and complete devotion to the economy cannot take place without new generations of students indoctrinated into money as the meaning of life. Some of us—many of us—disagree, but we are not organized and we have no funding. We are the human resistance.
Setting out to make money was never my goal in entering the professorate. Motivated by finding authentic meaning in life, I have found that those departments where such a search resides—religion, philosophy, English, music, the arts—are under siege and constantly have to justify their existence to the administration. Dear Committee Members is funny in its overstatement, and in having a protagonist actually say what many of us think. And thinking is what it is all about. Education is about learning to think. Not earning a mint. We are in need of an altar call. The only ones with power to take back education from corporations are people. Who’s willing to join the cause with me? At this point I’d even be willing to consider sympathetic robots.