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Democracy. A word and an ideology that have spawned revolutions and wars ever-lasting. And yet, as July 4th rolls around, even someone as jaded as I can admit there is something quite extraordinary about the idea of democracy. A place where informed citizens are given the chance to both represent themselves and pursue happiness, at least in its property-acquisition form. The shift from "subjects" to "citizens" that heralded the French and the American Revolution was a promise, not a reality, but nonetheless a compelling one that for the first 150 years seemed increasingly possible. And who was this citizen? At first, a property-owning white male, but as time went on, all white men, then all men, then women. And these citizens were different from subjects. Subjects bowed to the authority of the state; citizens were the state. Subjects behaved in courtly ways in front of the king; like barbarians when out of the court. Citizens, highly disciplined by new forms of power, were always civil.
These promises of democracy sound quaint these days in the US, with a populace so uninformed that they are easily misled by demagogues and charlatans into acting in the most undemocratic of ways. And what is to blame for the breakdown of civility and citizenship in America? I'd like to blame it all on Fox News and the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush LImbaugh, but the truth is the erosion of American democracy predates the appearance of fascism. America the Undemocratic began with the destruction of equal opportunity that was contained in the educational system. As the 20th century progressed, education became the engine of American democracy. Taking children and young people out of factories and mandating public high school educations lifted an entire generation of Americans out of sweatshop labor. After World War II, the GI Bill sent tens of thousands of working men into universities. By the 1970s, the American educational system was increasingly open to women and/or Black and Latino Americans.
And then a little revolution called Neoliberalism came along and democracy came to screeching halt. We didn't realize it at first. The seeds were planted, but it was only decades later that the undemocratic impulses of Neoliberalism would bear fruit. Today, your chances of going to college if your parents didn't are lower than they have been at anytime since before World War II. To make matters worse, if you go to college, you will probably have to take on large amounts of debt and the poorer you are, the more likely you are to drop out of school before you even finish your degree. In fact, half of all student loan recipients never receive a degree.
The result: a population that believes that Evolution is just a theory as is global warming, but whole-heartedly embraces the belief that space aliens and illegal aliens are here to destroy our lives.
And what is to be done? Unlike two centuries ago when France followed America in a democratic revolution, now the US would do well to follow France's lead in fostering democracy. Instead of Rousseau, our leaders should read the latest government decree on democratizing higher ed. At this point, fewer than 10% of the students at the top universities in France, the Grandes Ecoles, are from the poorest strata of French society. In the near future, nearly 30% of the Grandes Ecole students will be from Frances poorest families. This will radically shake up France's ruling elite, which is both overwhelmingly white and from bourgeois backgrounds.
Imagine such an experiment in the US. Suddenly places like Harvard and Stanford or even Middlebury College where I teach, would not be primarily for young Americans with so much privilege that they spend thousands of dollars on elite SAT tutors, go to private high schools that cost more than my annual salary, and spend their summers doing prestigious internships. Instead, university students would be the smartest among us, not necessarily the best prepared. Although elite schools like mine would have to do more basic instruction to get students ready to study- more writing classes, research instruction, etc.- the student body would be more dynamic, more diverse, and yes, far more DEMOCRATIC.
And then, when American students left these top universities and went on to take jobs in finance or education or medicine, to take over as America's ruling elite, they would be there not because their parents could afford the time and money to groom them for leadership, but because they were smart and hard-working enough to merit such a role. That would be a truly democratic revolution.
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Increasingly we visually driven post-moderns cannot distinguish the Imaginary from the Real. At this point in time, my alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College, has morphed into a brand of clothing that is extremely trendy in most major cities of Europe and Japan. While living in Shoreditch- a hip section of London- for a few months this winter, I was overwhelmed by the number of Franklin and Marshall sweatshirts. When I finally asked someone whether they had gone to my college, they answered
What, you mean there's really such a place as Franklin and Marshall? I just bought it because it's American prep, you know? It reminds me of what an American college would be like- but I never thought it was real."
When I tell people in Europe that I went to F and M, they ask "The clothing brand?" How did this happen? According to a recent article by Kathy Matheson,
Franklin and Marshall the company was founded by a pair of entrepreneurs in Verona in 1999, more than 200 years after Franklin & Marshall the college was founded in Lancaster by a gift from Benjamin Franklin.
Giuseppe Albarelli and Andrea Pensiero were inspired to create their high-end sportswear by an authentically old F&M sweatshirt they found at a secondhand shop in London. They began replicating and improvising on that classic collegiate look, not realizing Franklin & Marshall was an actual U.S. college.
Hmm, interesting that these two young entrepreneurs had no access to an internet search. But still, my alma mater will benefit from having its name used for sportswear. A scholarship fund for an actual F and M student is being established by the faux college wear.
But what are the broader consequences of becoming the school that is now a brand? Will incredibly hip kids from Rome or Tokyo decide to go to F and M because they love the brand name? The company's website features a variety of pretty and very white young people- blonde hair, tan skin. The men are huge- rugby or American football players; the women are rail thin. There is a nostalgia about it all- a vintage truck, scenes from somewhere vaguely like the American West (NB: the actual Franklin and Marshall is in Lancaster, PA). These young cyphers of American elite educational institutions sport the uber-preppy styles- plaid shorts, polo shirts, dark blue or bright red sweat shirts with Franklin and Marshall in white letters- that the company is now famous for. There is even a faux insignia.
The motto of the company is apparently
For Franklin and Marshall the word vintage refers to the continued search for clothing and personalization in order to express one's identity.
The dizzying mix of the postmodern search for authenticity through consumption is made more real by a button that allows the consumer to then click on the website for the actual Franklin and Marshall College.
What is real and what is not in this mix? There seems to be a real fetishization of whiteness and wealth and privilege on this site. The youth on the website are untroubled by "urban" scenes. America is white and in open spaces. This is interesting since most the youth wearing the sweatshirts in Shoreditch were Black. Like earlier appropriations of privilege by the less privileged- think Tommy Hilfiger- perhaps Franklin and Marshall the brand represents the knowledge that the way to get into the ruling classes is to be born to the ruling classes. To go to schools like F and M and meet "others like you" and then have careers like everyone else in your family: lawyers, doctors, professors, etc. Perhaps also the fact that this is a brand that has taken off everywhere but the United States (Bloomingdales tried selling the brand but no one wanted it here in the US) means that first world young people are yearning for a time when America was still a Superpower and young white college prepsters were preparing for a secure future.
Whatever it means, it certainly is a sign that elite educational institutions in the US are now easily branded-something the schools themselves are constantly trying to do anyway. F and M the school can now sell itself as "hip" in the same way that the school I teach at now, Middlebury College, sells itself as "green." It also means that when Ben Franklin started Franklin College a few hundred years ago, to educate what he saw as the highly ignorant local inhabitants of Lancaster, he could not have envisioned a time when higher education and business joined together to sell a product. But perhaps he would have been in favor of such a wise use of resources. As an apologist for both the Protestant ethic of penny pinching and the capitalist spirit of seeking wealth, Franklin might have favored saving a penny in school advertising by letting a clothing brand do it for you. So now when people ask me if I graduated from a clothing brand, I will say, "Yes, yes I did. And now I teach at a lifestyle brand."