"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Friday, August 12, 2011

To be a citizen

The riots in London by now are old news.  Hordes of people, mostly young people, pillaging stores and destroying neighborhoods apparently for the mere sport of it.  The Archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Church of England) spoke in Parliament in response to the riots and said something that I too have been thinking for a while, but he said it much more eloquently than I would have.

"Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions – asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens."

Educating citizens and not consumers.  I worry about an educational system seemingly single-mindedly focused on economic utility.  I often hear and read about efforts to make our students more competitive and more useful to employers.  And I will concede that students who are illiterate and innumerate can be a drain on society as complex as ours is, but economic utility as the primary criterion of our education system creates only people who will fit into the system we've created.  It doesn't foster the imaginativeness and creativity to create new and better systems or to respond to unanticipated crises.

I'm pretty sure that my purpose on this Earth is not just to use up as much stuff as I can before I do.  Consumption is a result of my life, not its purpose.  I am a consumer - I need to eat, I like to wear clothes and live within 4 walls and a roof - but I am not just a consumer.  Greed isn't just a sin on a list, it's an unhealthy and ultimately destructive way of life.  The financial crisis that began in 2008, the recent American debt crisis, outr lack of political civility, and these riots all seem to me to be of a piece.  They are the fruits of an excessive focus on ourselves and our personal desires divorced from the needs of community and the capabilities of our world to provide.

Consumers grasp to fulfill for themselves.  Citizens seek the greatest good for the civitas, for the community, in which they live and work.  How do we go about building a society that values citizenship over consumerism?

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