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Working to make the light go out
Right-wing politicians are choosing ignorance over education, with real peril for America
Given the chance, some people would stand in the way of light. (Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash)
At a fire department garage in northern California, there’s a light bulb that has burned continuously for more than 120 years. Why have your bulbs at home been burning out while what’s known as the Livermore Bulb has kept shining?It’s because a handful of powerful men decided a century ago that light bulbs should be made worse — that is, less long-lasting and dependable.
The story of the so-called Phoebus cartel, and its collusion in deteriorating the quality of light bulbs, is cited by economists as a prime example of planned obsolescence — the business strategy of boosting sales by forcing consumers to buy replacement products. It’s a lesson that hasn’t been lost on today’s technology companies: Two years ago, Apple agreed to pay $113 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it of sending a software update that deliberately slowed older iPhones, which pushed people to buy newer models.And if you’ve owned a refrigerator or a washing machine for a few years, you don’t need a marketing professor to teach you about planned obsolescence.
But beyond its value as a business school case study or a lesson in caveat emptor, the history of the Phoebus light bulb conspiracy is a pretty good metaphor for a political movement underway in America these days. In this case, the marketing is aimed at selling candidates. In pursuit of power and in the name of ideology, the practitioners of this cynical political strategy are deliberately degrading American institutions and attitudes — most notably. its schools.
But first, about those bulbs: After Thomas Edison got his patent for light bulbs, there was a rush to develop the glass, filament and gases that would make better products, and experimentation in what would best produce dependable light. That process was so successful that by the 1920s, bulbs like the one hanging in the Livermore fire station were being made that would burn for 2,000 hours, or even much more — so long, that is, that even though electricity was spreading rapidly, the sale of bulbs was dropping. Worried about revenues, the leading bulb manufacturers met in Geneva in December, 1924, and agreed to standardize their manufacturing to create bulbs that would burn for only about half as long. The group of business titans gave their gathering a name, settling on Phoebus, the Greek god of light.
That’s why relatively short-lived and inefficient incandescent bulbs, a 19th-century technology, became the standard for homes worldwide. In the United States, consumerism was slow to pick up: A regulation based on a 2007 law requiring the change to more durable LED lights was supposed to take effect in 2014, and then it was delayed until four years ago. But the Trump administration, bowing to pressure from today’s bulb manufacturers, held it off again. Now the rule is set to finally be implemented, so that after this year, manufacturers won’t be able to sell energy-sucking, short-lived incandescent bulbs. It’s a change that will save consumers $3 billion a year in utility bills and cut carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over the next 30 years.
What makes the story of the Phoebus cartel stand out is that it goes against the grain of our understanding of American history. Our nation is both the home and the beneficiary of great and sustained progress, we’re often reminded, leading to unparalleled human comfort, technological superiority and global economic dominance. Americans invented the telephone, the steamboat, moving pictures and the airplane. Only Americans have stood on the moon, and it was in America that the digital revolution took hold. It’s hard to reconcile that history of progress with an acceptance of turning back technological capacity in something as fundamental as the light bulb.
Yet we’re witnessing a political movement today that is similarly retrogressive. By devaluing honest debate, encouraging distortion of the truth and disabling key elements of our educational system, something is occurring that’s far more pernicious than planned obsolescence. It’s nothing less than an embrace of preferred ignorance.
We see the cutting edge of this strategy in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis, surely a presidential candidate-in-waiting, is using public schools and colleges as battering rams against what he called “woke ideology.” In an effort to return American history to the scholarship of the late 19th century — which focused exclusively on European descendants, never broached the term “racism,” and depicted westward expansion in purely heroic terms — DeSantis’s administration has enacted laws threatening teachers with firing or criminal prosecution, and has pushed book bans, reaching even 40 percent of the math textbooks submitted for review. In some Florida districts, entire school libraries have closed and classroom bookshelves have been papered over so that students can’t access books that haven’t been approved by a “media specialist” following the Republican guidelines. It’s not just content about sex or LGBTQ themes, which DeSantis and his supporters have stressed; parents can petition for removal of books that they consider too violent or that deal with controversial topics, and can haul a teacher into court if they think their child has been shown a book they don’t like.
DeSantis also has engaged in a well-publicized fight with the College Board over its African American Studies Advanced Placement curriculum, and lately has gone even further, suggesting that Florida public schools might stop offering Advanced Placement classes in any field. That would, of course, diminish the quality of public school instruction and make higher education more expensive for families of kids who might otherwise obtain credits during high school.
Florida is only the best-known of the many states where the right wing has taken aim at education as the enemy of supposed American values. In insisting on only allowing students to learn what politicians consider an appropriate and narrow body of knowledge — one which, conveniently, matches their political ideology — the states are betraying the true goal of education, namely, to stimulate the mind to learn. That notion, the inspiration for generations of educators, was captured by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch, when he wrote, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” The right would like those embers to cool.
It’s not only the study of American history where truth born of scholarship is at risk. Climate science has established the perilous future facing the earth if we don’t deal with the reality of carbon’s impact, but right-wing politicians last year backed school board candidates nationwide who label talk of global warming, likewise, as “woke,” and demand that it not be raised in the classroom. The conservative hostility to vaccinations — a practice embraced by physicians 200 years ago — is putting at risk not only the education of children, but also their very lives. And schools in Republican-led states are targeting LGBTQ issues, which experts warn will make emotional and mental scarring more likely among not only children who are experiencing gay feelings, but also millions of children of gay parents.
Perhaps this push for retrogressive education shouldn’t surprise us, since Republican politicians have for years attacked education as a tool of the left. It has been a wildly successful campaign. By the end of last year, a poll found that 85 percent of Republicans mostly or wholly agree that “most college professors teach liberal propaganda,” a view held by only 17 percent of Democrats. Even though educational attainment is a clear predictor of a person’s lifetime wealth and social mobility -- and a college graduate is likely to earn 84 percent more than someone with just a high school diploma -- half as many Republicans as Democrats agree that a college degree is the best way to get ahead in America.
As Paul Krugman noted in The New York Times this week, the Republican party is displaying a “growing hostility to education… precisely at a time when highly educated workers are becoming ever more crucial to the economy.” And as they denigrate education, Republican politicians are defunding it and diminishing its capacity to teach students what’s true.
In what realm might it be considered a good idea to intentionally diminish the quality of our schools? How would America benefit if a rising tide of its citizens believe that higher education is something its young people should avoid? How can reduced earning capacity as a result of inadequate education be good for Americans?
Harsh as the judgment sounds, the evidence suggests that Republican politicians and their right-wing media enablers believe that their hold on power can be sustained by encouraging ignorance, and by doubling down on Americans’ polarization by education. That gap has been growing: At the beginning of this century, Republicans had an 11-point edge on party affiliation among college-educated voters; by the end of Donald Trump’s term, the margin of college education was 13 points in Democrats’ favor.
That 24-point swing in the political leanings of educated Americans over just two decades is a warning of future polarization by class, which is in no small part a function of education. As the Republican party reshapes itself as a radical right-wing force, it is losing favor with voters who, thanks to the benefit of education, grasp the value of truth and nuance.
Certainly, progressives shouldn’t be smug about America’s schools and colleges, which face real operational and pedagogical challenges. Nor should we hesitate to question the quality of what young people are being taught. But an honest reckoning isn’t what’s coming from DeSantis and his ilk. Rather, the anti-education forces of the right are pushing for the omission of truth, and they are damaging society by discouraging young people from embracing the rich range of material that’s part of a real education. A conservative leader of an earlier generation, the philosopher Allan Bloom, offered his own sharp critique of higher education in his 1987 bestseller, “The Closing of the American Mind,” which brought great discomfort to the left. Even so, Bloom was a fierce advocate of advanced learning. He wrote, “Education is the movement from darkness to light.”
Light, indeed: The hard-right leaders who are consciously corroding education today — those who don’t want students to know the truth of American history, or admit the reality of society’s racism, or understand the lives of their fellow students — might have fit in quite well with the bandits of the Phoebus cartel a century back. They seem to be the sort that prefers darkness.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Wilmington, Del. (Delaware News Journal, delawareonline.com)
Savannah, Ga. (Savannah Morning News, savannahnow.com)
Ames, Iowa (Ames Tribune, amestrib.com)
Pierre, S.D. (Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, argusleader.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Concerns raised about mental health of teens exposed to police violence
An incident in which a Delaware State Police trooper engaged in physical violence with two teenagers is causing concern not only about the actions, but about the impact videos of the incident could have on the young people. Anitra Johnson reports in the Delaware News Journal that a 17-year-old girl witnessed a trooper with his knee on the back of a small boy on the ground, and began recording it on her phone — only to be grabbed by the cop herself, with her arm twisted behind her back as she was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The State Police said the incident, in which three teens were arrested in all, “is being reviewed internally,” but the mom of the girl says she is worried about the impact on her daughter and other young people. “From what I saw in that video, there was no compassion at all,” she said, about the officers' regard for the teens' emotional states. A 2019 University of Southern California study found Black and Hispanic youth repeatedly exposed to online violent police videos reported experiencing symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Johnson reports.
Legislators want Thomas statue on state capitol grounds
The Georgia State Senate has approved a resolution to allow erection of a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the grounds of the state capitol, according to the Savannah Morning News. The Republican-sponsored bill passed on a 32-20 party line vote. Thomas hails from a neighborhood of Savannah, Pin Point, that is represented by the white legislator who sponsored the bill. “I don’t expect people of non-color to get the sensitivity that we feel about a person of color whose policies and practices and decisions and votes … we’ve rallied [to] fight against,” said Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, who opposed the bill. Similar legislation passed the state Senate last year, but it did not get a vote in the House.
Governor unveils new proposals to crack down on schools
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds pushed through a controversial bill that allows families to tuck away state aid to use as private school tuition, but she’s not done with her campaign for what she calls “parental control” over kids’ education. Katie Akin of the Des Moines Register reports that among other provisions, Reynolds wants the Legislature to approve a law that, among other provisions, would ban teaching about gender identity below 4th grade and require statewide distribution of a list of books banned by any individual school district. Schools would also be required to notify parents if they believe a student is transgender.
Bill to protect women from prosecution draws rare bipartisan support
A state legislative committee unanimously approved a bill that would clarify that a woman who had an abortion would not be charged with a crime, according to reporting in the Argus-Leader by Annie Todd. After the Supreme Court last year removed the constitutional right to abortion, concerns were raised that women could be prosecuted under and face up to a year in jail, under an old state law. Gov. Kristi Noem has said the state will prosecute those who provide abortions, but not those who receive them.
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How do you slow time?
With seven decades of experience at passing time, I’m qualified to offer this opinion: There’s never enough of it. I don’t get why it seems to pass so quickly.
I’ve never been able to do all that I’ve wanted to do, and that includes my wishes during this “retirement” stage of my life. And I’m sorry to report that I’ve only recently come across research suggesting that the more you focus on time, the more it slows down — meaning that the inverse must be true: If you don’t think about time, it must go faster. But you only think about it when you have too little, which, in my case, is usually. You see the problem.
Too, we’re told that dopamine affects our perception of time. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that’s stimulated when we feel pleasure and reward. Anything that stimulates dopamine tends to speed up our perception of time, scientists say. So, you know, good times go faster. That’s no fair.
All this seems to point to the conclusion that we ought to try very hard to focus on what we’re doing, not thinking about the time available for it, or for anything else, because that might help us enjoy what time we have. Which, as I have noted, is too little.
But now I’m repeating myself, and I don’t have time for that. So we’re done here, at least for this week.
Thank you for reading, and for joining me in looking at *our common ground, this America. If you’re a paid subscriber, special thanks to you — and in the middle of next week, you’ll get The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, exploring the creation of the essay here. And if you’d like to learn how to write op-eds and opinion essays, please join our class through. The Memoir Project, by clicking the link on this button: