Posts Tagged ‘education’

The Nobel Peace prize has gone to some pretty silly recipients in the last few years: The whole EU in 2012, Barack Obama in 2009 (before he even tried to actually do anything), Jimmy Carter (one of America’s worst presidents ever) in 2002, and, of course Yasser Arafat the great terrorist in 1994.

It has gone to some great people too, I have to say. Like MSF in 1999, Kofi Annan in 2001, Muhammad Yunus (a truly amazing man) in 2006, and Liu Xiaobo in 2010.

If you think about the reason that Nobel actually established the peace prize, only Mohamed ElBaradei in recent memory actually has anything to do with nuclear nonproliferation. He’s not all that great of a guy but at least he worked on nuclear disarmament.

It seems pretty clear that the Peace Prize has nothing to do with its original intent. I don’t think that’s bad. But when the best you can do is to give the prize to Barack Obama before he’s even put in charge of anything, Arafat a terrorist turned imitation peace negotiator, and a big blob called the “European Union”, then I can’t say I think it has much value.


There is something that has the capacity to bring about a peaceful world. There is something that can turn religious zealots into rational actors on the world stage. There is something that can allow our future world leaders to make decisions based of reason not dogma, dignity not hatred, thinking not belief. That “something” is EDUCATION. There is something else too: the strength, pride, honor, and courage required to stand against evil and to “speak truth to power” regardless of the risk. One of the winners of this years Nobel Peace Price is virtually the perfect symbol of both attributes. That person, fully recovered and even more articulate than before she was shot in the head by a pure embodiment of hatred, is Malala Yousafzay.

Imagine a world where, even in the smallest rural Afghan villages, poor Muslim girls could learn critical thinking skills, science, history, and leadership skills! That would be a world where, perhaps, rationality has a chance. That is a world that  Malala Yousafzay probably does not even envision. But’s it’s a world toward which her work can lead. So, I want to say how happy I am that Ms. Yousafzay has received recognition  for her contributions to a world in which the Taliban is accepted for the evil they are and in which all young people have an opportunity to learn to use the most unique of human attributes: Reason.

You know, 20 – 30 years ago, when I was a young man, every time someone got to know me they’d tell me I was a “Renaissance Man“. I always took that as a huge complement.

I was a guy with a degree in music composition from a prestigious art school; working in the aerospace industry as a test engineer; studying computer science; listening to Opera; taking modern dance classes; reading Barthes, and Nozick, and Habermas, and Ayn Rand, and James Joyce; spending my weekends at the Museum of Contemporary Art; drinking beers and dancing to the Talking Heads at Al’s Bar; going to Symphony Concerts; studying technical stock analysis, watching Antonioni films; and, generally, doing a range of things that did not fit together in any rational pattern.

And, you know what? I was proud as hell that I was broadly educated and didn’t fit some other guy’s conception of how a FLIR test engineer should act. They said I was a renaissance man because of a diversity of which I was proud. I remember, once, having a co-worker introduce me to a friend as “Dr. Bilow”. There are a couple “Dr. Bilows”, but I’m not among them. So, I asked why she thought I was a “doctor” and she said she thought I “had to have a PhD in something” because I “knew so much”. That, my friends, is something which we used to call “cultural capital“.

“Cultural Capital” used to be a big thing back in the 20th Century. It was a huge thing in the early 1900’s where, even if you did not have lots of money, you could still be well-respected for being a musician, a writer, or a thinker of some sort. In those days you could be poor or middle-class and still be respected for what you knew and for your involvement in society. But it seems to me that the 21st century is different.

Today, 12 years into the 21st century, especially in America, cultural capital has been massively devalued. Certainly in American society, very few people respect a young man who wants the PhD in music that I once dreamed of. The same is true with students of art, art history, philosophy, theater, history, sociology, classical studies, even some of the basic sciences, or any of myriad other intellectual disciplines.

Today, millions of people are respected for their MBAs – not even their HARVARD MBAs – ANY MBA, far more than a PhD in just about anything else. Now, don’t get me wrong, an MBA is cool. I wish I’d finished mine. But, my point is that pure intellectual prowess, or, as I said “cultural capital”, has almost no value in America when compared to “financial capital”. The exchange rate is virtually non-existent.

I’m basically a laissez-faire capitalist so I have no problem with money. I don’t even have problems with people who have LOTS of money. Most of them should be proud. But I do have a problem when a culture values financial capital to the exclusion of everything else. I do have a problem when society so devalues “cultural capital” that becoming a philosopher, a writer, or a cultural historian, (or a composer, for God’s sake!) is something to be disrespected. In my opinion, a vibrant, exciting, rewarding society is one which balances cultural capital and financial capital in such a way that everyone who strives to achieve something can be respected. Let me be clear, I don’t think this should happen through government coercion. That’s NOT what I’m saying. All I’m saying is that I, personally, am saddened to see that being a “renaissance man” doesn’t carry the weight it once did – or, ANY weight, for that matter.

If it sounds like this is the writing of a bitter old renaissance man with a lot of worthless cultural capital, well… it’s really not. It’s not, because I’ve worked hard over the years to avoid letting my self-worth be defined by other people. So, I’m as proud as ever of being well read and diverse. But, it does bum me out when I look around and see that most of the people who seem to be perceived as “successful” or “business savvy” aren’t the most well-educated, the smartest, or the most interesting people I encounter. They are the ones with money.

Okay…. maybe I am just a little bitter. But how many of the rest of y’all are reading Proust tonight?

I am. And…. I’m okay with that.