Many Americans refuse to acknowledge that the United States has become an empire; however, virtually, no one doubts that America’s contribution to humankind is material prosperity for all founded on political freedom, technological innovation, and free markets, in effect, an empire of consumer goods and physical comfort.

John le Carré, the acclaimed author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, explained why upper middle-class Brits easily became excellent spies: “For our class in my era, public school was a deliberately brutalizing process that separated you from your parents, and your parents were parties to that. They integrated you with imperial ambitions and then let you loose into the world with a sense of elitism—but with your heart frozen.” His friend Ben Macintyre, also a writer of espionage novels, added, “There is no deceiver more effective than a public-school-educated Brit. He could be standing next to you in the bus queue, having a Force 12 nervous breakdown, and you’d never be any the wiser.”[1]

In the era of le Carré, the graduates of public schools such as Eton College, Charterhouse, and Harrow School were charming, highly competitive, emotionally distant, indifferent to the pain of others, and deceitful possessors of frozen hearts perfect for spies and for the professionals needed to run the British Empire.

A professional class has governed every empire from the Babylonian to the American. To administer the Babylonian Empire, special schools were created to rigorously train scribes, librarians, and accountants, the world’s first professionals.[2] Many Americans refuse to acknowledge that in the twentieth century after the British, French, and Dutch were forced to abandon India, Africa, and Southeast Asia, the United States became by default an empire; however, virtually, no one doubts that America’s contribution to humankind is material prosperity for all founded on political freedom, technological innovation, and free markets, in effect, an empire of consumer goods and physical comfort.

How American Public Education Instills the Ethos of Capitalism

My father, a Romanian peasant, was more of a stranger in the modern world than I was and could not mentor me about the adult life that faced me in the land of opportunity. Instead, I was turned over to the public-school system for instruction about America and for character training. When I began school, there was no kindergarten in Michigan, so I started the first grade when I was five years old. I could not see the point of going to school, when I could be outside playing. The first few days of school I played hooky. In the morning before the school bus arrived, I put my hand to my forehead and said I had a fever. My ruse worked, until my father grabbed me by the collar and dragged me outside. He made me stand by the side of the road. “Either get on the bus,” he said in his heavily accented English, “or stand here all day.” I reluctantly got on the bus when it arrived.

But I didn’t give up. I adopted a different strategy, that of non-participation. I became a five-year-old Mahatma Gandhi. At school I refused to do anything. For the entire year, I sat in my little chair in self-imposed exile. I refused to color or to join the circle of children on the floor around the teacher when she read to them. The only activity that I didn’t refuse to participate in was recess. I deliberately failed every test, and any normal student would have flunked the first grade, but not me. My father owned the only local grocery store, and he was the last person in the world that anyone would run the risk of angering in wartime. So, my Gandhi-like strategy failed, and I was passed on to the second grade. I was despondent. It seemed like school was going to go on forever, and there was no way I could beat the system.

Years later, I would tell people that I hated school as a child because I would rather be playing outside than be indoors in school. But the truth is I hated the regime, the order, and being under the thumb of the teacher; no matter if it were grade school or college, I hated school.

My second-grade teacher was Mrs. Thomas. I cannot remember my first grade teacher’s name or what she looked like, but Mrs. Thomas I can still picture. She had a round face ringed by short, gray hair, never wore lipstick or cosmetics on her milky-white face, and always had wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. Mrs. Thomas won me over with her love. But she was tough and insisted that I do everything her way, and if I didn’t, I had to miss recess to do that day’s class work over again. In addition, I had to make up the bulk of the assignments I didn’t do in the first grade. The worst part was the tedious penmanship exercises. I used a pencil whose diameter was twice the diameter of my thumb, and I had to print the block letters between the lines of pre-ruled paper bound together in a goofy little booklet. My coordination must have been terrible because I didn’t go out for recess until spring, and then only by paying Joey Prinko to do my work. Joey had the best penmanship in the class, and I paid him for his work with chewing gum that I flinched from the grocery store—my gypsy DNA, no doubt, made deceit and thievery easy for me. I was surprised that Mrs. Thomas fell for my obvious deception. I’m not so sure my character training progressed very well.

In the first grade, we were grouped around a cluster of desks and shared crayons and paper from a common bin. Gradually as we progressed in grade level, each one of us got his or her own desk, locker, and supplies. Very early in life, I and my compatriots learned to think of objects in terms of private property. We were taught the difference between what is mine and what is not. The first principle of capitalism was instilled in us: Every object belongs to someone and must be left alone, for the ownership of property is inviolable. The learning of this principle, of course, began in most families.

Young children learn the phrases “my toys,” “my clothes,” “my money,” and “my room” before mastering the alphabet. Most parents do not claim authority over an older child’s private possessions; no one but the child has authority over his things. Darryl Daw, a friend of mine in the fifth grade, became angry one day at his father. He took his prized object, a flashlight given to him by his father, and completely destroyed it by dropping a huge rock on it. My father would have wailed the daylights out me, but when Darryl’s father found out, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “The flashlight is yours to do with as you please.” Darryl and his father agreed that Darryl had absolute dominion over his flashlight, as if he were alone in a vacuum with his possession. That he himself did nothing to produce the flashlight or that some other boy might want it was irrelevant: “The flashlight is mine.” Later, I imagined that Darryl as an adult claimed an absolute right to do what he wanted with his money. He probably told himself, “No one can tell me what I should buy and consume with my hard-earned cash.”

In the fourth and fifth grades, socialization began in earnest. The worst thing for me was spelling. Until I was four, I spoke a baby talk that only the immediate family members understood, and even today certain words I cannot pronounce properly, especially if I am tired. If spelling were merely a question of flunking another dumb test, I wouldn’t have cared. The problem was the spelling bee. The smart kids loved it, and I hated it. The spelling captains choose sides, and, of course, dumb Margaret Schmansky and I were always the last ones chosen. And usually Margaret was chosen over me! Even that I could have put up with. True humiliation came when I received my first word—and that was always my last word. I was supposed to pronounce the word first before I spelled it. The same thing always happened. I would remember hearing the teacher tell me the word; then, I could not speak. The teacher told me to think, but my mind was paralyzed and my ears buzzed. Sometimes my mouth moved and then I heard laughter. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why this was called a game, when it inflicted such injury upon me. And, I wasn’t the only one. I saw Joey Prinko miss some stupid word for the school championship and watched him cry. The next time I saw Joey I gave him two sticks of chewing gum gratis, and hired him once again, this time to complete my cursive penmanship booklet. I figured he needed encouragement, and I definitely needed help.

Shirley Divine won the spelling bee championship, and everyone held her up as a winner; from the smile on her face, I knew she felt good about herself. Joey’s failure was his problem, not hers. In the school house, winners are taught to look to the good they have gained and ignore the unavoidable, collateral damage caused to the losers. The goal in a competitive society is to win without violating the rules. That’s how the game works in America, and that’s how the natural empathy young children feel for the pain of others is squashed by the ethos of capitalism. Later in life, Joey, Shirley, and most of my classmates out of “ignorant and coarse”[3] self-interest learned in grade school would probably be indifferent to the fate of the three million children in America who live in abject poverty, the kind found in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world.[4]

Unlike the upper-class Brits, we Americans do not acquire a frozen heart through public education. Our sense of social equality tempers the ethos of capitalism. When we Americans see hardships and suffering, we easily imagine ourselves in the position of those in need. We generously support philanthropic enterprises, and in times of disaster, such as hurricane Katrina or the attacks of 9/11, the deeper the misery of others the more our hearts pour out words of sympathy and our hands write larger checks. Many of us travel great distances and endure hardships ourselves to aid disaster victims. The source of such noble action is a democratic equality that engrains generosity in the American heart.

In grade school, I never suspected that my trauma with the spelling bee was so widely shared. Later in life, I conducted an informal survey of various age groups about their grade-school experiences. Every person volunteered a similar traumatic experience. If it wasn’t the spelling bee, it was a math knock-down, or a show ‘n tell, where kids competed with each other to bring to school the best toy or possession. No adult now, of course, cares how he or she did in show ‘n tell. But the lasting lessons were not about spelling, math, or toys. One lesson was that I succeed only if someone else fails, and the converse—if someone else succeeds, I must have failed. No wonder so many of us feel our heart sink at the success of another, even if it is only a stranger successfully photographing an albino zebra on the Serengeti Plain. That stranger has bested us. Another lesson was that my success is entirely due to me, and no other person has a legitimate claim on its benefits—a fundamental ethic of capitalism, where each person is responsible for his or her own success or failure.

Instead of fostering my social nature, public school taught me to compete with my fellow students. School-wide activities with a common purpose were absent from the schools I attended. A common task such as cleaning the schoolyard would had given me and my schoolmates the experience of working for a common end, and when the end was achieved, each of us would have felt joy. In this way, we would have learned that a person’s good and the good of the group can coincide. A physicist friend of mine once complained to me that in twelve years of public school and in eight years of university education, he never once experienced the joy of achieving a common goal with others.

Competition in public school, on the sports field, and in the workplace divides America into a nation of winners and losers. Students, in the lower grades and in high school, work for gold stars, A’s on report cards, and the honor roll, and, in college, for the Dean’s List and a Phi Beta Kappa Key.

I, of course, had no inkling that in the fourth and fifth grades I was being prepared for the workplace, where “the isolated individual has to fight with other individuals of the same group, has to surpass them and, frequently, thrust them aside,” according to psychoanalyst Karen Horney. “The advantage of the one is frequently the disadvantage of the other.” The situation where everyone is a real or potential competitor of everyone else creates a diffuse, hostile tension between individuals, as is clearly apparent among members of the same occupational group, regardless of the disguised attempts to camouflage envy and hatred by politeness. “Competitiveness, and the potential hostility that accompanies it, pervades all human relationships,” Horney concludes from her years of psychoanalytic practice.[5] Psychoanalyst Rollo May agrees: “individual competitive success is . . . the dominant goal in our culture.”[6]

To succeed in a capitalistic society, I was told that I would have to be competitive and rivet my attention on self-interest. My grade-school character training attempted to instill in me such “social virtues” as selfishness, aggressiveness, and competitiveness. From grade school to graduate school, it was pounded into my head that those without these strengths will lose in the struggle of life and that I needn’t worry about Joey Prinko or anyone else. If each person looks out for his own welfare, in the end everyone will make out all right.

The Stigma of Failure

In the classroom, I also learned that a person who does not succeed does not have much value. What I later saw in graduate school and in the workplace, I first observed in its purity in the fifth grade: A student who does not excel resents a student who does, because the successful child robs the unsuccessful child of dignity and worth. Grade-school children learn to hate the success of others, and along with their hatred goes the hope that others will fail. Children, of course, are also taught that it is bad to openly express their hatred and envy in public, but in private the “losers” make fun of the “winners” with their geeky ways.

Through daily grading of classwork and the issuance of report cards every marking period, students draw the conclusion that if they fail, something is wrong with them; they do not work hard enough, refuse to carry out instructions properly, cannot focus, or lack intelligence. The bearer of a report card of Ds and Fs is a D or F person, not worthy of respect, not loveable, and often invisible to the teacher.

By the time I reached junior high school, I had learned that most Americans do not give their lives over to unbridled ambition and competition. And the reason is simple: All but the brightest fail. If a student constantly fails, she accepts an imposed second best as a way of living with the situation in which she finds herself trapped. And if you don’t believe this, go visit any sixth grade class, and you’ll see that most students have already assigned to themselves the role of second or third best.

Today, Americans on the whole believe that they must compete for every good thing that life has to offer, and thus failure in school is a catastrophe, a condemnation to a second- or third-tier life, a view foreign to me, but one I learned about through my neighbor Dave. Two weeks ago, he knocked on my door and asked if I cared to share the bottle of wine in his hand. Within minutes, he told me that his son, Jamie, was despondent because he was rejected by Yale; he believed his entire future hung on his first college choice, and would now have to settle on Penn. Jamie was not convinced that Penn offered him the promise to build a social network for career opportunities, as Yale certainly would have.

In two months, Jamie would graduate from Santa Fe Prep. From the seventh grade, he worked on his CV, took advanced placement classes, did community service, and, of course, studied piano, played lacrosse, and the previous summer spent one month in India on a spiritual journey that did not pan out. Dave and his wife, Sally, both engineers, coached and guided Jamie along the linear path to the good life and could not understand why their son did not get accepted by the right college.

I suggested that not getting into the right college was not the end of the world. If I were a young person, I would attend Santa Fe Community College for two years and then transfer to the University of New Mexico, and in that way keep the cost to me and my parents at a minimum. My suggestion that the right college stemmed from brand obsession of a consumer society went unheard.

As I talked to Dave and drank his Stags’ Leap Cab, I realized that both the father and the son were living in a culture of fear—make one mistake and your chances for the good life are ruined. Dave had to suck up to his boss at Los Alamos and could not disagree with him publicly, even though he thought his boss was an incompetent jerk, who had worked the system to advance himself to an upper management position.

The exorbitant cost of college and the Great Recession of 2008 changed everything for Dave, Jamie, and for their respective generations. The cost of public colleges and universities had tripled in three decades, more than eight times the increase of household income. Forty-five million borrowers currently hold educational debt totaling $1.6 trillion—more than what Americans owe on their credit cards and auto loans combined.[7] The average student debt is $38,390, while four million borrowers owe more than $75,000. Student debt has delayed family formation, the purchase of a house, and the good life for many. Schools expect parents to reach deep into their saving and retirement accounts, even to take out second mortgages, which threatens the economic security of most middle-class families and casts children into the role of risky investments.

College became a crapshoot for the middle class: Parents wager money today in hope that their children’s education would secure them a place in the professional class tomorrow, despite that the bet had already not paid off for some; everyone knows adult children with advanced degrees living at home and struggling to pay student loans. Many students are indebted to their parents for their financial sacrifice, and thus the pressure to succeed after college is enormous, anything to assuage the guilt of being a poor financial investment. Ironically for some parents, but not for Dave and Sally, their huge investments in education for their children to advance in the middle class placed them at risk of sinking into a lower economic lifestyle, such as abandoning planned retirement trips to Europe and cruises to Alaska or Hawaii, and possibly at some point downsizing to a condo.

We finished Dave’s Stags’ Leap, and I opened a bottle of red wine from Trader Joe’s. Dave confessed that he was very worried about his son. Jamie had no technical ability and had no interest in science or engineering. He was a good kid, did everything he was expected to do, but showed no genuine interest in anything. What bothered Dave most was that the middle management jobs, the ones Jamie was most suited for, were disappearing. With artificial intelligence on the horizon and with the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, the demand for MBAs would necessarily dwindle.

The fear of failure constricted the imaginations of both Dave and Jamie, both were risk-averse, afraid to contemplate any life other than one that followed a path to a house with a white picket fence, a dutiful brunette wife, two happy children, and a golden retriever named Rex.

Dave asked me if I were a young person what would I do? I told him that in the late Fifties and the early Sixties I surfed the wave of the American Empire. I went to the University of Michigan, an elite public university, at that time a notch or two below Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. Tuition was $90 a semester. My senior year cost less than $1,000, and that included room and board, tuition, books, clothes, and a not unsubstantial bar bill. A young person in Michigan could work at GM Truck and Coach or Pontiac Motors and in one summer make $1,000. The amount of money in Michigan at that time was staggering. Many of the young men that graduated from my high school decided not to go to college, because they could make more than a comfortable living by working in the auto factories; later the economy turned against them.

My graduate education at Michigan did not cost me a dime. After World War II and during the Vietnam War, physicists were lavishly supported, because the military hoped that with a further shaking of the tree of science more amazing weapons would fall into its hands. When I was a physics graduate student, I received a no-strings-attached stipend from the Department of the Navy. I worked on neutrino physics, an esoteric field with absolutely no military applications, but the Navy did not care, for it knew a broad investment in physics would eventually pay off. I drank chateaux-bottled wine, smoked bonded Havana cigars, and on special occasions delighted in beluga caviar accompanied by Veuve Clicquot Champagne.

At one colloquium at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, I glanced around the room and tallied that at least ninety percent of my fellow theoretical physicists came from poor to modest economic and cultural backgrounds; in this case, inexpensive higher education and federal grants resulted in the flourishing of hidden talents.

But everything is different today. The in-state tuition for freshman year at the University of Michigan is $15,558, a sum that neither I nor my parents would have paid. If I were a young person today, I would have grown up with a different technology; instead of repairing radios and learning Morse Code for an amateur radio station, I would have torn computers apart and taught myself C++, a major computer language, and no doubt drifted into artificial intelligence. Instead of becoming a theoretical physicist, I would have sought employment at Apple and Google, two corporations that discovered that hiring bright kids makes more sense that hiring a person with a four-year-degree that is often no more than an attendance certificate.

For reasons that are irrelevant here, from adolescence, I spurned moneymaking as a goal. Nevertheless, I feel sympathy for minorities in the ghetto who believe any B.A., from anyplace, is a ticket for getting a decent job with full benefits. For middle-class children, a college degree from a decent college is an insurance policy for not moving down the economic ladder. For the children of Dave and Sally and for children of the professional class, an advanced degree is a step up the economic ladder to higher earnings, although in reality many of these children, like Jamie, would not match the earnings of their parents.

Dave refused to hear the bad news. Nothing in human life is permanent; no empire lasts forever. The British Empire closed shop after World War II, and the American Empire began a slow, steady decline after the Vietnam War. I reminded Dave that with the disappearance of strong labor unions, automation, and jobs shipped abroad, the middle class is shrinking; already the effects are statistically evident, for instance, the marked increase in midlife mortality of white non-Hispanic Americans, the result of “deaths of despair” caused by drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide in a declining middle class.[8]

Yet, education in America and probably in Britain is still directed to managing an empire. I passionately argued that we had to shift our thinking from promoting individual success to achieving common goals. School should now instill in students habits of cooperation instead of competition. All of us should learn to work together for mutual benefit.

I must have had one or two too many glasses of wine, for I invoked St. Paul, even though I knew Dave was a professed atheist. Dave most likely half-heard my homily that God unequally bestows gifts that are to be used for the common good; everyone receives at least one talent, so he or she can contribute to the commonweal. The wise can guide others; the intelligent can uncover the secrets hidden in nature; the well-organized can administer businesses that provide employment; the strong can protect the weak.[9]

Dave stood up, grabbed his empty bottle of Stags’ Leap, and before departing, said, “Work for others; that is crazy. I’m not, nor is my son, going to give our hard-earned money to deadbeats in the ghetto or Appalachia.” To his credit, Dave left without slamming the door.

I felt badly that I upset Dave. He gave to ACLU, Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, and other liberal causes, but when push came to shove, when his lifestyle and his son’s future were threatened, his grip on dollars tightened, and his adherence to self-interest strengthened. If Dave represented the Republic, then the downward arc of social well-being in this country could not be reversed.

Notes:

[1] See Sarah Lyall, “Spies Like Us: A Conversation With John le Carré and Ben Macintyre,” New York Times (Aug. 25, 2017).

[2] See George Stanciu, “Storytelling and Modernity.”

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835,1840]), p. 557.

[4] National Poverty Center, Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011.

[5] Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (New York: Norton, 1937), p. 284.

[6] Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 173.

[7] The Federal Reserve, “Consumer Credit Outstanding (Levels),” and Caitlin Zaloom, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 13,14.

[8] Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century.”

[9] See Romans 12:6-8.

The featured image is “The School of Aristotle” by Gustav Spangenberg (1828-1891), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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