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I was at the WTO meetings in Seattle in November. Its abiding image was provided by a phalanx of bare- breasted women marching down the hill in the rain, carrying the sign "VEGAN DYKES AGAINST THE WTO". Every single lunatic and fringe cause was represented in the subsequent demonstrations which were orchestrated as usual by the labour unions (the AFL-CIO), so that I was tempted to coin a slogan pace Marx: "Loonies of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your brains".
But while it is easy to poke fun at the events at Seattle, and its non-existent outcome was at least as welcome for India and the Third World, than any endorsement off the protectionist demands of those braving tear gas on its streets - for the inclusion of environmental, labour and human rights standards into the WTO- it raises wider issues of where the West and in particular the US is headed at the end of a millennium which has been very much its own. This is the subject of this column.
Though one observer next to me viewing the mayhem, said it reminded her of the 1960's, the surprising thing about the many demonstrators was that they were not merely ageing hippies, but mostly young, rich and seemingly well educated people. They were clearly idealists but who had no idea of what their demands would mean for the very people they thought they were supposed to be helping- the poor of the Third World. Worse they had no clue as to the conditions that many of these people lived in, nor that open trade offered the only sure route out of global prosperity for the world's poor. Even more disconcerting was to see the many citizens of a city which is the second largest port in the US, the home of Boeing, Microsoft, Starbuck and Amazon.com whose prosperity depends on the global economy, not recognizing their own self-interest in promoting rather than being against the WTO.
There is of course a historical parallel from 19th century India, when as one economic historian has put it, there was an agitation against the newly developed Indian textile industry by "ignorant English philanthropists and grasping English manufactures" who petitioned the Secretary of State for India "to apply British factory legislation en bloc to India so as to neutralize the 'unfair' advantages which the Indian mill industry was enjoying because of its large scale employment of child labour and long hours of work". The Factory Acts of the 1880's were the result, which to this day continue to hobble Indian industry. Plus ca change!
But while there are some parallels between the religiously rooted idealism of the Evangelicals in 19th century England, and the secular religiosity of the eco-fundamentalists of our day (discussed in an earlier column), there are many who were marching on the streets of Seattle who were not thus moved. Their beliefs about the WTO and the wider world were either naive or based on ignorance. As many of them were college educated, this of course raises the question of what has happened to American education. My experience of teaching a large undergraduate class a course in economic development at a major US resarch university maybe instructive.
It was clear from the first lecture that unlike my students at UCL in England, I could not assume any general knowledge from those at UCLA about the world- even though they were the brightest 0.01 per cent of the California high school population. Thus about 15 hands went up in a lecture discussing the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture to ask :"what is a famine?", and "who is Stalin?". I thereafter take care not to take any general knowledge for granted about geography or history- particularly if it is more than 20 years old. But even then I was taken aback just last term, when after a lecture about China, a Chinese looking student -who was obviously an American of Chinese origin- came up and asked who is "Mao Tse Tung"?! As one colleague remarked, as they are taught virtually nothing about the world at their high schools, the only information they pick up is through television- with its notoriously shallow coverage of the world- or through the movies- hence they know about the Dalai Lama, because of a recent movie about his life. Nor do they travel much. In my class only 10 out of 200 had been outside California! Given this meagre knowledge when they start at University, little can be done for them except some remedial education, and proficiency in some vocational subjects. Undergraduate education at even the elite universities is becoming nothing but an elaborate screening device for the job market.
But then, you might ask: what explains the prowess of the US graduate schools, which are rightly famed for being the best centres of learning in the world today? The answer is foreigners and money. When I was on the graduate admission committee we received a letter from the dean that he had noted that we had not admitted any US students to the economics graduate school for many years. He knew of course that this was due to the fact that we just went down the list of the candidate's GRE scores and took the relevant number. No Americans qualified. So being a State university we were asked to see if we could use affirmative action to admit more Americans! There are of course some exceptional American students who can compete, but they are scarce. Similarly when they get their doctorates many of the best of the foreign graduate students are picked up as faculty members by the best universities. While given their wealth, the top US universities are able to buy the best faculty from around the world. This open society- particularly with respect to immigration by the talented- explains the phenomenal current intellectual prowess of the American academy. The other side of the coin, of course, is that the masses of America with degrees, even from the best universities, would be considered by more traditional standards - and even by those of US universities a few decades ago- as being uneducated. This is the paradox of mass higher education in the US, and at its root is the complete failure of its trade union dominated public schools to provide anything which would be called a decent education- particularly about the wider world.
But does this matter? As America is also a democracy and the leading global power, domestic politics increasingly impinges on its global role. A Demos with a half-baked education can only lead to serious misjudgments being made by leaders under the pressure of domestic politics- as happened in Seattle. Worse the lack of general education- particularly about history, and other cultures- can lead to serious and dangerous miscalculations (as for instance in Kosovo- discussed in an earlier column) by the leaders, however intelligent and vocationally trained of a Great Power. In his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor at Oxford, the distinguished military historian Michael Howard remarked that, the 'real lessons of history' apply to "people often of masterful intelligence, trained usually in law or economics, or perhaps political science, who have led their governments into disastrous miscalculations because they have no awareness whatever of the historical background, the cultural universe of the foreign societies with which they have to deal. It is an awareness for which no amount of strategic or economic analysis, no techniques of crisis management or conflict resolution can provide a substitute". Seattle demonstrated the aptness of this observation, and also for me the first clear signs that the seeds of the end of the US imperium have been sown- as the barbarians are now within its gates, and it does not know nor care.