Dead poets mean live fascists

Ed Raymond

Bebe Shoppe of Hopkins, Minn., was selected Miss America in 1948.

Why Is the Divided States of America the Most Unequal Society in the World?    

I have hundreds of favorite poems that mean much more to me than long-winded prose. My absolute favorite is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

It contains the most depressing line about the human condition: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floor of silent seas.”

My top short poem is by Ogden Nash in “Reflections on Icebreaking”: “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.”

Doesn’t it contradict quickly every WCTU speech against booze ever written?   I also have lots of favorite movies, but one sticks out because it is about poetry. Robin Williams plays high school teacher John Keating in The Dead Poets Society, who opens one class lecture with this statement:   “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me, O life?”

….of the questions of these recurring: of the endless trains of the faithless…of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?”

Answer: That you are here—that life exists, and identity, that the powerful play on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play ”goes on” and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”  

A Good Society Needs Doctors, Art Historians, Engineers, Musicians, and Writers    

As teacher Keating says, doctors and engineers are necessary to sustain life, and we need art historians, musicians, and writers to enjoy and treasure life itself. Last Sunday night Corky and I had the distinct pleasure to view the musical Les Miserables on PBS based on the 19th Century novel by Victor Hugo. I had read the novel in high school more than 70 years ago because one of my favorite English teachers handed it to me and said: “I think you will enjoy this one.” She knew I was French. This is a short summary of the love and hate in Hugo’s France-and imagination:   In 1815 peasant Jean Valjean is released from a cruel prison after serving five years for stealing a loaf of bread so a starving sister’s family had something to eat—and serving another 14 years for escaping several times. Valjean seeks shelter in the town of Digne (dignity?) at a bishop’s house. During the night he steals silver candlesticks and silverware. He is caught by the police, but the bishop saves him by saying they were gifts from him. The bishop makes Valjean promise to sell the silver and use the proceeds to become a better, more honest man. He adopts the name Madeleine and later becomes mayor of the small town where he has established a manufacturing process employing several people. A local police inspector named Javert was a guard where Valjean was imprisoned and recognizes Valjean as a former prisoner. That’s where the novel really starts. I’m not going any further. To know what happens, read the book. It hasn’t been on the list of the banned books yet by local or national idiots or Moms for Stupidity. The musical has characters with beautiful voices and great choruses, and the developed songs tell the story well, but would be difficult to follow without reading the book.  

If We Don’t Solve Economic Inequality, We Will Be Carrion for Fascist Vultures    

The latest financial surveys indicate that about 60% of American families live paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t come up with more than $400 to cover a small emergency. We also know that 45 million American adults as old as 90 owe more than $1.7 trillion in college debt. (Forty-one million Americans also have health care debt!) Of that total, 53% owe less than $20,000, 21% owe between $20,000 and $40,000, 18% owe between $40,000 and $100,000, and 7% owe between $100,000 and $300,000. The average Wbite graduates owes $28,006 while the average Black graduate owes $52,706. Black graduates are three times more likely to default on their debt within four years of graduation.  Guess why.   

While many European countries offer free college, the Divided States of America has increased costs of college higher than even the increases in healthcare. Most school districts in the DSA are short of qualified teachers. The average beginning salary for teachers comes out to be close to $16.00 an hour. Legislators, are you kidding me? I made more money my senior year in college working off odd jobs such as singing at birthday parties than I did my first year of teaching! You expect beginning teachers to pay off their student loans while earning burger-flipping salaries? With student loans eating up $300 to $500 a month, you expect them to live in their parent’s basement and bike to their teaching jobs? One-third of Generation Z adults 18-24 still live with their parents because of student debt! Billionaires, wake up! By tax loopholes, evasion, and cheating, you are ruining your country. Living in the Sargasso Sea on your superyacht might be quite boring.   No doubt the student loan fiasco has provided the fuel for the skyrocketing costs of higher education. $20,000 tuition at state universities for All-American Jack or Jane Armstrong when the parent’s annual income barely breaks $58,000 is makes as much sense as a Rube Goldberg machine to light a candle.  

Why Has DSA College Enrollment Fallen by Ten Percent in the Last Ten Years?    

Like almost everything else, it’s about money—and money is destroying the American Empire because of economic inequality. The first stanza of the poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats of the 19th Century perfectly describes what is happening to the Divided States of America today:  “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer,   Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned,   The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.   Surely some revelation is at hand; surely the Second Coming is at hand.”                 

Sustaining life has become much more important to our society than learning about “what we stay alive for.” For more than 200 years the funding of education had been the responsibility of the states.  It has become a disaster since 1980, when Ronald Reagan of tax-cutter fame, cut California education so much that California fell from the first rung to the last rung on the educational ladder to near last place in the ratings for K-12 public schools.   From 1980 to 2019, the funding for public universities fell from 77% of revenue to 55%, after adequate funding and the GI Bill funded universities from 1940 to 1980. The GI Bill put two million more veterans into colleges, including me, to record the quickest jump in enrollment ever. Between 1940 and 1970 the number of Americans with four years of education tripled.   But then came a major disaster in the making. It started slow, like lava down a mountainside. The National Defense Act of 1958 allowed students to borrow money from the government to attend college so we could compete with Communist Russia in science and mathematics.  

Critical Facts on Present Enrollment of College Students in the DSA    

Only 37.1% of 25-44 year-olds in the U.S. have BA degrees, way below the average of developed countries. In 2022, four million fewer Americans enrolled in college than in 2012, a shocking 10% decline. Half of the students opting out of college said they doubted seeing a new return on the cost and time invested. As of 2022 the average student debt was $37,113 for more than 45 million Americans. That was the price of a middle-level car or a substantial down payment on a home. Since 1990 student demographics have changed from 18-year-old full-time residents with no dependents to today when 37% of enrolled learners are over 25, 24% are parents, and 64% work full or part-time.   Two albatrosses are strapped around the necks of young people, one representing  increases in the cost of college, and the other that student debt is strangling their hopes of  living an enjoyable life. Millions are deciding not to go to college. Other millions are deciding not to major in English, art, music, history, and the humanities. Last year only 7% of Harvard freshman enrolled in the humanities, down from 20% in 2012. In just the last 15 years, enrollment in the English major declined by about 75%. Enrollment in philosophy, history, and foreign literature also seriously declined. Johann Wolfgang Goethe said: “Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.”   I am a news junkie. Enrollment in majors that make life worth living is in freefall in every college in America. I’m going to use a few enrollment records at Arizona State University as an example of what is happening across the country. In just one year from the start of the pandemic the number of English majors fell from 953 to 578. The number of graduates in language, history, and literature fell by half. Women’s studies dropped by 80%. In the last ten years at Ohio State, humanities majors fell by 46%. Boston University has dropped 42%. Notre Dame has dropped 50%. Vassar has dropped 50%. It is universal—and frightening.  

A Personal “Humanities” History    

I got to enroll in college because I could throw a fastball, curve, and screwball and block a linebacker or defensive end. I think I was the only jock in the college choir. I majored in English because as a graduate of eighth grade with two others at Morrison County School #54, I had enjoyed reading almost 400 books in a tiny library. The teacher gave me extra time to read because I helped her teach reading to four first graders. I sang to cows while milking them, but I had no idea I could sing until I tried out for the choir as a freshman at Little Falls High School. After the tryout the director walked over and said: “You are going to be a soloist.” Instant shock. However, at that year’s public Christmas Concert four months later, I opened it by singing the solo “Gesu Bambino.”   

One of my life’s highlights was singing tenor in the Winter Wonderland mixed quartet when Miss Minnesota Bebe Shoppe of Hopkins was selected Miss America in 1948. Cedric Adams of WCCO and the Tribune put together a program where she played the vibraharp. The quartet was selected to travel with Miss America for a year and put on shows in schools, nightclubs, and other arenas in the Midwest. One of our first radio shows was over WDAY and regular stage show was at Moorhead High School. My future wife was in the audience. I missed a lot of high school that year, but the teachers passed me anyway!   I thank my English and humanities teachers for not only sustaining my life but making it fascinating and enjoyable enough to keep living.