… at the BBC, titled A New Citizenship, allow UD to pause in her daily irrepressible point-making and remind you why she does what she does on University Diaries. (“I do what I do, I think what I think, and to hell with the rest of it,” wrote Harold Brodkey in the last days of his life, in This Wild Darkness; “you don’t actually exist for me anyway — you’re all myths in my head.”) The lectures allow her to shut up for a moment about university coaches and university medical faculties and PowerPoint professors and laptop students so as to refresh your memory as to what ma blogue is all about.

Like Sandel — like Christopher Lasch, like John Kenneth Galbraith, like Mickey Kaus, like a lot of people — UD‘s distressed by what Sandel calls the drift “from having a market economy to being a market society.” Sandel argues that the post-communist triumphalism of American culture has meant a complacency about morality, about civic values that transcend materialism.

The public life of democratic societies is not going all that well… [T]he momentum and the appeal of markets [has made us forget that] norms matter. [The problem is that] markets leave their mark on social norms…

Some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities…. How [do we] value [non-market] goods[?] [I have in mind things like] education…

These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. We have to debate the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them…. [We must] argue about the right way of valuing goods.

Sandel provides straightforward examples of public activities degraded by commodification — one of his examples, close to UD‘s heart, since she’s a longtime donor, is that of blood donation — but he also mentions education, a far more complex instance of civic decline.

Complex enough, in fact, to keep a blog devoted to the commercialization of universities — the transformation of endowments into hedge funds, complete with managers who, although they work at a non-profit institution, take home thirty million dollars a year; the transformation of campus athletics into a money-driven, money-losing corruption machine; the transformation of medical research into farcically compromised corporate hucksterism — very busy indeed.

I think it’s crucial, when talking and writing about the degradation of civic life into cynical materialism, to avoid platitudes. Not everything in America has declined in this way, and the problem with some writers on the subject (Lasch in particular) is that they exaggerate things. But if we confine ourselves to universities, if we irrepressibly focus on what they’re turning into, I think we make Sandel’s point for him. In abundance.

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2 Responses to “Michael Sandel’s Ongoing Reith Lectures…”

  1. Townsend Harris Says:

    Blood donation? Tell me about it! In NYC, it seems everyone’s in it for the money excepting the donor and the donee. There’s nothing quite like a Blood Bank pretending to poverty, squeezing the wages of poorly-paid phlebotomists, exhorting the donors to keep on giving, charging well for the harvested product, and paying the Blood Bank’s managers the wages earned by bankers in mid-sized cities. Oh, wait, there is something like that, something called higher education!

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    This is why I give at NIH. Of course, you have to live around Bethesda to have this option. But when you give at NIH it just goes right upstairs to patients (after testing). Very simple. Very non-mercenary.

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