The new semester has begun and already it's expanding my mind. One of my classes has recently been trying to define "culture," and one of the necessities of defining culture is identifying values. Two researchers by the name of Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck boiled down values to several questions that each culture must answer and one of them triggered an interesting discussion in class.
What is the culture's orientation towards time?
There were three choices, which the researchers claimed there could be one or two that would describe a society, past, present, and future.
Cultures oriented to the past are focused on tradition, legacy, and justice, while present-oriented cultures are focused on stopping to smell the roses, and being in the moment. Future-oriented cultures are focused on saving for future variables, leaving a better life for future generations, and delaying gratification for greater enjoyment and security later.
After delivering this information to us pupils our professor asked what the orientation of the United States' (general, mainstream) culture was.
I managed to get "Pre-" out of my mouth before I realized that everyone else was saying "future." I looked around in general confusion and made some kind of noise with my throat that apparently communicated "Really?"
In a country where 61% of people have no savings for a rainy day and more than three-quarters lives paycheck to paycheck, we have a problem with thinking seriously about the future. Half of the country spends more than they earn month to month and policy has been crafted to keep Americans spending and protect them from their irresponsibility. Just last year, the United States crossed a major milestone on the road to bankruptcy in that over half the population now receives money from at least one government program.
Meanwhile we buy stuff we don't need and put it on credit cards so we can have the endorphin rush and the item now and pay for stuff at some unspecified point down the road. The challenge of the internet has been to get stuff to our door faster and faster while phones allow us to never be bored or alone with our thoughts, ever. If we wanted to think about the future, we couldn't make the time to.
When my professor saw the confusion on my face, he asked me what our orientation was and to explain. I listed off the aforementioned statistics and also pointed out that our secondary orientation would be the past, from my perspective.
While we ingratiate ourselves on (mostly) cheap meaningless purchases, our national discussions center heavily on past injustices and rewriting the past. We do this regardless of whether or not there is a living generation that can realistically be held responsible.
As Japanese-Americans, my family has always been acutely aware of attempts to rewrite history. The lionizing of the one American president who explicitly ordered the imprisonment of American citizens on an ethnic basis, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has griped many in the Japanese-American community. Yet, the national conversation accepts this re-writing implicitly because Asian-Americans in general have persevered and found success in spite of the years and millions of dollars of assets lost while sitting in dusty prison camps.
If you're the right kind of minority, however, even the apologies are meant to stir up derision. The Confederate flag, a symbol that has held numerous connotations including anti-Vietnam War pacifism, Southern pride, and federalism, is being rooted out of every possible place to apologize for slavery. Sociology classrooms across the country have been converted to utopian rhetoric dispensaries through which white students learn they must defer to minorities despite never having participated in an explicitly or possibly implicitly racist cause.
And while all of this weighs down our ability to look forward realistically, there is hope on the horizon. Millenials, are bucking against the financial irresponsibility of other generations as they confront the realities of paying for it and financial responsibility means not having time to dwell on every case of human injustice in history. If milllenials can keep this country functioning, it will be in spite of the influence of government policy and the guiltademia (my new term for Ivy League education).
While my professor went mum on the past, he agreed that there is a strong case for the U.S. having a present orientation after unleashing my reasoning. The simple fact is that there is no real right or wrong answer, he explained.
Intellectual honesty I doubt could be found at an Ivy League school, I thought.
The author is a Woodland College student and fourth generation California farmer.This column does not necessarily reflect the view of this paper.