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The American System

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In order to interpret American popular culture one has to understand America and its history.  Part of that understanding involves a knowledge of America’s many, often contradictory mythologies, as I have frequently noted in these blogs and in Signs of Life in the USA, but I want to add something else about America that isn’t precisely a mythology nor even, quite, a value or ideology.  And yet it has an enormous impact on American culture—one that is especially visible in the ongoing juggernaut that is the university MOOC. This is the manufacturing regime that was known in the 19th century as “the American System.”  The American System was (and is) a way of manufacturing things based on standardization, efficiency, and simplicity.  Providing semi-skilled workers with sophisticated machine tools with which they can assemble products whose parts are standardized and interchangeable, the American System enabled American industry to overtake and surpass English industrial production to become the world's leading industrial nation before the turn of the century. So it's all good, right?  The American System led to modern mass production, high productivity, and the ability to create a mass consumer society within which a cornucopia of consumer goods was made available to all classes of people on a scale unequaled in history.  Henry Ford's Model T—a highly standardized automobile that could be mass produced for a mass market— put automobility into the reach of the working classes, and is probably the most famous success story of the American System. But even if we ignore the ecological unsustainability of mass production and mass consumption (and we shouldn't), there is still a problem with the American System, one that has to do with the precarious balance in a mass society between quality and quantity.  So the problem is that the American System excels at quantity, but at the expense of quality.  Unlike, say, the tradition of German over-engineering, which produces goods manufactured to tolerances designed to enable them to last a lifetime and beyond, the American System—aided today by very precise computer calculation—designs products according to the most minimal tolerances, so minimal that the goal sometimes appears simply to be to get the thing out of the store before it breaks. At the same time, as the American System increases the quantity of a laborer's productivity, it decreases the quality of his or her life, because the System replaces highly paid skilled workers with lower paid semi-skilled workers.  The result is the kind of socio-economic imbalance that is so apparent today. From the perspective of the consumer, on the other hand, there are also problems, because even as the American System fills the marketplace with goods, much of that production is junk.  What is more, it not only conditions consumers to expect their purchases to break and need replacement, it also conditions them to demand that products be very cheap.  The result has been that rather than purchasing fewer expensive items designed to last a lifetime, the American consumer purchases huge quantities of stuff that may be cheap at the checkout counter but can be costly in the long run because of the constant need of replacement. This is an old story, of course, but it explains a lot about American behavior and consciousness.  And it can help us understand the rush to technologize and standardize education.  Briefly put, the American System as applied to education is spelled MOOC.  Or "Common Core."  Or whatever.  Standardizing education so that its parts are interchangeable everywhere, the coming American System of Education not only sacrifices quality for quantity in its quest for greater "productivity," it also attempts to transform skilled educators into semi-skilled clerks whose job is to manage online "learning management systems."  Of course, the upper classes will still demand (and get) their own old fashioned highly skilled labor force at those expensive private schools and universities that will be exempted from this process, and everyone else can eat MOOC. Americans are tolerating this diminution of their educational choices precisely because of the earlier successes of the 19th century American System.  Expecting and demanding cheap goods, they are appalled by the expense of education, not realizing that education has always been expensive, but, because of the subsidy of public higher education by governmental expenditures, they have been shielded from that expense.  Now that the public alternative to expensive private education has become expensive as well—due to the withdrawal of those subsidies—Americans are quite open to the application of the American System to an "industry" (and, yes, higher education is being called an industry these days) where it never belonged.  And the result should be pretty much what the result was in the sphere of industrial production.  Quantity without quality.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.