Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's uses his hands to make a point during the first presidential debate with President Barack Obama, at the University of Denver, Wednesday, October 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
My cabdriver grew chatty when I asked him to take me crosstown to Columbia. “Do you work there?” he asked. “How much do students pay to attend?” He wanted to know because “in my country, all education is free. I didn’t have to pay to go to university.” I didn’t ask him where he came from, but it could have been any number of places: Norway, Barbados, Brazil, Cuba, Malta, Scotland, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago, Hungary…
He was driving a cab to earn money while he pursues graduate work and was upset by a conversation he’d had with earlier passengers. It was the day after the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, and they had praised him for his English and his “articulateness” about politics. But when he mentioned the fact that his higher education had been free, one of them sneered, “So how much was that worth, now that you’re driving a cab in America?”
He wondered aloud at the disdain, flummoxed by the assumption that the value of his education would be understood only in terms of the job he held. His words made me think about a significant shift in American cultural assumptions over the last few decades. Education has become much more of a commodity, with an ever tightening correlation between how much you pay and how knowledgeable you’re thought to be. This feeds a dangerous turn in our attitude toward universal education. “College isn’t for everybody” is an increasingly common political mantra. And if colleges and graduate schools can’t prove an immediate “value added” in boosting one’s salary, then all that learning isn’t “worth the investment.”
My cabbie was on a roll: “Education is not a luxury. It is a necessity for survival, like water and bread and roads and democracy. How can you be part of this world without education?” By now, we had arrived at Columbia’s wrought-iron gates. I paid him, and as I schlepped my bags to the sidewalk, he stuck his head out the window and left me with this zinger: “How can one truly be free if responding to things only with the amygdala?”
Ah yes, the amygdala. The little cluster of basal ganglia that regulates emotional response, sense memory, mood. It was quite an evocative reference, particularly after a presidential debate where a great deal of time had clearly been spent coaching Mitt Romney in the precise vocal intonations and hand gestures of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, millions of dollars’ worth of media punditry was expended not on evaluating the candidates’ empirical claims, but on haruspication of the public’s response to the tilt of heads, the glint in eyes, the twitch of whiskers. The virtual absence of prefrontal cortical activity in post-debate analyses should remind us that without critical thinking, we are not much more than that little nub of neurons that constitutes the lizard’s entire brain.