Now What?
December 2, 2009 |  by Michael Anft

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Michael Vhalos: But innovation is celebrated in this society and justice really isn’t unless you’re looking at criminal justice. The question is where does the urge for justice come from? The real downside with the U.S. is that it promoted over the last century individualism as narcissism and demoted civic responsibility. The civic virtue of the Founding Fathers is not much in evidence anymore. This is where crises can be helpful. A crisis can be great, but it can also lead to revolution, as it did in Russia and France.

Denis Wirtz: This crisis was supposed to be the mother of all crises—financial crises at least—and we don’t seem to have learned anything from it. I’m doubtful that these crises can help us get out of bad habits.

Learning from Crises

Yash Gupta: I think it’s premature to say we haven’t learned anything. Crises really do create some innovations, like nylon or the jet engines created and developed during the Great Depression.

Michael Vlahos: We learn from past crises, so we innovate backwardly. You can’t do that with things like climate change. The biggest shift in climate change thought is the emergence in the last few years of the possibility of huge negative feedback loops. So it isn’t that the first changes—say, going up three degrees in global temperature—would be that awful. But if we go up three degrees, and then all the permafrost melts, hundreds of billions of tons of carbon go into the atmosphere, you have methane hydrate in the ocean, the glaciers have gone, all the methane in the icecaps is gone, and then you have this further rapid rise in temperature—that is the really scary part. This is where you enter into unknown terrain.

Yash Gupta: But that brings you to the idea of civil society. Do we really care about the world as a whole, or do we care about ourselves? And if we do care about ourselves, then the whole notion of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit is not that important.

Margaret Moon: But again, how can we bring caring for ourselves in line with caring for civil society? Caring for yourself is not necessarily different from caring for your society. So I think again this all gets back to how can we change the way we educate ourselves about that connection?

Denis Wirtz: There are two major entities that don’t vote and that’s the environment and the young generation. Those two are getting screwed, big time, by us as we speak. There’s a realization that this growth may quickly slow down because of environmental catastrophe. So, those two aspects of individualism and government responsibilities may sometimes seemingly exclude one another. How we conciliate them is the real challenge for the next 30 or 40 years.

Margaret Moon: That’s exactly the question that I think is important. How do we channel them together?

Chi Dang: Education.

Margaret Moon: But what about it? Is our current approach to education for a democratic society the right approach? Is there something we need to change?

Michael Vlahos: It’s more than knowledge. There’s an element of socialization. I’m talking about a kind of civic socialization, like was done in this country to a much larger degree a century ago.

Chi Dang: Yes. Civic education.

Margaret Moon: So you’d teach people their roles as members of a democratic society?

Michael Vlahos: A democratic and just society. Justice comes out of the ability to empathize and a feeling of kinship with others. This gets back to the notion of the nation as an imagined community.

Denis Wirtz: The classic model is the one that says, We’re doing well, and we can help the rest of the family by distributing the wealth. Right? Except in this country it doesn’t happen. This is almost the only country in the world that doesn’t have that.

Michael Vlahos: America has to learn altruism.

Denis Wirtz: That’s exactly what would kill innovation.

Chi Dang: I took off a week recently and went to an off-campus course and they had a game where there were five tables with different people. You’re supposed to create value and earn points. But if you were watching carefully, it actually was set up so you’re competing with the other tables, not with each other. So, the more you cooperate within a table, the more you’re going to win, right? And the table that discovered that won. The point is you can educate people to learn how to cooperate.

Michael Vlahos: But “competition” is a holy word in the American ethos that tends to push us in the other direction. I would like to see as part of our socialization this notion that we can go further by helping each other and working together.

Margaret Moon: I don’t think that it stifles innovation. [To Wirtz:] I love what you’re saying about this. Especially coming from outside the U.S. and looking in at the way we do things, but sometimes we think that education in a democratic society means teaching people to be nice to their neighbors or to follow the rules. I would hate to think that that was what a democratic education meant. It should be about educating people to be the loyal opposition. It’s intellectual innovation. It plays out in the same way as scientific innovation—by asking the hard questions and demanding more of the world around you. But do it with a sense that the idea is to make this society a better society. I can’t imagine that that would stifle innovation.

Yash Gupta: That means a fundamental change in the cultural values in some respects. We value individualism substantially more. Given that, it’s highly unlikely that we can create the kind of society you’re talking about.

Nathan Connolly: In this country, we assume that you gain security by having capital, that’s what we’re taught. Capital or a gun, essentially. Quite frankly, if there’s anything that comes out of this moment, it’s that we need to rethink how capitalism actually works.

Michael Vlahos: Capitalism in the corporate sense stifles innovation. We see it in this intense conservatism in our society today, and that comes because we’re a status quo power. We want to maintain the world that we like. We don’t want to let anything go, and I think that immobilizes us.

Denis Wirtz: Those questions may come because the standard of living is going to stagnate, if not decline, in this country. People are going to have to look for other ways to get motivated and excited about their lives. Again, I can see it in the students at Hopkins. Working in South Africa or in villages in the middle of China, they are much more excited about that than taking a business course—[to Gupta:] sorry [Laughter]—and making money. They really want to see innovation, but they’d like to see it in more places, with more benefit for more people.

Michael Anft is Johns Hopkins Magazine’s senior writer. This interview is an edited version of the conversation. To watch video portions of the original, go to