07/09/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

The Elite's Politics Are Squelching Everyone Else's Right to Culture

In the 1790s, in the wake of the French Revolution, the art collection of the Louvre was opened to the masses. For the first time in human history the people had won the right to enjoy and be enriched by a part of the high culture that had always been the preserve of a thin elite. More progress followed in the 19th and 20th centuries as worker political struggles won not only higher standards of living, but also far greater access to education and culture.

Today, we are witnessing a striking reversal of that democratization of culture. It is driven by the same political dynamics that has fueled the extraordinary explosion in inequality over the past four decades, that has forced households to work longer hours, slash savings, and become indebted simply to maintain an almost stagnant standard of living. The elite managed this coup because their wealth and privilege enable them to craft an ideology, well-garnished with lavish campaign contributions, that pushed government to cut their taxes, slash welfare for the less fortunate, deregulate the economy, promote freer trade, and cut government spending that benefits the non-rich.

This heist by the rich has finally drawn the attention of the media, academics and politicians. But the fact that their politics is also taking away the non-elite's access to culture has barely drawn notice.

Just as the elite used its political muscle to leave everyone else with far smaller shares of income and wealth, so too have they eviscerated workers' hard-won rights for education and culture. Whereas the U.S. had the world's foremost system of education between 1830 and 1970, this is far from true today according to international comparisons. Even in higher education, where the U.S. was long number one, it has now sunk to 12th place.

Weakened support for public education especially handicaps the poor. The educational achievement gap between children from rich and poor families is roughly 30 to 40 percent greater for those born in 2001 than those born in the mid-1970s, leaving many without the skills necessary for our more complex economy.

But it gets worse. The cultural component of education is being gutted. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted the New Common Core standards that require that 70 percent of the reading assignments of high school seniors be nonfiction. Rather than Shakespeare and Hawthorne, they'll get to read texts such as "FedViews" by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, or the "Recommended Levels of Insulation" put out by the EPA. Public schools nationwide are slashing funding for non-academic classes such as music and art. Education is becoming increasingly narrow and technical, and increasingly bereft of cultural enrichment.

Students are so fearful and stressed that they will not find jobs that they don't notice or much mind the change. Between 1970 and 2011, the percentage of students receiving a bachelor's or master's degree in a business-related fields rose from 13 percent to 23 percent, while degrees in humanities fell from 17 percent to 14 percent. The fact that the average indebted graduate has an average of $29,400 in student loans only piles on the stress and challenge of getting a job. Forty years ago, public support put a debt-free college education within the reach of most young people.

Seventy-two percent of college students attend public institutions. Although nominally independent, these institutions are not immune to political interference. For instance, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) stated his desire not only to run Florida's education system more like a business, but also to redirect funding and staffing for the humanities toward business education. He even commissioned a Blue Ribbon Task Force to consider whether humanities students should pay higher tuition.

As universities and colleges become more business-oriented, tenured professors are being replaced with adjuncts. Because tenured professors have guaranteed jobs for life, they can write and teach practically what they wish. They can expose students to ideas that may be highly idiosyncratic and unorthodox, thereby opening student minds to novelty and creative thinking. But since 1969, the percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty has fallen from 78 to 34 percent. Adjunct professors lack job security and are paid considerably less than their tenured colleagues even though they teach more classes which leaves little time for research. And they dare not express views that irk administrators, lest their contracts not be renewed. They must stay on the straight and narrow, focusing on teaching "career" skills in lieu of the exploration and cultural enrichment that accompanies intellectual adventure.

Professors' freedom is also being eroded by an explosion in corporate funding of education. Research and teaching must be sensitive to these donors' interests, lest they turn off the spigots.

A conspiracy theorist might claim that elites secretly fear that an education in the humanities -- history, philosophy, English, arts, languages -- will awaken people to the fact they're being had, or distract them from being obedient and docile workers. Liberal arts might stimulate profound and dreamy thoughts devoid of economic utility, but rich in cultural content that may stimulate thoughts as to how we might best achieve our social and individual potential. It would be better that students confine their studies to what will be needed in the job world. But no conspiracy theory is really necessary. The elite's politics have resulted in too few jobs and job-seekers lacking adequate education so that students and everyone else find it convincing that we must sacrifice cultural enrichment for more job-practical education.

The absurdity of this cultural impoverishment is that never before have we collectively been so rich and thus able to indulge in cultural enrichment, in the expansion of what it means to be fully human. But the elite are hogging the resources necessary for such enrichment. So, for culture, the masses will have to content themselves with television.