What a used car can teach us about America.
Some want to dump it, others want to sell it like it’s got no flaws. But really, it’s time to fix it.
Teaching is not a one-way transfer of knowledge. There’s something about sieving information that’s long been in your mind, often sitting dormant, through the contours of other minds; they reflect it through their own combination of knowledge, values, and sensibilities. It comes back more verdant, with the residue of those perspectives. When I teach, I learn.
But teaching also ages you. Put better, it reminds you of the distance between this moment and your youth — that the norms, mores, and values that you shared with a cohort of learners is evolving.
I teach a two-day course at American University called “Medicare for Who?” — a study of the American healthcare system and opportunities for universal healthcare, with a focus on Medicare for All. I teach it over two all-day Saturday sessions. Needless to say, the undergraduate political science and public policy students who enroll are extremely motivated (and probably quite progressive). They ask piercing questions — and those questions offer a window into their perspectives on healthcare, America, and this moment.
In a course about American healthcare — perhaps the most galling of the national disgraces currently piling upon us — it’s difficult to avoid a broader conversation about America. Implicit is that America is struggling … struggling to offer a basic set of public goods to her people, to cohere a shared sense of experience against the inequities she’s harbored for decades, even to maintain her democracy.
The consequences of these struggles have hit this generation hardest. If you’re in college right now, you were a child when your parents or your neighbors’ parents lost their jobs and their homes in the Great Recession. You watched your grandparent’s life savings vanish as the people who caused it got bailed out. Throughout, our country fought needless wars to secure access to oil, which in turn spells the doom of our planet. You’re taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to attend classes behind a computer screen because of a pandemic for which your government failed to prepare and your fellow citizens failed to heed. Our democracy has delivered one political party captured by powerful corporations and political leaders four times your age — and another that wants to end democracy itself.
How we explain this moment — the narrative we tell ourselves about how we got here and where we go from here unlocks a critical set of implications about the future we’ll build. And as my students kept asking their questions, I was struck by the note of despair that strung them together. I struggled with how to capture the fact that, despite the myriad of challenges we face, we have to have hope in the fact that we can yet solve them.
I kept coming back to a ‘70s era Cadillac — you know, one of those big boats — a friend’s father had when we were younger. He was always under that hood, fixing this or replacing that. As I struggled with how to communicate what I was feeling with my students, I kept thinking back to that old boat-car. It’s a helpful metaphor for the story we tell ourselves about America right now.
I worry that for too many young people, the narrative is it has failed. The car’s engine is failing and the chassis has always had cracks. They rightly point to the original sins of native annihilation, of slavery, and wonder how a country founded on such fundamentally inhumane racism and brutality can be redeemed? They point to the continued murder of Black folks at the hands of the state in the form of the police, never mind the disproportionate share of premature death by other causes, the vast inequities in access to quality schools, clean air and water, good jobs, fair housing, or healthy food and conclude that it cannot. It’s time to take the car to the junkyard, they conclude.
They’re often responding to their parents’ generation that tell them that the car is and has always been perfect as it is. They ignore the cracked chassis — or worse, justify why those aren’t cracks, but design features! They argue that because they got thousands of miles out of that engine — all the while failing to add oil or submit to regular maintenance — that it’s just as good as it’s always been. They are used-car salesmen. Rather than engage with what’s broken, they gaslight you into believing that brokenness isn’t even possible. The car has no flaws — it is, after all, exceptional. Rather the flaw is in those willing to acknowledge that one might even exist.
But there’s a third way that I worry too few of us are willing to embrace. Indeed it's what my friend’s dad always did. We acknowledge the car’s failures, all the way down to the cracked and rusted-out chassis. We understand that the very design of the car was flawed the minute it rolled off the assembly line. And yet we appreciate that only by getting under the hood can we take an honest assessment of what’s broken and do the painstaking work of fixing it. We understand that though the car may be broken, it is redeemable. That’s the perspective of a mechanic.
The future of this country sits not with those who want to condemn it to a junkyard or those who want to sell you a lemon. The future is with those who believe in the work of redemption — and that work has never been more necessary. But we have to believe it’s worth doing.