Fixing America One Treadmill at a Time

Peter Wood

A professor at Macalester College in St. Paul has proposed combating obesity by integrating office workstations with treadmills.  Another Mac professor wants to require all employers to offer on-site childcare.  A third hopes to outlaw all private financial contributions to political campaigns.  These are among the ideas that the college’s alumni magazine Macalester Today touts in its current issue.  Therein nine professors explain “how they’d change the world if they held the power.”  

Three of the proposals are modest-sized academic wishes.  A professor of education thinks that schools would be better if students, starting at kindergarteners, were encouraged to teach each other.  “Kindergarteners might teach peers how to care for household pets.”  A mathematics professor wishes students would learn about compound interest as a step toward quantitative literacy.  A professor of political science thinks it would be a good idea for students to read more medieval authors such as Albertus Magnus and Christine de Pizan.  Well, OK. 

Beyond that, things get a little weird.  A sociology professor extols the principle of “participatory governance” as opposed to taking “directives from above.”  One might think this would depend a bit on context.  Participatory governance, for example, isn’t the best way to drive a car, and it has distinct limitations in organizations that depend on highly specialized expertise or rapid decision making.  But the Mac prof seems to think it is an all-purpose answer to “working together on common problems” and fostering “innovative and creative ideas.” 

A professor of geography proposes the Tom Friedman-esque idea of increasing the price of gas to $7 per gallon with the goal of strangling the suburbs.  It would, he says, be “no longer possible to live in car-oriented suburbs,” and we would enjoy the advantages of “denser” cities and localized agriculture. 

A professor of religious studies rounds this out with his vision of “an economy run by unions of workers at their individual worksites.”  In his utopia, we “fire our bosses” and work for ourselves.  This naturally rests on a theory, and a rather familiar one.  “Our economic system creates wealth through work.  Workers create this wealth through their work on the job, but are paid less than the wealth they create.”  It is fascinating that Karl Marx’s labor theory of value, discredited by the discipline of economics and tossed aside even by the surviving communist states, has found a refuge in Macalester’s religion department. 

Treadmill-powered offices?  Mandatory workplace childcare? Abolition of personal expenditures on political campaigns? One gets the sense that Macalester’s faculty must have been recruited mainly from Laputa, the flying island in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where speculative thought blinds everyone to practical reality.  Laputians are experts in abstract geometry but live in ill-constructed houses because of “the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic.” 

A Macalester alumnus sent me a copy of this article as evidence of his alma mater’s increasing self-marginalization from mainstream American society.  He has a point, though it is important to add that Macalester is probably no worse than other liberal arts colleges in this regard.  Higher education has long had a strain of cultivated eccentricity.  These days eccentricity often takes the form of fondness for ideas that are pointedly absurd when judged from an economic or Constitutional perspective. Macalester’s alumni magazine has just given us the rare treat of professors musing aloud about the America they would prefer. 

For my part, if I could take a go at the Macalester Today question, I’d change the world by restoring the intellectual seriousness of American higher education.  Of course, that might involve doing away with unserious alumni magazines.  

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