flickr image By OZinOH
A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, "In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, "History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.' I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level."
In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in our graduates, the out-of-control tuitions and crippling student loan debt. Attention is finally being paid to the enormous salaries for presidents and sports coaches, and the migrant worker status of the low-wage majority faculty. There are now movements to control tuition, to forgive student debt, to create more powerful "assessment" tools, to offer "free" university materials online, to combat adjunct faculty exploitation. But each of these movements focuses on a narrow aspect of a much wider problem, and no amount of "fix" for these aspects individually will address the real reason that universities in America are dying.
To explain my perspective here, I need to go back in time. Let's go back to post World War II, 1950s when the GI bill, and the affordability -- and sometimes free access -- to universities created an upsurge of college students across the country. This surge continued through the '60s, when universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times.
It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late fifties into the sixties -- the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent -- against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses. Who didn't like the outcome of the 60s? The corporations, the war-mongers, those in our society who would keep us divided based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation.
I suspect that, given the opportunity, those groups would have liked nothing more than to shut down the universities. Destroy them outright. But a country claiming to have democratic values can't just shut down its universities. That would reveal something about that country which would not support the image they are determined to portray -- that of a country of freedom, justice, opportunity for all. So, how do you kill the universities of the country without showing your hand?
As a child growing up during the Cold War, I was taught that the communist countries in the first half of the 20th Century put their scholars, intellectuals and artists into prison camps, called "re-education camps". What I've come to realize as an adult is that American corporatism despises those same individuals as much as we were told communism did. But instead of doing anything so obvious as throwing them into prison, here those same people are thrown into dire poverty. The outcome is the same. Desperate poverty controls and ultimately breaks people as effectively as prison"..and some research says that it works even MORE powerfully.
So: here is the recipe for killing universities, and you tell ME if what I'm describing isn't exactly what is at the root of all the problems of our country's system of higher education. (Because what I'm saying has more recently been applied to K-12 public education as well.)
First, you defund public higher education.
Anna Victoria, writing in Pluck Magazine, discusses this issue in a review of Christopher Newfield's book, Unmaking the Public University: "In 1971, Lewis Powell (before assuming his post as a Supreme Court Justice) authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memorandum, and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The title of the memo was "Attack on the American Free Enterprise System," and in it he called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States."
How would they do that? One, by increased lobbying and pressure on legislators to change their priorities. "Funding for public universities comes from, as the term suggests, the state and federal government. Yet starting in the early 1980s, shifting state priorities forced public universities to increasingly rely on other sources of revenue. For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011." That's a loss of more than 1/3 of its public funding. But why this shift in priorities?
U.C. Berkeley English professor, Christopher Newfield, in his new book Unmaking the Public University posits that conservative elites have worked to de-fund higher education explicitly because of its function in creating a more empowered, democratic, and multiracial middle class. His theory is one that blames explicit cultural concern, not financial woes, for the current decreases in funding. He cites the fact that California public universities were forced to reject 300,000 applicants because of lack of funding. Newfield explains that much of the motive behind conservative advocacy for de-funding of public education is racial, pro-corporate, and anti-protest in nature.
Again, from Victoria: "(The) ultimate objective, as outlined in the (Lewis Powell) memo, was to purge respectable institutions such as the media, arts, sciences, as well as college campus themselves of left-wing thoughts. At the time, college campuses were seen as "springboards for dissent," as Newfield terms it, and were therefore viewed as publicly funded sources of opposition to the interests of the establishment. While it is impossible to know the extent to which this memo influenced the conservative political strategy over the coming decades, it is extraordinary to see how far the principles outlined in his memo have been adopted."
Under the guise of many "conflicts", such as budget struggles, or quotas, de-funding was consistently the result. This funding argument also was used to re-shape the kind of course offerings and curriculum focus found on campuses. Victoria writes, "Attacks on humanities curriculums, political correctness, and affirmative action shifted the conversation on public universities to the right, creating a climate of skepticism around state funded schools.
State budget debates became platforms for conservatives to argue why certain disciplines such as sociology, history, anthropology, minority studies, language, and gender studies should be de-funded"" on one hand, through the argument that they were not offering students the "practical" skills needed for the job market -- which was a powerful way to increase emphasis on what now is seen as vocational focus rather than actual higher education, and to de-value those very courses that trained and expanded the mind, developed a more complete human being, a more actively intelligent person and involved citizen.
Another argument used to attack the humanities was ""their so-called promotion of anti-establishment sentiment. Gradually, these arguments translated into real- and often deep- cuts into the budgets of state university systems," especially in those most undesirable areas that the establishment found to run counter to their ability to control the population's thoughts and behavior. The idea of "manufactured consent" should be talked about here -- because if you remove the classes and the disciplines that are the strongest in their ability to develop higher level intellectual rigor, the result is a more easily manipulated citizenry, less capable of deep interrogation and investigation of the establishment "message".
Second, you deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s)