Class Conflict

In the current fight over higher public education we might re-affirm our commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal, the belief that every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force. Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights; each is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. And this means that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; and conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.

We want our students to be able to participate and engage, to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions—who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? How in the world shall I proceed?—and to pursue answers wherever they might take them. We focus our efforts, not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in civic life.

We might declare that in this corner of this place—in this open space we are constructing together—people will begin to experience themselves as powerful authors of their own narratives, actors in their own dramas, the essential architects and creators of their own lives, participants in a dynamic and inter-connected community-in-the-making. Here they will discover a zillion ways to articulate their own desires and demands and questions. Here everyone will live in search of rather than in accordance with or in accommodation to. As we wrangle over what to pass on to the future generation, and struggle over what to value and how, students must find vehicles and pathways to question the circumstances of their lives, and wonder about how their lives might be otherwise. Free inquiry, free questioning, dialogue and struggle must take their rightful place—at the heart of things.

Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful questioning and free inquiry. Much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime throughout history. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt.

The cancellation of an invitation to speak to a legitimate campus group at Wyoming in April is a case in point. Of course I would like to come back now, and in fact the only action that would fully repudiate the wrong decision, and then undo the harm, would be for the president himself, author of that weirdly disingenuous statement (based on a profoundly dishonest narrative), to host me. OK, that’s unlikely, but still…

I’ve said to anyone who’s asked that an invitation should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement, and that inviting someone to campus could be, as well, an opportunity to debate, to sharpen arguments, to engage in spirited disagreement. Perhaps that was the case here. I’ve also pointed out that I am in no way the injured party in any of this. I spoke freely a week ago Monday—to myself, my kids, my colleagues and students—and I was fine. The injured party is the group of faculty and students who wanted to engage me—for whatever reasons (and I have only the vaguest sense of who my original host was, or how the talk might have gone). It was their freedom, not mine, that was trampled, out of misplaced fear or petty expediency, or both.

And then one wonders: if my ideas are so toxic, shouldn’t the noisy posse that shouted down the most basic values in a democracy press the university president to scour the library and purge it of all of my books? Perhaps he should head them off by getting their first, burning the books himself. Who else should be purged, and on what basis? Maybe convicted felons (I’m thinking Martha Stewart, George Ryan, G. Gordon Liddy, and Scooter Libby, but not me since I’ve never been convicted of a felony) should be banned. Or bad role models (all eye-of-the-beholder stuff, for sure, but I’m thinking Elliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods). Or advocates of violence as a proper means of social change (definitely not me, no matter what you hear on the blogasylum, but lots and lots and lots of government officials—from virtually every government in the world). And try to think, then, of what standard exists in the mind of the Wyoming president that impels him to ban me, and only me. What if the French Club invites Sarkozy, or the China Club Hu Jinao or Ha Jin, or the Literature Club Junot Diaz or James Frey or Arundhati Roy, or the Prison Rights Club Mark Clements or Ronnie Kitchens or Nelson Mandela? Should there be a panel to scrutinize every potential speaker and certify them as….what, exactly?

Any way, there is something much greater at stake here than some small speech I might have delivered to 75 students. As campuses contract and constrain, the main victims become truth, honesty, integrity, curiosity, imagination, freedom itself. When college campuses fall silent, other victims include the high school history teacher on the west side of Chicago or in Laramie or Cheyenne, the English literature teacher in Detroit, or the math teacher in an Oakland middle school. They and countless others immediately get the message: be careful what you say; stay close to the official story; stick to the authorized text; keep quiet with your head covered. Oh, freedom.

Wyoming is taking a step onto a slippery slope, and I think journalists, right next to academics and librarians, ought to dispense with the tired and bloodless “he said” and then “he said” and then “he said” form of reporting, and try to explain the serious issues underneath all of this, which have everything to do with whether the public space can be spared for a while longer. Everyone in Wyoming, whatever their politics and orientations, have a stake in the outcome.

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A delightful video emerged from the recent student-led struggles at the University of California organized to resist the grinding and relentless undoing of public higher education: a student attends to her daily routine, writing, reading, sitting in a lecture hall, while the camera focuses here and there, and a voice-over intones: “Pen: $1.69; Textbook: $38; Backpack: $69; Dinner (a tiny packet of dry noodles!): $.50…” And at the end of the list: “Education [pause]…Priceless.” The tag-line is perfect: “There are some things that money can’t buy; don’t let education be one of them.”

The crisis in public higher education (mirror to the crisis in K-12 schooling) is not a joke at all: tuition and fees are sky-rocketing across the country, and are already out of reach for millions; staff cut-backs, lay-offs, and reductions in student services have become common-place; massive student loans have replaced grants and scholarships; class-size is increasing while course offerings are decreasing; hiring freezes and pay-cuts and unpaid mandatory furloughs are on the rise as tenure-track positions are eliminated. These and other “short-term” strategies for dealing with the financial crisis are consistent with the overall direction that has characterized public higher education for decades: “restructuring” as biz-speak for a single-minded focus on the bottom line. And all of this is part of a larger crisis of the state, and larger choices about who pays, and who suffers.

A few snapshots: state support for the University of Illinois system stands at about 16% today, down from 48% two decades ago. In California state colleges will turn away 40,000 qualified students this year, while the community colleges, in a cascading effect, will turn away 100,000. And this year a 32% fee hike is proposed at the University of California at Berkeley, (a proposal that triggered the current student movement there) while the school pays its football coach $2.8 million a year, and is just completing a $400 million renovation of the football stadium. The sports reporter Dave Zirin sums this mess up nicely: “This is what students see: boosters and alumni come first, while they’ve been instructed to cheer their teams, pay their loans, and mind their business.”

These and similar trends are national in scope and impact: the average college graduate is between $20,000 and $30,000 in debt for student loans (not including credit card and other debt), compared to $9,000 in 1994; Pell Grants cover less than 32% of annual college costs; less than 20% of graduate students are unionized, and student labor at below market wages keeps the whole enterprise afloat; tenured and tenure-tack faculty are disappearing, today holding barely 30% of all faculty lines; out-of-state students are increasing in most public schools because they pay significantly higher tuitions, and that pattern is turning public colleges and universities into “engines of inequality,” places with both less access and less equity, less social justice and fewer highly qualified students, private schools in fact, while remaining pubic in name only.

But even this grim picture can be brought into sharper, and it turns out, more painful focus. California spends more on prisons than on higher education—across the country, spending on corrections is six times higher than spending on higher education—and from 1985-2000 Illinois increased spending on higher education by 30% while corrections shot up100%. Here we get a clearer insight into the budget crises that are being rationalized and balanced on our heads: a permanent war economy married to a prison society, with the abused and neglected offspring paying for the sins of the parents.

I’ve been reminded again and again of Don DeLillo’s grimly funny and super-smart novel White Noise, whose narrator is Jack Gladney, a professor of “Hitler Studies” at a small mid-western college, who is sleep-walking through his life to the dull background sounds of TV and endless radio, the muzac of consumerism and electronics, unrestrained advertising and constant technological innovation, appliances and microwaves. When an industrial accident creates what is at first described officially as a “feathery plume,” but later becomes a “black billowing cloud,” and finally an “airborne toxic event,” everything becomes a bit unhinged. Jack’s response to an order to evacuate is disbelief: “I’m not just a college professor,” he whines. “I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.”

Well, not anymore, Jack. Our own feathery cloud has turned toxic at breath-taking speed, and those folks in the mobile homes might be your natural allies after all. When the administration at Cal closed the libraries and restricted hours of operation to save money, students implemented a 24-hour “Study-In” where they were joined by faculty as well as community members who had never before had access. Folks joined hands and chanted, “Whose university? Our university!” As one grad student said: “When we started we wanted to save the university; today we want to transform it, to decolonize it, to open it up.”

Higher education itself is being radically redefined by the wealthy privateers and the neo-liberals as a product to be bought and sold at the marketplace, a commodity like a car, a box of bolts, or a toilet, rather than either a right (something fought for by generations) or an intellectual, ethical, and spiritual journey (education as enlightenment and liberation). The meteoric rise of for-profit universities (and the mindlessly trailing along by eager university administrators grasping their freshly-minted MBA’s) is one part of that trend. Another piece is private universities competing to secure their advantages at the expense of their “competitors” as well as the public: Harvard with its $36 billion endowment, Northwestern with $7 billion. (Northwestern’s new president offered the silly sentiment that he was hoping to make his university “elite without being elitist,” and one wonders exactly what “public” or “common” interest these tax-exempt institutions serve?)

Perhaps it’s time to envision the world we want to inhabit, and then to begin to live it, here and now, on campus and off. Here are a few possible campaigns as starting points to get our creative and activist juices flowing: cancel all outstanding student debt (good enough for the banks, why not us?); equal pay for equal work; truth in language (a furlough is not a camping trip, it’s a pay-cut; “selective admissions” is more honestly restrictive admissions); universal free open-access high quality public post-secondary schools (whew!).

The current frontal attack on higher public education is an attack on democracy itself. Education is a perennial battleground, for it’s where we ask ourselves who we are as people, what it means to be human here and now, and what world we hope to inhabit. It’s where we assess our chances and access our choices, and it’s where we take up dynamic questions of morality and ethics, identity and location, agency and action. We want to know more, to see more, to experience more in order to do more—to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that we inherit, a world we are simultaneously destined to change.

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