Who Brings the Fight for Equality?

Steve Volk, February 8, 2016

Laura Redniss, RadioactiveThe struggle for a greater representation of student, faculty, and staff of color in higher education has been a continual theme in protests of at least the past two years. Response to the protests have varied from place to place: at some universities, administrators have lost their jobs; at some, generous earmarked funds have been made available to spur diversity hiring, many new conversations have begun about how to create the conversations and the actions that can carry us forward. But, in general, the issues of race, racism, and growing inequality in higher education has been (and is being) brought to our doorsteps and our classrooms by students.

All of this was on my mind when my eyes fell on an op-ed in the January 31, 2016 Sunday Times (London) titled “Watch out, universities; I’m bringing the fight for equality in Britain to you.” It was by David Cameron… the Prime Minster…the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Not only was Cameron in a sense standing in for the students and their protests (co-opting is a word that also comes to mind), but this was the same David Cameron who jacked tuitions to their current level (which, at £9,000 [$13,000] a year are now higher than in-state rates at public universities in the United States ($9,139) and considerably higher than the £0 (!) which students paid prior to 1998). Regardless, in the article, Cameron relentlessly takes the universities to task for excluding BME (black and minority ethnic) students. “Consider this,” he wrote. “If you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university. Only one in 10 of the poorest white boys go into higher education at all.” Well yes, and the same is true in the United States. But who is the messenger of this information? We are in a strange world when the politician most responsible for policies that have led to growing inequality speaks as the person who will bring “the fight for equality” to the university.

Now, one doesn’t have to travel all the way across the pond to encounter politicians who say things that, not to put too fine a point on it, seem to stand reality on its head. But there is something in Cameron’s claim to be a fighter for social justice at the university that requires those who actually care about the state of higher education to pay attention. A recent article by Stephen Collini in the London Review of Books lent valuable insight into understanding why it is that some conservative leaders (whether in Britain or the United States) have presented themselves as the defenders of students seeking post-secondary education against a faculty and academic culture that they paint as archaic, change resistant, and devoted to useless knowledge.

Vladimir Radunsky, On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert EinsteinCollini writes that “Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, [a] pattern of assumptions.” These include the idea that “the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods,” among others. In the United States, and particularly in state universities, these ideas have been under serious challenge for more than three decades.

If “doing well” is the main driver of our social life, then the primary role of education in general, and post secondary education in particular has become increasing economic growth and the generation of private wealth. Research is valued to the extent that it can increase economic growth; education in terms of its ability to produce employable subjects. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with employment. But we must ask to what extent the aim of higher education has largely sacrificed the goals of preparing citizens for democracy, increasing the graduate’s capacity to lead an examined life, or enabling people to partake in all that life has to offer.

The narrowing of the conception of higher education into the production of an individual who can be hired in an available job has been paralleled by the push at all levels of pre-university education to produce students who are “college and career ready.” Nor is this the driving slogan only for high school. You can read a self-help pamphlet for parents prepared by the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota that offers advice on “College Prep from Infancy through High School.” Or you can take a quick trip to the Estes Elementary School where kindergartners in the Owensboro, Kentucky, school work on math equation as they ride pedal desks. Let me quote at length from the news article reporting this lest you think that I need to replace the aluminum antennae fastened to the top of my head:

Kindergarten students do math problems at their peddle desks. Jenny Sevcik /The Messenger-Inquirer via AP , January 27, 2016.

At Estes Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Faith Harralson won a $12,000 grant from the school system to install “pedal desks” in her classroom.

The top looks like a traditional desk. But there are bicycle pedals down where the students’ feet are.

Students can pedal while they work.

Harralson said the pedal desks allow the students to move more, which she said is good for the mind and body “because it activates cells in the brain.”

It also helps when kindergartners get tired of sitting still.

Harralson said, “I’ve seen a shift in my students’ behavior and engagement since the bikes arrived. Thanks to good engineering, the pedals are essentially noiseless and don’t interfere with instruction or activities.”

OK, two things: these are 5-year olds who sit at their desks all day, doing paper and pencil work and solving math problems in order to be (all together now) College and Career Ready. And, whatever happened to recess?

But I digress: If K-12 is about getting students ready for college, college in the United States as well as the UK is about preparing students for careers and only careers. The quotations that back this up are well known by now, but they keep coming:

  • In 2011, Governor Rick Scott of Florida slammed the study of anthropology, arguing “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” A task force in Florida has recommended that public universities there charge more for “non-strategic majors” such as history and English, which it says are in less demand than “strategic” degrees in science, technology, engineering, math, and the health professions. Those majors would cost students less.
  • In North Carolina, Patrick McCrory questioned whether taxpayers should underwrite programs devised by what he called an “educational elite” that don’t lead to employment. “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it,” McCrory said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
  • Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has said that public colleges should be judged on whether “young people [are] getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us.”
  • More recently, the new governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, charged that the state’s universities are not turning out degrees of the “things people want.” “There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors. There just will,” Bevin told reporters this week when announcing his two-year state spending proposal. “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.” While we remain unclear as to exactly that “things people want,” Bevin has introduced a budget plan where colleges and universities would get state tax dollars based on criteria such as graduation rates of certain degree programs.

Kentucky is apparently not alone, as 32 states already have some form of performance-based education funding, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Avarice,Penitential Psalms (The Dunois Hours), France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 174rIt’s not hard to see where this argument comes from. If we believe that people in general, and our students in particular, are only economic agents, that the only social relationships that matter are between buyers and sellers, that our students are consumers and our job is simply to give them what they ask for, then we have lost.

And so we return to the notion of this world turned on its head, where, according to Stephan Collini, we encounter “the curious spectacle of a right-wing government championing students. If students will set aside vague, old-fashioned notions of getting an education, and focus instead on finding the least expensive course that will get them the highest-paying job,” he argues, then the government wants them to know that it will go to bat for them.”

“We should all be blessed enough to pursue life’s passion, but not everybody is,” says Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, who says that the economy cannot support more art-history or philosophy majors. Perhaps it is those of us who value the fullness of a liberal arts education who have failed to carry our message that to be educated is not the same thing as to be hired after graduation, that education that only prepares students for their first job is not education, that education can be, must be, transformative, and that we sell our students and our profession short if we give in to the short-sided notion that such a view of education is really not for everyone. We certainly failed in the case of Governor Bevin, a graduate of Washington and Lee where he majored in East Asian Studies and spent time abroad in Japan.

(Thanks to Marc Blecher for tipping the Collini article to me and to Dinah Volk for information on the peddling kindergarteners.)

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