Begin by Listening

NOTE: Parts of this article were first published on Feb. 19, 2018. I wish I didn’t feel it necessary to bring them back again.

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

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All images from Ogawa Kazumasa, Hand-Coloured Photographs of Flowers (1896). Public domain.

Students will soon be returning to classes across the country as well as in my hometown of Oberlin, OH. They will face the pleasurable prospect of a year of learning, the opportunity to reconnect with friends while making new ones, and the excitement of forming new communities. They also face a set of challenges that are rare, perhaps unequaled, in their intensity. They face well-known financial challenges. While the rate of increase in college and university tuition has eased significantly over the past 5 years (just below 2%, i.e., even with inflation), college remains a difficult reach for much of the population, particularly in light of four decades of attacks on wages and the unions that support workers. Tuition increases in the public sector have been driven by state cutbacks in their higher education budgets. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2016-2017 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation, with 44 states spending less on higher education in 2017 than they did in 2008.

Students will return to class in the face of a fierce partisan attack on the very idea of higher education. A majority of Republicans polled think it is having a negative effect on the country, which is one reason why they are gradually (or abruptly, if you’re in Alaska) defunding it in the states they control. At the same time, the data is unequivocal that those with a college degree do better in a large number of outcomes, especially the economic, than those without one. Students and their families know this, which is why they continue to pay for college and why student debt has soared over the years to its current $1.5 trillion level and climbing.

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