While the forces of good, evil and fantasy fight over the promise of debt cancellation and free college tuition, a curious subtext emerged at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Noting initially that it was activists pushing Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal to introduce the College for All Act of 2019, neither academics nor college administrators came out in force to support the cause.
Why? Such laws would seem to inure enormously to their benefit, since it would disengage the cost of college from the pockets of students and their parents, thus enabling universities to charge ever-greater tuition with the taxpayer footing the bill. It somehow manages to float under the radar that the high cost of a college education has less to do with the ability of the poor to afford it, or assume enough debt to pay for it, and more to do with increases dwarfing the cost of living and rise in income.
Ann Larson argues that this is because we no longer “understand” the purpose of education.
This collective failure to strategically explain what an education is for and why people should want one — indeed, why they ought to fight tooth and nail for that right — has had profoundly negative consequences. It has permitted politicians and billionaire philanthropists to make the case that the purpose of education ought to be job training (especially for working-class students), and that college majors that supposedly don’t lead to employment are at best a luxury and at worst kind of silly. The more oxygen these arguments take up in our public discourse, the further they weaken support for public higher education and erode sympathy for those who have been crushed by the system we have now. In a context of drastic wealth inequality, it is perfectly reasonable for people to decide that if the skills and knowledge acquired at college don’t immediately lead to a job, then the whole enterprise is a waste of time and the public shouldn’t fund it.
It is time that more higher-education professionals, especially those who have institutional standing, advance the cause of democracy in higher education.
Or, to put it significantly less defensively, the public should fund higher education for the pure sake of learning.
Yasmin Nair put our society’s failure in stark terms:
The loss of public higher education to vast swaths of the population, not coincidentally people of color, more often women than men, is a form of violence — the violence of absolute exclusion. This is exclusion not only from the “opportunity” that higher-education pundits like to talk about, but the exclusion from, dare we say, the life of the mind, the pursuit of knowledge — the useless knowledge engaged by areas like philosophy, the arts, the humanities in general.
She has a point. Education isn’t limited to learning a trade, but learning of all the great thought that existed over the ages. Sure, someone needs to repair the air conditioner, but someone needs to remember Plato as well. Well, maybe not Plato, because he’s no longer deemed an acceptable part of the curriculum, but Maya Angelou.
This raises two questions, however. The first is whether students want to graduate college with a degree that doesn’t lead to a job. Humanities departments are failing, not for lack of academics desperately seeking to teach its disciplines, but for students interested in majoring in them.
On the one hand, there may be a serious concern that the new flavor of humanities, focused on race and gender rather than knowledge, gives rise to serious concerns about whether it’s educational or trendy, and students realize they will be stuck with whatever they’re taught today ten, twenty years from now, when the hemlines of education rise or fall, and they’re stuck with a college degree in new math and ebonics.
A second question is whether students, particularly poor students being given an opportunity to buy something they were never able to afford before, but only because they’re going to take on a debt load they’re told is a good investment, want to purchase a shiny diamond or a beat up Prius. One will sparkle. The other will get them where they need to go.
The activists’ point is that the goal of pure knowledge is being forsaken when it comes to the will to spend public money so the poor will be able to get the high education they’ve been denied. But they fail to consider that it’s not the fault of the academy that students given the opportunity to get that education choose to buy the Prius over the diamond.
There is no doubt some pride to be taken by a first generation college graduate with a newly-minted philosophy degree, but that pride may be short-lived if the grad can’t get a job and feed himself. Well educated and hungry is no way to go through life, and as Abe Maslow found, one is a more basic need.
Meeting this moment of promise and possibility will require collaboration and mass mobilization. While ordinary people develop militant institutions like the Debt Collective from which they can wield class power, academics who want to see transformative change must use their positions to help win back the promise of college as a necessary and vital public good.
The promise of education for the sake of pure knowledge is a necessary and vital public good, although what is now being offered as an education in humanities may challenge whether it is, in fact, knowledge or the pretense of an education. But don’t blame the profs when no one signs up to be a history major. Whether the public wants to see its hard-earned tax dollars spent to finance humanities majors may be the aspect that quiets the Academy, perhaps recognizing that when society starts taking a hard look at what they’re charging these special students, it may not be willing to enable colleges to raise tuition at will.
But perhaps the academics, for all their swagger, realize that America isn’t in need of a million poor kids with gender studies Ph.D.’s, good only to become academics to teach others to do the same. Who needs the competition for the few sweet academic gigs available when all you have is “pure knowledge” that no one else wants to buy?