I do my best, as a blogger, to stray from hot button/political/etc. topics. This blog is, ostensibly, about film music (and related media), and as I detest loudmouth bloggers and pundits (from both sides) I feel it best to avoid such conflagrations. But there is a topic near and dear to me and that is higher education and the importance and funding of such. Living and going to school where I do, in a state that ranks very near the bottom of public funding for higher education, it is a debate that rages in the state and there is even a current senate candidate who once made comments to the effect that the government should discontinue federal student loans (the only way I can afford my PhD, needless to say he did not receive my mail-in ballot vote).
I tangentially talked about higher education a few months ago, but there have been two recent columns by Stanley Fish in the New York Times (Part I and Part II) which have once again made me worry about not only my own future as an academic and scholar, but also the future of academia and by extension intellectual discourse in this country. To summarize the impetus behind Fish’s columns, the Albany campus of the State University of New York (SUNY) recently announced that it was giving the axe to the French, Russian, Italian, classics, and theatre programs due to budget cuts in the Empire State.
Fish’s main question is about this “crisis of the humanities” in public education (it’s not just a university problem, but also primary and secondary schools). How do school administrators validate the existence of such programs when the benefits are not as tangible as, say, computer sciences, medicine, business, etc. Not to mention the point of that so many of the departments are havens for trouble makers, boat rockers, free thinkers, and, god forbid, liberals!
Fish offers some rationales and possible arguments for administrators and the public, and finally comes down to a somewhat circular argument of that it should be funded because that is what a university is. I will set his arguments aside for the time being and rather meditate on why this entire trend troubles me so.
There is a fundamental contradiction in today’s society in relation to education and knowledge that keeps me up at night now that I’m lecturing in front of a class on a tri-weekly basis. At the same time that we have unprecedented access to knowledge thanks to the internets and the Google, people have seemed to stopped thinking about things in lieu of surface level thought and analysis provided by others (in forums such as the one you’re reading). And while the blogosphere is great for things like instant analysis and for getting a conversation started, to many treat it also as an end. Instead of thinking for themselves and doing thoughtful analysis, they just spout out what others say.
The humanities are exactly the subjects that give us the tools to do our own analyses, but our culture and economy are so focused on end products and results, the rather meta-level tools that such things as critical theory and philosophy give us are seen as unproductive because philosophy begets thoughts begets theory begets philosophy, and theory begets analysis begets theory. And so on. Academic for academic sake is not seen as a valid argument, though it is exactly the one put forth by Fish in the end. And as I mentioned in my earlier post, it is exactly this dilemma I struggle with, asking myself (as I prepare another exam or counsel students on paper topics), “what is it I want them to take from this that I hope they can use in their everyday life.”
I see or hear loud political ads during this midterm election season and I wonder what happened to thoughtful discourse. It seems like the loudest person wins, or at lease that is what the advertisers think. And the “rhetoric” (I question if it’s even worthy of the term) tossed around seems to be only angry, loud, and used to instill fear into the electorate. It’s a sad commentary when the sanest voice in politics and media is a comedian. And this loss of thoughtful, intelligent discourse in the public sphere is, in my view, a direct result of the lack of quality education.
One of the bedrocks of a democracy is a well-educated electorate, and now that we truly have an electorate that embraces all citizens (not just wealthy, land owning, white males), it is the duty of the government to provide and support public education. Don’t believe those that say that the American educational system is among the best in the world. Yes, it better than many, and the universities are among the best, but if we, as a country, do not demand that states like the one I’m living in, and the federal government, work to increase that funding, those universities will go the way of so many rural or inner city school districts that suffer from a small or poor tax base in which to fund them. And quality education will one again be only within the reach of those same wealthy citizens.
Education is supposed to be that great leveler in our society, the belief that free and public access to education is the means through which anyone can improve their socioeconomic status. But if public universities lose all their public funding, that access is going to be dependent on either student loans (which cause such crippling debt that some believe it will cause another economic crunch soon), the kindness of endowed scholarships (which sometimes come with many strings attached that cause money to go unused or wasted), or a return to country where only a the privileged few have over a basic level of education.
I find none of those option particularly appetizing.
To bring this rant around to something resembling a point, I come finally to the title of this post, “Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood…” To those who were awake and paying attention in English class, you will recognize the opening line of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a popular poem and well worth anyone’s time and reflection, especially given the divergence of popular interpretation versus the more ironic and critical interpretation. A fine example of how humanities program can teach critical thinking skills, especially given how the word “irony” is tossed around with little care to the actual meaning of the word (of which Futurama did a brilliant study on in its final episode prior to cancellation back in 2003).
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
But the image, too, is a powerful. Which path should we choose in terms of our treatment of public education? Both paths are difficult and worn about the same (which is what the second stanza says, “Had worn them really about the same”). We have done public funding, we have done private funding, but which is the better path that can show the way for the future? I personally think that if there is such a funding shortage and budget shortfall that maybe we should, as a country, reexamine some of the spending and look at what is truly for the public good. Ask, “what is the function of government?” just as Fish asks us to consider “what is a university?” You can probably guess my feelings: cut military and defense spending and dump those trillions into public education, problem solved (so many research and defense contracts go to public universities such as my own, at least this way the money might great spread around).
But another way could be a return to true liberal arts education such that courses in the humanities might receive higher enrollment and help fund the departments. Have required courses in all of the major subjects, have more language classes required (I had to do two years in my undergrad). Maybe we shouldn’t even offer classes in a specific major until the third year of college, the first two years must spent doing core and basic classes and that one cannot even select a major until year three.
I’m not sure the best course of action, but whatever it is, I’m sure that it beats the hell out of standing at the crossroads yelling at each other and achieving nothing at all.