Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Republican War on Higher Education: Abraham Lincoln Weeps
by H.L. Goodall

Image: Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough speaks to an audience during Boston College commencement exercises

Across the country Republican governors have announced major cuts to higher education budgets that will significantly alter issues of access to quality public education and excellence in what those programs can offer. Yesterday Graham Spanier, the President Penn State University, had this to say about the 52.8% cut announced by Governor Tom Corbett:

"Abraham Lincoln is weeping today," [Spanier said], a reference to the Morrill Act of 1862. The act, signed by then-President Lincoln, fostered the creation of land-grant institutions -- including Penn State -- to expand the availability to higher education for the non-elite.

Now state funds make up about eight percent of the Penn State budget, having declined steadily from nearly 37 percent as recently as 1970. Under Corbett's budget proposal, introduced Tuesday, state support would fall to about four percent of the university budget.

According to Penn State-supplied numbers, the proposal would mean a decline of $182 million from current state funding levels for the university.

Pennsylvania is not alone.

Similar massive cuts to state-assisted higher education have been announced by an overwhelming cadre of gung-ho Republicans and a few feckless faux Democrats in Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, Arizona, California, Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, and Texas. Plans to cut budgets are still being formulated in other states, but the pattern—indeed, the Republican template—is already clear. By the end of the next fiscal year, universities in many states will be forced to consider privatizing their flagships in addition to seeing programs and faculty at other state-assisted schools terminated.

States used to gladly support universities and colleges because leaders on both sides of the aisle recognized that a well-educated workforce is in the best economic and social interests of all of us. That progressive narrative changed with the election, and re-election of Ronald Reagan, who began a conservative propaganda campaign based on three key ideas: that big government is bad for everyone because it is big; that regulation is bad for business because it regulates; and that taxes are an evil invention created by liberals in order to (a) get their hands on our hard-earned money, so that (b) they can redistribute wealth to those who don’t deserve it.

Since Reagan’s message fired a shot across the collective university bow, there has not been a single president from either party who was brave enough to call bullshit on these three ideas for fear of alienating an increasingly fearful and ignorant electorate. Instead, we have seen a short history of increasing capitulation to the trumped-up demand for lower and lower taxes, which led to less available funding for schools; to less and less regulation, which led to the creation of online universities passing as legitimate institutions of higher learning while being allowed admit students on the basis of their loan value; and smaller and smaller governments that balk at doing anything that might require a sensible increase in revenues to support the public good.

To this mix of Reagan’s message came an effective propaganda campaign to redefine colleges as “enterprises” on the business or “entrepreneurial” model. By turning students into paying customers and measuring success by the MacDonald’s or Walmart multiplication metric of low price x numbers of customers served, over time too many Americans came to see state-assisted education (for cutbacks in funding by the year 2000, state systems no longer identified themselves as “state-supported) as little more than commodities that failed to meet the “green light special” test of cheapness.

Higher education was touted by Republicans and by a relentless barrage of propaganda on right wing talk shows as a business no longer associated with the public good because its product had become too dear. A college education was and is widely criticized by these silver-tongued lizards of the right wing talk show swamp as being “too expensive”; professors, by the lie of the Republican fairy tale, only work a couple of hours a week, and “get paid too much”; and, given the recent lack of employment opportunities for college graduates despite the largest capital reserves for corporations who should be hiring them (an inconvenient fact left out of right wing arguments), if getting a degree didn’t mean getting jobs, then what good is it? What good is all that fancy education, huh?

So it was that the dramatic decrease in funding support for higher education that had been on a downward spiral for twenty years didn’t become the annual nightmare for universities until 2008, when the global economic meltdown, a “get out of jail free” bailout for banks and Wall Street, and significantly reduced state revenues coalesced into a perfect opportunity for Republican strategists to deliver on one of their principle goals, which is the dismantling if not the wholesale dis-establishment of public education. We can no longer afford it, they say. Abraham Lincoln weeps, indeed.

America, wake up! Your country needs you to get off the couch and commit yourselves to countering this anti-education narrative. Because without the support of the public who public education serves, things can only get much worse. How so, you ask? Hmmm, let’s see.

There are nine states currently considering laws that would make it okay for students to carry guns on college campuses. How do you think that fulfills any legitimate educational mission other than to make campuses into dangerous places where A’s are guaranteed? I can envision this scenario being played out by bulging pistols in the pockets of angry undergrads: “Tell me, professor, why I don’t deserve an A on that exam?”

In the end, defunding public education and passing laws that make guns on campus a fact will only drive away intelligent students and faculty alike. It will cheapen the idea of what constitutes an educated person. And it will make access to a quality education all but unattainable for whole classes of people, including the “sons and daughters of the working classes” that land-grant institutions such as Penn State were established to serve.

Put bluntly, it is not in the best interests of the rich to have a college educated citizenry. Educated people are critical thinkers and know enough history and science to see through the political chicanery of Tea Party liars and global warming deniers. And make no mistake, this war on public education is a delight to the wealthy, whose own offspring will always be able to afford an elite private school here or abroad. For working people, for those of us who aspire to send our sons and daughters to the best public schools because we think we still live in a country that provides that opportunity to everyone, think again.

Abraham Lincoln weeps. So do I. So should you.

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