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Are There Signs That Educators--and Nations--Are Rethinking 40+ Years of Defunding and Demeaning Higher Education?

Are There Signs That Educators--and Nations--Are Rethinking 40+ Years of Defunding and Demeaning Higher Education?

This morning I was urged by the Editor of PMLA, the distinguished scholar Wai Chee Dimock, to write about the extraordinary seriousness of people--from college presidents to presidents of whole nations--who are contacting me about The New Education.  PMLA is publishing a portfolio of responses to The New Education and I'll be writing the final one, with some ideas about what English and Modern Languages Departments can do to change. In the course of our correspondence, I told Wai Chee about how my daily (literally) contacts with serious educators and she urged me to pass this on, to let others know. Most of us are feeling demoralized by the constant cutbacks to higher ed and the increasing attacks on every aspect of higher education. So it is encouraging to learn that, all over, there are people in higher education who, in fact, are dedicating their lives to thinking deeply about how to make meaningful, sustainable, lasting, important change, against odds, and how to reverse a 40-year pattern of defunding and demeaning higher education.

Is it too optimistic to think that these voices are getting louder? Judging by the responses I receive every day, there is an increasingly vibrant movement out there to educate and educate well a new generation so they can be better equipped to solve the catastrophic problems they have inherited  It is useful to have this small bit of optimism for those in higher ed and the humanities, especially given how much we are being ignored, dismissed, or defunded these days.

So here's the good news: I hear every three or four days (at least) from another college or university provost or president who wants to learn more, do something, and is dedicated and concerned with serious, thoughtful change from within the academy, and not top down. If I responded to each and every request, I would be at a different university every single day. 

On the one hand, I am honored that my book is striking such a chord.  On the other, it is obvious that this is not about The New Education but that the book describes our educational situation now in a way that many people everywhere--everywhere!--identify with. We've been heading downward for forty years. Call it "Neoliberalism" or what else might want to call it. But it feels like many out there are sick of it, see we need to change. Now. From the inside, but extensively, inside and out.  And at every level: community colleges and major elite research universities. 

In one notably busy stretch of a few weeks this winter, I traveled to Borough of Manhattan Community College, Middlebury College, Georgia Tech University, Agnes Scott College, Columbia University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz and conducted an online workshop at Arkansas State University (both at Jonesboro and at its Mexico City campus). At each and every one, I met with a major leader as well as with faculty, students, and staff who were seriously embarked on change.

And it is not just the leaders initiating these conversations. Several times each and every day, I hear from faculty, students, other administrators, parents, foundation directors, and policy makers who are interested in deep, meaningful changes in higher ed, the kind that come from inside and are concerned about students and faculty and learning not making money for some tech entrepreneur. That's already amazing since The New Education came on Sept 5 and most books have very short shelf lives.

Okay, and here's the punchline: I am now starting to hear from Presidents of entire COUNTRIES. . .

I have lunch with one former powerful President (not of the US) this week.   I'll be video conference with another one soon (it may be confidential so I won't say which South American nation this is). He once a month holds an online hour-long conversation with a thinker whose work he finds influential and in an area he is concerned about. His cabinet and advisors will be on the call.

My goodness. It certainly seems like everyone at once is realizing the destructiveness of the damaging "workforce readiness" and "skills not frills" rhetoric used to defund, censor, and diminish higher education. We know this kind of thinking that STEM is everything is harmful--even to students who want to go into STEM fields. Science and technology without deep thinking in the human and social sciences leads to a first job but not a career (and can easily be automated). And it leads to debacles like Facebook.

An impoverished higher education hurts students--and that hurts all of us in myriad ways. I feel weary from so much activity this year and also grateful and humble and encouraged, even at this woefully, horrifically terrible time.

Maybe, maybe, maybe we can start to reverse a 40+ year trend of demeaning higher ed. Maybe. I hope so.  And I'm so encouraged to know that hundreds of people, maybe thousands, maybe tens of thousands, are working on this now, in the face of all the forces that seem arrayed against us.  We may be more powerful than we think.  I hope so!


1 comment

Dear Cathy, dear all,

This is such encouraging news -- and at a time when so much of the news is discouraging. I am glad that your work has struck a chord. Deep thinking in the humanities or qualitatively-inclined social sciences, without an understanding of what data is and how it works, or research in STEM that doesn't connect with larger ethical issues, philosophical approaches, or historical contexts, can't properly be considered deep. We need each others' expertise and intellectual curiosity.

¡Manos a la obra!