Who will defend academic values?

Posted on April 01, 2013 in Perspectives
By pshelley

Last month I attended a public symposium on the future of the humanities at USM, where I asked President Kalikow what responsibility the academy has to hold the line against the encroachment of purely economic values on what was previously protected cultural space. Kalikow rolled her eyes at me as if to say, ‘Oh lord, here we go with the ‘value’ questions,’ and then replied with a spirited defense of speed, ease and convenience in higher education, along with the assertion that McDonald’s is not always bad.

I left the symposium offended and disheartened by her glib dismissal of what I believe is probably the critical question regarding the future of this country. I also completely disagreed with her answer: nutritionally, economically, socially, environmentally, discursively and spiritually, McDonald’s is always, always bad.

This question of values is, of course, central to the future of USM as well. Our faculty is currently engaged in a work-to-rule action, having been without a contract for the past two years. The dispute is over a negligible 4.5 percent cost-of-living increase, which would be the first in over five years and is directly related to the preservation of academic values, such as free critical inquiry and creative exploration independent of the clock or the profit motive. With departments at USM facing massive budget cuts (and in some cases, extinction), hiring freezes, pressure to put more classes and complete degree tracks online and to increase the number of students per class and to increase teaching loads, it is easy to see the contract impasse as being less about money and more about intimidation – get with the program, it says; fear for your jobs. Not surprisingly, most professors are not particularly thrilled to participate in the degradation of an institution to which they have dedicated their entire lives. Morale is low – and with good reason.

What we are all up against is an unprecedented mobilization of forces by overlapping corporate and government interests in a concerted predatory effort to once and for all privatize public education in the U.S., and while they’re at it, destroy one of the last remaining bastions of critical thought – critical thought that is often directed at the predominant corporate and consumer culture. It is not a stretch to say that the battle for the future of education in this country is an all-out war.

On Friday Governor LePage held a farcical “education” conference in Augusta, a lobbying extravaganza where all the usual suspects in the well-funded and well-organized education “reform” movement were given a government-sponsored showcase to promote charter schools, technology and privatization. LePage said he was inspired by the national education “summit” held in November 2012 by Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, a lobbying group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, among others, all of whom stand to reap massive profits from privatization and the increased use of technology in education.

The keynote speaker at Bush’s bash was Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, promoted to his current post after a stint as “CEO” of the Chicago school system, where he oversaw a regime of school closings, racial division and the antagonization of teachers and unions, and where, through tax breaks and other incentives, he enabled privatization, militarization and the proliferation of charter schools (including two run by Disney!) – all in the name of “reform.” The Chicago school system is still reeling. Last week it was announced that 54 Chicago schools will be closed, and another six put in “turnaround” (meaning all teachers will be fired) while Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (another of the president’s men) was reportedly skiing and unavailable for comment. Duncan is also a big supporter of ex-Washington D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (the breakout star of the Walton-Gates-financed propaganda film, “Waiting For Superman”), now a full-time lobbyist whose organization, StudentsFirst, looks to end the tenure, among other educational “reforms.”

Deep was my despair over the future of education last Thursday when I attended an event on campus celebrating the publication of USM philosophy professor Jeremiah Conway’s new book, “The Alchemy of Teaching,” a collection of stories about the genuine transformations that happen every day in the college classroom. As Conway spoke, the entire packed room had that rare, tingling atmosphere. You could feel that everyone was paying close attention, enraptured in the moment. What Conway was articulating – what people were so hungry to hear – is the reason why we cannot afford despair, why we cannot afford to lose this war. It’s because there simply aren’t many other places left in our culture that aren’t centered on consumption, wealth, entertainment or distraction.

“Classrooms are among the few special places on earth dedicated to the growth and transformation of human awareness. We need to get the word out about what happens in classrooms and why it matters precisely because we are in danger of forgetting,” Conway said.
College, Conway stressed, is not just about information, but about meaning; not just about attendance, but about presence; not just about enrollment, but about building community and relationships, all dependent on what he was not shy in describing as “knowledge of and affection for one’s students.” The stakes are high because, as Conway observes, “knowledge without personal development can be catastrophic.”

Professor Conway reminds us that what takes place in the university requires time, attention, patience, imagination and real live human interaction. In many ways, these values are antithetical to the corporate and consumer values of speed, ease and convenience. As one talented teacher in Conway’s book tells his students, “This is about the heart, the turning of souls; it is a lifetime endeavor, taken one step at a time.” But I have to wonder – if university presidents are not going to defend these endangered academic values from concerted, vicious predation, then who is?