Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

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?

  • Guest

    Just to set the record straight, Esther, the fact-finder’s recommendation is for

    a 1.5 percent increase in the first year of the new contract; 3 percent in the second year. The UMaine system has refused to offer more than .7–yes, that’s right, .7–percent increase in the first year of a new contract.

  • Shut up and get in the Pipeline of Human Capital, Philip! McDonald’s is delicious and nutritious.

  • Kevin


    1. First that’s not very nice to say about Ms. Rand, It is never acceptable to talk in dismay about the dead who cannot defend themselves against such an inaccurate attack.
    Secondly she was not a freak. Ayn Rand was a very strong, intelligent woman that had lived through the Russian Civil War. A brave woman that should be celebrated by the women of today. She was even one of the first females allowed access to higher education in the USSR. She is also a women that truly embodied the American dream. She came here legally worked hard from the ground up and made herself into someone who will continue living through history just like Keynes will. But you were correct she was not really an economist she was a philosopher, among other things, and believed that principles of laisser faire were the only true way to protect the individuals rights.

    2. I am unable to understand your second point about only caring about economic concerns? Money interests in education have all ready been established.The labor unions are almost now surgically inserted into all of the public education systems. So that can mean 1 of 2 things. Either the labor union has come into the “untainted” area of life to protect the worker from the Govt that is interested in the money in education, which by virtue would all ready be “tainted”. Or, which is most often seen, the Union has come into the “untainted” area of life looking to capitalize on the money in the education system. Using the workers as pawns that drive up the cost, while producing an inferior service that would not be successful if a free market system were in place. So you can not really say that the education system is an “untainted” area of life free from greed, and concerns of wealth. Look at the cost of our text books. Lie to me and say that there is no one currently interested in the revenue that education produces.

    3. Your final argument paints a grim picture for the outlook of our country and human interaction. Some people believe in sharing the wealth (Obama) by taking it from others. While some believe in altruism and sacrificing things that they have earned to give unto others. Andrew Carnegie cared about education and funded 2500 libraries. Dolly Parton cares about the education of children and funds programs to decrease childhood illiteracy. So yes unlike your view of the “rich” there are actually some good hearted Americans. Willing to give away something that they earned to someone who had not.

    Sorry Jeff but your arguments have a few holes in them.

  • Kevin

    Very well written perspective, your passion for this topic is very strong.
    However I disagree with you on a few points. CHANGE that’s what the Obama Admin pushed to get elected and now it is Move Forward I am assuming he means continue the change. Change is good when something is broken is it not? He and his colleagues in the legislature believed that the health care industry was / is broken. Which I will agree to a certain point. I wont stay on my side of the isle if I believe something is truly wrong. I am a rational thinker, at least I think so. SO healthcare was “broken” and they “fixed” it. Getting to my point, you cannot tell me without lying that the large metropolitan school systems are not broken, you cant do it! National graduation rates tend to hover 70% mark. Many of these inner city graduation rates are below 50%. Now that is a broken system! Govt has not done anything to “fix” this absolute terrible let down of our future generation! So if someone / some business believes they have a solution that can help these children then LET THEM! If they can increase the future outlooks of these young Americans then how is that bad. IF they are doing the job adequately, fair and the right way who cares if they make some money? Would you rather have that “rich bad man” or a large business not have that extra revenue and have NO HOPE for half of those inner city kids????? Let’s be rational here. Competition makes people strive to do better, that is a non disagreeable fact. So maybe its time the unchallenged and ineffective public sector has to compete against a can do winning attitude of the private sector? If they stink on ice just as bad as the public sector then that was not the answer and some other solution will be needed. BUT if the education levels increase and some already rich people make an extra few million on top of their 50 Billion dollar NET worth (2012 Disney corp) than who is really the winner??? I do believe it is the children. The system needs to be fixed lets give some one else a try besides the let the people down Govt.
    Thanks for your time

  • Esther Wanning

    What a splendid piece, though ever so disheartening. I’m not sure, however, that Shelley improves his argument by directly correlating a “negligible” 4.5 percent cost-of-living increase with academic freedom. Out here, beyond the borders of academia, 4.5 percent, would look very very good. But that aside, Shelley does wonderfully in reminding us of all the reasons academic values are worth having. As many someones have said, much of what is most valuable can’t be valued in money.

  • Anna Ward

    Ah, the Trent Boatners of the Western world. I think I will copy and print out his comment to remind me, in a pithily tragic way, of everything that is wrong in the United States (where, thank God, I don’t live, although I’m living far too near to it currently to be really comfortable–and who is beyond its vast reach these days anyway?) in the early 21st century.

    Thank-you, sir, for the sobering reminder.

  • Jeff D.

    Philip, I was not going to comment, not having a ton to add. But excellent job.

    To your commenter:

    1. Keynes, for lack of a better word, is good. Keynes is right. Keynes works. Ayn Rand was not an economist, she was a freak.

    2. But that’s beside the point. Philip is saying that there are still areas of life not tainted by economic concerns and that those only interested in money are encroaching on them. You may disagree but that doesn’t change the fact that you are quite exactly proving his point. Which is a valid one.

    I wonder at this. Why on earth would people with money to burn possibly care about the “efficiency” of education? Why bother? In one of my first jobs, before I left academia, there was an old joke: “Why do academic arguments get so heated? Because the stakes are so low.” Would that it were ever so.

  • I cannot begin to fathom, how you can shirk responsibility away from Government regulation and even remotely blame free market education. If the institution is not supported by the tuition of paying students, private scholarship foundations and non-profit organization’s SHUT IT DOWN. I could go for days about the similarities and likeness of the higher education system to the Corporatist ideologies of the auto industry, baking industry and housing bubble. Everything the government touches turns to sh!t. The more government intervenes in primary and secondary education; the higher drop out rates and teen pregnancies sky rocket. But this is the ideological flaw of the Keynesian “Progressive”.