This is the second in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system. In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion. Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.
Lessons learned from big jumping robots
When I was in high school, my pals and I enjoyed a brief stint playing the tabletop roleplaying game Battletech, a game whose plot involved large, heavily-weaponed robots (“mechs”) shooting at one another. I became particularly enamored of a maneuver in the rulebook called “Death from Above,” in which a player’s mech jumps on another player’s mech, rendering lots of damage to the head and shoulders of the victim and simultaneously receiving lots of damage to the attacker’s legs.
It’s a tricky move to pull off in the mechanics of the game, and generally not very productive for the attacker. But despite the Pyrrhic aspect of the attack, it was darn satisfying to perform. There was delight for my teenage self in the image of my robot jumping through the air and stomping on another robot. My own security be damned.
David Anderegg’s book makes a cogent case that the way our society talks about smart people damages children. At the core of his argument is the American anti-intellectual streak, which he traces all the way back to Washington Irving and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Sleepy Hollow is, at its core, a story about teaching nerds to mind their place in the pecking order.
One of the more obvious ways this translates to modern American attitudes is a contempt for education as a public entity. The last fifty years have seen us resting on our laurels regarding our educational apparatus, funding it at barely-breathing levels in poor districts and eroding funding for higher ed as the rhetoric has shifted from “let’s all pitch in to beat the Russians” to “college will help individuals get better jobs.” Individuals ought not get government handouts.
My feelings about education are that we need much, much more spending. Sam from The West Wing put it this way in the season one, ep ‘Six Meetings Before Lunch':
Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be extremely expensive for governments and absolutely free of charge for its citizens just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured how to do it yet.
But this series isn’t about how the forces assailing universities ought to change, it’s just meant to set the stage for understanding those forces, as I see them.
Research or die
The failing funding from above drives universities toward certain kinds of money: grants and donations. Donations drive the uneconomic support of large scale sports programs, while grants encourage a rapacious fever for grant money that rarely returns focus to the students to whom we purportedly owe our purpose.
Alas, there aren’t a lot of things colleges and universities can do to stop the pressure/hemorrhage from above. Barring a shocking change in the American attitude toward higher ed, we’re unlikely to see public support for college increasing any time soon, so colleges best re-think how they do business with the same attitude that most workers of my generation have about social security–it’s a nice idea, but we doubt it will be there for us.
Death from Above
My initial discussion was apt, I think, because it highlights the particularly gruesome aspect that our failing funding for education on all levels (including higher ed) presents for us. For the people that disdain public funding of anything, and for the people who rail against universities for all their drinking at the “Big Government” teat, the reduced funding and failing systems feel like victory. “See,” they snarl, pointing like that monkey in Family Guy, “education is screwed! We’d best jump ship now.” But like the robot jumping on another robot, they ignore the damage they do to themselves. In this case, they don’t see the society around them, where our lead or even our competitiveness are fast falling behind the other first-world countries and rising countries from other parts of the world. And instead of crying that we’ve got a national emergency and pumping money into the education system in massive boluses, they bemoan its death and revel in their own victory, inured to the leg-armor falling to the ground all around them.