May was a good time to retire from higher education in California. I have really valued my 26 years at California State University, Long Beach. It was an incredible privilege to be able to make a living doing something I believed in and that gave meaning to my life. I loved the students and the fact that so many of them were the first in their families to attend a four-year university. I loved seeing the proverbial “click” when what I was saying suddenly made sense to them. I loved their hunger for social justice, for peace and a healthy environment. I loved believing that what I was doing made a difference in their lives.

Ideas about education have changed since I went to school. I should have been warned when the incoming president for CSULB flew banners his first semester saying “Graduation Begins Today!” Funny, I was brought up to think that the goal was to become an educated person, not to graduate as quickly as possible.

Stop! Slow down, I wanted to say. This is a unique time in your life. Try new things, expose yourself to new ideas, develop skills and passions that will last you the rest of your life.

So I was a little naïve. I know people are having terrible problems financially now, and college promises them a better financial future than they would have without it. And I recognize that college is expensive, so most students are concerned to graduate quickly. I know this; I put myself through school as a single parent. But what I am referring to is different, and this push to move ‘em up and out began years before the current recession. This has to do with our understanding of the nature of higher learning.

In 2003, the CA State Legislature cut the budget for education to the point that the CSU initiated the largest student fee hike in its history, 30% in a period of 15 months, roughly a full academic year that includes summer.  Imagine you are a first generation college student working to put yourself through college and you are suddenly hit with an increase like that. Would you be able to continue in school?

Well, it has happened again. This year, the State legislature has cut $650 million dollars from the CSU system. Besides cuts in classes, layoffs of lecturers and staff and restricted enrollment, that means a tuition increase of 27% since last November. And there may be another $100 million cut during the school year if State revenues do not increase.

So the CSU will limit the students it takes in, and try to move ‘em up and out even faster. And to help in that effort, the CSU Chancellor is this week requesting a waiver for the State requirement of a class in American Institutions. This ignores the research that demonstrates time and time again that competence in civics among high school seniors has actually declined since 2006 and that American students are less proficient in American history than any other subject.

I think we’ve forgotten that if people don’t know how government works, they can’t hold it accountable.

As upset as I am for the students who lose out with these new changes, the larger picture is what is really disturbing. Our values seem to have changed in the past decade or so. Public education used to be a matter of civic pride. I remember growing up back in Winnetka, Illinois, where we bragged that our public schools were based on the California model. Now all the emphasis is on getting a degree and getting into the labor market, probably to pay off those horrendous students loans that are necessary to pay for all the tuition increases.

And it isn’t limited to California. The Texas Public Policy Foundation has come up with a list of suggestions for the University of Texas at Austin. This right-wing think tank, funded in part by the Koch Brothers, advocates a business, market-driven approach to higher education, where students would be treated as customers, research that isn’t immediately profitable would be de-emphasized, and professors would be individually evaluated by the tuition revenue they generate.

I know that capital is international now and needs people to be trained to function adequately in the marketplace. It doesn’t give a damn about education, especially a well-rounded one, it cares about training. It can hire mangers more cheaply in India than in the U.S. And who needs great playwrights when Real Housewives attracts more people and money? If what is needed is people to fill those small workplace cubicles, why spend money teaching students about philosophy, history, or civic literacy – much less, gender literacy.

Why? Because in the long run, it pays off. We used to remember that. As Ben Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” To deny this is a mark of ignorance.

But to let the marketplace set our values not just plain stupid, it is morally bankrupt.


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