|Non Sequitur by Wiley|
December 5, 2010
Yesterdays' Non Sequitur hit very close to home, as I witness the growing adulation of the private sector, to the detriment of the public good. It did not start with Ronald Reagan, but as I have argued in an article on the lack of civic thinking in my own town, he and his merry band of nihilists made a sport of bashing of public servants. The problem started long before Reagan, of course, with the granting of personhood to corporations. The movie The Corporation vividly explains this judicial kernel that is at the center of almost everything that is wrong in the world economy.
Blue Gold: World Water Wars describes how corporate ownership of water -- even as it falls from the sky -- is a growing source of social injustice and obscene profits. These wars are not in the future: people have already died trying to defend the right to water, and corporation-backed states have done some of the killing. To the question of whether anything should be considered a more fundamental public good than water, one possible answer arises: education. Water is essential to life, of course, and Bechtel should not have the ability to deny it to anyone. In a complex, modern society, however, access to education is equally essential, and it is in great danger to some of the very same forces of privatization that threaten public water supplies worldwide.
Private schools predate public schools in the United States, and many of them continue to offer a fantastic education (full disclosure: my own daughter attends a private school). Early in the nation's history, however, it was recognized that education is a public good and that public access to education is essential in a democracy. Lewis Lapham has argued that although education is good for democracy, it is not always good for business, going so far as to describe "the country's reserves of ignorance" as a precious natural resource to proponents of certain kinds of consumerism.
As described in Affluenza, Channel One, vending machines, and other direct marketing to children has increased in tandem with the shrinking of school budgets. Corporations are seen as rescuing schools from budget cuts that have come to be seen as inevitable, though the transfer of money from the public to the private sectors is entirely responsible for the straights that the schools are found in. Students are seen increasingly as eyeballs to be rented, and this compromises the educational mission of schools at all levels.
In higher education, the traditional mix of public schools and non-profit private or religious schools has been disrupted by "private" for-profit schools. I put "private" in quotes because of the gross hypocrisy that has allowed quasi-criminal enterprises such as the University of Phoenix to create the illusion of private-sector efficiency in education by capturing public funds in the form of unsustainable student loans. As public funds for state colleges and universities is shrinking, U-Phoenix, Kaplan, and Capella are increasingly reliant on federal loans. Students are outraged, and so, too, should taxpayers be. (Ironically a Consumer Affairs web page hosting hundreds of U-Phoenix complaints also carries Google Ads for largely fraudulent financial-aid schemes.)
In state-assisted schools (which are lucky to get a quarter of their support from the states any more, students who are investing in the future of our society work more to pay their own way (unless they come from an ever-shrinking percentage of families that can foot the bill). They spend more years in school, fewer hours studying, and graduate with more debt than ever before, because of a misplaced "conservatism" that denies the public value of public higher education. Moreover, the operations of the schools themselves are increasingly dictated by outside donors and vendors with exclusive contracts.
Even in the arena of social justice, consumerism is becoming more important than citizenship. For instance, faced with a business model that virtually enslaves coffee growers worldwide, activists have been powerless in the political process and have resorted to creating a parallel trading system known as fair trade. I am currently working with one of my coffee students on some analysis of the limitations of conscious consumerism. Almost by definition, well-meaning consumers are not going to be able to spend their way out of the social injustices inherent in the current trading system.
In addition to fair-trade models in the short term, a long-term commitment to activism and responsible citizenship is needed, and that in turn relies on an Academy that is independent of corporate sponsors. Sadly, some in public higher education are dazzled by the short-term results achieved by some of the for-profit companies, and are all too eager to jump into direct competition with them. Instead, we should stand our ground: the tenure-based system of higher education has been the envy of the world for good reason, and we should not change it on the basis of some slick marketing and clever accounting.