Meditations by the Gaslight

Tuesday, May 12. I was sitting in a sports bar watching the Bulls/Cavs game. There were sirens in the distance. I remember thinking, “I turned off my iron, right?”

A girl approached, a waitress. Her young face bore the burden of an immense responsibility: “Oh my God!! You have to get out now!”

As we filed out, I heard a hissing sound. Gas? Yes…yes it was. A leak on the main line. I moved to a safe distance, but a part of me didn’t want to go too far. What if there was an explosion? I had to see it.

When I reached my vantage point I could see both campus and the frantic activity around the bar. Watching the firemen running around, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if they just left. What if they (and everyone else) just retreated into the night and let a gas explosion consume not just the bar, but the enter campus? I couldn’t shake a sense of excitement. Maybe, just maybe, it would be a good thing to let this whole monstrosity burn to the ground. Then we could start over.

In the days after the Great Gas Leak of Aught-One-Five, I kept returning to my thoughts that night. Why did I wish complete devastation on a place that had been the site of so much of my personal happiness and intellectual growth? Was I just bitter that it didn’t work out? Or was there something else?

When I first came to graduate school, I thought I was going to be a part of something extraordinary (and in a way, I was). It really was naive of me, but I truly believed I was going to make a difference. I had always wanted to be a history teacher and I was going to finally get the opportunity. What I didn’t realize was that I was about to plunge straight into the workings of a machine so spectacular and so nefarious, one simple blog post couldn’t possibly do it justice.

A long time ago (or so they tell me) college used to be much more affordable. Since those halcyon days of “Sputnik Syndrome” and low-tuition, college has become markedly more expensive. At the University of Indiana, Bloomington where I worked, state appropriations were about 20.6% of the university’s general fund, student tuition and fees were about 70.6%, and the remaining 8.8% came from other sources. (FY 2012-2013). With each passing day, education is becoming less of a means of promoting the general welfare and more of a commodity to be bought and sold. As a result, university administrations have become fixated with making sure that their institutions stay profitable and less on their core mission of educating the next generation of Americans.

The beating heart of the American system of higher education comes in the mail or is posted on a secure website at the beginning of the semester: the bill for tuition and fees. As universities of all stripes rely more and more on tuition and fees to cover their operating costs, their mission becomes getting fresh bodies (and relatively debt-free bank accounts) on their rosters. Every admission cycle there is a great battle for enrollment, waged in a storm of standardized tests, campus visits, and junk mail. The message is more or less the same: “School X would be a great fit for you because of our great programs, dynamic student life, outstanding facilities, etc. Our tuition is competitive and you can always get student loans. Plus, think about the future success an education from our school will allow you to achieve!”

And there it is: the implication. If you don’t get a college degree, you’ll never a get a meaningful job. The implication is what drives so many students to come to school and pay thousands upon thousands of dollars. The implication is also what is helping to destroy higher education. Now that students (and their parents) are paying a lot of money for an education, there must be a payoff in the form of job. I don’t think there is anything wrong with thinking this way, but one of the consequences is that a college degree is being reduced to an accreditation, a piece of paper a worker has to take to HR to prove he or she can work in an entry-level position. Students are now so obsessed with the implication that they no longer think of learning as a process. That is, if you come to class, do your work, talk to your professor or instructor if you need help, then you will get a good grade. More importantly, don’t think about your grade. Focus instead on what you’re learning and how you feel it will help you later in life or in your job. As I would tell my students, “Ok. I’ll make a confession to you. Most of you won’t get a job based on your knowledge of 20th century history. But you will get a job if someone is blown away by the writing on your cover letter. You will get a job if during an interview you can speak forcefully and clearly. You will get a job if you can think critically. These are things we are going to focus on and along the way we’ll learn a lot about history too.”

I actually developed that course introduction after my first time teaching. Towards the end of the semester I had students come and ask me what they needed to do to get an A so they could get into business school, nursing programs, etc. Some were able to get what they wanted, but others weren’t so lucky. That’s when it dawned on me that the concern of so many kids was their final grade, but they had little understanding of how to get it. All they understood was the implication.

Going back to the night of the gas leak, I now know why I wanted to see a great conflagration. I wanted to witness the end of what I saw as the university machine. Much like the meat-packing plants of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the university took in raw materials (money and the hopes for a better job) and churned out a fantastic array of beautiful pieces of paper. Along the way, nothing was put to waste. The anxieties of thousands of students fund an entire army of counselors. Their stress-eating brings a sizable fortune to purveyors of processed food. Their desire for nice housing builds swaths of gaudy high-priced on-campus apartments. Everyone in the machine has a place and student debt keeps everything humming along. I don’t know how things got this bad, but they can’t continue this way. We need to start over while we still can.

Горит, горит село родное

Горит вся родная моя (из русской нардной песны)

P.S. You didn’t think I would make it easy and translate it, did you? Education is a process, remember? Plus, there’s always Google.

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