A Re-Opening: Some Reflections on the US

So I am coming back to the blog that started it all. Here are two related pieces on the US and higher education, but with a broader framing.

First in the New York Review of Books, What Kind of Country Do We Want? by Marilynne Robinson

When schools and hospitals close, the value of everything that is dependent on them falls. Austerity toward some is a tax cut for others, a privatization of social wealth. The economics of opportunism is obvious at every stage in this great shift. And yet Americans have reacted to the drove of presumptive, quasi, and faux billionaires as if preternatural wealth were a credential of some kind.

All the talk of national wealth, which is presented as the meaning and vindication of America, has been simultaneous with a coercive atmosphere of scarcity. America is the most powerful economy in history and at the same time so threatened by global competition that it must dismantle its own institutions, the educational system, the post office. The national parks are increasingly abandoned to neglect in service to fiscal restraint. We cannot maintain our infrastructure. And, of course, we cannot raise the minimum wage. The belief has been general and urgent that the mass of people and their children can look forward to a future in which they must scramble for employment, a life-engrossing struggle in which success will depend on their making themselves useful to whatever industries emerge, contingent on their being competitive in the global labor market. Polarization is the inevitable consequence of all this.

The great error of any conspiracy theory is the assumption that blame can be placed on particular persons and interests. A chord is struck, a predisposition is awakened. America as a whole has embraced, under the name of conservatism and also patriotism, a radical departure from its own history. This richest country has been overtaken with a deep and general conviction of scarcity, a conviction that has become an expectation, then a kind of discipline, even an ethic. The sense of scarcity instantiates itself. It reinforces an anxiety that makes scarcity feel real and encroaching, and generosity, even investment, an imprudent risk.

And then Bashing Administrators While the University Burns by Gabriel Paquette in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

At my university as at many others, public and private, we are, out of necessity, in a market for students. And that market is shrinking because of demographic trends and accelerated by Covid-19. To sustain our institutions, we must adapt. Otherwise, we are doomed.

Denunciation, recrimination, and grandstanding are pit stops on the road to oblivion. This is not to say that faculty criticisms of university leadership are unfounded or invalid. But they are a dead end unless accompanied by the constructive aim of collective betterment. The allure of mounting the barricades is almost irresistible, but what’s the point if we all end up guillotined? What use is rehearsing old grievances if students balk at further indebtedness, and our revenue models collapse?

I anticipate one of two scenarios in the coming years. In the first, the familiar feuds persist, and the university edifice crumbles, with old enmities slight consolation for those who remain amid the ruins. In the second, instinctive self-preservation and mutual interest incite faculty-administrative cooperation, institutional moribundity is reversed, and a new university is erected on the foundations of the old.

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