Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why the University of California must protest

I reserved the last 15 minutes of my morning class today for a discussion of the protest taking place at UC Berkeley on Thursday against the steady fee increases, the layoffs of staff, the bad faith bargaining, the administrative unaccountability, and the general transformation of education at the University of California into a commodity. Many students prefaced their comments by saying, ‘I don’t really know much about this, but...’ And they found I think, as they talked through the issues, that they knew a lot more than they felt they did, and that the process of talking through the issues helped to crystallise the relationship between the problems at the University of California and state politics.

What we were all still struggling with at the end of the conversation (in which I didn’t take part) was whether there was anything we can do about the dire straits in which public education seems to find itself (though of course the passive verb belies the fact that it was put there by a series of political decisions). Most of us were on-campus last year, and recalled the sense of optimism which emerged when the campus rallied in September against the suggested fee increases. But the commitment of many students (and of most faculty) seemed to wane during the fall as people found more important things to think about—the next midterm, tenure, that big research paper—and by the time the campus went on strike in November, feelings were much more mixed.

It was a divided campus that watched events unfold in the rain on the final strike day, when students occupied Wheeler Hall. There were the resentful students, driven out of class by incessant fire alarms, forced to confront the effects of direct action. There were those who stood in the rain in front of Wheeler before the police turned on them with truncheons and rubber bullets. And there were those of us who read the Chancellor’s message the following day with growing disbelief and wondered how the man charged with ensuring the safety of the University community could either have such a feeble grasp over what was going on at his campus or else deliberately mislead the campus community about the previous day’s chain of events.

And by the time Berkeley led the charge by bussing hundreds of students to the state Capitol in March, much of the will to step outside of the comfortable routine of classes, papers and exams seemed to have ebbed further still. Lawmakers threw some bones to a far smaller crowd that that which had gathered in Sproul Plaza back in September, speakers raised points that were germane and tangential in equal measure, in no particular order, without reference to each other, and without a common sense of what the argument was or at whom it should be directed. There was no sense of how to rally the community of students and educators throughout the state who had failed to show up in Sacramento.

And so today many of my students took the view that noisy protest was futile, marginal in fact, and would just convince the state community that the nutters at Berkeley are up to their old tricks. That it would be silly to leave class in protest of the cuts being made to the University. Others believed that as little as our voices seem to count, we all have to do what we can to keep the issue in the public eye...that we have to register our outrage at what both the state and the University administration are doing to public education.

The other question was whether frustration should be directed at UC President Mark Yudof, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and the politically-appointed and unaccountable Regents of the University of the California, or at the state legislature in Sacramento. Because whilst Birgeneau and Yudof have no direct control over what the state’s budget, they have been appallingly bad at taking the fight to the legislature and in mobilising UC. They have accepted the proposition that California is broke and that there is no money to be spent on higher education and its potential to create greater equality and social transformation.

These dilemmas, in a way, are a conflict between two competing ideas about our political potential, and two competing worldviews, and show the extent to which the debate transcends the specificity of the University of California’s financial woes.

One worldview suggests that a budget represents all of the money that it is feasible or politically-expedient to raise, and that we have to work within that existing framework. In other words, we arrange our moral concerns, our values, around an economic bottom line, an artificial number represented by existing or predicted tax revenues. But we must challenge this, because California is not broke. State government has run out of money, but there is an enormous amount of wealth in the state which is highly unequally distributed. I would argue that we need to arrange our economics, the collection of taxes, the arguments we make about our priorities, our spending, around those moral problems and necessities that are most urgent.

It is easy to understand the disenchantment with a political framework in which the money of wealthy private interest seems to count so much more than our words and votes. But that is all the more reason to come together and shout. ‘That’, after all, Emmeline Pankhurst reminded American women in their struggle for the vote, ‘is the whole history of politics. You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under’.

And when we shout, as I hope the University community will do tomorrow, we should do so clearly, and forcefully make the argument, as many of my students did this morning, that education ought to be a right for all Californians. Yudof and Birgeneau have proven that they haven’t the spine to defend the University. They’ve chosen to frame the debate around changing ‘the way we do business’. They clearly need reminding that UC isn’t yet a private corporation...it is an investment in the human potential of our state, our humanity, and in the idea of equality. Our legislators have proven that they can’t be relied upon to do the job of their own accord.

We should, when we shout, remind our State Senators and Assemblypeople that there are real answers to UC’s dilemma. Most legislators would like to reinvest in public education, but are prevented from doing so by the state Republican Party. Republicans comprise 36% of the Senate and 35% of the Assembly, and yet wield, with their characteristic disregard for mutual responsibility and the welfare of those unable to write fat checks for their re-election campaigns, veto power over tax matters. Their mantra, as at the national level, is Power Without Responsibility.

And the California public has itself restricted the legislators’ abilities to negotiate property tax, fixed as it is by Proposition 13, at absurdly low rates (not only for those individuals who need and deserve a measure of protection, but for corporations which do not). Our system is, at present, absurd: 50% plus one voter can mandate spending on a project through propositions, but it takes a supermajority to raise the money for these projects. The consequences for all levels of education have been appalling, and we need to remind Californians that they are complicit in our present state of affairs.

And we should remind all parties—indeed, the whole state community—why education is so important, so central.

An inevitable part of being a periodic Innocent Abroad is explaining to people why the U.S. has no comprehensive national healthcare service, why social services are so sparse, why public transport is so bad, why we spend so much on military adventures which so clearly imperil us further. I invariably emerge with a bad case of what I’ll call Norway-envy (though you could really insert any social democratic country—I just happened to be talking to my Norwegian neighbour this morning). To the extent that I sometimes wonder what holds us together as a people. But I think that historically the answer has been education.

And I think that the ideal of education in the United States is the best anywhere in the world. True—it is poorly funded. True—often, especially for those who need it most, it doesn’t always work its social magic and lead to mobility. But at the basic level of ideas it is our best enduring contribution to the world. It is that you have one system of public schools, and that all students, from all socioeconomic backgrounds attend those schools. There is no exam to send students down different tracks at age-eleven, there is no specialisation in high school. Students have the option to go directly into a four-year degree (in California, at the California State University or University of California system—there are 33 campuses between them) or to attend the amazing community college system (a further 112 institutions).

The University of California, the best public education system in the world, takes students from an incredible range of backgrounds, and has historically been incredibly affordable not only compared to the top private universities, but also with other state systems. Moreover, part of its mission is to create social mobility; it is invested in the idea that an education can begin to liberate people from the confines of class, race, geography and misunderstanding. And once at university, students spend at least two years taking a wide range of subjects, and can continue to do so for all four years (For example, I took degrees in history and anthropology, but also took coursework in the departments of international studies, biological sciences, statistics, political science, geography, humanities, linguistics and university studies. Put another way, I took 45 courses in three years at UC, only 26 of which were in my majors.). I enjoyed my university experience in Britain, but it was stultifyingly narrow alongside the expected breadth of coursework at UC.

The emphasis at university has historically been on creating well-rounded, socially-minded, critical, active individuals who see themselves as part of a community rather than simply individuals. The trend, by breaking the link between society at large and the provision of public education (see the graduate tax), is currently toward producing an individual who is capable of performing a skill currently seen as necessary. If this trend persists, the liberating potential of education and its capacity to provide some social glue by keeping as many of us as possible, from the widest conceivable array of backgrounds, together as long as possible will be lost.

So this is my long answer to those who ask why, yet again, after so many setbacks, we should leave the classroom tomorrow to make our voices heard in Sproul Plaza, remind our families and friends about the centrality of public education, write to legislators and candidates, and in general, make all the noise we can to defend the education system that must be at the heart of any society with aspirations toward equality

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