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Waging War on Higher Education

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Higher education is currently under assault in America. Even in the recent past you could count on bi-partisan support of systems of higher education that have long been considered the foundation of American prosperity. We used to think that a robust system of public education was the wellspring of social innovation and scientific invention.

Recent debate in the public sphere, however, has questioned these previously taken for granted assumptions about higher education in America. Indeed, powerful politicians and influential pundits are making suggestions that could undermine higher education, especially public higher education, for years to come.

Consider the views of presumptive GOP presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney. Given his vantage as one of the super-rich, Mr. Romney seems to be ignorant of the financial hurdles that the vast majority of college and university students must negotiate to get a decent education. Until recently he, like the conservative base of the GOP, supported doubling the interest rates on student loans. As for the loans themselves: no problem.

In an unguarded, unscripted moment he told one student that no one was going to just give her money she needed. What she needed to do was take advantage of the competitive market and shop around for the best loan rate. In response to another such question, he advised students to find a less expensive college, borrow money from their parents, or start a business.

This kind of Scrooge-like advice is, to put it simply, insulting to the families of the hard-working students that I teach. What's more, these insensitive comments stigmatize public university students. At my university, the students usually don't come from wealthy households in which floating the kids a college or business loan is "no problem." Many of my students work two or sometimes three jobs to support themselves as they take a full load of courses. Because of their financial circumstances, which are, in large measure, shaped by their social class position, they are forced to incur a mounting load of debt from banks interested less in the prospect of their professional future and more in the return on a financial investment. Such an environment is undermining American social mobility and making us even more cynical of rags to riches myths.

In Mr. Romney's view, society -- which he often conflates with government -- should not make investments in our young people. Young people, Mr. Romney's unguarded comments seem to suggest, should be on their own. Such thinking is a fundamental tenant of GOP and Tea Party orthodoxy.

Mr. Romney's orientation has not only flooded the discourse of Talk Radio, but has even seeped into the pages of The New York Times. In his April 28 "Sunday Review" column, "The Imperiled Promise of College," NYT columnist Frank Bruni ponders the "usefulness" of undergraduate education. Citing Associated Press data of 2011, he laments the "fact" that

53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed, or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren't necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer's cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

Beyond the demonstration of his ignorance of things philosophical or anthropological, Mr. Bruni's somewhat sneering attitude toward anthropology, philosophy, zoology, art history and all of the humanities, unveils an anti-intellectual utilitarianism that is far more sinister than Mr. Romney's awkward insensitivity to economic struggle.

Mr. Bruni seems to suggest that you should go to college to acquire job skills that will give you a competitive edge in an increasingly skill-focused job market. In short, he is suggesting that we use student aid, if such a thing would exist in a Romney Administration, to push students toward math and science education. There's nothing wrong with that idea. Math and science students deserve our support. But does that mean that we should abandon the study of philosophy, the history of art, or the analysis of society and culture?

Is public higher education a place for skill acquisition or is it space for teaching young people how to think? If we move toward the former -- following the short-sighted lead of politicians like Rick Scott or Mitt Romney or perhaps the ideas of pundits like Frank Bruni -- we will produce a highly skilled population of workers who, like automatons, will follow a complex set of instructions, but won't know how to connect those instructions to a broader technological or social context. By contrast, if we train young people in creative thinking, which, by the way, is not limited to humanities and social sciences, we will produce educated citizens who will know how to think, innovate and invent. Without such a fundamental long-term investment, our anachronistic and unimaginative economy will continue to fade away, which means there will be few, if any jobs or anyone.