Dr. David Mazel
Adams State College
Hey, students, what are you doing here?
Maybe you’re in college to get a higher-paying job so you can better care for yourself and your family.
Maybe you want a liberal arts education — you want the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to live the fullest life you can and best exercise your rights of citizenship in a liberal democracy.
Maybe you care deeply about social justice and want to empower yourself to make the world a better place.
Maybe you just love learning for its own sake.
These are all good reasons to go to college.* At least I think so, and I’d like to think our leaders think so as well. But certain comments made by President Barack Obama in his recent State of the Union Address make me wonder.
Consider these excerpts from Obama’s speech, from the part where he frames higher education policy in terms of “winning the future”:
“We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world…. [I]f we want to win the future, if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids…. And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”
Just so we’re clear about what the president is saying, let me quote him further: “To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American.”
Did you catch that? The reason “higher education must be within the reach of every American” is so that the nation can “compete.” It’s so we can “succeed,” so we can “win” — not because it’s the “right thing to do.”
To hear the president tell it, the problem is not that injustice remains a problem in our nation and our world. It’s not that we have a duty to redress injustice, and that higher education has a role in doing so. No, the problem is that someday our nation might not be Number One. We might someday be more or less like Germany or Great Britain or any other privileged Western democracy.
Now, I understand that Obama is a politician (FWIW, one I voted for, and, considering the ludicrous alternative, one I’m still glad I voted for). And I understand that like any effective politician he plays to his audience. I understand that his rhetoric here is designed to sell the public on the benefits of government support for higher education by appealing to the public’s patriotism.
Call it the Team America strategy: “American higher ed — f*ck yeah!”
Obama is hardly the first president to try to arouse an apathetic American populace using the language of the high school pep rally and the corporate sales meeting. Maybe I’m just a sucker for lofty rhetoric, but I’d rather listen to a prophet than a cheerleader. When I tune in to a State of the Union Address, I want to hear the language of justice and redemption, something along the lines of an Isaiah or a Martin Luther King, not the kind of inanities one would expect from a Bear Bryant or Donald Trump.
I’d rather have leaders who reassure me at least occasionally that their eyes are on the prize. Who cares which nation is Number One, as long as justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream?
* N.B. for faculty and administrators: Even though the love of learning, the liberal dispositions of citizenship, and the thirst for social justice might well be the most important outcomes of higher education, they can’t be boiled down to “SLOs” measurable by “assessment instruments” keyed to standardized “metrics” and other tools of the assessmentariat. Just sayin’.