Monday, March 27, 2006

Didn’t you get the memo?

Surprisingly often, I am asked to justify why the government should continue to pay for post-secondary education. Knowing that anyone who would ask such a question likely won’t be swayed by principled arguments, I usually cite evidence of the economic benefits that an educated workforce confers upon society as a whole, and stress that merit, not privilege, should dictate the composition of that workforce.

As of today, I will respond to the question differently. From this point on, I will insist that a well-funded system of higher education is a society’s only protection against being led to war by cabals of incompetent oligarchs who are so corrupted by their own power that they deserve to be physically ejected from office.

Why do I say this, and why now? Because of the release of this classified memo, which was obtained by the New York Times and which proves, as did the Downing Street memo before it, that the Bush and Blair administrations were determined to wage war on Iraq regardless of whether it possessed weapons of mass destruction. Worse, the memo confirms that the two leaders seriously discussed provoking Iraq into a military conflict that would follow a preset timetable, and which, they claimed, would carry no future risk of internecine struggle.

Is this the jaw-dropping scoop that it first appears to be? No, not really. Although the details contained in the memo are, arguably, new, the possibility that the war against Iraq was based on an agenda that had little to do with terrorism, Al-Qaeda, or democracy should have been obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of recent history. Which is to say, it should have been obvious to anyone who had taken the time to read a few newspaper articles, or to watch a single television documentary, during the twelve-year interval between the first and second Iraq wars.

Education policy, like geopolitics, is fundamentally market-driven, and as a result the current trend is geared toward encouraging post-secondary training in science and technology (China, remember?) at the expense of the humanities and social sciences. However, a strictly science-based education will do nothing to expand a student’s knowledge of history, politics, or philosophy, and it certainly won’t provide them with the critical skills that informed citizens need to evaluate media discourses or political rhetoric of any stripe. How marvellously convenient.

Nevertheless, the consequences of this approach to both education and the world are palpably real, and will, in time, be felt by every single one of us. Flawed energy policies, skyrocketing oil prices, historic levels of government debt, to say nothing of simmering ideological conflicts that will be with us for generations to come, are all actual or potential effects of the present situation. Even if we presume to have no motivation other than radical self-interest, we are plainly shooting ourselves in the foot.

However, if we assume that we are also guided by some shred of humanitarian principle, then the present situation becomes completely unconscionable. It has to be said: we are, all of us, complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of our fellow human beings. These human beings are American, British, Polish, Pakistani, Afghan, but of course they are disproportionately Iraqi, and they have died and are still dying because we who are not Iraqi have given our governments license to kill them. Honestly, how many memos does it fucking take?

So yes, governments should pay for the education of their citizens, if for no other reason than because they clearly cannot be trusted to think on our behalf. And if we believe that a few dollars in tax cuts are more important than this, then we will get exactly the governments we deserve.


xanthium said...

I've been thinking lately that higher education (especially at the phd level) takes many of the smarter people away from society and neutralizes them. Instead of making actual decisions or contributing analysis that will influence those decisions, lots of smart people are spending years in grad school; much of this time for many students is basically unproductive. Of course, grad school is perfect for some people, but if you look around the grad pub, most are probably in school more because they don't know what else to do than for a love of academics. I'm not saying that higher education doesn't have its place or that we shouldn't value intellectuals, but, having too many people languishing in grad programs isn't necessarily the best thing for society either. Already too many people actually want to be academics than the system can support, which allows them to treat you like crap and have you pay for it. At the same time, I know education is very important and undergrad is another story. So take whatever you like from this tangent.

Vila H. said...

No, I'm definitely not talking about grad school. I'm talking about community colleges, CEGEPs, and undergraduate level university, the institutions that are increasingly responsible for general education.

Your analysis of graduate school is pretty much spot on. But what's immeasurably strange is that these are the people we are relying on to teach the next generation of college students: i.e. your kids. You'd think this would be considered a worthwhile endeavour, but as you well know, it is not, which I don't think most people realize. They should.

BTW, if you ever get the chance, check out the PBS documentary Declining By Degrees. I'd tell you all about it, but that's what hyperlinks are for, aren't they?

Frank said...

It's sad that the people who are in power are the ones who WANT to be in power, not necessarily the one who SHOULD be in power. And they do what they have to to stay in power. Whether it is keeping money in their own pockets or keeping the masses undereducated.

It is crazy that I finished six years of a cheap state school with 25k US in debt. Things are good here and I hope they stay that way.

It is crazy that teaching is considered the left over profession. It is one of the lowest paid professions requiring a degree (btw, architecture is another). Although most people pursue these professions because they are passionate about them, some people with real teaching talent gravitate to other more lucrative professions.

xanthuim said...

My kids! Vila, you made my heart skip a beat! Although I am happy that we agree. If academia were about teaching, it wouldn't have bothered me so much...I'd have felt like I had done something worthwhile.

Something else bothers me, though (you know that there is always more than one thing). Employers act as if all higher education is worthless if you don't graduate knowing how to use Excel. They give lip service to the benefits of a broad liberal arts education, but really they want people to have gone to a kind of trade school in corporate bullshit and won't complain or question too much. Even with the sorry state of affairs, someone with a BA who did relatively well is probably over-educated for the mindless corporate office jobs that are available. If you have done too well, they won't hire you because they are afraid that you will be bored or will run off to something better (as I have been told). I have found that I am more likely to get a response to my resume if I leave off my GPA and any honors that I received.