The Quest for Education


Don't take my education!!

Don’t take my education!!

In the southern part of the state and mainly greater-Portland, events at the University of Southern Maine have highlighted for me (and maybe a small cadre of others) the challenges inherent in maintaining the status quo relative to higher education.

Is it possible and even feasible given the current landscape of diminishing public resources for taxpayers to be on the hook for what some consider an outdated education model? Along those same lines, is the current statewide higher education complex and namely, the University of Maine system, viable and more important, sustainable?

The Portland Phoenix has been providing a running commentary about events transpiring at the Portland campus of USM, including the article by Nick Schroeder two weeks ago, “Crisis at USM.” In a nutshell, Schroeder highlighted immediate cuts by USM President Theodora Kalikow targeting mainly liberal arts programs, along with 50 positions, including 15 faculty personnel.

A group of nearly 100 USM students (USM’s total undergraduate enrollment is 7,400) and faculty gathered a couple of Fridays ago to protest the cuts, outside the provost’s office in order to stave off the layoffs; they were also demanding reinstatement. Many of USM’s 310 faculty members joined a rally at a senate meeting later that day.

What I found interesting on Thursday night, listening to the community radio station, WMPG, which is housed on the USM campus and also serves as the university’s defacto radio arm, was a rant coming from Susan Feiner. Feiner is a professor of economics and women and gender studies at USM who certainly has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Without detailing what Feiner was prattling on about, my reaction was that it also smacked of an entitlement that is common to many in America—the notion that this is the way we’ve always done things and to hell with ever considering anything else. She also came across to me as being bitter. I get how she feels—it sucks getting kicked to the curb. This is also what most unionized manufacturing workers in the US, men and women who never had the opportunity to stay in school and acquire a Ph.D, let alone make the wages that a university professor makes, have experienced firsthand. Being downsized is what’s been happening to many for the past three decades in America’s great unwinding. Lastly, much of what she was framing seemed locked squarely within the binary construct I’ve written about here before.

Feiner also had a previous Op Ed published in the Portland Press Herald, which casts the professor in a better light than her radio tirade. I’m sure she’s angry and she has some points worth considering.

Lest I be accused of supporting President Kalikow, USM’s fearless leader, someone who apparently “bribed” students with chocolate bars for submitting good ideas (what is this, 1950?), these lifelong administrators and bureaucrats have plenty of blame to shoulder in the escalation of costs that have priced higher education beyond the reach of many. Since 1981, Kalikow has served in a series of positions ranging from assistant to the president (at Brown), college dean (University of Northern Colorado and Plymouth State) and prior to becoming president at USM, she served in that capacity at UMF for 15 years. That’s 33 years residing in what some critics might call education’s “ivory tower.”

I come at all this blather about education from a different perspective, framed by my own experience. I once worked for a man, the best boss I ever had—who used to call himself, “a recovering academic”—meaning he’d been damaged by higher education and was looking to get out from under the experience. He was an amazingly erudite and incisive human, not to mention, an important mentor to me. He had been a college dean and had little good to say about lifelong educators. My eyes were opened from that experience.

Perhaps there are other ways. I’ve highlighted them in posts I’ve written about taking responsibility for our own growth and education, like going the autodidact route.

I’ve been having a back and forth with friends about education. One of them has shared many of his insights gleaned from various places, including the books about deschooling from writers like John Taylor Gatto. From his site, I found this definition that is a great core starting point of what education should be, but most often, even at places like USM, is not:

“Close reading of tough-minded writing is still the best, cheapest, and quickest method known for learning to think for yourself. This was the most revolutionary pedagogy of all. Reading and rigorous discussion of that reading in a way that obliges you to formulate a position and support it against objections is an operational definition of education in its most fundamental civilized sense.”

Other writers like Neil Postman, Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul have helped me think for myself. I’m grateful I discovered them and I find it interesting that none of them were a result of any formal education, including my own time at USM. Personally, I believe that without the ability to think for yourself, you end like all the other run-of-the-mill sheep, bleating the same old mantras, and holding unrealistic expectations.

I continue with my reading program begun 15 years ago of reading tough-minded writing, and some writing that’s not as dense. I’m getting better all the time at supporting my positions and recognizing that the mass culture is moving in a direction opposite mine. Interestingly, the masses don’t read and don’t think, not even most of those students arguing for preserving an outdated model of education.

2 thoughts on “The Quest for Education

  1. The traditional European university rarely had any more non-teaching staff than was required to collect fees from students (the bursar). Those who came to learn found their own apartments, food and books. Teaching faculty were paid from the fees the students paid, rarely very much, but often had lodging provided by the university. The faculty president or dean was usually the poor SOB who got voted into the job by his peers, and he got a stipend for it on top of his teaching stipend, but never enough to compensate for the additional work and headache of the job. The students learned, meanwhile, by “close reading of tough-minded writing.”

    Realistically, students were poor. Who could pay for the administrative overhead? Only a system like ours with dormitories and cafeterias and layers of admnistrators, all paid for by the government. And the government only pays for what serves its ends.

    Our American schools are based on a Prussian model, with layers of “research” faculty. Just like the incredible bloat of our government school systems, these layers have nothing to do with learning, but with eyes watching each other to keep each other in line. Learning is always subservient to a desired social/political outcome in such a system, and our administrators are just part of the puppetry involved in producing well-trained (not educated, but conditioned and trained) students.

    The great naturalist, Loren Eiseley, wrote in the dreamscape All The Strange Hours:

    “The capitalists beat men into line. Okay? The communists beat men into line. Right again?”

    “I reckon,” I ventured, more to fill in the silence growing around us than because I understood.

    He pointed gently at my swollen face. “Men beat men, that’s all. That’s all there is. Remember it, kid. Take care of yourself.”

    Eiseley was a teenager riding the rails in the depression when he learned this lesson. The story returns decades later in Eiseley’s story when he was the department head or dean of his college (regrets, can’t remember), and the only way he can understand the way the academics are fighting is by that lesson: men beat men.

    Kalikow is just playing the game, beating on who she can to keep her place on the train.

    • Thanks for providing a great history of how we got to our current education mess, LP; it’s a history more should be aware of.

      There are a couple of elements I find really interesting as part of the unfolding story at USM; 1) if the protests involve 100 students that means there are another 7,300 undergraduates who aren’t protesting—what’s their opinion about the cuts? Do they even care? 2) costs continue escalating thanks to policies pushed forward by the likes of Kalikow and other administrators, where does it all end?

      We’ve already priced most students out of the market, yet they keep being pushed into a system that’s unsustainable and isn’t preparing them for the world that exists—there are alternatives, but most students in public high schools are not being encouraged to seek them out—it’s the same old same old no different than when we were in school, 30 years ago.

      Let me end my comment by saying that most of the “reforms” in education involve digitizing the Prussian model, so maybe we eventually lose the bricks and mortar, but we’re still left with educations curriculums lacking the rigor inherent in a “close reading of tough-minded writing.”

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