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Will a Culture of Entitlement Bankrupt Higher Education?
Chronicle of Higher Education of 10/18/09
By Hamid Shirvani
In the wake of our nation’s economic crisis, previous levels of government support for colleges and universities can no longer be maintained—regardless of how much we in higher education may wish otherwise. States are appropriating less money to higher education not because legislators and the people whom they represent value us less, but because they can afford less. Practical realities will drive what is possible for colleges and universities in the coming years.
The economy has suffered changes so deep and fundamental that institutions cannot just hunker down to weather the storm. The time has come for creative reconstruction. We must summon the courage and will to re-engineer education in ways founded on shared responsibility, demanding hard work and a willingness on the part of everyone involved to let go of “the way it’s always been.”
Much has been written in recent months comparing the problems of higher education with those of the auto industry, and many of the comparisons are apt. Resistance to change in academe has helped create inflexible, unsustainable organizations, just as automobile manufacturers wedded to gas-guzzling models have been unprepared for the demand for smaller, more eco-friendly cars.
Yet American auto manufacturers are no more alone in creating their disastrous present than colleges are in attempting to stare down the budget cuts and dwindling revenues they now face. In both instances, inflated consumer demand has created an expectation of elements once considered “extras”: MP3 players and GPS navigation systems in new cars, country-club-quality recreational facilities and multitudes of majors and minors, however narrow, at colleges. People feel entitled to things that were once considered luxuries. And that sense of entitlement—among students, parents, faculty members, and administrators—has driven expansion in higher education beyond what is reasonable or necessary.
Coupled with such growing demands has come an expectation that, as the costs of education rise, government should absorb them. That is no longer possible or desirable. We are moving into an era in which all participants must help bear the costs, direct and indirect, of the privilege of higher education.
As soon as the word “privilege” enters the conversation, people bring up the subject of access, with the implication that if something is a privilege, only privileged people will enjoy it. But in America, access to higher education is unparalleled. No other country has so many fully accredited colleges or has provided such widespread access to student financial aid.
Instead, we should view the privilege of a higher education much as we did the privileges that we enjoyed as children. We knew we couldn’t get ice cream if we didn’t help wash the dishes—we worked for the privileges that we enjoyed, and we shared in the responsibility of earning them. Those special activities were available to us, but we did not enjoy them as a “right.” We were expected to contribute.
We can only hope that today’s harsh economic realities have finally broken the stranglehold of the sense of entitlement about higher education and brought people back down to earth. The reality is that higher education is expensive, and students and their families will be asked to pay an ever-larger share of the costs. Although annual increases in tuition have diminished recently, tuition is still rising faster than inflation.
But the issues are complex and, again, the notion of shared responsibility comes sharply into focus. While students and their families will have to pay more, administrators and faculty members must also work together to offer affordable, effectively delivered educational products and services. With budgets being cut and staff members being laid off or facing a reduced number of workdays, employees in higher education must become more productive.
Cutting costs is not enough. We need to break down expectations based on entitlement and focus on educational productivity and outcomes. Institutions should review redundancies, rethink staffing models, and streamline business practices. Productivity measures should be applied in all areas. In the same way that secondary schools are being challenged to consider longer school days and an extended academic year, we in higher education need to revisit basic assumptions about how we deliver higher education to students. We should not be tied to any one model or structure.
For example, we should re-evaluate the notion that large classes are inherently pedagogically unsound. What both students and faculty members tend to prefer—small classes—is not the only educationally effective approach. Although no one would advocate for large classes in every discipline or instance, we should review what we do in light of new financial contingencies, while keeping an eye on what students learn.
Similarly, at many institutions, it may make more sense for professors to teach more and do less governance and committee work. Faculty members must make education more productive, even if it means sacrificing work in other areas, which, while important, are not central to our primary educational mission.
Colleges and universities should focus more on degree completion, not just on how many students enroll. That does not mean “teaching to the test,” but rather paying more attention to student success and seeking more and better ways that faculty members can support and guide students inside and outside the classroom.
Indeed, in light of the growing demand for a better-prepared work force, we need to revisit undergraduate education as a whole. We should re-examine the teacher/scholar model, for instance. Is it appropriate for every institution? Does that model really produce what it is supposed to: thinkers and makers, learned and professionally skilled graduates?
In addition, we should re-evaluate the relationship and the balance between graduate and undergraduate education. It is too easy to overlook the ever-increasing specialization of graduate programs, in which professors happily replicate students in their own, often narrow, interests, focusing on limited knowledge. Particularly in the graduate arena, not every program is sacred.
We in higher education must determine what we do best and what is reasonable and possible. We should separate legitimate aspirations and a drive toward excellence from the costly and often fruitless pursuit of higher status—which may feed egos but is beyond the reasonable prospects of many institutions. Not every college can be on a top-20 list. Not every college or university can be a Research I institution. Not every regional institution should aspire to national status.
In an era when pragmatism must prevail, those of us in higher education must come to grips with the idea that we can opt out of college rankings and national recognition without doing damage to the fundamental value of the education that we offer to the students whom we serve.
Government, of course, needs to be a part of this process, and taxpayers must be reminded of their shared responsibility for public education. But the only way that we can persuade them to invest in higher education is to demonstrate our commitment to efficiency, openness, and accountability.
Every constituency involved in our educational enterprise bears responsibility for earning the privileges that access to higher education in this country offers. For students, that means the hard work of studying to be prepared for college. For faculty members, that means the hard work of teaching more to enjoy the benefits of the academic life. For administrators, that means the hard work of reconsidering our educational models and structures in order to enjoy the privileges of being engaged in our noble profession.
In an era of less government support and fewer family resources, colleges will emerge stronger and more nimble—ready to provide an accessible and excellent education to those who are prepared to take advantage of that privilege—only if we all embrace the notion of true transformation. Shared responsibility means that we must take a harder look at what education needs to accomplish for society as a whole and then rise above our own special interests for the greater good.
Hamid Shirvani is president of California State University-Stanislaus.
Up to now, most of the monologue I’ve seen about translocal literature is restricted to the relationship between the author and his (yes, his) narrative text: observations of a street scene in Prague by a long-time former resident (the author)—the locality itself becoming protagonist to the poem. This either reduces the self-sufficiency of a piece alone on the page—i.e. it is the author’s biography that makes a piece translocal or not—or it limits it to narrative surveillance. Certainly not all poetry is traceable to a particular mise en scéne, nor is all prose a story. The very pivot of translocality would indicate that there are many, many kinds of localities, and we need not focus solely on where our (or the author’s) feet are standing.
How do they invite (or force) interdependence between a string of vocabularies from two (or more) languages within a single stanza? How is the distance in the line of poetry crossed in a translocal sensibility? How is this distance ever crossed?
So, a health care story for you.
Last week I was having real difficulty in breathing (because of the summer pollution and pollen). I had a little bit of asthma as a kid and here in the summers sometimes I need very rarely to take an inhaler... maybe 4 or 5 times for the entire summer.
Anyway, I called my doctor on a Thursday afternoon and found out that he was out that day but could see me first thing in the morning. Not bad, but I knew I would not be able to sleep that night and had a class at 9 on Friday.
So I called the "emergency" docs (SOS Medicine). I talked to a first response doctor on the phone, told him the problems and what I normally do. He said that sounded correct and would send a doctor to my house. The doctor arrived 30 minutes later, did an "over the top" examine and wrote me the prescription for the inhaler.
I went downstairs to the drug store and bought it.
So the cost?
Emergency house call: out of pocket 40 Euros ( 23 will be refunded by my French health care and the rest by our "private" insurance).
Medication: 5 Euros, fully covered. Out of pocket: zero.
My cost for French health coverage: about 400 Euros per Year.
Our cost for the "private" insurance: zero, part of Laura's job (if not they cost about 20 Euros a month)
I had surgery for a hernia in December.
Five doctor visits, hospital, anesthesia, recovery, meds, and post op.
Total cost : Zero!
Having a baby:
Doctor visit (mandatory!) once a month
5 days post-birth hospital stay (private room)
In home check-ups (3) to make sure mom and baby are well
Lots of pre and post birth meds
Total cost : Zero. In fact, you get about 600 euros when you are confirmed to be pregnant and then receive about 300 euros per month after the birth.
There are some things specific to talk about with your students and others. Hope that helps!
This book comes at readers from all angles, literally, with its energetic mix of innovative narrative, informed cultural criticism, and good old-fashioned character development about life among the drinking classes. Hansen’s absolutely contemporary questioning of individual identity spins out through a story about some ordinary and ornery people whose mundane lives are paradoxically compelling and often shocking. The characters are always thinking even if they don’t think they are, and the result is a novel in which boredom, pain, humor, and the unexpected swoop through the rubble of what everybody seems most sure about. In a way that keeps readers guessing right to the final word, ....and Beefheart saved Craig shows how philosophy and getting through the day are much more tangled up than so-called common sense often suggests.
What does it mean to be distracted? What does it mean to digress?
Looking around, it's hard not to conclude that distraction is a bad thing. Perhaps more than ever, the supposedly civilized human mind exists in a constant state of distraction. It's practically impossible to focus on anything. At any given moment, there's something else waiting to grab your attention. It's not just a matter of entertainment, a question of what to do with free time, whether to watch movies, exercise, go out for dinner or drinks, take drugs, develop a hobby. It's that focus has become increasingly impossible even in the work one wants to do. We never seem allowed more than a little time to concentrate on anything. Now that jobs have become so unstable, how much more time do people spend thinking about what their next job will be? It's hard to focus today on the job you were hired for when you know you may need another tomorrow. Besides, it's hard to focus on things one needs to do on a job when those things always change too; here's the new computer system, the new rules and regulations, the new competition. And maybe we shouldn't even speak about those whose world is not so simply divided into jobs and entertainment. What can we say about those who think of their real work as something not a job, that can't be defined by wages and possibility for advancement, but by the chance for creation? What can we say about those who see entertainment, however entertaining at times, as simply a displacement of a more significant human value, which is play? How does one play anymore, if one means by play the chance to participate in games that might change who you and others are, whereas entertainment is simply the things you do in the time you have off from the work you don't want to do? How easy it is to be distracted from that creative work that is perhaps the same as creative play. You want to create, but your bank book is empty, or you have to go to dinner with someone you don't like. So creation will have to wait.
Looking around, it's hard not to conclude that distraction is a good thing. Perhaps more than ever, the human mind is constantly in a state of tunnel vision. I must organize my present, future, past. I must have goals I can clearly express to others. Anything that doesn’t fit the pattern, that can't be immediately centered around the goal at hand, must be rejected, denied, eliminated. If the need to function increasingly takes up all human time, then anything that lies outside that functionality gets perceived as being in the way. In such a situation, distraction becomes a necessary reminder that human life is about more than functioning. Distraction points out how much lies beyond the state of tunnel vision. Distraction reminds us that the things we're trying to forget might be the most interesting of all, it reminds us that some things can never be organized or unified in the name of the goal. Here I was trying to develop a new credit card, but somehow I find myself listening to music. Distraction reminds us that the urge to unify, to control the world in the name of what we intend, can never be the whole story, that it’s crucial to have one's mind wander, to recognize there are things one does not know, to understand that perhaps we are most alive when we are discovering, not when we are controlling.
Some thinkers will have it that all these distractions are leading to a world where people never take any significant action, because they are buffeted relentlessly by this and that. To these thinkers, human beings are becoming dangerously fragmented. These thinkers want a way to avoid fragmentation, so people can be returned to feelings of unity.
To other thinkers, the attempt to impose unity, to see everything in terms of the tunnel vision of the goal, has made the world unlivable. To these people, fragmentation is the savior of a world that has become too controlled. They want fragmentation to break down the illusion of unity.
It's hard not to see that both types of thinkers have a point. But I can't help believing that both of them also miss the point. Because the question seems like it can't be whether one is pro-unity or pro-fragment. Rather, the question seems when does unity help us, when does fragmentation help us? And the question seems also, isn't it true we will always have unity sometimes when it doesn't help, always have fragmentation sometimes when it doesn't help?
One can hardly be in favor of a world, for instance, in which someone's mind is bouncing from one thing to another so fast that they can't think, work, love, even tie their shoes. Similarly, one doesn't want to live in a world where people are so obsessed with their goals that they kill everything that doesn't fit the picture.
Perhaps we've all known people who digress because they have no idea what they're saying. Such people don't even know they don't know what they're saying; people who knew they didn't know what they were saying might be interesting to hear, because one could hear them discover what they're saying. But people who don't know what they're saying, and don't know they don't know it, are at best boring, and at worst deadly.
But perhaps we've also known people who seem so certain about what they're saying that they're not believable for an instant. Such people don't digress; they know, apparently, everything already, and all that remains is to tell us about it. But their certainty makes them blind, for whenever they come across something that doesn't fit with what they're sure they know, they can't see it. People who think they know everything, and who ignore anything that differs from what they know, are at best boring, and at worst deadly.
People who don't know they don't know what they're saying, and people who think they know everything they're saying, turn out often to be the same people.
What most interests me, here, is the idea of conscious digression. Conscious digression prevents any simple unity between things. It doesn't try to make the world add up to a new tunnel vision. But it is equally not the chaotic words of people who can’t help anyone because they're so busy being distracted they don't even know when someone is listening. Conscious digression suggests there are times when certain things might almost be unified, that, if no exact unity exists, similarities do, and those similarities matter. But it also suggests that one must not make too much of similarity; one must remember to digress precisely at that moment when it would be a mistake to tie up all loose ends.
A narrative of conscious digression would be one in which there is not one story but many, but those stories would be related. But it would also be a narrative in which the moment one tried to say it all added up, that everything was similarly headed in the same direction, one would find that the pieces didn’t fit, that some things could not be made to belong. Even when things did belong, they would not belong in order to tell one story with one meaning, but to say that many stories together might have many meanings. There might even be a central story, but it would not be the only story, nor would it be one that could exist without the others. And it would not be a story easily made complete.
Now that I'm thinking about all this, it reminds me of something else...
But I digress.