To all who are interested in the future of public higher education, including the organizers and presenters of the Conference at Stony Brook University on March 18th:
Thank you so much for your hard work and vision in putting together this inspiring conference! What a great event. It was so encouraging to hear how others in Puerto Rico, New York City, Albany, and Berkeley are all fighting for public education, and it provided a strong rallying point for our own struggles at Stony Brook.
I would like to offer a few thoughts about a front in the struggle that is essential to understanding the current crisis and to making long-term progress in this fight to defend public education.
The whole structure of American education, K-12 and higher education both, lacks a strong theoretical basis for understanding the function of the system of education in and for society – of education as a public good. This lack is playing a huge, if subterranean, role in the current crisis, because without a strong, positive notion of what else it should be accomplishing in and for society, public education cannot long resist the strong forces that seek to turn it into simply a money-making administrative institution.
It is incredibly important that we fight back against trends that threaten what we have, and the conference gave us so many great ideas about how to do that. I want to suggest, in addition to the other suggestions that were made, that we will rally and fight back even more effectively if we work on articulating a positive, substantial alternative vision of education that we can fight to defend. This is worth investing time and intellectual energies in now, because it is part of what is causing this crisis, and is thus essential to long-term success in this fight.
There is a serious crisis not only in the funding of public education, but in the way we conceive of the good that education provides, and the two are inseparable. One major problem facing public education today is that, at least in this country, there has not been a serious theoretical overhaul of the philosophical goals of the national system of education since the early 20th Century, when it was conceived as a way of socializing individuals and building a strong working population. Higher education might have a humanistic legacy of commitment to intellectual freedom, but in our current system it lacks a strong theoretical basis to justify this tradition, so it is somewhat unsurprising (perhaps it was inevitable?) that it has become an extension of the K-12 ‘banking’ system that simply functions to prepare citizens for careers and socializes them into society.
If the educational system is vulnerable to being appropriated by “neoliberal” mechanisms and logic, this is not only a conspiracy to deprive us of everything sacred, but also a symptom of the fact that the American educational system provides no robust alternative logic of its own. We must raise a rallying cry to defend public education, and our defense will be greatly strengthened if we can simultaneously work on articulating a vision, an imagination for the goods and goals of public higher education within our society.
In the U.S., at least (and as trends in education continue to globalize, this is likely to be a widely shared problem) our philosophical resources for thinking about education in terms of the public good, including how this good relates to the aims of human life, the relation between collective and individual potential and development, etc. are sorely underdeveloped. Working on developing the intellectual resources we need to reframe and restructure our system of education to be more just and to promote other goods than simple economic growth is an urgent part of our current battle to promote and defend public education.
This conference inspires hope that we can work together now in an urgent quest to push forward this intellectual project. Those of you who are from other countries undoubtedly have significant resources from your home educational systems and experience that could provide us with ways of thinking about the goals and goods of education that have been lost here, and we would especially love to hear your thoughts.
Department of Philosophy
State University of New York at Stony Brook