An Open Letter to All Who are Interested in the Future of Public Higher Education

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.

Most sincerely,

Rachel Tillman
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Philosophy
State University of New York at Stony Brook

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2 Responses to An Open Letter to All Who are Interested in the Future of Public Higher Education

  1. Al Herrera-Alcazar says:

    Thank you, Rachel, for the encouraging words and for continuing the
    conversation. And thank you all for contributing to the success of the
    conference. However, as has been noted, we are at an inflection point
    and our struggle does not end with the conference. To facilitate
    dialogue, I’m passing along Ralph Nader’s talk from Tuesday night titled:
    “Education: The Big Picture and Small Picture”

    And though I’ve only recently added these books to my ‘to read’ list,
    they’re certainly on point: Stanley Aronowitz’s ‘Against Schooling:
    For an Education that Matters,’ and ‘The Knowledge Factory:
    Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher

    This struggle will not be won with any single battle, but it’s
    conversations like these (and people like you!), that will shape a
    future of education we can all be proud of.

    Peace and solidarity.


  2. crystalcook says:

    I was a presenter during the Defining the Future of Higher Education Conference. I want to again thank the kinds folks that invited me to participate and the organizers.

    I just watched Nader’s presentation. I don’t think he and Rachel Tillman are saying different things. I think he is laying out some of specific tenets of her broader call.

    From his speech at Stony Brook I made note of the educational solutions Nader put forth as potential new models of education:

    A focus on citizenship skills/practical citizen experience
    A focus on ethics

    These seemed to be the two overarching themes of where education may play a role in change for a host of other issues from student debt to health care to contracts, etc. Nader cites these two focuses as the pillars for education in a healthy democracy.

    Nader also advised people (by which he, in this speech, means “Americans”), to get involved civically, and he listed the places where they can do that. These places ran from neighborhood and community to region to state to nation to world.

    Here is where my thinking has, over the last two years, begun to change radically (for me), with respect to place, and, I will say a few reasons why I think what I have come up with is important.

    My civic-mindedness led me to a mostly (20-year at this point) career in education and social issues. I have worked at most of the levels that Nader names: locally, nationally, and even internationally. However, I want to put forth a caveat on my “local” work. Though at one time I worked in NYC, Los Angeles, and abroad, I did not commit long-term to those communities.

    My sense of self as an American and even my privilege as an American means that I am mobile. If I don’t like the situation where I am and I have the cash or contacts to go somewhere else, I can. This is a strength of being in the US—if I find the small town where I am from intolerant or I can’t find work where I am—I can leave. I am not tied to the land. I can even move to another country if I have the resources to.

    This is in direct contrast to students or people protesting or organizing in many other countries. Wherever they are is where they are. Leaving is not easy, and if they could, where would they go? Furthermore, there may be no cultural incentive to go. Family is not just their nuclear unit, but their extended family, or maybe even their town.

    Many students in higher education in other countries attend institutions of higher education in their own communities. In the US, this is often not the case. It is especially not the case for many working class students, because often no colleges or universities are located in their communities. Thus, students may work for gains for students on campus, and they may, for a while, go out into the “local” community to work while they are in college. However, four years later, often students are gone not only from the university, but also from the community that surrounds the university.

    Further, being mobile is an accepted facet of life for many Americans once they get into the larger world of work. We go where we find a job, and our “community” and our identity is tied in with that job, or with our nuclear family, because, really, we are not committed long-term to the place where we are; economics may encourage us to move. Our job may re-locate us, or, our place of business may leave the US entirely, leaving us to find work outside of our community.

    I came to Stony Brook as a Ph.D. student last August to begin to learn about the role of technology and education in communities in economic decline, like the urban Appalachian town I am originally from. However, in my time of reflection, I have learned that for me, the commitment I am looking to make is in the region with which I am most concerned.

    This is not an easy decision. I am doing this at the end of 20+ years of living outside the region of my birth. Along the way, I could have also chosen to commit long-term to any of the other places I lived, but I didn’t.

    The re-commitment to the region where I am from is also due to good fortune, in that I am able to pick up my graduate studies at Virginia Tech, and, through luck, my husband gets to re-start the land stewardship/farm project he began in North Carolina in the 1990s. Whereas his focus is on local food production and local manufacturing of products, mine is on local education and technologies to strengthen democracy and self-determination in local communities.

    Unlike previous decisions in our lives about place, this time my husband and I are talking about sticking with where we are moving for the long-term, for the long haul. Here are some reasons for this, for us:

    • Community is the #1 factor in democratic movements. Last fall I spent a lot of time reading through the academic literature on what makes people decide to participate in protests. I looked at MMI (mobile phone, mobile web, and internet) and its role in protests in S. Korea, Ukraine, and even in Iran. It was not MMI that brought people to protest; it was the fact that the people coming to protest had been encouraged to do so by a friend or a family member. MMI only facilitated easier and faster communication among close, long-term community members. Ralph Nader in his speech mentioned the protestors in Greensboro, NC at the lunch counter. Malcolm Gladwell did a great article on them and on that in the New Yorker (last fall) that focused on the necessity of the close relationship those young men had. They were close friends. They had built trust. They had common roots before they had an extraordinary place in history.
    • Rootlessness breeds disconnectedness from people and places. If I make no long-term stake in the people or place around me then the people around me have no reason to make a long-term stake in me. However, as human beings we are programmed for connection and affiliation. Thus, if I am rootless, I will be connected to the things that I can take with me that go with me anywhere: my phone, the web, my computer, chain stores, celebrities (pop culture), my car, my money, my brands, what’s on TV, etc. If I am lucky then I might be connected to an ideology or to ideals. However, with time, I have learned that for me an ideology and ideals only get me so far without rooting them in real people in real time or in a real place. It seems only to make most sense for that to be a long-term commitment.
    • Stuff. We (my husband and I) are tired of not having more control over where the stuff in our lives comes from and how it was made. In our society, it is difficult not to be a consumer, but we are trying to figure out how to personally be less destructive forces. We are starting with our immediate selves and our immediate environments: our food, our clothes, our sources of energy, the soil from which life comes, how we treat each other and the people around us. Again, we are very fortunate to be able to move to a place that allows us more control over the stuff of our lives. We want to depend less on far-away sources or someone else’s specialized know-how for our stuff. At the same time, we want to share our resources and our know-how with our community, over its many generations (those current and those future).

    Thus, there are many important reasons (community, close relationships, furthering democracy, creating connection with people and place rather than stuff or even noble ideas, our patterns as consumers of stuff) linked to why we feel the need to get really focused on the local in our lives.

    So, to both Rachel’s and Ralph’s points, what would an educational philosophy be if it focused on the ethics and the civic participation that Nader pointed out, but if much of the focus really were local? Not that foreign aid and foreign policy are not important. I am also not advocating isolationism. However, what if the main focus in education were the sustainability and resilience of the local (people and place)? How would that change education from K – higher ed? How would that change not only communities of learners, but also communities?

    Some people are doing some of this through place-based learning. I thought their principles were worth a look with respect to this conversation. Their focus is on place-based learning as a mean through which to teach stewardship of the environment, but I think that a lot of what is listed here also comes into play around civic participation, and, is worth considering or re-thinking with respect to higher ed.

    I look forward to more discussion, and, to being your colleague based out of the mid-South.
    –Crystal Allene Cook
    Doctoral Student, Science and Technology Studies
    What Do We Need to Know, discussion group: – !/home.php?sk=group_200116696678939&ap=1

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