Higher Education, Public Policy, and Moral Hypocrisy

I’ve been concerned with way in which we deploy moral narratives–that are often very privately constructed–to validate our public identities. This post is part of that.

I teach at one of 14 Pennsylvania State System schools–not Penn State or a satellite, but a series of schools that were collected under one state agency in the 1970s, now called PASSHE. Our new Governor, Tom Corbett, has announced a new budget that cuts state appropriations to all higher education in Pennsylvania by 50%. Penn State President Spanier says that this may force the closure of some of its satellite campuses. This is drastic, of course–and Penn State only gets about 8% of it’s budget from the state.

The State System, by contrast, receives about 1/3 of its budget from the State. If the cuts stay at this level, they will inflict about a $22,000,000 loss out of Slippery Rock’s operating budget of $103,000,000–almost 20%. (You can see my school’s numbers laid out here as a PowerPoint under “Budget 2011-2012.”) To make this up, PASSHE’s Board of Governors would have to increase tuition by about 33%, which will never–and should never–happen (it would not likely approve an increase of more than 5-10%).

It’s an astonishing proposal. It threatens the very notion of a “public” education, if by “public” we mean accessible, not just “with some public funds.” Joe Paterno’s son has in fact argued that all of Penn State’s funding should be allotted to the State System to preserve just this principle.

The cuts, however, aren’t a surprise; my school actually had to cut close to 10 million out of its budget last year, which among other effects saw the reduction of our College Writing course requirement from two terms to one. That will hurt our students. Business leaders actually like employees who can write. The size of the new cuts are unexpected, however. Our governor’s desire to excise the future of a generation of students–it makes one cry to know what his cuts will mean at the elementary and secondary educational levels–is very painful.

Aside from at state government, the other place towards which my fury has been directed is its origin: the mortgage crisis that started on Wall Street in 2007-08. The initial accusations about its causes were something along the lines of “well, people should read their mortgage documents.” This was defensive politics at the time, and in fact, the January 2011 Crisis Commission report puts the blame on much bigger forces at stake. But whatever it was, my students and their families had no play in these forces. They never signed bad mortgage documents. Yet they, because “the captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question,” as the report says, they will now need to take out even more loans–no doubt, financed by those same banks, guaranteed by the government. And I–financially paranoid about debt–never signed a bad mortgage, but now my job is at risk. And worse off are the poor, the infirm, and the ill, who’ve done nothing wrong, are now seeing cuts to basic social and health services they have relied upon to, simply, live. The only people who could praise this kind of boom-bust cycle are people too rich to be affected by it. And this defines a morally bankrupt paternalism which Americans, if we remember our history, should revile.

Capitalism is, of course, also part of our history. We need companies; they employ us, and we invest in them to retire. And companies, for better and worse, use: they use raw materials, money, and people, for the sole goal of earning more money. They are neither good nor bad; that’s just what they are. (If we do want to claim they are people, a debate I won’t enter here, we have the odd responsibility of attributing to them an essential morality, which is not to my mind, at least, sensible.) So, long ago we decided–after the murders of the Homestead Strike, the agonizing images of women falling 9 stories in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and the trauma of the Depression, that the human cost of this exploitation violated the respect for individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which U.S. culture professes to hold dear.

Yet, even though it conflicts with these values, we want. Our desires mate public policy with capitalism to spawn a myriad of bastard delusions and corruptions. The first is that one doesn’t need to be rich to allow, to vote for, exploitation; one just needs to fantasize about it. We hope to rise above it, though social mobility in the U.S. is in fact quite limited (see Dan Ariely’s report here as a .pdf). Another is that we vilify the victims of state cuts because we need to claim the moral high ground to justify harm to others (in war, in love, in business, and in education–Stewart’s video clips demonstrate the craven hypocrisy of those who pretzel logic to conform to publicly acceptable moral codes). As Robin Muncy says of the capitalists in the Gilded Age,

a lot of industrialists saw themselves as fairly benevolent, as providing jobs, as providing the means of survival to hundreds and sometimes thousands of workers. And if workers complained about their wages, complained about their hours or the conditions under which they worked, they were biting the hand that fed them.

Still today, as Stewart’s clips also illustrate, the narrative our culture tells itself is that even the most demeaning, low-wage, exploitive jobs demonstrate the valuable generosity of the rich. And perhaps the most seductive of these bastard fantasies is that we come to see our employees, or our teachers, or our students, as children. They are not–no more than our soldiers. When public policy and capitalism marry, the union can create a kind of painful paternalism that is, unfortunately, another old U.S. story.

One must ask, then: does the state see learning, such as what was two terms of College Writing, as “rebellious literacy“? Why do they want to suppress critical thinking? The right-wing narrative is that government programs debilitate the citizenry. Actually, cutting literacy skills debilitates us. And how much more so, then, does corporate power infantilize us, more dominant now than governmental power! Disney is marketing in maternity wards (“creating magical moments right from the start“)! In the light of their desire for non-tax funding sources, our public servants become cowed children who don’t fight for their constituents and then justify their cravenness with the rhetoric of “job creation,” as if that were the prime goal of a publicly-traded company. My students need jobs. And the job of a professor is to help them to work and live–to teach them the literacy, critical thinking, and language skills to get jobs and to live satisfying lives without sabotaging this gain by breaking their financial futures.

Given the origins of the crisis, and the refusal by the “captains of finance and public stewards” in our state government to alleviate the problem by any other method than by cutting medical care, mental health care, environmental protection during a natural gas drilling boom, and education, what other conclusion can one reach but that this is their infantile voice: “Thank you; please, sir, will you take some more?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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