One of my favorite blogs is On The Edge. Susan, who is the author, usually chooses the right stance over the popular one. Yesterday, she posted an article about Obama’s plan for higher education reform. It is essentially Race to the Top for universities, where federal funding will be tied to whether or not universities will be able to lower tuition. This means, of course, slashing pay for professors and the proliferation of online courses as a way to cut costs. The article paints a grim picture of universities ending up totally beholden to private interests. Susan ends her post with a chilling comment, “watch them try to do away with tenure on the college level.”
Teachers, whether in grade school or university, are the guardians of knowledge for the young. Oftentimes, they are the only pipeline youth have into the world of important ideas. The standardized testing craze in public schools has already been taking knowledge out of the hands of teachers and putting it into the hands of private testing companies, which are usually owned by even bigger corporations like News Corp. What this will amount to, once education deform has thoroughly ravaged public education, is a very narrow elite deciding what is important for people to know and what is not. This is the same story with the media, where a handful of corporations decide what gets aired and what remains invisible. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which by no means has been defeated, promises to be a major first step in allowing corporations say in what remains on the internet and what gets disappeared.
Taken together, public schools, the media and the internet pretty much account for all of the ways people interact with the wider world. Our entire matrix of knowledge is shaped by these things. Those whose only knowledge of the world is gleaned from their public school education are usually not informed at all, especially since the relevance of that education wanes as people get older. Those that bury their heads in the television for news usually come away with a shallow understanding of what is happening, leaving them with little but flimsy talking points. The internet might be the best place of all for news, but it is only useful if the person doing the surfing is able to discern the small amount of good information from the vast amount of garbage. Although all of these things are either under attack or totally beholden to corporate interests, there was always a silver lining in the background: the college professor.
Even if every other source of knowledge has been bastardized by corporate interests, college professors hold out the hope of intellectual integrity. This does not mean that every professor is a bastion of reliability. Anyone who has seen the movie Inside Job knows that many professors are for sale and will hide behind the supposed intellectual rigor of their work in order to push a corporate agenda. Yet, on the whole, college professors at least have a pretense to rigor and a desire to help their fields of study evolve through solid research and analysis. Through journal articles and popular books, professors filter their findings down to the population at large. History professors provide a public service by researching recent history, interpreting their findings and shedding light on the politics of today. It is tenure that gives professors the freedom to value truth over fads. Unlike public school teachers, professors are not so pliable to outside interests, especially the interests of the rich and powerful. In certain cases, professors are able to speak truth to power in a way few others can.
Doing away with tenure for college professors will mean the total commodification of knowledge. There will be literally no way the average person can interact with the world around them without it being filtered through a corporate reality first. Hopefully, college professors across the country can overcome their traditional lack of stomach for pitched political battle and defend what promises to be the final frontier of free expression and the pursuit of truth.
Maybe they can start by becoming more involved in the debate over education reform. The ones not for sale need to shout louder and farther than the economists and education researchers who have whored themselves out to the corporate elite a long time ago.