Freethinkers Fighting for Fair Play: The True Goal of Higher Education

Do you have what it takes to fight for your rights?  (Movie poster from "Flash of Genius")
Do you have what it takes to fight for your rights, and to fight for what’s right? (Movie poster from “Flash of Genius”)

W.J. Astore

A New York Times editorial back in February caught two trends in higher education today: the proliferation of underpaid adjunct professors as well as the expansion of administrative positions within America’s colleges and universities.  These trends are unsurprising.  America’s colleges and universities are becoming more and more like businesses every day, with a small legion of administrators being hired in fields like assessment, retention, recruitment, student affairs, workforce development, and the like.  Adjunct faculty, meanwhile, are treated as interchangeable providers of ephemeral product, to be hired and dismissed at the whim of administrators.

As faculty increasingly inhabit lower niches within higher ed, students’ aspirations are increasingly shaped by the pursuit of high salaries.  How else to obtain “aspirational products” such as the latest Kate Spade handbag, the latest Apple iPhone, perhaps a BMW or even an Ivy League degree if you’re truly seeking to flaunt “success.”  An inherent contradiction in higher ed today is the way colleges and universities flaunt their success in helping graduates to get high-paying jobs, even as these same colleges and universities underpay adjunct professors.  Contradiction – what contradiction?

Administrative bloat and faculty contingency (“contingency” as in no job security for adjuncts, therefore little in the way of academic freedom, i.e. speak your mind, lose your job) are contributing factors in the loss of purpose within higher ed.  After all, if not for higher salaries or aspirational credentials, what is the higher purpose to higher ed?

Critical thinking should be one such higher purpose.  Alerting students to societal inequities – maybe at their very own colleges, perhaps even staring back at them in their dormitory room mirrors – is a start.  Remediating these inequities should be a goal.

Education, after all, should wake us up.  It should disturb us.  It should also strengthen our democracy.  It should reinforce our freedoms as defined in the Constitution.  It should counter prevailing anti-democratic trends toward plutocracy and authoritarianism within American society and government.

Too many students today are apathetic because they see little connection between their “higher” education and living a life that is fulfilling in wider settings.  They lack a compelling vision of what education is all about.  It doesn’t help when colleges and universities focus on making the educational money train run on time with little thought given to the passengers on board and their ultimate destination.

So, what should be the ultimate destination?  A questing and questioning mind.  Critical and creative thinking.  Curiosity about the world.  At the same time, students need to think and act to preserve what’s best about our world: our freedoms.  Fairness.  Fighters for fair play: that’s what we need more of in America.

Let me give you an example.  One of my favorite scenes in any movie comes in “Flash of Genius” (2008).  It’s about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper.  His idea was stolen from him by the Ford Motor Co., and he takes them to court (true story).  When he’s asked why he’s fighting so desperately hard against Ford, why he’s risking everything, he replies: That idea was my Mona Lisa.

That line has always stayed with me.  Not only because it highlights the fact that technology is an act of creation, a work of art (or artifice).  But also because it highlights the need to be a fighter, the need to fight for what’s fair.

I like to tell my students that they too are society’s creators, that they too can create their own Mona Lisa (even if it takes the form of a new windshield wiper).  But that they too may also need to fight for their rights, and to fight for what’s right.

Motivating and equipping them for that fight: That’s what higher education should be all about, Charlie Brown.

America Is the Greatest Country? Look At Our Health Care — And Weep

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This is also featured at Huffington Post

Americans generally, and politicians in particular, proudly proclaim that we live in “the greatest” country. But how should we measure the greatness of a country? I’d suggest that quality of life should be a vitally important measure.

And what is more fundamental to quality of life than ready access to health care? When you’re sick or suffering, you should be able to see a medical specialist. And those costs should be — wait for it — free to you. Because health care is a fundamental human right that transcends money. Put succinctly, the common health is the commonwealth. And we should use the common wealth to pay for the common health.

Here’s the truth: We all face the reality of confiscatory taxation. If you’re like me, you pay all sorts of taxes. Federal, state, and local income taxes. Property taxes. School taxes. Social security. State lotteries are a regressive tax aimed at the poor and the gullible. We pay these taxes, and of course some for health care as well (Medicare/Medicaid), amounting to roughly 30 percent of our income (or higher, depending on your tax bracket, unless you’re super-rich and your money comes from dividends and capital gains, then you pay 15 percent or lower: see Romney, Mitt).

Yet despite this tax burden, medical care for most of us remains costly and is usually connected somehow to employment (assuming you have a good job that provides health care benefits). Even if you have health care through your job, there’s usually a substantial deductible or percentage that you have to pay out-of-pocket.

America, land of the free! But not free health care. Pay up, you moocher! And if you should lose your job or if you’re one of the millions of so-called underinsured … bankruptcy.

Health care is a moral issue, but our leaders see it through a business/free market lens. And this lens leads to enormous moral blind spots. One example: Our colleges and universities are supposed to be enlightened centers of learning. They educate our youth and help to create our future. Higher Ed suggests a higher purpose, one that has a moral center — somewhere.

But can you guess the response of colleges and universities to Obamacare? They’re doing their level best to limit adjunct professors’ hours to fewer than thirty per week. Why? So they won’t be obligated by law to provide health care benefits to these adjuncts.

Adjuncts are already underpaid; some are lucky to make $3000 for each course they teach. Now colleges and universities are basically telling them, “Tough luck, Adjunct John Galt. If you want medical benefits, pay for health insurance yourself. And we’re limiting your hours to ensure that you have to.” 

So, if Adjunct John Galt teaches 10 courses a year (probably at two or three institutions of “higher” learning) and makes $30,000, he then faces the sobering reality of dedicating one-third of this sum to purchasing private health insurance. If that isn’t a sign of American greatness, I don’t know what is.

I groan as much as the next guy when I pay my taxes. But I’d groan a lot less if I knew my money was funding free health care for all (including me and mine). Commonwealth for the common health. With no death panels in sight.

As “Dirty Harry” said in a different context, “I know what you’re thinking.” Free health care for all is simply too expensive. We say this even as we spend a trillion dollars a year on national defense and homeland security, to include the funding of 16 intelligence agencies to watch over us.

A healthy republic that prides itself on “greatness” should place the health of its citizens first. That we don’t is a cause for weeping — and it should be a cause for national soul-searching.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.