Saturday, May 31, 2014

One big question about education and democracy (and several smaller ones)

Students doing paired interviews in Wofford seminar (Jan '13)

It’s high school graduation season, so I’m asking two big questions: How can we in the United States make accessible, to the largest number of people who seek it, the best possible higher education in a form that most helps each person develop and thrive as a student, citizen, and professional?  And what action steps might each of us take in pursuit of better access and better education?

Perhaps, in beginning to answer those questions, we’d first listen; we’d stop and think; and we’d apply common sense. For most of human history, teaching and learning have been “high touch” and relational: parent-and-child, artisan and apprentice, elder and youth. That education is costly and valuable. It’s about people, people-in-community, and lots of mutual learning.

So, if we-the-people are committed to an inclusive democracy, and to mutual learning as we create it together, perhaps we should ask ourselves tough questions whether each of us values education enough to advocate for its accessibility, affordability, and excellence in delivery. Here are some hard questions we might consider:
  •           When students can’t afford a higher education, what life choices do they then have? (And we’d unpack the “why can’t they afford tuition?” question in all its complexity.)
  •           When students take on thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars of loans, how do their loans limit their choices and chances? (Huh. More questions for unpacking: why loans? And why so pricey?)

Full disclosure, in the form of a story: I went to college on an all-expenses-paid merit scholarship (thank you, UGA Foundation Fellowship); my husband got a full-tuition scholarship to law school (thank you, generous benefactor). My loan-free higher education let me take a job at a Southern liberal arts college, where my salary was lower than it would have been in the private sector or at other places I landed interviews. Loan-free, I could afford to believe the mission of my organization-of-employ was more important than the bottom line of my paycheck. My husband’s debt-free law education let him dedicate his professional life to public service, first as a prosecutor, then as an attorney for Social Services, where he spends his days, in my mind, as super-hero to our county’s most vulnerable citizens, mostly little kids who deserve life chances and life choices.

How committed are we to making sure there are choices and chances for those smart, resilient little kids who grow up in foster care and need a full ride? When legislatures cut education budgets, and those who could afford to support the education of those around them fail to do so, how do those actions and inactions limit the choices and chances of students we might educate on college campuses across the nation? What happens to us, to them, to our communities, our democracy? Do we have the courage to understand that each of us has a role to play –a vote to cast, a check to write, a conversation to have? What’s your action step?