Friday, November 26, 2010

the state vocational school of new york at albany

(Thanks to Grant Peterson at Rivendell Bicycle Works for turning me on to this letter.)

Colleges and universities all across the country are shrinking and even slashing programs in an effort to stop the fiscal bloodletting that is the result of a down economy. It's simple, really; humanities courses make virtually no money for a school, while the sciences rake in the big bucks in the form of large gifts and research grants. So it was no big surprise when the president of SUNY (State University of New York) - Albany announced last month that the decision had been made to completely eliminate several foreign language departments, the Classics department and the entire theater arts program from the university's course offerings.

There's just one very large problem with the logic behind this move: it assumes that the best way to run a university is to run it like a business, weighing everything offered against that most sacred of cows, The Bottom Line.

Gregory A Petsko, Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Brandeis University, wrote a scathing letter to the president of SUNY-Albany in response to this decision. It is long, and if you care at all about the state of education in this country, absolutely worth reading.

Full disclosure: I was a music education major when I began my college studies in the fall of 1981. I went to school for four or five years, until I couldn't afford to anymore, then I dropped out -- for almost 15 years. When I went back to college in the spring of 1999, teaching jobs in the arts had all but dried up across the West and there was no longer any point in pursuing a teaching degree. So I decided to simply complete my education, and specific job qualifications be damned. I was lucky; I came back to my school -- Portland State University -- at a time when there was still a rich and varied selection of humanities offerings. As a result, I could parlay my 15-year-old music credits (of which there were many) into what eventually became, on paper, a BA in Arts & Letters. In addition to the heavy concentration in Music, I was able to add a significant concentrations in Middle East Studies and Philosophy to my educational program. My course of study was fascinating, enriching, and gave me the focus to hone my existing skills and grow some new ones with a new sense of discipline and a surprising passion for learning. I finished my degree in the spring of 2001 and felt not exhausted, but invigorated by the experience. Today my diploma hangs on the wall in our home office and every time I look at it I smile. It's mine, this thing called an education; it's something I earned for myself and can call upon today, and no one can ever take it away from me. As the first person in my family to earn a University degree, I can tell you that my education is precious, a gift I gave to myself.

Today I am not a working musician or even a music teacher, but instead I'm a co-owner in a small retail business. Am I using the skills I developed in college? I would say yes, at least indirectly. I have to engage in cooperation with co-workers; use analytical thought to arrive at creative solutions to the daily challenges of running a small business; and discipline myself to seek out and develop as many new resources and tools as possible to help our business remain on stable ground. I no longer have to write lengthy research papers on the Arab-Israeli conflict or read endless chapters of Kant and Spinoza; but I would definitely not be as good at my work today without the time I spent in college, because it helped make me a more complete, thoughtful and well-rounded person.

The problem is that we are so fixated on the market value of everything we use, buy or do that we end up questioning our very motives and desires based on a time-money correlation. Time is NOT money. You can always make more money, but once you spend time, that's it. You can't get it back, or make more. This false correlation is hurting the quality of our educational systems, as more schools buy into courting the Bottom Line to the exclusion of entire programs of study. Worse, it's creating a divide between those who are educated and those who are not; and out of that grows a mistrust of the educated that discourages community and government support for educational institutions at every stage of life, from kindergarten to college.

Read Petsko's letter and see what you think. Consider how your education has helped you, directly and indirectly; and see how you continue to use it today. Then think about what you want the next generation's educational opportunities to look like, and how we can all help keep their choices varied and plentiful.


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