Deep in our hearts, we all know what is most important in our lives — who and what are dearest to us, who and what have shaped the lives we are living. For me, outside my own family, closest friends and good health, my education has shaped and enriched my life more than any factor I can name. My education, most of which was delivered in the public schools of North Carolina and in our revered UNC system, has given me the tools to understand at least some of our world, helped me enjoyed cultural and artistic creations by my fellow human beings and encouraged me to satisfy my curiosity about whatever crosses my mind, first in libraries and now in the comfort of my own home with my own computer. I even confess to waking up in the middle of the night with some question on my mind and researching it right then and there with my tablet computer. This is the real gift of technology for me! Like everything else, though, education is changing. I would not change my liberal arts studies — I was an English Literature major —a s I know I would not be “me” without all that reading — some engrossing, some boring, and lots somewhere in between. I also know, though, that the way many people view education and particularly higher education has changed dramatically. Gone are the concepts of education’s inherent value to individual and his quality of life and of the critical importance of an educated society. In is the notion that education is merely a ticket to a better job and higher income with no emphasis on less quantifiable but undeniable enrichment of education. As the concept of education as a ticket to income and little else spread, so did the idea of the receiver of an education as a “consumer,” not as a student. And, if that person is a consumer, he must then pay for what he consumes, resulting in rising tuitions and falling public funding for education at all levels. This is the thinking that education is an individual expense, not a public good, that has turned education into a business saddled millions of Americans with debts some of us will never be able to repay. Now you know some of the worries that keep me up at night, researching on my tablet or just tossing and turning. A new documentary, Starving the Beast, takes a hard look at what is happening in American public higher education, including such respected research institutions as Louisiana State University and the Universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, and our own University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All have seen significant funding cuts from state legislatures, so deep in some cases that LSU actually considered filing bankruptcy. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Ellen Wexler describes the issue the film confronts this way. “The film lays out an overview of the debate’s philosophical underpinnings: originally, states saw public colleges as a worthwhile investment in their residents. Poor students could gain useful skills and move up in the world while also contributing to their states’ economies. In the early days of public higher education systems, many states charged little if any tuition. “On the other side, there are the reformers and think-tank leaders, the anti-spending politicians and political operatives ... say that public colleges are too wasteful, and lawmakers feel an obligation to keep taxes low.” Count me on the side of quality public education at all levels in North Carolina, as our state Constitution clearly mandates. Article 1 reads, “…. knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Article 9 tells us whose responsibility higher education is. “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of the University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” I believe that education is not a product but an enriching experience that grows and lasts a lifetime. I believe that education strengthens both the individual and society at large, and that is important to know the history of where we come from and to recognize works of great literature and art. I believe that if we think of education the same way we think of buying a car or a house, we are not seeing the big picture of what it means to be an educated person or an educated society. Someone can take your car or your house, but once you have an education, you can share it with others without losing it and no one can ever take it away.
- Written by Margaret Dickson