by Jonathan King
The House, Senate and Clinton budgets currently being debated in Washington have many features in common. One is disinvestment in education. This takes many forms, the most visible being the cuts in federal grants and loans for higher education. More subtle forms are the cutbacks in overhead payments on research grants to colleges and universities. These funds directly and indirectly support teaching laboratories, teaching assistants, libraries, and computer facilities. Here at MIT this will result in a reduction of the number of graduate students and TAs by at least several hundred, the largest change in 35 years. Similar efforts to cut support for colleges and universities are occurring at the state level - for example New York Governor Pataki's effort to shrink Cornell and the SUNY system, in addition to New York City's CUNY. These cuts are occurring in an environment of rapid scientific and technological advances. Reports from the National Academy of Sciences, Department of Labor, and American Association for the Advancement of Science, to name just a few, all call for a new higher level of general education in this information age. In a world with the Internet, everyone needs basic literacy and computer skills. In a world of human gene transplants, every person needs to understand basic genetics and biochemistry. In a world with ozone holes in the upper atmosphere, everyone needs to understand what chlorinated hydrocarbons are. Why then are our leaders pushing to cut federal funding for education, student loans, funding for libraries, community colleges, after-school programs, continuing education? Why are they trying to reduce the number of Americans who can receive a college education? Two factors driving this policy change can be identified. The first lies in the changing needs of industry for a trained workforce. The application of computers and robotics to production has sharply increased productivity, while reducing the number of trained workers needed. These consequences of the technological revolution are well described in recent books including The Jobless Future by Aranowitz and Difazio and The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin. Anyone reading about the layoffs of thousands and thousands of computer scientists in New England realizes that there is currently no shortage of highly trained workers in the economy. According to the IEEE the level of unemployment among electronic engineers is the highest in 25 years. Of course, there is an enormous amount of work to be done in rebuilding our infrastructure, cleaning up the environment, providing health care and housing for all, raising our children, and developing the science and technology needed for the next wave of civilization. But new forms of social organization outside the private corporation will be needed to get these jobs defined and done. One hundred years ago leaders of the machine tool industry in Massachusetts supported educational reformers calling for public education including trigonometry. They needed skilled workers who could read blueprints and set up a drill press. Similarly, after WW II the High Technology Council in Massachusetts supported the expansion of higher education in Massachusetts in order to provide an adequate supply of computer scientists for their expanding industry. Now that these technologies have been applied to production themselves, the need has disappeared. Supporting higher education through taxes becomes a cost of production. In a globalized economy, the competition in Malaysia does not provide general education. As Noam Chomsky points out so clearly, the conditions that colonial policies and transnational corporations have long maintained abroad are now being brought home, and the corporate and financial interests, acting through their representatives in Congress both nationally and locally, are actively trying to reduce access to education. A second factor behind the policies being launched at the federal and state levels is political. As the standard of living continues to decline for a majority of Americans, their support for current economic and political relations is going to erode. People pushed out of the productive economy are likely sooner or later to resist. The more educated they are, the more likely they are to expect and demand to be able to share in the expanding technology and great wealth represented in our country. The 10% of the population that is being enriched by the Gingrich policies are not interested in seeing the educational levels of the majority increase. Thus we see the shift to building prisons rather than schools, so clearly in evidence in California, where the prison construction budget now exceeds the school construction budget.
Higher Education for AllThis is a period in history when we should be sharply increasing investment in education, and expanding our system to provide universal secondary and higher education. The computer and telecommunications revolution provides the mechanism for this to be a reality: no longer must one get to a big university library to access particular forms of information. Increasingly this information is becoming electronically available through the Internet. Unfortunately the technology is being implemented as a way of laying off teachers, researchers, teaching assistants, and related workers. This is very different from using it to expand opportunities for education and to increase and enhance the capabilities of teachers and students. From the beginning of the electronics and telecommunications revolution it has been clear that these technologies opened new horizons for education and the absolute expansion of knowledge. The technology now exists to place a great part of the entire body of human knowledge within the reach of every person on Earth. An individual with access to the Internet can access most of the world's bodies of knowledge with a click of a button. It has also been true that the ability to reap these benefits has required advances in education about the technology as well as the capability to insure access.
The Role of StudentsStudents have a critical role to play in the struggle to expand education. They are the direct beneficiaries, and also the group most receptive and concerned about the future. It is important that students and faculty together educate ourselves about the changes taking place and share this understanding with those who do not have the luxury of being engaged in full-time education. We have to articulate clearly the extraordinary possibilities that modern technology offers to society, if mobilized for social advancement rather than private gain. As the polarization in society increases, it is becoming clearer that those of us struggling for education need to join forces with groups deprived of other basic rights, whether it is housing, food, child care or health care. The recent Anti-Columbus Day rallies initiated by the California Student group in response to proposition 187 and the rallies against the cuts in student loans are important steps in this direction. A century ago it was radical to propose that all children should have the opportunity to attend and graduate high school. Though we still have a tough fight to achieve this, we are at the stage of human history where every member of society needs access to a higher and continuing education - a level of education that will let them share fully in the world's knowledge, and develop their own skills and talents.