The Road to Somewhere

I worked at home yesterday; student protesters blocked the entrances to the university that employs my wife and me.

My department anticipated the troubles and sent us all home with our laptops. We VPN’d and Chatted and Shared and Emailed the day away; you really can’t escape work anymore. Not anywhere there’s broadband, which is everywhere.

The students protested ever-higher tuitions; they protested overcrowded classrooms and dorms; they protested police intimidation; they protested a lot of damned things which will not be made better by shutting down the university for a day or blocking the highway into town for a few hours — which they also did.

“Why don’t they protest peacefully? Why do they disrupt OUR lives?” Such whiny questions were heard from the university staff, the locals, even the Chancellor himself. But they should know why:

Peaceful demonstrations don’t get noticed. If you want somebody’s attention, you need to stir things up.

Today’s protests won’t change anything today; but you’ve got to start somewhere. You need to draw the crowd’s attention to the problem and to how you feel about it, whether they’re happy to be drawn, or not.

And If enough students think long enough and get mad or desperate enough about conditions at dear old University, they might come up with a real zinger of a tactic or campaign or organization that shakes the university system from the bottom to the top.

It could take years. Longer. But… you’ve gotta start somewhere.

In that spirit, I’d like to list a few things that I learned about university life this year. Many are the years I’ve worked for University, but recently I transferred to the Office of the Registrar (aka, The Rej) where students and their problems wash up against the teller windows 20 feet from my desk. The Rej hears everything.

Starving Students is Not Just a Cliche

Many students stay in university by the skin of their financial teeth; and if they lose a grant or a job or have to pay a new fee, something’s got to give. That “something” can be food.

A university social worker meets with students who struggle with university life: miss a lot of classes, fail multiple courses at one time, pile up the incompletes. “The first thing I ask them,” she told us, “is, ‘Have you eaten today?” The answer, often, is no. Funny how your academic career goes to hell when you’re too hungry to concentrate.

She hooks them up with food pantries. She helps them apply for the food stamps that they usually don’t know that they deserve. When she can, she throws supermarket gift cards at them to tide them over until the real aid arrives. Then, when they’ve eaten and can think, she wades into their academic issues. Sixteen thousand students share 1.5 social workers.

The Rej workers always pool together money for a worthy cause come Christmas. This year we gave it all to the social worker, for supermarket cards. Because, like my Oklahoma relatives used to say, it shouldn’t oughta be that way.

Tyler and Ashley Aren’t Going to Grow Up if You Don’t Let Them

At University, students register for classes through an online portal. They consult the online catalog and class schedule and maybe an adviser, if they can get an appointment; they plan what they’re going to take; they work out their schedules. They learn to log in early on the first day of registration to claim their seats in sought-after classes. Most get the hang of this e-bureaucracy; some struggle.

But some don’t have to. They give their portal passwords to their parents. Their parents interpret the schedules, read the requirements, and log in early on the big day to set things up. Tyler and Ashley just go where they’re told.

Half the benefit of university comes from learning to handle yourself. This can’t end well.

AP Classes Get Retaken at University

College counselors don’t believe that the study-and-cram AP courses in high school really teach the kids much beyond how to pass the test. For AP credit that falls within the students’ major course of study, most counselors heavily recommend taking the university course that the AP class was supposed to replace. And many students do.

My suggestion to parents: if Tyler and Ashely are up for it, skip the AP and enroll them concurrently in community college while they’re still in high school. They’ll do real college work in a real college environment and put some real transfer units under their belts by the time they hit 18. They’ll be ready.

And y’know, if at community college they discover that their passion lies in heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems, is that a bad thing at all?

The Roofs Leak

I caught up with one of the university’s two carpenters a few months back. Ten years ago, before budget cuts, there were seven. There’s an almighty backup of work orders for maintenance of all types.

He introduced me to a new concept: Leak Season. “When the rains come, you’re going to have blue tarps on half the roofs on campus. There’re leaks everywhere.”

Those roofs need replacing. They’ve passed their operational lifespans. But there’s no money. Just blue tarps. The buildings look okay from ground level, he told me, but not when you look at them from above.

I used to work in University fundraising. Oddly, all the millions we raised couldn’t buy one more carpenter. Big donors want to fund things that they can put their names on. Although I suppose that we could issue the carpenters promotional t-shirts: “Funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation,” or something like that.

People are going to University for the Wrong Reasons. And That’s No Accident

Parents send their children to university, increasingly, to train for a good job. To be of use to the powers that be, and thus be richly rewarded by them. In the minds of many, nothing else can justify the high cost of college.

But the original reason for college to exist — the classic liberal education — is to learn how the world works. To understand how the powers that be, came to be. To understand how they came to rule, and why. So that you can become one of them yourself, or work with them, or even say: “The powers that be should not continue to be.”

Money has drained out of public universities for 30 years. The students have to bear most of the cost themselves. And so some students think, who wants to spend $40K to study human society? I need a job!

Money did flow back to public universities through private gifts and grants from the powerful: for science, technology, engineering, math. The useful subjects that teach people how to do. Not so much to sociology, psychology, anthropology, history: the dangerous subjects that teach people how to think.

Some young people still want to understand how the world works, and thus to change it. They pursue a liberal education, though it may not lead them to prosperity or even comfort.

But you’ve got to start somewhere. And to do that, you’ve got to find somewhere to start.

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