I went to graduate school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and taught at a college in the Commonwealth of Virginia. That makes me two-for-four when it comes to connecting with states that are officially designated as a Commonwealth (the other two being Kentucky and Pennsylvania).
The other 46 states are just that — states.
What brings this to mind is graduation season, a time of closure that ought to be a joyous celebration of life’s next adventure for the millions of young people who have earned diplomas from high school or college.
“Roots and anchors” was my theme when I was the commencement speaker at Richard Stockton State College (NJ) in 1991, where nearly all graduates were the first in their families to earn degrees. I encouraged them to take chances because, I said, they knew who they were (“Roots”) but weren’t constrained by debt (“Anchors”).
Couldn’t say that today, not when more than half of all college graduates leave with significant debt and, often, dim job prospects.
A trend that began during the “me, me, me” years of the Reagan Administration continues to accelerate: states are withdrawing their support for higher education; tuition and fees are going up; and student aid has gone from grants to loans.
Today only 7% of the funding for Ohio State University, the state’s flagship public institution, comes from the State of Ohio. Once “state-supported,” it is now “state-situated,” as the cynics say.
The cost of a year at an elite institution is approaching $60,000. A year of Community College — if you can find room — is now in five figures, and no one gets through Community College in just two years anymore, because so many classes have been eliminated. (My colleague John Tulenko has a piece about community colleges coming up on PBS NewsHour later this month.)
More students are borrowing, and they are borrowing more. The average borrower owes $23,000, and 10% of borrowers owe more than $54,000.
After World War II, America invested in higher education because we saw an educated populace as a common good. The GI Bill declared, in so many words, “If you have the determination and the brains, the country will pay for your college education.” It wasn’t entirely charitable: we didn’t want millions of veterans on the streets, preferring instead to have millions of working, tax-paying citizens. (Higher education largely opposed this, by the way.)
From that policy decision came our great middle class. Pell Grants to low income students opened the door even wider, but that door is also closing. A Pell Grant once paid almost half the cost of attending a state institution; today, less than 25%.
All of this makes me nostalgic for a Commonwealth and all the term implies: a public purpose, a sense of polity, an understanding of the importance of community, a shared belief in institutions, and the conviction that government is essential.
A significant portion of the voting population seems to see ‘government’ as the enemy, and those on the right talk about ‘government schools’ as a root cause of our national problems. The implication is clear: our ‘government’ is not theirs and does not represent them.
The trend toward the privatization of just about everything that moves is deeply disturbing to me. Because of my work, I see it most clearly in public education: profit-seeking charter schools, virtual schools, and voucher campaigns that undercut public education.
We once believed in national service and national sacrifice, but then George W. Bush took us into two wars without asking us to give up any comforts or pay higher taxes. In fact, he urged us to keep shopping. We no longer have a draft or a citizen military — the latter has also been privatized. We were told that we could have it all, without much regard for the other guy or the larger community. Now we know that we cannot.
It’s also true that public education has often been its own worst enemy, with adults protecting other adults while putting children, youth and learning on the back burners.
How do we refocus on the common good? Is that even possible in a time of scarcity, or does a sour economy make ‘every man for himself’ inevitable?
There’s evidence that our young people are ready to unite around a call for a Commonwealth, whether it’s the enthusiasm for Teach for America and other helping programs or the growth of community gardens, community schools, and project-based learning. We yearn to be part of community, to feel the satisfaction of being involved in meaningful actions that help others.
Unfortunately, many of our leaders tap into and inflame our lesser angels of selfishness, reckless individuality and ‘us versus them.’
Who will ask more of us — and trust that we will respond?