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End of Year Thoughts

I write this in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown; the first funeral took place yesterday, I believe, though I don’t know for certain as it has been so painful to read and watch the news. I overheard a man talking on his cell on a street corner : “When I watch the news, I don’t even feel sad, I feel sick.” Once again, a communal grief. President Obama’s well-crafted speech gave some solace. He’s a good writer and/ or his speechwriters are good writers. Still, I wonder how Abe Lincoln might have seized the moment with his well-honed oratory. In those days, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals,” words—written words—could make or break a candidate. A speech was delivered to a crowd and then printed in the local and national press. Few people, after all, could hear it when it was delivered.

What have we come away with here, what greater awareness? That we can do better, that we must do better—in every sphere of our American lives. At a party the other night, I met two young women, both studying opera and musical theater, who have given up on the idea of a well-rounded conservatory education—the path that most performers have taken in the past—because they couldn’t afford a loan with the prospect of no decent job at the end of it, albeit they are performers not scientists, or so I thought. One, in fact, was a scientist and had wanted to study chemistry, but because she knows so many who have wandered the country in search of work with doctorates in their pockets, she decided to wing it, study theater, and scramble for part-time jobs. She now has four—none of them satisfying—and had to leave the party early to work in a bar.

The next day I went upstate for a conversation with a Dean at SUNY New Paltz, one of New York State’s University campuses. Two years ago, I had been called in to discuss the possibility of a summer writing institute but there was no money to fund it, none at all. The Chairs and Deans were completely frustrated: they could no longer try anything new unless they proved in advance that the class had an audience. Nonetheless, they wanted to talk about it; they are educators, not marketers. Maybe one day, maybe one day soon, they all said. Well, nothing has changed, and won’t in the foreseeable future. Yet they still wanted to talk. Did I have any marketing ideas? Well, I am not a marketing person, I said, but I am pleased to be part of the continuing conversation about the changes in higher education, its greater reliance on virtual platforms, and so on.

Sad to say, both public and private universities are so desperate these days that they are competing with each other for students, many of whom have given up the idea of higher education—as my two young friends at the party the other night—or are attending two-year community colleges, which are cheaper. I wonder how will they expand their intellectual/cognitive abilities without more schooling? Will they become autodidacts? And will we continue to fall behind the EU and China in our educational and entrepreneurial accomplishments? I have had half a dozen Chinese students in my workshop these past two years, recruited by the university, and the Dean I spoke with last week has been to China twice this year on that same mission. Meanwhile, our home-grown students languish, and the excitement of a future in higher education has dimmed. Unless, of course, we are born into privilege or take the opposite route: study abroad, and stay there, as two PhD friends of mine were forced to do—one is working in Saigon, the other in Singapore. In a transnational universe this is not necessarily a bad thing so long as there is equal development and opportunity within our borders.

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