The Guttering Promise of Public Education

U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography Commencement, May 16, 2009

And so you students go forth, simultaneously enlightened by your teachers and at the same time burdened by debt from your experience at what the University of California’s PR Department still calls the world’s greatest PUBLIC university. This debt is something that many of you will share with your parents, so consider it a familial bond like your DNA. As you know, it’s going up almost 10% next year, the seventh rise in almost that many years, so as heavy as your burden may seem, console yourselves that you are escaping now since those who come after you will pay ever more for what was free to me when I came to Berkeley as an undergraduate over forty years ago.  Think positive: Concentrate on the added earning power your diploma will give you so that you can pay for your kids to come here, if you can afford kids.

The Governor, University president and the regents will tell you that they have no choice and that they feel your pain: state support for the PUBLIC university continues to shrink in good times and bad. The Regents heard a report last year predicting that if state support continues to decline, tuition will have to rise to $18,000 in a few years, twice what it is now. They want you to believe that the decline in state support is an ineluctable force, like the law of gravity. Resistance is not only futile, it is virtually unthinkable except for a few rude and immature students and staff who disrupt regents’ meetings and occupy their offices.

So it’s not surprising that support for humanities and social sciences like Geography continues to wither, since these are the disciplines that at their best not only try to teach critical thinking and values, but add to your knowledge the dimension of time as well as space. Time is dangerous since it stokes memory which is essential for building a civilization. Humanities and social sciences are not big profit centers like business, law, bioengineering, and intercollegiate sports. You’re told that there is nothing to be done, since we are living in hard times.

My parents lived in hard times, too. It was called the Great Depression and may soon be called the First Great Depression, like the First World War after we had another one. At the bottom of the Depression in 1933, the governor proposed slashing the university’s budget. U.C’.s revered  President did not simply parrot the governor at that time, however. Robert Gordon Sproul called the governor’s position “a facile panacea.” He mounted the bully pulpit of San Francisco’s prestigious Commonwealth Club to voice his opposition in these words:

When a nation ceases to encourage and support its universities, it ceases to be a first-rate power. When a state prunes too severely the intellectual life at the top, it produces increasing poverty and despair at the bottom.

Now that was a public servant, as well as an educator. There was not a gulf then between the president’s near million-dollar compensation package and a staff and teaching assistants that qualified for welfare. But that was also very different time, a time about which I’ve become interested for what it can teach us about how we can escape the increasing poverty and despair at the bottom in our own time.  Memory is for learning, which makes it dangerous.

Many of you probably wonder what I do in my office hunched over my laptop and surrounded with all that Roosevelt stuff.  I’m working with others on an archaeological dig of a lost civilization that our parents and grandparents built in about seven years of far harder times than our own. I do this partly in order to save myself from the pain I experience looking at California’s — and the world’s — deteriorating environment. I did not want to believe Margaret Thatcher’s unilobar mantra that “There is no alternative” to a constant shrinking of the public domain. In different words but with the same thought, California governors and university presidents have been parroting that line for about thirty years: there is no alternative to constant tuition hikes and service cuts, and no new campuses; there is no alternative except to borrow and gamble more. 

Here I’d like to say that one of my favorite movies is The Golden Compass since it posits a multiplicity of universes parallel to our own.

At least one alternative universe is all around us, but we don’t see it. It’s the enormous legacy of public works created by New Deal agencies in only a few brief years that we in California’s Living New Deal project are inventorying and mapping for the first time. Roosevelt’s critics say that his New Deal was a waste of money that only prolonged the Depression, but our research and maps are proving them wrong. By putting millions of Americans to work doing everything from laying sewers and running WPA health clinics to painting murals and planting forests, these public works began to lift the economy out of the last Great Depression. Moreover, we all use and rely upon those public works without knowing we are doing so — they have immeasurably improved the lives of generations of Americans who have no idea of the broad shoulders on which we all stand.

Let’s go back to public education, for example. Robert Gordon Sproul’s long-range vision was very much in the spirit of other New Dealers who proceeded under the curious assumption that it is much cheaper and better for a society to educate rather than punish its own people and others. The Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration together built over eleven thousand schools and improved tens of thousands more. They favored building schools, colleges, libraries, and museums over prisons. 

Most of those schools were so well built and designed that they are still in use today over 70 years on. Many of you have probably attended them. Many of them are embellished with sculpture, murals, and other artworks — I urge you afterwards to go over to see the mosaics representing the arts on the old University Art Gallery just east of Sather Gate, as fresh today as when artists Marion Simpson and Helen Bruton laid them in 1937 for the WPA.

Those buildings speak to us in more ways than just their fine construction and generous amplitude: many have inscriptions such as that on Berkeley High School that tells students “YOU SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH WILL MAKE YOU FREE,” or the motto under which you enter Long Beach Polytechnic High School: “ENTER TO LEARN, GO FORTH TO SERVE.” Inscriptions on Hollywood High School in English, Latin, and Greek subtly tell you that you can get a classical education in a PUBLIC school as well as at private Exeter or Groton.

My current favorite is on a lovely WPA-built school in Whittier. As you enter the Lou Henry Hoover School, you see this inscription on a wall in front:

What you would first have in the life of a nation
must put into its schools.

That statement says more concisely what Robert Gordon Sproul told the people of California in 1933.  The inscription on the Whittier school is signed “von Humboldt,” but that is not Alexander von Humboldt, the father of modern Geography; it’s his brother, Wilhelm, who created the Prussian public education system that made 19th century Germany rich and one of the leading powers of Europe. Germany’s graduate programs became the model for our own.

You don’t have to map the invisible matrix of now decaying public schools, parks, hospitals, airports, zoos, museums,, roads, sewage plants, dams, stadiums, bridges, forests, lodges, and so on to understand the generosity of the New Deal, to understand the social covenant of shared risk that it began to weave. You can just look at the posters that the WPA produced for the services it provided. They show you a time in which your taxes came back to you in public services that employed millions to do what the market cannot, or will not, do for you.

Here is one of my favorites:


Note the word “Free” rather than “Fee.” That added “R” is proof of an alternative universe next to our own. You’ll see it over and over again on WPA posters.

When I tell students that when I came to Berkeley in 1967, there was virtually no tuition, you can hear their jaws hit the floor. I took it for granted then; no one told me that I was the unwitting beneficiary of New Deal idealism: in 1960 — 25 years after Roosevelt’s death — aging New Dealers like Governor Pat Brown and UC President Clark Kerr put in place California’s Master Plan for Higher Education that promised free tuition in the Golden State’s then growing system of colleges and universities and access to those campuses regardless of income level. The California public school system was then much copied and the nation’s envy; it is now the worst.  The Regents never told us at what point they abandoned the Master Plan, but I have an idea.

Thirty years ago, hucksters began to persuade us that we could have a civilization without paying for it, that risk should not be shared but individualized, and more recently that we could fight wars while simultaneously cutting taxes. We stand today in the ruins of that fantasy, wondering what happened.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” The artifacts of the New Deal suggest that we once had a civilization worthy of the name. We could have it again.

You should not wonder whether your child can afford a public education: you should not wonder whether you can afford a child at all. Start rebuilding that civilization. It’s an adult world — again — and its problems are up to you. You can solve them if you remember that we did so before, but only by doing so together, and without war.


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