In Defense of PASSHE? PA Senators Tomlinson and Dinniman Visit West Chester to Push Secession

As I sat in West Chester University’s Asplundh Hall on Thursday afternoon and listened to Senators Tomlinson and Dinniman explain how they introduced this bill merely to “start a discussion” and how they really “love public education” and desperately “welcome and respect our input”, I was struck with several stark realizations. First, was how ludicrous it was for someone to believe that proposing a bill that would further the dismantling of public education and destroy one of the largest public higher education unions in the country in the process, could be a “conversation starter” with the faculty of my university.  Second was the obvious disingenuousness of someone “desperately wanting input” but only asking for it after the bill has been drafted and introduced. Third, and finally, was how this narrow and rotten plank we are all being led down has really left us with a terrifically false choice (if we end up with a choice at all) – and I have a hard time believing that this false choice is not preordained.  As I said in my previous letter, “we have not arrived at this cross roads of our own volition, we have been delivered here”.

John Dewey Florida Keys Public Library
John Dewey | Photo: Florida Keys Public Libraries

As John Dewey (1913) contended “Obviously a [democratic] society, to which stratification into separate classes would be fatal, must see to it that intellectual opportunities are accessible to all on equable and easy terms. A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements.”  This is the precise sentiment from which I wrote my previous plea to our collective democratic conscience.  Because this bill is so clearly an affront to this perspective, and to anyone who believes in the necessity of public, accessible education within a democracy, we have been forced into the unfortunate position of defending PASSHE in order to defend public education.  I say ‘unfortunate’ because, as many of my frustrated colleagues – faculty and administrative alike – point out, PASSHE is most certainly unworthy of our defense on multiple levels.  In fact, the traits and tactics demonstrated by PASSHE leadership are very much indicative of neoliberal organizations, where hierarchical control and petty tyranny destroy democratic values and processes.

Freire You Tube
Paulo Freire | Photo: Screen shot from André Henrique Figueiredo’s video, “Paulo Freire – Biografia” YouTube.

This corporatization of educational spaces has been an obvious effect – and goal – of the neoliberal program.  As public education is continuously de-funded, the economic stress placed on the institution demands a radical response; a state of emergency is declared.  And in the name of crisis – real, but manufactured – democratic practices become “a luxury we can no longer afford”. Boards of Trustees are stacked with “business-savvy” donors, university presidents are fielded from private industry and renamed “CEOs”, academic programs are culled for “profit potential” and those without it are declared “boutique” or deleted all together; power is centralized.   Each of these perversions contributes to the re-culturalization of public higher education and this new culture permeates every aspect of the institution – from practices to people to mission. This, Paulo Freire (1974) contended is “cultural invasion” and, when successful, the result is an oppressed that unknowingly become co-conspirators in their own oppression.  I see the accuracy of this claim regularly, as I sit in meetings and listen to my well-intentioned colleagues talk of “market shares” or grimace at the possibility that some of “our profits” might be spent on “their students” at Cheney or Mansfield.  Sadly, it is not only our senators that need a reminder of what the “public” in public education really means.

Certainly public universities grounded in the liberal arts, dedicated to the expansion of democratic principles, that seek to encourage students to question the validity of economic policies and political structures such as those espoused by neoliberalism, are not just counterproductive, but dangerous to those currently in power.  Thus, the neoliberal trend has imposed a view of both schools and teachers solely as instruments of cultural transmission, reproduction and economic utility.  And as instruments of the powerful, professors, universities and their curriculum must be heavily controlled so that they do not stray from the neoliberal script. Hence the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year within the United States creating, proctoring, grading, and analyzing standardized tests for the sole purpose of maintaining an undemocratic despotism over students, academic programs, teachers and their classrooms.  Within higher education such top-down control is most often initiated and justified in the name of “accreditation” or “efficiency”, but the effect is the same. The increasingly dictatorial position of PASSHE leadership emanates from these same urges.

Blackmore (2000) summarizes the case stating “educational policy has shifted emphasis from input and process to outcomes, from the liberal to the vocational, from education’s intrinsic to its instrumental value, and from qualitative to quantitative measures of success”. This shift in purpose, and the pedagogical practices it requires, can be witnessed throughout the entire educational system, from the academic redefinition of kindergarten to the vocationalization of graduate school (Giroux, 2013).

The point I’m attempting to make here is this: while this destructive bill may have forced us into the immediate position of defending PASSHE in order to defend the concept of public, accessible higher education, this should not distract us from the clear need to critique, challenge, and demand significant and substantial change to PASSHE – perhaps even it’s replacement. Whether the ever-increasing draconian control exhibited by the directors of PASSHE has been in response to the methodical de-funding of the system by neoliberals within the legislature and on the governors throne, or if it finds its authoritarian inspiration elsewhere, it is clearly an undemocratic structure and that fact demands our attention. I have no doubt that much of our frustrations arise from the fact that we seek to offer a public education in and for a democracy, yet the system in which we currently struggle to do so is NOT democratic.  That circumstance must change, but walking further away from public education is not a step toward such collective liberation, but away from it.

While I do not agree with the Senators that this was the best way to “start the conversation”, it has indeed been started and I agree that it should. If there is a positive to come from this bill let it be that we focused our outrage and coalesced around the ideal of public education and the proud history of our institution serving the working families of this state. Surely the best response to such an attack on democracy must be grounded in democratic values, practices and collective action. Students, faculty, staff, and administration alike must come together and demand change. And, when the next budget is produced that makes it impossible for us to carry out the promise of a public, high-quality and affordable education for the democratic good of our Commonwealth, we should march off this campus together and refuse to return until our funding is restored and our democratic value acknowledged. Perhaps Senators Dinniman and Tomlinson will join us on the picket line.

It is an old quote from Margaret Meade, but one of the most true nonetheless; “Every revolution begins with a few concerned citizens”.  I can think of no concept more valuable for us to model for our students now.

 In Solidarity,

John Elmore
Professional & Secondary Education

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