Engagement, Higher Education

Education must be the Fifth Estate

If ever there was a moment to reflect on our national (natural?) inability, to think beyond the moment, it is now. The wrath of COVID-19 and the havoc wrecked across the United States is an unbelievable tale of our narrow focus on the now. From the defunding of the continuous foundational research necessary to stay ahead of, or at least keep pace with, evolving viruses, to the knowing neglect of creating a PPE stockpile, our policies have led us to the highest COVID-19 casualty rate in the world.

Then there’s Texas, who committed to ignoring calls to strengthen their power grid from disastrous storms, in favor of the low-cost status quo. Not connecting to regional power grids left people even more vulnerable than they should have been. The statewide commitment to independence from environmental and other regulations is a statewide commitment to today, not the future.

Whether or not you want to accept the science of global climate change, the fact of it is right in front of us. Without arguing about primary causes, it is clear that our infrastructure needs significant overhaul to deal with rising sea levels and disastrous storms. It isn’t just Texas folks; we’ve seen the impact all over the country. But we are content to do the emergency recoveries (mostly poorly), rather than prepare for the coming storms.

And of course, there is the pervasive economic decision-making that favors quick wins and get rich quick schemes, rather than systematic planning for an equitable society where everyone has food, healthcare, homes, and opportunities. I’m tired just thinking about how stuck we are in reaction rather than long term planning.

Consider the COVID-19 vaccinations. Millions of dollars of emergency funds helped to incentivize the research necessary to get us to the several vaccinations that have emerged. I am so grateful this happened, but let’s not mischaracterize the event as some private industry, entrepreneurial advantage over the slow path of publicly funded scientific research. The knowledge necessary to succeed so quickly was based on years of university based research into mRNA, that had varied levels of success and investment. There were also tremendous gains from earlier research on HIV, and the development of a worldwide testing infrastructure. We made it to several vaccines in record time, but we can’t forget how the foundational research efforts were often hampered as funding dried up. The un-evenness of the investments in this long haul research is a failure of imagination at best, and blatant irresponsible at worst.

The story of our energy infrastructure is a similar tale of unreliable funding streams. The need to change our reliance on non-renewable energy resources has been known for a long time. It isn’t just climate change, it is the math of the number of people in the world, the things we like to do, and the resources available. Yet our investments come in fits and starts, largely due to politics and an inability to think about the long term when there is still cheap oil, gas, or coal available. We have not committed to the sustained investment in the research for the future. Discoveries are made and then insufficiently tested or implemented, and they disappear as we stick with cheap and convenient. The fact that after proper investment, the new resources could indeed be cheaper is no enticement, we live in the now. (For a great read, I recommend Mariana Mazzucato’s, The Entrepreneurial State.)

As educators, I know we can’t cure everything. There are powerful forces beyond our walls that chafe at our input. When we do enter the national conversation, it is our “liberal biases” that are featured. This liberal frame frequently allows hard work to be dismissed or made fun of for its apparent minutia because no one puts the work in context. Even worse, it makes it permissible to reduce funding for education and scholarship because we appear to be out of the mainstream or trivial. But the thing is, we aren’t terribly liberal. Despite the mythology in the reporting about higher education, most of the work we do relies on a slow and measured approach to creating knowledge that is rigorous, peer reviewed, and honest about the scope of our discoveries. It takes time to do this work. It is woven into a million other smaller or larger studies with an occasional big breakthrough. It is work that informs the future and helps to explain the past and the present.

This work happens at every level of higher education. The big, elite, research universities get the big grants and credit for the big discoveries. They, and some in the middle range, have access to public/private partnerships (sometimes fraught with ethical questions, mostly not), that help sustain the slow and painstaking work that brings about new discoveries and solutions to old problems. The teaching universities with less of a research emphasis, often participate in the larger projects through partnerships, regularly conduct original and replication studies, involve students in the process of discovery, and indeed secure the occasional patent. Together, higher education is the home of the slow and steady look toward the future that is grounded in all that has come before.

Universities are just about the only place where slow and steady can happen in our culture. The world of face-paced, profit-centered invention is built on all this work. Innovation doesn’t happen without us. We are the home of measured deliberation and we eschew soundbites (most of the time). As fun as TED Talks are, we are the place of the real work behind those talks, that is, deep reading, thinking, and the long view. We are essential for the long-term planning necessary for a balanced and equitable nation.

In the throes of these recent (yet predictable) crises, I would like us to be louder about this role. We need to be shouting for long-term thinking. We must demonstrate the ways in which our scholarship underpins those beloved market forces, and therefore requires investment. We must provide the context for that “first draft of history” instead of allowing national conversations to focus on recent events as exceptional. We need to support the path to the long-term thinking necessary to protect us from global pandemics and climate change and whatever is next. We must assert our authority and our place in the functioning of a productive and responsible democratic society. We must claim our place as the Fifth Estate.

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