Education may need a life raft

Recently I participated in the Life Raft Debate held annually at the University of Montevallo. In the debate faculty and staff try to win a spot for their discipline on the life raft leaving a post-apocalyptic land. I was making the case for the discipline of higher education. As I was left behind to sink beneath the imaginary depths I began to consider what we would lose if in fact public higher education was no more.

Unfortunately, when you consider the significant decreases in state funding for higher education over the last few years, combined with the impact of the severe recession and recent oil spill in the Gulf, on the tax base that supports public higher education in Alabama, it’s not such a far-fetched proposition.

Higher education is the repository, transmitter and creator of knowledge in our society. It preserves the essence of human culture, teaches it to future generations, and facilitates the creation of new knowledge.

When this happens in a public context, it is the very process that enables students to become citizens, people who feel empowered to participate actively in their communities and government, and when necessary challenge them.

When the funding from higher education comes from all of us, those providing it have an obligation to the common good and to modeling a process of teaching and interacting with students that emphasizes freedom and the inclusion of all interests. New knowledge is created less for its profitability and more for its relevance to the communities of which we are all a part.

Although private higher education can achieve these goals, it would take on a narrow focus related to the interests of the sponsors or owners of the institutions, particularly in a for-profit context.

Privatized higher education, available only to the privileged few who could afford it, would become an instrument primarily for personal gain, not the common good.

Rather than being the great equalizing force that public higher education has become by providing economic opportunity, it would be a mechanism to entrench economic class. I hope we will avoid making my life raft fantasy a reality by continuing to work together to support public higher education in the interest of our common good, even in these difficult times.

Kimberly Barrett is the vice president for student affairs at the University of Montevallo.