On February 20, 2012, the New England edition of The New York Times published three articles on page A8, the start of the “National” section: Shining New Spotlight On Civil Rights Era, Florida Set For New Cut In Spending On Colleges, and Physicists Create Single-Atom Transistor, a Crucial Step Toward a Nanocomputer. Each of the articles advances a particular epistemology, staking a claim for its own truth as well as an implicit demand for resources and our attention. The conflicts embodied in each article generate energy and speak to deeper battles. Read as a whole, the page captures the deep-seated approach avoidance of how we manufacture knowledge, understanding and meaning today.
The lead article, on civil rights museums in the Deep South, chronicles the creation of a new generation of bigger and more ambitious museums. Kim Severson writes that the new institutions “signal an emerging era of scholarship and interest in the history of both civil rights and African-Americans that is to a younger generation what other major historical events were to the grandparents.” Museums reify popular meaning. And usually, in performing that important task, they must kill the object of their study. Memorializing the civil rights movement is greater than remembering; it is defining the movement as over. The CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Doug Shipman, stated that the election of President Obama “caps the civil rights era.” Periodization is taking place right before our eyes.
Lizette Alvarez’s article on Florida budget cuts, which bleeds over to another page, offers a high-level narrative of a state in turmoil, contradicting itself. “Florida lawmakers contend that education is essential to high-wage jobs in the state, but the Legislature is again expected to slash millions of dollars from the budget for higher education.” Foretelling decisions that will have significant consequences for the state and its economy, Florida legislatures are unable to act in alignment with their rhetoric. Governor Rick Scott is quoted that good education is the “bedrock of any sound, sustainable economy.” Governor Scott has further called for halts in tuition raises. Yet he has little to offer Florida’s institution of higher education, which face draconian budget reductions. For example, a 58% reduction is in the cards for the University of South Florida, Tampa. The battle lines and positions are familiar to any student of higher education. Students and faculty protest, college presidents give testimony about their institutions value, everyone affirms education’s critical importance – and then budgets are trimmed. It is an empty exercise repeatedly regularly throughout the nation – and towards what end? We seem to be locked into a lose-lose gyre when it comes to thinking about public higher education funding.
Finally, John Markoff’s article on single atom transistors recounts innovation of magical proportions. Physicists from Purdue University and the University of New South Wales collaborated and created a working transistor from one phosphorous atom. This marks further progress towards a quantum computer, a device based on quantum mechanics and the multiple values that qubits can hold. The physicists’ innovation was well-received by colleagues, who emphasized the value of the work while downplaying any immediate consequences in terms of practical applications. So as we struggle with providing basic scientific education and understanding to college students, a minority of the public, those in the know and able to push boundaries are moving even further ahead.
Each of the articles outlines its own realm of knowledge creation and dissemination, a network of comprehension, meaning and agency. In the public museum realm, the institutionalization of knowledge is taking shape in buildings, exhibits and school field trips, current and for future generations. In the realm of public education, all proclaim the value education but none have the ability or solution to address what is essentially a problem of the commons. As a public good, it is accessed and enjoyed by many – but who should step forward and support it? Finally, in the realm of advanced knowledge creation, scientists are working across national boundaries on problems that the rest of us can barely comprehend. We celebrate, marvel, and wonder, tinged, more often than not, with a tiny bit of fear that our basic understanding of the world may be undermined.
This fascinating melee of alternative networks is nourished and facilitated by higher education, which provides the space and time for the development of these exchanges. Higher education credentials and empowers the players. Ultimately, though, higher education is a less than effective participant. It benefits through the generosity of the players after the game. And sometimes, when it is nimble enough, through its ability to frame these meaning-debates, higher education gains capital and status. However, higher education itself is extraordinarily uncomfortable consciously working to structure broader examinations of meaning. More often that not academia is uncomfortable addressing the big questions, the value questions, head on.