The Educator’s Dilemma

Mark Kurlansky’s The Last Fish Tale: the fate of the Atlantic and survival in Gloucester, America’s oldest fishing port and most original town is not a particularly good book. Written without great care and poorly thought through, the book teases with the engaging anecdote and arresting observation, but disappoints when it comes to more substantive messages. It meanders without an identifiable structure, frequently mixing the profound, the personal and the pointless.

Why share a review of a less than satisfactory book? Some seize the opportunity to snark while others write as a public service, claiming to save the unwary reader from that most unpleasant of dangers, the careless read. None of these aims have animated this review, for even though the book is disappointing, it provokes.

Gloucester, Massachusetts is an interesting town with a fascinating history, a small port north of Boston with a larger than life sense of itself and its importance. I picked up The Last Fish Tale at a local bookseller after watching the black and white version of Captains Courageous, a childhood favorite story, on cable. I had remembered the book and 1937 film as a Little Lord Fauntleroy alternative, but it also very much about fishing and the fishermen of Gloucester. Rudyard Kipling wrote it while spending a summer at the port. There really is no comparison between Kurlansky’s topical non-fiction and Kipling’s classic. However, the colorful history of Gloucester, its disasters and triumphs, its artists and characters, and ultimately the narrative about the town and its precarious and dramatic dependence upon fishing carried me through the book’s conclusion.

The problem for Gloucester’s fishermen is ecological, economic, technological and societal. It is systemic. Kurlansky approaches the enormity of the issue from different angles. The ample fishing grounds of earlier times are now overfished thanks to ever more effective ways of scouring the oceans. Cycles of overfishing have led to increased regulation with a realization that the fish will never come back in large numbers. As conditions changed, many warned about the future consequences of larger nets, larger boats and no regulations, but collectively, nothing was done. In fact, governmental controls were a source of criticism and complaint. The end result, as we are all to aware, are oceans missing large schools of fish, impoverished fishermen, and a knot of ecological and economic dysfunction that defies rational policy. The cycle was originally described as a “tragedy of the commons” in a 1968 Science magazine article by Garrett Hardin. Scholars have since debated the term, but the semantics are somewhat academic to Gloucester fishermen. There are fewer of them and they are catching fewer fish and making less money.

The story of Atlantic fishing is not just about fishing – it is also a study in how professional practices deal with environmental competition and change – and that is not dissimilar from higher education in the United States today. Higher education is not in crisis, but many of us recognize the lack of sustainability in our current structure. The relative importance and need of a college education continues to rise for many while the costs of higher education increases annually at rates that exceed increases in family income and wealth. With more low cost options, more and more Americans will never have the opportunity to obtain a college degree. It will simply be too expensive.

As for the institutions, individuals and units within higher education, we make local rational decisions – improving this college in this way and that university in a different way – but without wrestling with the underlying inefficiencies of the larger system. We hope for funding, for government and public faith, but speak individually, not collectively. And our individual intelligence, values and hard work may make for wonderful narratives, but not long term relevance.

It is a dilemma for higher education, not dissimilar to those faced by fishermen aware of shrinking stocks of fish and the demand to catch more fish. Should higher education move together in the same direction, with faith that a solution or solutions will emerge? Or are we approaching a period when deeper reconceptualizations of college education are necessary? Is it a “perfect storm” – another Gloucester yarn – that demands radical change. We do not yet know what directions higher education may take in the future, but we can be confident that it will have to be different – our present is not sustainable.

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