This fiscal year, we crossed a momentous financial threshold at the University of Washington—the first time in history when a greater proportion of our instructional budget is being covered by student tuition than by direct state support. That is, for me, a mind-boggling transformation. I went to a state research university as an undergraduate, Michigan State, where I enjoyed an education that offered an outstanding array of options—all affordable, even to a first-generation college student paying out-of-state tuition. My parents helped me as much as they could and I worked part-time and summers, as most UW students do today. But whether I could afford to go there or whether my education was a good investment were never primary factors in our decision-making.
I was lucky, as I well know; not every family even then had comparable resources or comparable freedom from economic worries concerning college. But my situation was the norm for students I associated with…in a way that now seems increasingly rare. The debt taken on by today’s students, even undergraduates, can be staggering.
So I find myself asking: should education be a right? Or is it really a privilege, for which students should justifiably be asked to pay—both now and over the next decade of their lives? Like most either/or questions, framing the debate in those terms is deceptive. College education can plausibly be seen as both…or neither. Yet I am convinced that our society loses something fundamental when the balance tilts as far as it has toward the commodification of learning.
The value of higher education is not hard to demonstrate. This issue of English Matters traces various ways in which the study of English has mattered to alumni who have gone on to successful careers, as well as to retired faculty who continue to use their background in English in remarkably diverse activities. But I worry that this debate is becoming too utilitarian, too narrowly oriented toward dollar outcomes. For it is not just what I as an individual gained from Michigan State that matters to me…or that I think should matter. Nor should we focus solely upon increased earning potential for college graduates. A fundamental value in this process is the enrichment I receive from inhabiting a society where many—though by no means all—of my fellow citizens can gain college-level education and literacy. Our lead article, on Clyde Swisher, testifies to the role these individuals can play in the life of an entire community.
At this historical moment, what those of us who benefited from the post-war boom decide to do about the education of our children and grandchildren will determine whether education remains an achievable right or not. Ten or twenty years from now, we may well inhabit a world that is markedly unfamiliar, different from both past and present in ways that we can scarcely imagine. I believe that the humanities contribute in essential ways to our ability to adapt to such changes—by helping students cultivate mental flexibility and by enhancing their openness to the perspectives of other human beings, other times, and other cultures. Helping to prepare for this future is our greatest educational challenge. Keeping such preparation affordable is, to my mind, their right…and our responsibility.
—Gary Handwerk, Chair