John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What’s To Be Thankful For?

December 1, 2010John N. GardnerInsights0

I have written before about how my college educated status influences how I spend my vacation time. Still true. Am writing on Thanksgiving vacation and have spent a lot of that doing professional work; and also thinking about what I should be thankful for. Not so much “thankful” on a personal basis—I don’t even have to think a minute about that to make that list: my wife, my family, career, good health, beautiful place to live, opportunities to serve my country. No it’s more of the “what’s going on right now in the country” that I have to be thankful for, particularly that I could impress college students they ought to consider as well? But I am having a very difficult time with this exercise.

From the perspective of what might be good for college students, we have just conducted our mid- term elections. And I can’t imagine that these results are going to be good for college students. Clearly the stimulus money is not going to be renewed. We are going to let the states and their finances flounder Herbert Hoover style. This will lead to more state budget cuts and then ripple down to public campuses meaning fewer classes, larger classes, more closed out classes, program cuts, increased tuition and fees, and so on. Not good news for college students whom I have spent my life advocating for.

This same picture is going on elsewhere too. I have been watching the British university students protest vigorously, unlike American students, the recently announced government cuts to higher education in the UK. I am not optimistic that those UK students are going to prevail. They will only do so when they ultimately vote a change of government. Our students though don’t even muster a protest. They don’t seem to have a clue. I can’t be thankful for that.

This forces me to reflect on the students of my generation. They faced great challenges too. But many of them marched and protested. And they won expanded rights and opportunities for students on campuses. They helped end the Vietnam War. They brought down a presidential administration. They helped make the civil rights movement a stunning accomplishment. I say “they”. I should say “we”. I am thankful for what students have done in that era of our past.

But every generation is different. There is no doubt on my part that we have pampered our college students of today. We have courted them like the consumers they are. We have provided them with great opportunities and so many forms of assistance and support, many of which I helped create. These will continue in place, but no doubt in a reduced state for the time being. Our students are going to have to become even more resilient, flexible, adaptable, self-reliant. The international trend is clear: the bankers and brokers have sinned. They took enormous risks with other peoples’ money (OPM). They got rich in the process. They brought down the economies of the developed world. Now we have to restore the banks especially to health and all the other companies which are too big to fail. To do so we must cut other government expenses, cut benefits, pensions, social services, make the poor pay to subsidize the failings and then the continued lifestyles of the rich. We continue to glorify the lifestyle and achievements of the financial services industry which remains the number one employment sector of choice for our very best students. I am not thankful for all this.

I want my students to learn from this. To learn so they can lead, to prevent us from repeating this. I am not thankful for this opportunity, nor for my belief that I am not convinced my students will take this opportunity.

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