Thursday, August 26, 2010

O'Hare on the Public Good--The Case of the University

I'm still chewing on Michael O'Hare's dazzling threnody for the lost of golden age of good public order in California.  It's a powerful piece of persuasive exposition and I suspect it is around 51 percent true.  But it lacks nuance, and it may be helpful to try to fill out the picture.   I can think of half a dozen qualifications I'd like to propose, but let me stick to the matter of the University of California.  Couple of points.

First: O'Hare says it is "probably still the best public university  in the world."  That may be right, but it does not follow that it offers, or ever offered, the best education in the world.  It is possible to get a first-class education at UC.  But it takes a fair amount of initiative, enterprise and luck--qualities with which even relatively bright young people are not necessarily endowed.  For the masses, UC offers a mass education, much closer to McDonald's than cordon bleu--but with the added difficulty that they may think they are getting the best education in the world, whereas what they take for filet is a supersized doubleburger.

Second and more important: the UC of the golden age--say, the UC of the Pat Brown years, or the early years--had long since lost any claim to recognition as a democratizing institution.  It was overwhelmingly populated (then as now) by children of the middle and upper middle class; in short, it was a way for high-income taxpayers to claw back some of their tax dollars.

University education in the golden age was indeed virtually free.  These days it costs a lot of money.  So, the kids who got that free education in the 60s-70s are not paying the cost of the education to the university today.  At any rate, they are not paying the cost as taxpayers.  Whether they are paying the cost as private citizens--whether they are stumping up to pay the kids' college bills--is a rather different matter.  I know some do; I gather quite a few do not.  This may be a legitimate subject of  contention between parents and children. But it is one in which the "public" role is more or less incidental, or accidental.

The focus here is on "the University"--the nine (now ten) campus system that is supposed to be the flagship.  I'd tell a different story if I were talking about the community colleges, which have often seemed to me to be one of the great social levellers--the one place where the democratization ideal really comes into play.  I gather the community colleges are suffering dreadfully in the current climate.  This may well be part of O'Hare's concern, and bully for him if it is.  But I suspect it is not his primary focus when he speaks as a UC professor to UC students in a UC.

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