James Carville on Public Higher Education

LSU's Manship School commencement address.


May 21, 2015

The only way to make up for the annual suffering caused by “Pomp and Circumstance” is to condemn a single band to play it at every graduation in the nation, and to force the musicians—murderers, thieves, and ex-governors who opposed state higher education funding—to play it continuously as they march along the lonely verges of old state highways to their next gigs. Is it too much to ask that the woodwind instruments be fashioned from the bones of Sir Edward Elgar, and the brass have no spit valves?

It was risking my equilibrium to attend the commencement ceremony for LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication last week, knowing I’d hear the unspeakable song again two days later at my own grad students’ ceremony, but the Manship address was to be given by politico James Carville, who'd been promising in the local press he’d give Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal hell from the pulpit for damaging state higher ed. 

Carville famously got his undergrad, his JD, and an honorary doctorate from LSU, and he appeared in his academic gown and an LSU ball cap with a tassel hanging from its squatchee to greet members of the audience before the procession.

Even those with only brief exposure to James Carville’s media persona would recognize standing jokes and references in his speech, such as how he had a 4.0 when he was a student at LSU—his blood alcohol content, not grade point. (When Dean Ceppos did the introduction, he repeated a version of the old bit about Afghanistan and Louisiana being similar, at which the crowd chuckled.)

Without naming Jindal more than a couple of times, Carville began to make his case. He said sometimes it seemed as if there were two views on how state higher ed has fared since 2007 (the year Jindal was elected Governor), since some op-ed pieces say, “’Everything is fine, we’re gonna work this out,’ [and] the Board [of Supervisors] says, ‘We’re gonna supplant [reduced state funding] with better purchasing power.’”

This, Carville said, “Kinda reminds me of the greatest movie ever made about higher education: Animal House.” Technicians to the side of the stage cued a clip on two enormous screens, and Carville said Kevin Bacon, in the parade-riot scene at the end of the film, represented the official take on higher ed problems, and that “the people of the LSU community” were represented by the stampeding crowd. “Remain calm! All is well!” he said, imitating Bacon just before he’s flattened.

“That’s us,” Carville said, after the clip played. “And we’re not calm. [...] All is not well.”

From there his speech began to swell and was often rousing, though he never laid out much of the context or specifics of state cuts, so it would have been possible for members of the audience who weren’t there to hear him rip on Jindal, and who didn’t know exactly how or to what degree LSU was threatened, to have been puzzled. 

“History is relentless,” Carville said. “History seeks the truth; it seeks it as relentlessly as the River seeks the Gulf. He [Bobby Jindal, presumably] can no more escape history than a raindrop or a snowflake that falls in a river in Minnesota can escape endin’ up in the Gulf.”

“You know,” he said, a rhetorical tic he used to start new sections, which I found strangely stirring, “I hear politicians and everybody today talks about the Judeo-Christian tradition. Well, I live a block from the Jewish Temple, and a block from a Jesuit university; I was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Brothers of Sacred Heart. And I know something about the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

“You know what the biggest day on the Jewish calendar is? Not celebratin’ some victory at Masada, or the Ten Commandments. It’s the Day of Atonement. The last request that the Christian Jesus [sic] made on the cross was not to strike all the gay people dead. It was a request for forgiveness. And I ask your forgiveness for not speakin’ out sooner. ‘Cause this has gone on too long. Gone on too long. And I went along with it for too long. But, you know: The best time to plant an oak tree is 25 years ago; second best time is right now. Second best time is right now.”

Carville pointed to “heroes on our side,” including F. King Alexander, LSU President and Chancellor; the staff of The Daily Reveille, “which has covered itself in glory”; and Professor Bob Mann (whose excellent blog I follow, and who helped me find the info for the commencement).

Carville said there’s a debate, and “on one side you’ve got Bobby Jindal and a man named Grover Norquist...and they say education is a commodity. You can commoditize it, you can charge for it, you can raise tuition; it’s just another thing out there—it’s a barrel of oil, it’s an ounce of gold, it’s a stock, it’s anything. 

“On the other side—on the other side of history—lies Thomas Jefferson, who was the founder of the first public university in the United States, who insisted on his tombstone it not record that he was the third President [of the United States], but was the founder of the University of Virginia. 

“John Adams...was so conservative he’d make Ronald Reagan look like Franklin Roosevelt. He was conservative to the core, but the one thing he agreed [on] with Jefferson...[was] a public institution on every square mile, because they wanted everybody to have access to public higher education. 

“And the father of all—ALL!—public higher education in the United States is a minor historical figure by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln in 1862 in a country [that] had a few more problems than soft oil prices signed something called the Morrill Land-Grant Act, of which we’re sitting on.... 

“So I can tell you, in this historical struggle, I’m seeking my guidance and my inspiration from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Abraham Lincoln.”

Carville said Louisiana doesn’t have a Mississippi State or a Clemson, and that there is no university as indispensable to the state as LSU. While this is mostly true, those at Louisiana’s other colleges and universities might wish for a more concerted and inclusive political response or plan to devastating budget cuts; organizers for the recent rally in Baton Rouge to save higher ed never contacted my campus or suggested people bus in from around the state to add unified voices to the protest. But locale is not all that divides Louisiana when it comes to education.

“Now I know what a lot of you are thinkin’,” Carville said, “and I’m gonna address that. You’re sayin’, ‘Ohh, this is Carville, it’s the same red and blue thing we always have in this country. He just doesn’t like it because Jindal’s a Republican, and it’s all politicized. This is not red and blue. This is not. This is purple and gold. This is purple and gold.”

A photo of a check from Carville’s account was shown on the big screens, “undated and made out for five-thousand dollars,” to be given to the next Governor of Louisiana, regardless of party affiliation, who helps pass a constitutional amendment that guarantees LSU funding at the SEC public average. "This place is my passion,” Carville said.

Then he turned the address back to the graduates, since it was their day, he said, “and really the last thing you should want or needed was for some old political guy to stand up and rant and rave about what’s goin’ on in the state.” But he cautioned them against thinking they were the last class “across the burning bridge” and could take their degrees and head for Houston or New Orleans without caring what happened to their alma mater.

He insisted they remember for the rest of their lives one word from the school song: “moulder” (“All praise to thee, our Alma Mater, / moulder of mankind”), since “there are two kinds of people in life: there are the moulded, and there are the moulders.” He wanted each of them to be an “active participant in life, and active participant for what goes on.” He said that even in financial straits, the faculty had taught them well and they, he implied, like himself, had learned something “that not a lot of people get from a university,” that “there is something bigger than myself.” The quarter of their hearts they would leave at LSU would “draw ya back, it’s gonna give you passion, it’s gonna give you purpose in life.”

He asked them to come back in 2060, the 200-year anniversary of LSU, when he wanted people to be saying that, in 2015, graduates and others “symbolically drew a line in the rich alluvial soil of the state they love, and refused to write the last chapter of a declining university, but wrote the first chapter of the resurgent, wonderful, center of learning that we have today. That’s what I want. That’s what we’re gonna be able to do.”

I took my elder son with me to the commencement, a two-hour drive in subtropical rain and coastal traffic. It felt necessary. We’ve been in Louisiana three years now, nearly a quarter of his life, and he’s begun to forget that prayer circles before acting class is different from what we knew in Illinois. The other day at a McDonald’s he pointed to the ubiquitous TV tuned to Fox News and may have said Bill O’Reilly is a great man; the incident is hazy, as I was left Heimliching the Big Mac from my astonished throat and ran up an oxygen debt. Starbuck is old enough to pimp me, so I can’t discount that, and there’s a possibility he was confused by O’Reilly plugging his book that has Abe Lincoln in the title. Starbuck is a great fan of history, especially Lincoln and the Civil War. But through the school year he's around local friends and teachers as much as he is around me and my wife, and I engaged in a little teaching moment that day, and again over Red Zeppelin pizza in Baton Rouge after Carville’s address. Though I suspect Carville ignored the rest of Louisiana (and US) public higher education that day for rhetorical and political means, aiming to win the battle he can help fight, I was comforted he’s here at all.

See most of James Carville’s 2015 LSU commencement address here.


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