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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Of philosophers, hourglasses and fleas
September 14, 2011 - 4:00pm

Philosophers confuse me. Their classical training (grammar, logic, rhetoric) can be very helpful when I'm trying to decipher a difficult problem. But that same training seems to lead them, from time to time, to conclusions which seem far from reality.

I was talking to a philosophy prof yesterday. The general subject was higher education (no surprise -- employment at Greenback U is what brought us together), and the specific topic came around to institutional civic engagement. The prof put forth Greenback's increasing involvement in corporate partnerships as an example of tearing down the ivory tower which, in her mind, seemed synonymous with engaging civil society.

Now I don't mean to imply that Greenback's various corporate partners constitute anything approximating uncivil society, but to my mind, civil society is "of the people, for the people and by the people", and if current trends continue, it's likely soon to perish from the earth (or at least this portion of it). Corporate partnerships are necessary for tuition-dependent (which is to say, pretty much all) colleges and universities. But the unintended consequences of corporate capitalism (at least, recent versions thereof) are aggravating factors if not root causes of pretty much every sustainability problem society is facing. Corporations are very effective at achieving more, faster and more efficiently. But sustainability often demands that we do less, slower, and less voraciously.

Which isn't to say, of course, that it isn't sometimes necessary to engage and partner with major corporations. In the short term, they're "where the money is." But, as my father used to say, if you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas. So while I'm all in favor of tearing down the ivory tower, I think it matters which particular wall we tear down first.

While it may not seem directly related, a recent column in the Guardian resonated with my concerns in this area. More clearly than anything else I've read recently, it describes the impacts of recent economic events on the American middle class. Worse, it talks about how major corporations are rethinking their marketing strategies to accommodate -- yea, to encourage -- the bifurcation of American society into an investor class and a laborer class (an "hourglass" market). The "happy mediocrity" described by Tocqueville is increasingly difficult to find, and projections are not encouraging.

So I'm in favor of tearing down ivory towers if the objective is to make higher education less elitist, less universalizing, more relevant, more place-based. But I fear that opening the gates primarily for persons of the corporate persuasion mitigates in an entirely different direction.

And I think I have enough fleas, already.


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