JAMES: Good afternoon, everyone.
Jefferson Cowie, a professor of history at the ILR school, has been called one of our most commanding interpreters of recent American experience by The Nation magazine. His first book, Capital Moves:RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor, won the Taft Prize for the best book in labor history in 2000. More recently, he is the author of Stayin' Alive:The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which won the Francis Parkman Prize for the best book in American history and the Merle Curti Award for best book in social and intellectual history, among several other awards. In addition to his scholarship, professor Cowie's essays and opinion pieces have also appeared in such venues as the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, the Chicago Tribune, American Prospect, Descent, and other popular outlets.
A passionate and dedicated educator, Cowie is the recipient of several teaching awards. He just recently stepped down as house professor and dean of William Keeton House, where he lived with his family and over 300 undergraduates dedicated to living and learning on West Campus. So without further interruption, please join me in welcoming Professor Cowie.
JEFFERSON COWIE: This is like a ILR triumvirate here. Just the way we like it. I was honored to receive the invitation to do the last lecture, but concerned when I saw there was a skull underneath the term last lecture. The idea of doing one's last lecture is nerve-wracking enough. I'm on on the lapel? Thanks.
So I'm thrilled to be here, really honored, and I want to thank the Mortar Board Society for inviting me. And I'm really kind of humbled at the company that I've been asked to be with here. Not just the wonderful undergraduates of this Tapping Class and other Tapping Classes, but also the other faculty members who have been given this honor. It's really an esteemed group. But I'm going to comment on some of my predecessors at this podium at the end of my talk.
And this talk is very much an invitation to dialogue. I'm hoping that people will have some questions at the end of this. I left a little room to sort of provide an invitation to engagement.
I'm on a sabbatical leave right now, and this has sort of lured me out of hiding. And after living with the wonderful undergraduates at Keeton for four years, they gave me some time off for good behavior, and I've been working on some other projects. But this invitation was too rich, too wonderful to turn down. And it's interesting, because I actually thought my sabbatical would be a chance to regain some of my lost youth, but in fact, the opposite seems to be happening, whereas I'm sort of taking stock here at the halfway point and re-contemplating some of life's big questions.
And I think it's appropriate, because what I'm going to do for you to-- ask you to do today is also think about some of life's big questions that I think are escaping us here at the Academy for some reasons I'll go into. So basically, I think this is an appropriate venue for me today. I'm also hoping that this is, in fact, my last lecture. What I mean by that is I won't have to give another last lecture. I'll just get to keep going on, and on, and on, and on indefinitely.
So my understanding of my mission is to sort of mix some autobiography, some disciplinary content, and some sage wisdom and try and advance the cause of the Mortar Board Society here. So I'm going to talk today about the intersection of two of my most important concerns. The first is inequality. That is something I study. It animates my research, it concerns my politics, and it had a profound impact on my personal life.
The other thing I want to talk about is the meaning of higher education, which I cherish, I practice, and which also changed my life forever. But I think there's a relationship right now, between inequality on the one hand and higher education on the other, and perhaps democracy in the middle. That is at a very volatile point in our society, and I think the issues at stake are profound. And some of these issues are as old as mankind itself, but I find, today, these issues pressing against each other, pressing against one another in a way that's creating a crisis for our futures. And that's what I want to talk about today.
Let me begin with a simple question. How many people here chose to go to college? Raise your hand if you chose to go to college. All right. I don't think you did. I think you think you chose to go to college.
What does it mean to choose? Freedom of choice presupposes genuine freedom of some sort or another. And here, when I'm talking about freedom, I'm not just talking about the restraints and absence of restraints on your behavior, but also the types of security that allow you to do what you want to do.
This type of freedom is not simply freedom from something, but is the freedom and capacity that allows you to do something, to be something, even if it's only for yourself. My guess is that few of you ever enjoyed that level of freedom, because for most young people, the security necessary for true freedom is a very rare thing indeed. Let me illustrate what I'm saying by turning to that requirement of the last lecture, the autobiographical anecdote.
When I was about 20 years old, I actually can't remember how old I was, I was in one of the many parking lots in Yosemite Valley National Park. And I was surrounded by some very close friends and some of the steepest granite walls in the world. And it was a beautiful October day, and we were away from college for the weekend for a rock climbing trip. I basically lived to climb at that point. A friend of mine told me I should write home to my parents and tell them my major was vertical technology.
We came back to the parking lot. We dumped our packs. We dumped our ropes. We dumped our climbing hardware. We cracked open these horrible-- what we used to do is take those two-liter pop bottles, and we used to mummify them in duct tape in and store our water in those. It was really disgusting, but that was what we did, and chug the water. And I remember at that moment looking around on this perfectly crisp, clear October day in Yosemite Valley and knowing I couldn't go back.
And we-- at that moment, I don't know what route, what climbing route we'd done, but we did something. Took a long time, all day. Our hands ached, our bodies were exhausted, our souls were full. It was what poets would call the sublime confidence of youth. It was just that moment of existential freedom. And under that perfect sky, and in that crisp air, I had a sense of accomplishment that really filled me in a way that I knew I did not want to give up. And all that stuff that Thoreau wrote about, and Whitman wrote about, and Camus wrote about, we felt it.
And so I didn't go back to college. Three of us didn't go back to college that day. We quit. And that's the kind of freedom I'm talking about. And we joined one of these crazy athletic subcultures that lives on recycling cans and doing odd jobs to keep you going so that you could-- sort of like surfing, you know. You live to do this sport with a subculture of like-minded people, this sort of tribe of wacky people who just want to do whatever it is they're doing, seeking out the next climbing route, seeking out the next wave, whatever that next great thing is.
And it was a fantastic feeling. It was scary, right. I was tying my connection to one of the great universities in the world, the University of California at Berkeley. But that weekend was just simply too good to give up. I couldn't leave the valley, as we called it. And I left the engineering program at the University of California in my rear-view mirror. Now, my kids are right there. If either of you guys do that, you're in deep trouble.
Now, back to the question of freedom. There was a time when the structure of higher education allowed you to do this in a way that it doesn't anymore, I think. It allowed you this level of freedom. Allowed you to leave your parents outraged, allowed you to pursue your dreams to the fullest, and perhaps most importantly, allowed you to think about your education as a process of formulating goals, of testing boundaries, of gaining critical thinking skills and of forging values.
And I'm not-- I don't want to idealize this, which it's easy to do. You know, the older generation's always guilt-tripping the younger generation. I was often disappointed in the intellectual community I found at my undergraduate institution, and I was often disappointed in my own intellectual commitment. But the structure of opportunity at that moment was undeniable, and I'll talk more about that in a minute.
Not only did I drop out of engineering school, a program your parents will tell you is a lucrative trade, but when I finally went back, I found my happiness as that most dreaded of majors, a history major. History, once one of the more popular majors on campus and classes, has followed the fate of much of the humanities and spiraled into a crisis of enrollments, a crisis of what its sense of self is, its purpose.
But I could afford that moment to put my occupational anxieties on the shelf because I was not in debt. I could afford to embrace my education as an education, not as vocational training, because it appeared to me, at the time, it was something I was doing for my life, not my wallet. So let me widen the lens back a little bit here.
How could I do this? And how did I get there in the first place? What was that foundation of freedom I was talking about? A big part of this issue is structural. I caught the very tail end of an age in which public education was both affordable and, I would argue, democratic.
I'm from the Midwest. My dad was a janitor at my high school. My mom taught art. We were pretty stable. There weren't a lot of economic crises, but we never had any savings, we never owned our own house, we never had a car that was made in that decade, and sometimes we had-- we had this one car that actually wouldn't go in reverse. So it was kind of funny. The kids would have to all pile out and push the car backwards.
When I was in high school, we lived in a small apartment. And when I left home, I did it as fast as I possibly could. And I went to California, and I got a job. And I didn't know it at that time, but California still had what was called the Master Plan. The Master Plan for Higher Education. It was basically a social contract with all Californians that guaranteed almost everybody a crack at higher education.
It had three tiers. Available to virtually everybody was a community college, a two-year degree. And you could go there for vocational training, or you could go there to transfer into another university. Everybody. No matter how badly you had screwed up in your life, no matter how miserable your grades were in high school, no matter what kind of trouble you got into, you could go to a community college and start your life again.
And after that, you could then transfer to the next year, which was the Cal State system. In the Master Plan, they had expected about a third of students in California would go to the Cal State system. And then at the top was the crown jewel of the University of California system, which of course you know. UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the total of nine other campuses at the time. There's 10 now.
And this, by my estimation, is probably the most democratic thing I have ever personally come across in my life. Because not only could you walk in at any moment and rebuild your life, and go to one of the greatest universities in the world, you could do it almost for free. And so when I'm talking about the structure of freedom, that's what I'm talking about. That provides you with the space to do what it is you wish to do with your life.
And I think that that system, which was echo-- it reached its pinnacle in California, but it was echoed throughout the country, was really one of the bulwarks in creating the post-World War II middle class. New York was similar. Last, but similar.
The Sunni system was one of the greatest expansions in public higher education that ever took place, and it took place under the aegis of a Republican governor named Nelson Rockefeller. In little more than a decade, Rockefeller transformed this tiny underfunded state system into the largest public university system in the country at the time. So this expansion of public education helped blur class lines, it promoted occupational mobility, it made the life chances of children from different economic backgrounds more possible, more open-ended.
And while Europe enhanced its social safety net, the United States increased access to education. So it's sort of a uniquely American approach to taking care of people. There's this ideology of individualism, and that people will make it or break it on their own skill and pluck, but here we are going to provide them with the tools. And we're going to make those tools accessible to a large number of people. And both occupation and lifestyle, as a result, became a matter of choice.
By the time I arrived in the early 80s, you could already hear the death rattle of the system. The cost was still pretty cheap, though. I went to Berkeley in the early '80s for about $750 a semester. And I made that in a morning job tuning skis and selling climbing hardware. And then in the summers, I would work in the building trades.
And I remember at the time, people grousing all the time. Oh, it's so expensive. It used to be free. I can't believe how much this costs. Uh-oh. Pardon me, I've unwired. There we go. And I remember everybody saying it all used to be free, and we used to do whatever we want, and it was great. And I was like, look, I'm fine.
And then my roommate, who was an immigrant from Lebanon, who was so worldly, and so smart, and knew how to work the bureaucracy, and he was like a genius of this stuff, he told me about this thing called Pell Grants. And then I applied for a Pell Grant. And the federal government gave me money, and I was able to not even have to work as much as I had been working. And suddenly, I was on educational easy street.
OK, so being able to drop out of school that year, choosing not to go to school at all, basically rested on the system of excellent affordable higher ed and a connection, albeit a loosening one, between those the top and those at the bottom of the economic ladder. I was debt-free, and therefore not indentured to the person who would pay me the highest salary so that I could pay back my student loans, something I'm sure many of you are thinking about now. Or I was not morally or socially bound to my parents, who may have forked out a whole bunch of money and had certain expectations of what I would do. I was free.
So when I graduated, debt-free, I worked for a few months, and I grabbed that same backpack, and I headed out. I flew to Southeast Asia. And for six months, I wandered around, starting in Kathmandu. I went through Rangoon, and down to Bangkok, and ended in the beaches of Bali. And again, because I was unencumbered and I was well-educated.
OK, so that's the autobiographical part. What is the problem we face? Back to today. One of the core issues we face today is the ever-widening gap of inequality. And if you haven't got the news on this, you need to. And higher education is both a cause of it and a victim of it. And I want to make two arguments about that, both cause and victim.
It's currently more difficult for someone from a less affluent background to obtain access to elite higher education. And once there, the anxieties for everybody of inequality are simultaneously eroding the quality of that education. So I want to talk a little bit about inequality, and then I want to talk a little bit about how that affects both access to higher ed and the meaning of higher ed.
We begin with a metaphor. When I was on vacation with my family last year, we were driving from Los Angeles out to Joshua Tree, California. Actually, it just dawned on me, the reason I was doing that was because I was going back to try rock climbing after not doing it for 15 years. Wasn't pretty.
As we were driving out toward Riverside, I saw basically, a symbol that I thought captured our time extraordinarily well. Separated from our freeway was another freeway, stuck in between the meridian of the two going lanes and the coming lanes. And it was a very smooth, lightly-traveled, fully-automated, privately-financed, uncongested set of lanes known as the 91 Express Lanes. And I'd never seen this before.
And the deal is, during rush hour, or any time, but why you'd do it not during rush hour, I don't know, you can avoid this congestion of the regular freeway by paying what is basically $1 a mile to opt on to the private freeway. And for 10 bucks each way, basically, you can whip along past those little people on the crummy old freeway, who are stuck in traffic, not able to pay the extra $400 a month that it would take to commute both ways every day for a month.
So I thought wow, that doesn't seem right. I mean, that really, you can opt out of the system, right? That's a challenge to our sense of the public, a challenge to the sense of the civic, a challenge to basically our civic identity. But here's the kicker. The backers of the express lanes I found out later, the financial backers, have a very controversial non-compete clause or non-compete agreement with the state, with Caltrans.
And it was negotiated with the California Department of Transportation. Never brought to the legislature, just negotiated. And it prevents any improvements on the old freeway in order to ensure that theirs is the preferred freeway. And so they can't widen it. They can't add lanes. They can't put in public transportation. They can't do anything. And so we have a swiftly-moving expressway for those that can afford it, and a crumbling crowded mess for those who can't. And I think that is an apt description of the world you're inheriting.
Now, there are those in the crowd who will say well, that's a nice metaphor, Jeff, but there's a whole different discussion to be had, like why do we have freeways? And how come there's not more trains? And why so many cars? And all that. But this is my metaphor, and I'm sticking to it, OK?
So some have begun to call this the age of inequality. It is back to the bad old days. We have levels of inequality of the Gilded Age, the age of the robber barons, the late 19th century. And we all know, on some gut level, that we have to get onto that smooth, fast private lane. We can't get stuck in the public lanes.
We'll be stuck in the slow lanes with no health insurance. We'll be stuck in the slow lanes with no retirement support. We'll be stuck in there with few occupational protections. So you have to do whatever you can to get into the fast lanes. And this has a very profound effect on the ideas, and the ideology, and the ambitions that you come to Cornell University or any other great university with.
Inequality is more pernicious than we even think. It's not just that some people have more and other people have less. It's actually a challenge to who we are as a society. In a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett called The Spirit Level, the spirit level is the level-- is the bubble in the level when a carpenter tries to see if something's level. It's not about spirituality. They compare different societies' levels of inequality. And the United States wins the contest of inequality.
And then they correlate that with a bunch of negative societal outcomes. And it turns out that the higher a society's inequality, the worse its social outcomes. So if you are a grossly unequal society like our own, you have higher levels-- or lower levels of life expectancy. You have lower math and literacy skills. You have higher infant mortality. You have higher rates of homicide. You have higher rates of imprisonment.
You have higher rates of teenage birth. You have lower levels of communal trust. You have higher levels of obesity. You have higher levels of mental illness. And you have lower levels of social mobility. There is a corrosiveness in inequality that affects everybody, even the most affluent. They're more protected than the rest of us, but it actually affects even the most affluent. It's a deep and profound problem.
In fact, social mobility is something we pride ourselves as Americans on, right? You know, pick you up by your bootstraps with luck and pluck, and you'll make it in America. Well, in fact, social mobility is higher in Europe. If you want the American dream, go to Denmark.
In the book that James talked about, Stayin' Alive, I trace the beginnings of this problem. And I say that after the 1970s, quoting myself, "a republic of anxiety overtook a republic of security." A republic of anxiety overtook a republic of security. And it's all those factors that went into shaping our social fabric.
Right now, if you look at where the United States stands on the list of unequal nations, you won't find us anywhere near the northern and western European countries. Not even near the Eastern European countries. But you will find us sandwiched down by Rwanda, the Philippines, Uganda, the Ivory Coast, and Iran. That's the company we keep in terms of how our Gini coefficient, the measure of inequality, compares.
We are therefore anxious. We cannot fall behind. As a result, we lose the notion of the public. We lose the notion of the public good, public education, public works, public affairs, and public concerns. As the idea of the public falls by the wayside, we are left to do whatever it takes to clamor up the banks that lead to that private highway. And the security that underlies the freedom of choice that we would like to enjoy is greatly eroded.
The days when a more unified and well-funded highway system to higher ed existed are over, and the figures are absolutely ghastly, I think, if you believe, as I do, in the power of education. The cost of obtaining a college degree has increased 1,120% since I went to college. That's about five times the rate of inflation. And a rate with which the Pell Grant that saved me simply isn't able to keep up. They're pretty much drops in the bucket, although they have increased under the first Obama administration.
As it is, seven of the top Pell Grant-receiving institutions are private-- I mean for-profit institutions, like the University of Phoenix. And these are universities whose missions are to make money, not necessarily educate. Meantime, the income achievement gap between children from the highest and the lowest income deciles is roughly 30% to 40% larger among children born in 2001 than among those born in 1976.
This one, this one amazes me. Less than 3% of college students in the top 143 schools come from the bottom one fourth of the income levels. 3%. I went to look at the list of the top 143 schools. There are a bunch I've never even heard of. And people, we talk about diversity. Diversity almost one of the goals of higher education, in a way. But if we have a diversity of the affluent, it is not, in fact, diversity.
Those that do make it through higher ed walk out with an average debt load of $25,000. That's the average. It can obviously be much higher. And that means no trip to Asia for those kids when they get out of college. And soon the total student debt is projected to break $1 trillion. Now, $1 trillion, you know, I'm not a numbers guy. One trillion.
So I looked up what that means. It's a lot of money. If you spent a million dollars every day, every day since the birth of Christ to now, you'd still have a quarter of a trillion dollars left over. A trillion seconds is 32,000 years. We're talking about some real cash here.
80% of the general population thinks that the cost of college is too high. The shocking thing is only 41% of college administrators think that the cost of college is too high. And unless we do something about all this, I may well be the last son of a custodian at a fancy Ivy League university, let alone the last one to give the last lecture to the Mortar Board Society. And let's be clear. Everyone's going to say well, we don't have any money. But it's a matter of priorities.
When I arrived in California, it was during the first Jerry Brown administration. He was governor in the '70s, and he's governor now. In the '70s and early '80s, when Brown was governor, there were 44,000 people in the California Penal system. 44,000 prisoners. Today, there are 44,000 guards in the California Penal system. It is what some are beginning to call the golden gulag of California.
My former state has the largest prison population in the country, and simultaneously, the public universities have hiked tuition the most of any state in the country. 21% in the most recent year alone. The state now spends the equivalent amounts of money on locking people up as providing opportunities for higher education. Since 1980, California has built exactly one new university and 20 new prisons. And on the federal level, obviously, there have been a variety of what I would regard as misguided uses of a whole lot of money in some quixotic wars and costly deregulations that have ended up drying up the public moneys.
Now, the more complicated question is not just access to higher ed. The other argument I want to make is that because of this inequality, the meaning of higher ed is greatly diminished. It forces you, and other students like you, to be more occupationally driven, to think of education as all the more instrumental. It is more difficult to obtain, and it is arguably less meaningful because of it. Less meaningful for people from all backgrounds. Again, we're back to the cost of inequality to everybody.
You arrive at Cornell and you absolutely have to go to work finding ways to get back on that smooth, fast highway, right? Because that old one is going to be a crowded, Hobbesian nightmare. But on both highways, the roadkill is going to be free thinking.
The triumph of market thinking forces us to retreat from big ethical questions and large existential issues. What is the good life? Why are we here? What do I owe others in my society? What is the citizenry capable of achieving? How should the polity be organized? How should it be regulated? What will make me truly happy?
This place, and those like it, must remain what a colleague of mine calls a quote "tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital." That cannot fall under a business plan, yet what we hear over and over again is that we need to make universities more and more like businesses.
Every year, I do this trick. Some of you, a few of you here may have been victims of this trick in my class. It's usually my upper division classes. And sometimes it's when I don't have a lecture prepared, to be quite honest. It's usually one my kids' fault.
But I walk into class, and I pretend to be really angry. And I slam a book on the table. And I say what are you doing here? Why are you here? And then it erupts into this huge conversation. We blow the entire day, the entire class period, talking about why people are here. And we have this very heated discussion about these very issues, and it gets very animated, and at the end everybody is really defensive.
And my favorite comment somebody ever made was one kid raised his hand and said, well, what do you want me to do? Like, go to Oregon and write poetry? And I was like OK, you know, that's not a bad idea. But what they run up against every time is what am I supposed to do? I'm going to walk out of here with all this debt, with my parents breathing down my neck. If I'm not in debt, my parents are in debt, or they've shelled out a tremendous amount of money. And so I see these corrupting influences of the market on people's lives.
I've become a big fan of this behavioral economist named Dan Ariely. He's a fascinating experimenter. You should go online and read his stuff. It's really interesting. And pick up his book Predictably Irrational. There, he describes what I think is a really interesting story that tells us something about where we're headed.
He describes a daycare. At that daycare, the staff got tired of the parents coming late to pick up their kids. So they decided that they would charge a fee for every time you went to pick up your kids in the evening and you were late. And when they did that, the frequency of parents showing up late increased. What had once been a social relationship became a monetized relationship, became a wage relationship.
And so people basically took advantage of it. I'm paying them. I don't have to show up. I'm paying. And so then the staff at the daycare said oh, well, let's go back to the old system. They couldn't. Once it had entered the parents' mind that they were paying for this, they wouldn't let go of it. And those higher rates of being late for picking up their kids continued.
The parents, when that fine became just a fee, it depersonalized the relationship. And the more important thing is they couldn't go back. Once that issue is out of the box, once we have allowed those economic relationships to dissolve those social relationships, it's very difficult to re-establish them. The fear of disapproval and doing the wrong thing was stronger than mere cash.
So I think that's a tale that we can take to heart when we think about higher education. Once we lose the non-market value of this education, it will be very difficult to go back. And that's why I think this is a crisis now.
Now I, along with several of my colleagues back in 2008, noticed sort of a brief Renaissance of curiosity amongst students. When the economy tanked and jobs became scarce, students were suddenly doing the readings again and asking questions again. And it was very exciting to be a teacher. But then, over at the ILR School, it looked like the Goldman Sachs conveyor belt got kicked back into gear about a year later. And along with that conveyor belt getting going, curiosity declined.
So the argument that the rewards of a life well-lived are far more enduring than anything Wall Street ever generated is a tough sell. Many students are too busy trying to figure out how to work for corporations for free, through internships, than to consider these big questions. And at this time of market fundamentalism, we need institutions that foster areas of inquiry outside the market. And the more that we lose our souls to this logic as an institution, I think the harder it is going to be to go back.
I had one pretty amazing experience with a group of people that were fairly well-insulated from the market. And I wrote about this in The Chronicle of Higher Ed. Some of you may have read it at one point. I had the privilege of giving the first-year reading that everybody loves. I did the year they did Grapes of Wrath. That may have been before a lot of your time. I can't remember.
And there I was in Barton Hall. It was the last time they did the big Barton Hall, you know, there's 4,000 people out there, it's huge. And you're up there like a rock star. There's these huge big screen TVs above you, and everybody's milling around out there, and I'm talking about the Grapes of Wrath, my favorite book, and I'm very excited. And the students are out there sort of somehow sleeping and e-mailing on their devices at the same time.
And yeah, that was a little disappointing. But then I was asked to give the same lecture at another place. The state penitentiary in Auburn, New York. And if anybody's insulated from market pressure, it's those guys. And I went in there. I had no idea what to expect. But I basically gave the same talk on the Grapes of Wrath in the chapel.
The place was on fire, intellectually. These prisoners, most of which were in there for really bad things they did when they were young men, were motivated, driven, excited, asking penetrating questions, intellectually alive in a way that I did not see the students crammed into Barton Hall. You guys. Now granted, Barton Hall is a terrible venue, and it was like 106 degrees in there.
But by and large, the contrast to me was extraordinary. And it made me wonder what it would take to get those same prison bars, or those metaphorical prison bars, that keep Cornell students in their cages down. What would it take to tear those bars down? And the more I thought about, I was just sort of bitter, it's a generational thing. But then I began to think about these issues of inequality. I began to think about these questions of how this erodes our sense of common, intellectual engagement.
And we talk a lot these days about being practical and pragmatic. But what that often means is let's use this place as a launching pad to get out in the real world. Right? We need to get in the real world. Why? To get a job, right? Cause you gotta get a job. But intellectually, I don't think that's right.
And it's also-- we said oh, being pragmatic. Well, there's actually a philosophy called pragmatism. You should look it up. It's based on things like inquiry, and skepticism, and experimentation, and experience. It doesn't mean just selling out.
And there is another real world that we can create. And it's a real world where you are separated from society. For four years, you get to be separate from the world, and you get to think about whatever you want to think about. And I think we need to protect that.
C. Wright Mills, one of my favorite intellectuals, wrote in 1956 quote, "only when mind has an autonomous basis," autonomous basis, "independent of power," and that doesn't include an internship and whatever, "independent of power, but powerfully related to power, can mind exert its force in the shaping of human affairs. This is democratically possible only when there exists a free and knowledgeable public to which people of knowledge may address themselves, and to which people of power are truly responsible."
Autonomy. It takes a position of autonomy and freedom to be able to think about these issues and to be able to, therefore, go out and act in the world. I'm not against people getting internships and practical experience, all that stuff. That's great. But when that becomes the end, and when the nervous students come in, the summer is coming, and I don't have an internship. There's so much life experience out there to be had that doesn't include doing human resource management at some-- you know, for Pepsi Cola. Didn't mean to touch a nerve.
So most people outside the Academy are clamoring for more business models, more routes to higher earning power, more career skills. But these things are actually pretty easily obtained, especially as compared to what you might be able to attain here, talking to poets, and physicists, and religious scholars, and mathematicians, and artists, and maybe even the occasional mild-mannered historian. For four years, you get to opt out. To think, and to act, and to experiment. And it's a crime to think it has become wedded to the system rather than separate from it.
Higher education is one of the great achievements of this civilization. It can be found-- it was found with some of the nation's highest callings. As my friend Bill Deresiewicz has said, "democracy, equality, opportunity, self-improvement, useful knowledge, and collective purpose are all there. The same president who emancipated the slaves and funded the Transcontinental Railroad signed the Morrill Land-Grant in 1862." Of course, Morrill Hall up the way is named after him. "Public higher education is a bulwark against hereditary privilege and an engine of social mobility."
Summary of the action so far. Education has become more expensive. Education has become, therefore, more instrumental in getting a job. This makes people intellectually risk-averse. This makes college less intellectually serious, less meaningful, . And more market-driven.
What if we think about what other Mortar Board last lecture professors have said in this context? When President Skorton was here, he urged his audience to embrace quote "the non-linearity and unpredictability of your paths forward." That can't happen if you're in debt. And that can't happen if you haven't been open to a range of ideas that are something more than instrumental in advancing your career.
When Professor Ross Brann was here, my colleague on West Campus at the time, he discussed travel on the social imagination. But the miracles afforded by wandering and discovery are not going to happen from the glass towers of Manhattan, nor will it be affordable if your federal loan payment is due.
When former President Rawlings was here, he pushed students to close, thorough, and slow reading of texts. But that is not going to happen unless one relinquishes the goal of higher education to be the building of occupational skills and allow that most important ingredient in college life, intellectual excitement, to be part of one's education.
As I wrote in a piece-- I'm quoting myself again. This is kind of pathetic. I wrote a piece in the Daily Sun after the market crash, and I said "it's time for students to challenge professors who are complicit in either perpetuating the winner-take-all view that has dragged down the entire economic ship, including the winners, or more often those who feed the numbing technocracy that passes for education and allows us all to feign political innocence when it all goes down the tubes. So do your students, if your courses are filled with jargon and not ideas, formulas and not ethics, facts and not meaning, then revisit the course catalog and find yourself something better. The financial markets may be in a meltdown, but the marketplace of ideas is alive and well."
So all this requires freedom of choice, to bring it back to my theme. Freedom to choose to go to a great school. Freedom not to go to a great school. Freedom to use one's education for occupational goals, or freedom to take the education as its own self-evident good. We have to think about what money can't buy. In short, we need to still be able to afford the big questions, which I fear are the first thing to go when the budget axe starts to swing.
The fact that so many of you turned out to sit quietly and think about these things with me today is indeed encouraging, as are my chance to reunite with so many of you that have actually been such a stimulation to my own thinking, whether in my classes, or at Keeton House, or on the quad. But the problem that troubles me is an old one, probably older than I can even imagine. But Robert F. Kennedy, for one, managed to nail the problem with reducing national goals to mere economic thinking.
On the campaign trail in March 1968, he appeared at the University of Kansas. And I shall end with his words, which, I might add, were part of an election campaign. A little hard to imagine after our most recent election, but here's what RFK had to say.
"Too much and too long we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods, and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm, and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of our education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion or our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."
And with that, I invite you to-- [INAUDIBLE] do a discussion about some of these questions if you have some questions. Thanks for your time.
AUDIENCE: I really appreciate everything [INAUDIBLE] today. [INAUDIBLE] I just want to say [INAUDIBLE]. So I want to challenge you on [INAUDIBLE]. I think [INAUDIBLE] four years of college [INAUDIBLE] markets [INAUDIBLE]. Do you see that as [INAUDIBLE] improvisation of trying to [INAUDIBLE] some sort of [INAUDIBLE] picture of-- I don't know what the answer is [INAUDIBLE] or standard of living [INAUDIBLE].
JEFFERSON COWIE: So the question is, I've made this argument that college could be this four years of sort of autonomy from the real world, and we should embrace that, rather than just make this a platform for launching things into the real world. And you're saying is a more integrated approach more--
JEFFERSON COWIE: Oh, education. Oh my god, yeah.
JEFFERSON COWIE: Oh, I see what you're saying. Yeah. Oh my goodness. Yeah, well, that's right. That's the idea. I mean, the fantasy of higher education is to create lifelong learners, right? It's not just to have those great four years and, you know, weren't they lovely? Those of you who can remember them from the haze of beer pong.
But yeah, I mean, that would be the absolute fantasy. And you would keep going, and keep learning, and stay hungry. But you will, after this, have to pay the bills. You'll have to pay the rent. You'll have to-- you know. And so I would certainly engage that, encourage that, but I think this is a unique moment in people's lives. Yeah.
JEFFERSON COWIE: Can you project a bit?
AUDIENCE: You spoke about how you were in California having fun. [INAUDIBLE] And now [INAUDIBLE], and obviously that presents a problem. What exactly do [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFFERSON COWIE: He's been in several of my classes. He's been like that for a long time. No, I think that's a great question. The question, for those of you who couldn't hear it, was well, all right, so what do we do about it? And I think that's a fantastic question.
And what the issue I'm trying to draw attention to here is it's not just about education policy. It's actually about-- education is a reflection of the broader structure in which we're embedded. And so what we need to do is to begin to look at inequality broadly, and whether that means taxation structures, whether it means more bargaining power for people in the lower echelons of the economic ladder, whether it means redistributive policies of various kinds, through a variety of other mechanisms, we can talk all about that.
But not running off the cliff on the private highway, I think, is certainly the beginning. And from there you can begin to talk about specifics of education policy. I mean, as you well know, during the post-war era, there was the great compression of wages, and the top and the bottom were much closer together for several decades. And this was the golden age not just for working people, but it was the golden age of higher education. You had the GI Bill, you had all of these other things that allowed people to participate in their own education and uplift. And it was a beautiful, beautiful thing.
So there's no simple answer. And any single education policy, especially one that allows the price of education to keep going up because we can give people loans to cover the price of that, is an absolute failure. I really do think that we have to look at the question of inequality first and education policy second. Yes, the young woman. Yep, you.
AUDIENCE: So I wasn't in ILR [INAUDIBLE].
JEFFERSON COWIE: All right, if you're not in ILR, raise your hand. Good.
AUDIENCE: So ILR, in my opinion, is [INAUDIBLE] more a pre-professional school than ever before. Now, it's my understanding that [INAUDIBLE]. And so my first question is how do you feel [INAUDIBLE] college [INAUDIBLE] morphing into that [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFFERSON COWIE: You're killing me.
JEFFERSON COWIE: That is a fantastic question. I have wrestled with this very question for a long time. And because it had-- that question has connections to a variety of other really key issues. The fate of the humanities, and professional schools, and what's the relationship between humanities faculty and professional schools and the like.
So I have been concerned about the drift of the entire university towards more vocational enterprises. The classic liberal arts majors have declined numerically in terms of just seats in the classroom and numbers of majors. And I think that's a problem. And the professional schools have grown in stature. And I've often felt like kind of the crazy liberal arts guy in the ILR school. There's a few of us, but it's amazing how much, I think, we resonate with students.
I mean, it's hard to go of anecdotal evidence, but I think it may come to the point that we actually become sort of appendages to these larger vocational programs. I don't want to see that. But in any of these transformations, you have to sort of game out where you're going to land. Are you going to try and be part of the system as it's changing? Or are you going to resist it and try, but risk being left behind? And it's a delicate negotiation.
And I think the social justice mission at the core of the ILR school is still very strong. I still believe in it. I think it can be quite visionary. But I think it's not just the pressure of the-- it's not pressure coming from above, but also from below, from the students who are clamoring for more practical, more-- you know, which is all fine. But I have these moments with students who say god, I never thought about any of this stuff. And I get very concerned about the levels of rote memorization and regurgitation that I see in a lot of places.
And I'll step right up out in front and say business schools are some of the worst on that. So when the business minor? Is that what it is? Was created, the ILR school faced a dilemma. And so we decided we would have an impact on it. And I'm hoping it'll be positive. I hope we will be able to talk about working people, and talk about inequality, and talk about these things that are central to ILR's mission, and not just let it become another business program. But I lose sleep over this.
Thanks for your question. There was another on the-- yeah. And then you.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering, do you feel like this trend of higher education being more geared toward vocational pursuits will kind of spiral into like, education [INAUDIBLE] this topic, like everybody is just trying to get a job deal? Or do you think there's going to be some professional point where that maybe occurs and then we get out of it? Or is this sort of, without intervention, do you think it will kind of become the norm of that state? Or will that eventually kind of [INAUDIBLE] so [INAUDIBLE] we're frustrated [INAUDIBLE] that there will be kind of a Renaissance of [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFFERSON COWIE: Your last phrase warmed my heart. Rule one is never ask an historian to predict the future. We're terrible at it. But having said that, I don't see an easy way out in the near future. I think what will happen, if I had to predict this, I think there will become places and pockets that are known for being sort of rigorous critical thinking centers, and you'll go to the university of whatever because that's what you're drawn to.
And I would love to see, actually, a new university crop up that's just sort of planting its flag on that statement, right, that this is where you go to think. And later on, you can get all the professional training you want. You can go to graduate school and whatever you want. But this is where you're going to get critical reasoning skills. You're going to learn about everything from critical theory, to poetry, to literature, to history, to philosophy. But I am not optimistic.
Marx said something about under capitalism, all that's solid melts into air. And the world of ideas is one of the most, ironically, sort of solid things I think we have as intellectuals. And I fear for that. I really do. There are some possible bright spots. The MOOCs, the massive open online courses. Things like this that might-- there's these courses that professors are projecting around the world for tens of thousands of people at once, and maybe that will trickle into other sectors, and people will begin to talk about those issues in cafes and bars, and create a different kind of intellectual culture that we cannot even imagine. But I wish I had an answer. There was another-- yeah.
AUDIENCE: So, maybe it's pointless for the [INAUDIBLE] to take on this issue of how do you fix this from a policy, macro perspective. But as you've said, there's no real clear fix, easy fix in the near future. So as [INAUDIBLE], what [INAUDIBLE] have [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFFERSON COWIE: Right.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] so what can we do, as students, to [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFFERSON COWIE: For those of you who may not have heard, the question is what do we do, rather than looking at a macroeconomic issue, what do we do personally in this dilemma? And he said that he worked in human resources over the summer, not because he loved to file, but because he had to pay the bills. I had to work to pay the bills too. I had to live. We all had to live. I was completely independent of my parents as of 18. I got no support, mostly because they didn't have it.
So first of all, don't be afraid to work, and don't be afraid to work at something interesting. You know, there's a lot of interesting things here. And it's sort of what President Skorton said in his talk. This is not a linear path. You don't get the internship, and get the job, and then get the career, and then become-- your life is going to go all over the place.
So the first thing I would say is experiment. You know, it's a big world. Try something new. Be bold. Because you're not going to-- when you're my age, the boldness is a little less there. You know, you've got to get the kids to school, and you've got to put the food on the table, and you've got to publish or perish, or whatever it will be for you. But now's the time.
I would, within the context of paying the bills, I would try and get outside of the norm. Don't resist the pressure. I see it, and I feel it, viscerally, among the students, this sort of internship anxiety, right? I don't have an intern-- I don't have a winter internship. I don't have a summer internship. And you know, I volunteered at the ACLU for a while when I was in college, but I never had an internship. And so, you know, be careful, this could happen to you.
But be wary of the ideas and ideologies you're inheriting in the world. Critically analyze those on your own. This is basically your existential responsibility to take control of your own life. And if you're just doing what everybody else is doing, and doing whatever the corporation is asking you to do, then you are not a critical agent in your own existence. And that is a very, very sad thing.
Now, if you want to advance in that track, go for it and give it your all. But if you're doing it because everybody else is doing it, be a lifeguard. You know, whatever. And there's a lot of people doing really interesting things. And one of the things that kind of worries me the most about university life, is sometimes I actually see people's parameters narrow while they're here, rather than expand. Right? I've got to get-- my people do this tonight, and then do this-- and I've got to follow this particular track.
Well, I think that's dangerous. It's a big, exciting world. And there are people doing such amazing, creative stuff in the world. And find a way to latch onto that as best you can. I know that if you're facing debt, that's a tough one to get around. It really, really is. And I have no solutions, except for maybe a massive jubilee on student debt, but you know.
AUDIENCE: I think the point you're talking about, that really represents the dominant culture at Cornell of professionalism. I think it's not unique to the ILR, [INAUDIBLE] all the colleges. When you think about the way we apply--
JEFFERSON COWIE: Pre-med, whatever it is.
AUDIENCE: You apply to a major and you're trapped [INAUDIBLE]. You're already [INAUDIBLE]. But I guess, how do you create a cultural change among [INAUDIBLE]? That is what I [INAUDIBLE], because not only do we find this problematic, but we also recreate it. So how do you [INAUDIBLE]?
JEFFERSON COWIE: You begin with yourself, obviously. I mean, I don't have an easy answer. That's one of the reasons I took the job at Keeton House. Personally, it was to try to affect those sorts of changes among the students to, try and get them to take the world of ideas seriously. And some days I had-- we had-- 70 people jammed in to our apartment in violation of the fire code, clinging to whatever Walter LaFeber or whatever had to say. And it was amazing. And I felt like I had changed something.
Other days, you know, we had nothing, and I felt despair that I would ever make any inroads into the culture here at Cornell. But I think there's a variety of paths you can take, whether they're student groups, or reading groups, or action groups, or whatever that can help along that way. But you have to be able to accept the burden that you're pushing against a tide. And that, alone, is a very difficult thing to do. And that, again, suggests that you are willing to take responsibility for your own life. If you see it, you need to stand up to it and against it.
How long do you guys want this to go on? I think I'm getting the hook. Should I take one more? One more.
AUDIENCE: What do you think of the [INAUDIBLE] that [INAUDIBLE] majors. [INAUDIBLE] majors [INAUDIBLE] is that [INAUDIBLE] [? learning ?] thing? [INAUDIBLE] because I know I'm trying to [INAUDIBLE] and, you know, choosing a major is [INAUDIBLE] there, and a very specific [INAUDIBLE]. There's very little options to actually [INAUDIBLE].
JEFFERSON COWIE: That's an interesting question I hadn't really thought about. I mean, some of the most interesting students I've had have been these college scholars, you know, who-- you can do whatever you want. You just put together a thematic approach, and it's very selective, but it's been incredibly rich. And you have to do this thesis that culminates this, and you actually do have to do some original research.
And original research is another thing you can do. I mean, if you're doing real research, adding to knowledge, just not consuming knowledge, that can change the way you look at the world. So I urge you all to do that as well. But so from that model, I've had really good luck.
I'm sort of a disciplinary partisan. You know, there's the methods of history, and then there's the rest. So it's hard for me to imagine not being steeped in a tradition. I'm a little leery of interdisciplinarity as a thing we just knee-jerk grab onto. And in fact, when I taught this-- co-taught this crazy class called Six Pretty Good Books with two other professors, and what we did in that was rather than sort of be all Kumbaya, interdisciplinary, we actually fought with each other. And that was really fun.
So if you can-- writing your own major forces you to put different disciplines in conflict with each other and figure out how different people approach knowledge. That could be really rich. And it becomes, I think, a vague so many colors it turns brown sort of effect, I think it might be problematic. But it does force you to take responsibility for your own learning, and not just go the cookie cutter route, so there might be something to that.
All right. I think these guys really want to me off the stage, so thank you. Thanks for coming out. Thanks, man.
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Mortar Board Senior Honor Society is pleased to present Professor Jefferson Cowie's "Last Lecture." Each semester, Mortar Board invites a distinguished faculty or staff member to address the Cornell community and present their hypothetical "last lecture." This semester, through his "last lecture," Professor Cowie offers his thoughts on the meaning and purpose of higher education in an age of rising inequality.
Jefferson Cowie, a professor of history in the ILR School, has received a number of awards for his teaching and scholarship. He just completed a four year term as House Professor and Dean at William Keeton House, where he lived with his family and three hundred undergraduates. His most recent book,
Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, was awarded the Francis Parkman Prize for the best book in American history. In addition to his scholarship, his essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the New Republic, Dissent, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other popular outlets.