Sexton navigates a global stereophonic conversation about education.
John Sexton: Personally today, I’m in a very interesting stereophonic conversation. In one ear, I hear beautiful symphonic music. It comes from a person like Gordon Brown in the UK. It comes from a person like the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who says, “I want to built Abu Dhabi,” where today there’s the beginnings of a full idea capital. I talk to leaders like Gordon Brown and Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zaid. I hear from them, first of all, that they embrace the notion that the world of the 21st Century is going to be a world of ideas and that education at the highest level is going to be the key to unlocking that. They see as the future of their societies investing heavily on the public sphere in higher education and access to higher education for every talented student for a system that builds to press the students as far up the talent pyramid as they can be pressed. On the other hand, here in the United States, I hear very, very few of our political leaders grasping that concept and dedicating themselves to it. You hear a person like Mike Bloomberg in New York, who sees the
fact that maintaining New York as one of the few idea capitals of the world is key to the city’s future and building the infrastructure educationally from kindergarten right through the leading research universities we have in the city is pivotal to New York maintaining its position. But what you begin to see dangerously is most of our political leaders actually on the other side of the equation. In the other ear in this stereophonic world in which I live, I hear kind of grating atonal music coming from the political leadership in the United States, where they’ve begun to demagogue around issues of higher education. So you hear a constant connection of healthcare costs and the costs of higher education. It is very simplistic and appealing in the talking point message, especially to the middle class, for whom the higher education costs seem to be skyrocketing. It’s very easy to run past the fact that at most of the great universities of this country where tuition is going up. It’s going up because of the pressure of providing the kind of quality education you have to provide. It’s going up because the cost of books and technology are going up. It’s going up because knowledge is expanding and there’s more to cover. Therefore, you have to hire more faculty to do it. It’s going up because every single reform you want to make to provide a better education for the students who come to you involves lowering the student-faculty ratio, which means increasing your personnel costs. Universities are essentially, when you boil everything down, irreducibly they
are Socrates and the tree and the student. It’s the problem of the live string quartet, that personnel intensive system. That’s what a university is. It’s personnel intensive. If you have a live string quartet, you can’t use technology. You can’t tape the music, because then it’s not live. You can’t cut your personnel, because then it’s not a quartet. You can’t play the music faster, because then it’s not really the music. That’s what we’re engaged in a high-class education. The politicians in the United States, as they appeal glibly to the cost of higher education have begun to pound that which makes this country very special. Higher education is the pride of this country. They act as if there’s some kind of monopoly out there among the 6,500 actors in higher education, diverse as we are, that is involved in a conspiracy to bilk the middle class of their money. This could not be more wrong and it could not be more short-sighted. So here I am in this stereophonic conversation where outside the United States, people are getting the idea that what you need to have the future, to own the future, to be one of the idea capitals in this matrixed world of idea capitals, you need great higher education. Here in the United States, we’re in the process of devaluing that. In a world where we dominate today, and I guess this isn’t a good metaphor to use,
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given the present state of the Yankees, but I’ll use it anyway, speaking more to the glory of the franchise over time. We’re in the process of turning the Yankees into the Mudhens, while the rest of the world is saying, “We’re going to create what you have.” If you look 25 or 50 years out, it’s a very dangerous world for the United States. How do you change that? You change it by issuing the clarion call to the political leadership to begin to take the long view, even though it may not be the politically effective view.
Recorded on 5/19/08