The Attack on Louisiana: The Curious Conundrum of public and higher education, taxes, business, LABI and Mann

I am a strong supporter of public education at all levels. Admittedly I am biased when it comes to K through 12 schools and the power of public education because I attended a small rural school throughout those grades. Many teachers had been the classmates of our parents, and many of the older teachers had taught our parents. We knew our teachers, and they knew us even before stepping into the classrooms.

With that connection teachers had more than a professional obligation; they had a personal interest. Our parents respected the teachers and so did we. No I wasn’t in school back in 1969, but the sentiment of this cartoon which I believe was originally of French origin and has been replicated in numerous iterations summarizes my parent, teacher, student relationships during my public schooling.

Education Yesterday and Today

Likewise the community was vested in the school as the school was the center of the community. When people feel like the school is a piece of them, they treat it differently. It matters. When the local businesses and individuals take pride in the school, it spills over onto the students, instructional and support staffs, and the school principal.

I realize that type of continuity that we enjoyed didn’t exist everywhere even back in my day. Perhaps if I had attended an urban school or even another rural school where it was normal for families to move away from and into the area for reasons such as employment, the preceding paragraphs would in fact be rose colored glasses tinted recollections instead of an honest first person assessment.

One size fits all solutions do not exist in my opinion as each school has unique challenges. I believe that starting points, however, share common roots. Regardless of location we as a society need to respect education and the teachers. We as a society need to make our communities safe and stable environments. Children will never achieve to their fullest potential if they are afraid at home, on the way to school, or on the school grounds. They will never fully concentrate if their stomach grumbles from hunger. If children feel like nobody cares about them, what reason do they really have to care about others?

Until societal problems are addressed, the classroom problems can only be patched temporarily instead of being repaired.  Teachers alone cannot solve all the ills of the world, but from evaluations and statements by governing boards it appears that ability is expected. It is classic pass the buck ideology when it comes to blame.

I also support public universities, and again all of my degrees have been earned at public institutions. Critics today often accuse professors of indoctrination. Well if indoctrination were the goal, my professors failed.

As a student I thought that my professors worked. As an undergraduate, I found them inside their offices during their posted office hours. As a graduate student, I often had my professors assisting me at times other than official office hours. As I progressed further along the path of grad student serfdom, I found myself working alongside my major professors far away from their offices.

From the other side of the desk as a professor, I can attest that the vast majority of us work far more hours than we are technically “required” by our contracts. At a community college, the teaching load is usually a 5/5 which means 5 courses a semester. At a regional university, you might teach a 4/4.  Some research institutions have implemented 3/3 or 3/2, and now it is typically the select few which have something in line with a 2/2 or lower number of courses.

What many do not understand, however, is that the time inside the classroom whether it is 5 courses or single course is often the “break” from the workload. Preparing for that class consumes more time. At the universities you must conduct research. Many CC professors also conduct research within their disciplines, and often excellent research, even though for many that is not an official job requirement. Regardless of institution mission, we all have the responsibility to stay current in our disciplines.

Add into the “subject” hours of preparation, staying current, and research an equivalent amount of time performing college and community service. By this point, you have put in a 40 to 50 hour week which honestly ain’t bad in my opinion, but you still have to find additional time for individual meetings with current students, requests from former students for letters of recommendations or guidance on applications and other career pursuits.  At this stage, one has put in maybe 60 or so hours for the week. Again, not that bad of a workload, but now you get to start the reading and grading of papers, exams, and other assignments.

Think about this sad fact, many people today find 1000 words too long to read. Now imagine reading 40 papers that are 4 pages in length or approximately 1000 words each, marking content and grammar.  The time left in the day seems to dwindle faster than the remaining papers in the stack yet to be graded.  Still, we can do that because that is our job.  Once we complete grading those 40 papers, we just begin the papers from another section after taking a deep breath and quietly thinking “one down – 4 more sections to go.”

To compare and contrast:

I’ve worked out in fields on the farm from before sunup to well after sundown, and that’s a tough honest day’s work. I’ve laid out sewer lines and did plumbing work, mechanical work, worked inside a distribution plant, and out on the water shrimping and crabbing. I’ve seen my Dad work retail at the K&B and heard stories about when he worked as a welder. All of these types of work are admittedly different from that of a professor, but honestly each is easier in some ways and harder in other ways and ultimately become more or less the equivalent of each other.

That sweat and body aches from the farm do allow you to enjoy some fresh air and a chance to relax the mind.  If one takes breaks to stretch and move around, sitting at a desk is far less harsh on breaking down the body than the physical labor required for other jobs.

Simply stated, my research and paper grading does not result in the same aches and pains to the body that I experienced working in other areas, but the mind can become tightly wound without ready access to pressure releasing valves such as breaking apart a pipe with a hammer or just slapping the water as you haul in your traps. It may be different pains and strains, but it can be the same.  All things have their positives and negatives, and what might be a negative for you is a positive for me at our respective stages in life.  What stressed me 15 years ago is nothing today, and things that cause me physical discomfort today were nothing 15 years ago. There is nothing wrong about that because we are different, and we all change. To me the important thing isn’t necessarily what you do, but the pride and effort you put into whatever work you do.

Now all that I wrote above merely puts some of the idiocy taking place back home into context.

Higher education in the state of Louisiana has been decimated.  The state constitution does make higher education one of the two losers when budget problems occur, but that fact doesn’t excuse the budget problems. It would take a master’s thesis to describe the cuts, and that information is readily available in a variety of sources.

I do not have access to actual figures, so some of my thoughts need to be taken with a grain of salt. One, I have always thought that Louisiana has too many higher education systems and boards.  I believe some should be combined under one umbrella. While this work has been done a number of times, I think it is a good practice to continually review programs at the regional universities and make efforts to further reduce duplication while using any additional resources to strengthen specific programs at the different institutions.

I feel like Louisiana dropped the ball in how long it delayed in starting a real community college system. Likewise I believe that the community colleges are not being used to their full potential. The CCs should be the place for students who desire 4 year degrees to strengthen weaknesses in their academic and personal preparation. That type of grounding should be minimal at the 4 year institution level. CCs should be a lower cost alternative for students to earn many of the survey level credits they need with easy transfer to 4 year institutions. CCs should be the place to learn skills and receive certifications for specific jobs.  CCs should be an avenue for anyone wanting to make a career change or transition.

Yes some of that is taking place, but it doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved. What I’m asserting is that CCs need the ability to adapt to the area they serve to fulfill the needs of the business and industry in that area. Community colleges need to be ready to provide the skills necessary to perform the jobs which are available and needed within the area. Those areas could always be a state of continual flux.

The same can be said of the universities, but that adaptation is with different areas that often need more time for tangible success to become readily apparent.

I agree that we need more STEM graduates, and remember that my degrees are in history. Let me qualify though that we need STEM graduates, but we need STEM graduates who also have backgrounds in Liberal Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, or whatever umbrella grouping you wish to give. Without that background, many STEM graduates have been trained to complete specific jobs. That’s not a criticism of either student or professor. It’s just a reflection about a different type of knowledge which needs to be conveyed within many disciplines. When one adds knowledge of the Liberal Arts, those STEM graduates have a better understanding of how to think outside the box, and to adjust their skills to better meet the needs at hand. Yes, some can think outside the box without Liberal Arts, but those subjects help hone important skills.  It might not be readily obvious, but those with Liberal Arts degrees can thrive in business and technical fields using the lessons learned in a variety of diverse courses.

On a personal level I might only have graduate degrees in history, and my wife might only have graduate degrees in Political Science, but we are both able to read, comprehend, and evaluate scientific and medical journal articles about vestibular conditions and certain neurological processes. We did not start that reading for enjoyment, but because of the vestibular disruption that left me bedridden for a year 6 years ago.

At Johns Hopkins, an MD PhD who examined me started giving me some literature written for the layperson.  He then remarked, “he^& you’re a history professor, not a scientist, so you’re probably a better reader than me,” and began making photocopies from professional journals while sending a resident to his office to retrieve copies of some of his research in progress. His concluding words were to contact him if I had terminology questions or wanted references for background reading to clarify the research conclusions. Being non-STEM trained people, it mostly entailed our “normal” practice of reading footnotes and then reading the source from which that footnote had been taken before really digging into the sources to find information when necessary.

Of course I’m not going to write something for a medical journal or attempt to diagnose a patient, but I adapted the steps I learned from the study of history to be able to read and understand the medical.  It’s not much different than back on the farm and my Grandfather telling me that I needed to get stuff from over yonder to the work shed.  It’s not much different than my junior high science teacher, Mr. Frank, asking me to figure out and then explain why the door to this storage shed on the campus no longer closed, fix the problem for now and then prevent it from happening again.

A boy learns about leverage, using pulleys, block and tackles, and making what we called stone sleds to move stuff many times his weight. A boy sees how humidity causes an interior wooden door to swell when it was wrongly placed outdoors. Then it really involved common sense to use a hand plane to shave the door down so that it could open and close.  Using treated lumber and properly sealing it for a new door is neither rocket science nor reading the Odyssey. It’s just realizing that education is not just knowledge, but being able to apply knowledge when needed. A history professor and political scientist can learn medical terminology and jargon. Education is book learning, experience, making mistakes, figuring out why you made a mistake and then rectifying that cause, and so much more.

It’s the failure to recognize the connections that scare me.

When I read the piece written by Professor Bob Mann linked below on his blog, Something Like the Truth, the LABI silence had me puzzled at first. Puzzled, that is until I read the identity of the new leader at LABI.

http://bobmannblog.com/2015/03/04/labi-higher-education/

Then I read these tweets which are linked below

http://bobmannblog.com/2015/03/05/this-is-what-happens-when-a-college-professor-criticizes-labi/

Those tweets illustrate a factor that I’m going to coin as the “Curious Conundrum,” on the same vein as Kenneth Stamp described slavery as the Peculiar Institution.  The Curious Conundrum is that if you cannot address the questions or accept the criticism, just blame the person who posed the questions. It just seems a step or two beyond the usual ad hominem responses so common today.

Sadly, it’s not about education. It’s not about what is in the best interests of business and the state. It’s about personal profit and political aspirations.

It’s about people and groups with no ties or connections making the decisions that lead to destruction for many who do not have the means or desire to escape because they believe that their community is a part of them just as they are vital part of the community.

Professor Mann’s column linked below in the New Orleans paper is just one of many examples about the influence of outside factors which relegate common sense into obsolescence. It’s one of my common subjects as people who know me can attest.

http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2015/03/in_jindals_world_tax_is_a_tax.html

It was not so long ago that The Kingfish, Huey Long, had his Louisiana Progress to spread his message. All state employees subscribed to the paper and specific individuals and agencies were encouraged to take out advertisements. Failure to subscribe resulted in a lack of knowledge which typically meant you lost your job. Failing to buy an advertisement would deter financials which ultimately caused the closure of the business or dismantling of the agency. Corrupt as those practices may have been, Huey really made those facts perfectly clear to everyone.

Today, a desire to be the next Huey Long in terms of power may be there, but the methods in attempting to achieve that goal are not freely admitted.  One reason is that current attempts to become a Kingfish are not even to the level of happiness one receives when the speckled trout on his line turns into a hardhead catfish once pulled out of the Gulf.

You have not only lost that satisfying anticipation taste of the speck, but in trying to free that hardhead from your hook the fish catches you with that spine causing significant physical pain. {That’s sarcastic font, and I experienced that speck and hardhead switch many times down at Grand Isle which are not so fond memories}

Actually after reading the tweets it appears that the ideas of education, community, and business working together are akin to the combination of water and the BP oil that spilled into the Gulf.

When that oil and water attempted to mix, the impact upon every aspect of the Gulf Coast resulted in the end of an era of history, the lifestyle of the present, the end of businesses many generations old, and nobody can really tell what the future might be.  Education and health care in Louisiana are facing similar devastation, and it seems like the Governor and groups like LABI have at best limited interests when they should be totally vested.

It’s a sad, yet Curious Conundrum.

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