Access to information is now a frontline issue and is visible in many of today’s top news stories. Jacquelyn Gill connects the wider struggles taking place in the US for access to public television, public schools, and research. Are we at risk of giving up too quickly on the ideals of public education and publicly funded research? And what will this mean for the future of science?
A Muslim teenager who made an electronic clock by hand was arrested this week under suspicion of terrorism. National Geographic was purchased by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Public broadcasting television show Sesame Street partnered with premium cable channel HBO. And meanwhile, every week there’s another “I quit” story from someone leaving academia, citing a broken and flawed system and a rat race that incentivizes playing the funding game over inquiry and discovery.
It may seem like these things have nothing in common, but they do: the connecting thread is access to information and resources. Who we encourage and allow to do science has an impact on the science being done. And as the production and dissemination of knowledge is increasingly corporatized and restricted to the hands of a few, we should be deeply concerned about the erosion of public resources.
As someone who wanted to be a professor pretty much from the moment I learned that they existed, it’s been pretty heartbreaking to feel, at times, like I’ve spent years swabbing the deck only to learn I’ve been promoted to captain of a sinking ship.
But I’m not ready to give up. I believe strongly in public education and publicly funded research. I believe in the idea of a place to go were learning is sacred, and where you go to spend the formative years of your life in growth and discovery. I believe in public education as a pathway to a better life. I believe in the mission of public education as a place where everyone has access to the same resources and opportunities, regardless of where they were born, the color of their skin, or how much money their parents make.
“The noblest motive is the public good.” Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress (Djembayz) CC BY-SA 3.0 (adapted)
I want to believe that we can do something to fix the higher education crisis, too. That we can make college education affordable again; that we can improve access to resources and funding; that we can make universities about learning and exploration and discovery, as they were for centuries. One of the reasons I want to believe this so strongly is because it is utterly heartbreaking that just as our universities are becoming more diverse, they are breaking apart. For centuries, universities have been places where only white men were welcome and encouraged. Women, people with disabilities, queer people, and people of color have fought hard to get into these institutions.
And I am bitterly angry that at times, it feels like people are so quick to give up on the ideals of public education and publicly funded research. That these are not ideals worth fighting for just as hard and as strongly as we fought for the right to vote, for civil rights, or for the the right to govern ourselves. We make so much of intellectual giants and lone heroes and innovators and entrepreneurs, that we forget that the real progress is made possible by the anonymous us: the public. I owe a tremendous debt to the public television, public schools, and publicly-funded research.
I dedicated my dissertation to the forgotten, unnamed women who wrote the manuscripts, conducted the experiments, and brewed the coffee and cared for the babies so that their husbands and colleagues could win Pulitzers. I wouldn’t be here without those women. And I wouldn’t be here without libraries, Sesame Street, free school breakfasts, the Pell Grant, or the National Science Foundation, either.
What are you going to do about it? Here are some ideas, to get you started: demand that your state and federal representatives support public education, public broadcasting, and publicly-funded research. Resist the idea that everything should be run like a for-profit business. Demand, as students and parents, that our universities improve the value of a college degree by supporting faculty and confronting the adjunct crisis. Vote– and stop voting for people who defund education and public research. Protect net neutrality. Support local initiatives to improve diversity in STEM, and ask yourself what you’re doing to make your workplace more diverse than it was when you entered it. Go to the library. Run for School Board. Write editorials. Make phone calls.
In writing this, I came to learn that there are many definitions of “public.” Most definitions refer to the public as a self-organizing group that’s bound together by a common problem or concern. I don’t know what you call the collective good of public education, discourse, research, and access to information — the commons? But I believe those things are precious, and worth fighting for.
If knowledge is power, never let anyone take it away. Countless anonymous people died to put it into your hands, and even now it remains unequally and unfairly distributed. Honor their sacrifice through your dedication to the ideals of public knowledge. We the People need to step up, before we find ourselves empty-handed, shut out, and shut down.
This post was brought to you by the letters U and S.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Jacquelyn Gill is Assistant Professor of Paleoecology & Plant Ecology with the School of Biology & Ecology and the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. She is a paleoecologist and biogeographer, bringing the perspectives of space and time to bear on questions in ecology and conservation biology.