News from the Front

Oh hai.

If you haven’t heard, there’s a war on higher education going on.  As nearly every social service that makes civilization, well, civilized is currently up for debate, it’s not particularly surprising that university funding hasn’t really made it on to most peoples’ radars.  But in Britain, the restructuring of higher education that is going on is both profound and disturbing, and today, we actually did something about it.

I’ve complained about the Oxford system—and, by comparison, vaunted the U.S. one—many times on this blog.  That said, one thing that is positively amazing about Oxford is that it is both elite and public; students here pay a pittance of the actual cost of their education.  This is not some historical idiosyncracy, like Latin grace and sub-fusc.  It’s the result of a conscious realization made by the British people, at some point, that universities like Oxford serve the public good, and thus deserve public funding.  The new ConDem government here, however, has rejected that and decided to bring the university under the yoke of the all-powerful market.  The future of Oxford rests in American innovations like crushing graduate debt and insanely high fees.

To some extent, I don’t have a dog in this fight: I’m fully funded, and I’m likely escaping to a private university with a cushy endowment next year.  Even the proposed 80% cut in teaching funding isn’t likely to hit me (80% less of zero teaching is still zero teaching, after all).  While I can escape British policy, though, I can’t escape the ideology.  It is not just in the U.K., after all, that policymakers seem to believe the notion that the life of the mind is not worth very much, or that there is no use in research without an immediate economic benefit.  Self-interest has never been my thing anyway, of course, and it’s precisely because “elites” know that they’ll still be able to get an education in the post-public university system that these cuts are happening in the first place.  So, naturally, I laced up my blackspot sneakers, and set out for another protest.

I can’t decide whether turnout was incredibly depressing or extraordinary.  I reached Cornmarket Street and found six-hundred Oxford students out of their libraries, and by the looks of it, out of their comfort zones.  I doubt six-hundred Princeton students could be convinced to protest against grade deflation, much less give a shit about public education.  But then I did the math, and realized that 600 is less than 10% of student body—so what are the others doing?  They can’t all have trust funds covering their fees, can they?  Or do they just not realize how insidious all of this is?

The Socialist Worker’s Party was there—they always are—with a handful of provacateurs (“I think I met you at the Afghanistan protest in London”) and a set of pre-fab signs.  Did the Oxford students holding the placards they distributed actually know they were currently advocating for a worker’s revolution and a general strike?  Evidently some did, as I saw people gradually pulling out pens and changing their signs.  Here we show our true colors: “Free education” became “Fair and reasonably priced education.”  “I oppose all cuts” is edited to “I oppose all cuts to my university.”  And, “Down with the Browne Report” is mealymouthed into “I support some elements of the Browne Report, just not the rise in fees” (no, really, someone wrote that).  The war on higher education only matters when it hits us; and even then, it only matters to six-hundred of us.

The protest was on the road to being decidedly, well, pitiful, until the police intervened.  Our mob of humanities majors and philosophy dons wanted to walk to High Street; they wanted us to take a seat around Radcliffe Camera, contemplate our navels for a few minutes, and go home.  A few of us decided that we would go to High Street anyway; they formed a line, and we did too.  A few seconds later, I was on the other side of a row of bobbies, yelling to tentative looking Oxford Students, “Don’t worry, you’ll still get an investment banking job if you come over.”  And, then, they did, and the police parted.

For a moment, we were unstoppable.  The news reports will make us look like a bunch of whiny overprivileged kids fighting to keep our silver spoons firmly planted in our mouths.  They might be right.  But when I am seventy years old living in a hut somewhere in the forests of Northern Finland, trying to avoid the conservative dystopia of the new dark ages, I will take my grandchild on me knee and say, “Yes, when they finally put the nail in the coffin of social democracy, I fought back, and I don’t regret it for a minute.”

The Wheels Come Off the Yasuní Bus (And My Thesis?)

“Yasuní-ITT”—the proposal by the Ecuadorian government to leave 900 million barrels of oil underground in exchange for international compensation (and, not incidentally, also the topic of my thesis)—has evolved into a powerful symbol.  When I first started my research, commentators were already declaring the proposal to be the solution to climate change and the harbinger of a new era of post-petroleum development.  This August, the Ecuadorian government signed the agreement to create the project’s trust fund, and the academic community made this symbolism explicit.  “Yasunízar,” they declared, was a new verb that meant, “to protect a sacred place.”

As I learned this summer, however, Yasuní the symbol doesn’t correspond well with Yasuní the place.  To be “Yasunízado” is supposed to mean “protected,” and yet Yasuní National Park itself is already scarred by logging, hunting, colonization, and, of course, oil extraction.  Yasuní-ITT would confront one threat, in one place, but leave many problems unconfronted.  Rhetoric about the “rights of nature” aside, Ecuador is still—and will be for the foreseeable future—a state that lives by petroleum.  Even were the Yasuní-ITT bloc preserved in pristine state, it would be an isolated victory, not a change in development paradigm.  These realities haven’t seemed to matter, though, because the symbolism of Yasuní—the idea of rich countries paying poor ones to save the world—is appealing to all sorts of actors.

This week, though, the wheels really started to come off.  First, Germany—which had pledged $650 million towards the project—backed out.  Then, a few days later, some disgruntled cops burning tires in Quito hit President Correa with a tear gas canister.  In a Huge-Chavez-esque moment of hyperbole, Correa declared the riots an attempted coup and tweeted that he had almost been assisinated.  While I haven’t read anything about the implications of this event for Yasuní, I fear it will provide other European countries to withdraw their support.  We have, after all, been reminded that the government promising to “indefinitely” leave oil underground represents a polity that has had nineteen constitutions in the last two hundred years and three (real) coups in the last ten.

Cynical as I may sound, I know that the failure of the Yasuní-ITT proposal will have dire ramifications for the people, animals, and plants of the Amazon.  At the moment, though, I’m worrying about my thesis.  If the proposal succeeds, I can both point out its limitations and offer a plethora of suggestions for improvement in other places.  But what’s the point of critiquing something that has already failed?  Is there a more practical lesson to this, other than that Latin American governments are unstable, Western governments are stingy, and fixing climate change is shaping up to be awfully hard?

Going Back; Moving On

Every time I go back to Princeton, the entire thing feels like a non-stop personal examination.  While I should just enjoy my precious few days on campus, I find myself spending the balance of time agonizing over how it is, exactly, I am supposed to relate to my alma mater.  I am I supposed to feel sad or elated to be back?  Should I go for the humorous-if-sketchy persona, or try to show that I’ve grown up a bit?  And what am I supposed to say about the real world*: that it’s a non-stop barrel of laughs, or that I cry myself to sleep at night longing for the undergraduate glory days?

The first time I go back this year, I feel nothing.  It’s the day after I returned from Ecuador, and I run along the tow path from Jackie’s house in Lawrenceville onto Princeton’s campus.  Aside from a handful of inexplicable changes—did they put a new archway into Brown Hall just to give alums something to whine about?—everything looks the exact same.  And yet I am not overcome with the wave of nostalgia I was expecting.  The undergrads aren’t yet back from their summer vacation, and the emptiness of campus reminds me that my best and worst memories of Princeton have nothing to do with gothic buildings.

Two Saturdays ago, I went back again—except this time, not to Princeton, but to the band.  At first I am elated, because after about five minutes it doesn’t seem to even matter that I am graduated.  More than anything, though, Saturday made me feel relieved.  In part, I am relieved to see that the band has not fallen apart, and, in fact, is thriving.  But I’m also relieved that, even if it were falling apart, I’m not sure it would be the end of the world.  I am not worried about what the officers are doing, or whether the new members are having a good time, or how it will all look in the eyes of athletics.  I am, for an afternoon, a freshman again: I can dance and sing like an idiot and not care what anyone else thinks.

I feel like a freshman again Saturday night, at the Triangle Show, but this time not in a good way.  By my senior year, I found at least mildly amusing the skits and songs celebrating how fabulously isolated and rich and preppy Princeton is.  With a bit more detachment, though, I am taken aback—and remember why, when I first arrived, I didn’t feel like I fit in.  On Sunday, I go to lawnparties—an event I rarely made it to as a student—and can’t help but feel grateful for the fact that I no longer have to look at the J-Crew-clad army again and think, “These are my peers.”  I actually wind up leaving lawnparties early and going to Marquand library to work.  Peering over a dense book of sociological theory to watch people stagger back from the street on a Sunday—now that makes me feel like an undergraduate again.

Striking the right balance when going back is hard enough that I am realizing that, perhaps, it is easier not to go back at all.  And, of course, Princeton is doing its part to nudge me out the door.  Graduation doesn’t actually mark a clean break.  For a few years, you can still make it back and steal a few moments where it feels as if you’ve never left.  But then they change the ID card, so you can’t getinto the library anymore.  They block off the places you used to sneak into, and they reorder things enough that it doesn’t quite feel like home anymore.  Eventually, all your friends graduate, and the new students don’t particularly want to listen to your stories about six, seven, eight years ago anymore.  Your antics stop being funny in a nostalgic sort of way: they’re just pathetic.

And it’s realizing that—that this really might be my last visit to Princeton outside of reunions—that makes me incredibly sad.  It really is over, and, regardless of what the song says, you can’t actually go back.  I’ve spent so much time trying to forget about Princeton and get over it that I almost forgot how much I love this place.

* By “real world”, I obviously mean, “the other fake world: Oxford.”