Friday, November 20, 2009
Hope v. Fear
Could there be any better index of the relative strength of hope and fear in a polity than spending on universities and prisons? For the American "states", who have no armies, universities and prisons are the most concentrated and material manifestations of state sovereignty itself (other than the cluster of buildings that stand in their capitals, usually ignored by the public). In California fear had an early lead as San Quentin prison opened in 1851, just two years after statehood, and well ahead of the University of California which was chartered in 1868.
Both grew slowly over the next century, with a new prison at Folsom opened in 1880, and a southern branch of the University of California opened in Los Angeles in 1914. The second half of the 20th century saw a surge of hope after World War II that reached its peak in 1960 with California's famed "master plan." The University of California, projected to expand to nine campuses, would become the research arm of a comprehensive public university and college system guaranteeing nearly free four year higher education to the vast majority of the state's high school graduates. The spending unleashed by this hope was just cresting as I reached the gleaming Berkeley campus as a freshman in 1977. At that point, the state spent more than 17 percent of its discretionary fund on higher education, and 3 percent on prisons and parole. Fear was already building a head of steam with the crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s. Over the next three decades the state built more than 20 new prisons and a total of 3 four-year universities. The fact that California is, in good times, extraordinarily wealthy, made it possible to sustain a lot of fear and hope. But the recent financial crisis has made that impossible. California must now choose fear or hope for the future. Today prison leads spending on higher education with pressure on both. Tamar Lewin's front page article in today's NYTimes chronicles the recent travails of the University of California as fear shows its staying power and hope wilts.
Unfortunately, the recent days of protest at Berkeley and Los Angeles (the regents are meeting in the latter) have failed to focus on this choice and instead lashed out at the University's own administration for making the cuts and tuition increases necessary to survive. (for my critique of the strikers)
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