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Just in case you were wondering if he was running for president:
Walker introduced the tenure issue in a budget proposal that included $300 million in cuts over two years and significant restructuring… A GOP-led legislative committee approved the tenure change. It also approved a measure that would modify state law to specify that Regents can terminate faculty when it’s deemed necessary because a program has been discontinued or changed in other ways, not just when a financial emergency exists — the way it’s spelled out under state law. It didn’t give Walker all he wanted, and it reduced the cuts from $300 million to $250 million.
Wisconsin is unusual in that protections for tenured faculty are enshrined in state law. In most jurisdictions, it’s individual universities that make the call on who qualifies for tenure and on what grounds it can be terminated. In simple terms, Walker is just bringing Wisconsin into line with the rest of the country.
Unsurprisingly — given Walker’s reputation and the quasi-hallowed nature of tenure — this has sparked apoplectic reactions among the left-leaning commentariat. Slate has dubbed Walker “an education hating governor.” The New Republic (yes, they’re still around) warns that this move to curtail tenure will threaten the “ability of public university faculty to conduct research about politically inconvenient facts and teach in politically disfavored fields.” The reliably-deranged Salon helpfully explains that America’s most famous college drop-out, is leading “an anti-intellectual struggle against critical thinking.”
Many commentators have thoroughly dissected the absurdities of modern tenure, the strangely-feudal system in which armies of ill-paid adjuncts sustain a well-pampered elite. The institutional structure of modern universities might well explain the anti-capitalist tendencies of the faculty. Their only real experiences with earning a living has been in one of the few places where Marx’s understanding of capitalism actually makes sense. The modern university is, in some of the worst ways, truly a place apart.
There is an important underlying theme in the reaction to Gov. Walker’s comparatively modest reforms: Walker is against education, critical thinking, and intellectual thought itself. There is a strange conflation of the institutions which are entrusted to impart education and of the act of education itself. If you are perceived to be attacking the institutions, you are perceived to be attacking the idea itself. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A distinction not often enough made is between schooling and education. The former is a student undergoing a state-approved process of attendance, lecturing, and examination. The later is the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and understanding. While the Venn diagram should have a fair amount of overlap between the two, schooling and education are not synonymous. There are many well-schooled people who are largely uneducated. Conversely there are many well educated people who are relatively unschooled.
For an example of the latter, probably the best living example, take the indefatigable Mark Steyn. A man who barely finished high school yet ranks as one of the finest writers in the English language today. Inside that curly, coiffed head is about three or four PhDs worth of knowledge and insights. He is the living, breathing and dapper retort to our over-credentialized world.
What Mark Steyn represents is the past and future of education: the autodidact. In previous generations — when government was little involved in the financing or provisioning of education — those eager to learn inhabited public libraries, evening classes, and coffee shops. Today, such haphazard methods inspire a mixture of suspicion and contempt. How can anyone truly learn without the guidance of experts? Yet the list of self-taught geniuses is long: Eric Hoffer, James Watt, Benjamin Franklin, Harlan Ellison, Terry Pratchett, George Bernard Shaw, Ray Bradbury, and Jane Jacobs to name only a very few.
It has never been easier to be an autodidact, nor simpler to get access to the best that has been thought and said down the ages. While a formal structured education is still necessary in scientific and technical fields, the whole swath of the humanities begs for a revolution in favour of self-study. Walker’s modest reforms represent the slow breaking up of the schooling cartel that has dominated education for decades in America. Yet these reforms don’t go nearly far enough. We need to move past the very mid-twentieth century idea that a good education can only come with the letters BA.