News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, August 22, 2011

Discouraged? Head for the Hills? University in session.

The agenda is set by nature.

Tending the coffee pot among the fragrant ponderosas. 
 A bunch of old academics sit in the early morning sun as it rises over a peak in the Black Hills sipping coffee from a pot of Gevalia on an old Coleman camp stove.  The Hills this year are green and sparkling.  We remember a time when we gathered here and they were, indeed, the blackened hills.  A fire had swept over them and left the earth black with a few charred skeletons of trees jutting up from the earth.  Today, dark logs from that event are visible scattered on the mountainside, but juvenile and adolescent ponderosa pines are greening up the mountainsides and spruce seedlings are stretching up through grass in places.  We speak briefly of the power of renewal, careful not to slip into any smarmy banalities.  At one time we used this forest as the setting for institutes to provide teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to encourage and improve writing at all levels of education from kindergarten through graduate school.

We don't dwell on those sessions.  Too many of our colleagues are dead or struggling through the halls of assisted living facilities with wheel chairs and walkers.  They may be out of the reach of the power of the Hills, and recalling the clean scent of pines in the  clear air would be an impertinence to those surrounded by the reek of piss and Pinesol.  

For those of us who remain and can trek to the Hills, there is still work to be done, resources of knowledge to be developed, information to be tested and evaluated.  The mountains and the forest, however, assert two inescapable facts that we cannot ignore: 

1.  If the preservation and development of the Black Hills were proposed today, there would be no state or national parks or national forest.  Any attempt at preservation would be labeled as big government driven by liberal ideology, and the Hills would be the property of private interests.

2.  Unlike the sweep of forest fires or the creep of mountain pine beetles that periodically blacken the mountains and the forest, the political mood that pervades and stultifies America is an invasive  species that withers and kills human aspiration with a deadly toxicity.

Much on our  minds is a  colleague who was so taken with the Hills that nine years before his retirement, he bought a place that he worked on whenever he could to create a work studio where he could spend his retirement years in the beauty of the area continuing his work.  A year after his retirement, he listed the property with a realtor and moved much farther west where his daughter and so-in-law live.  He told close friends that the physical environment was despoiled by a resentful and hateful culture of the people.  He said that a routine trip to the grocery store was a spirit-killing experience because of the political and cultural attitudes one was certain to encounter.  The social climate;, he said, had a deleterious effect on the work he hoped to accomplish.  So, as we sit an read and talk, we are aware that the spirit of Paha Sapa is threatened by a mindset that would like to destroy it.  The Hills have become a reminder of a different time, not a refuge from the insidious forces that martial in the name of politics.

It is not a matter of conservative versus liberal ideologies.  The old professors represent a range of political preferences.  But now, as in previous times, their attention and energy is focused on the common task of maintaining, refining, and transmitting knowledge.  Our identities were not connected with any partisan group.  We engaged in the task presented to us by our profession, and we did not entertain any partisan notions about what our tasks were in carrying out the mandates of our profession.

We still agree on basic concepts of responsible intelligence.  We all agree that a few years back if some said some of the things uttered by Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, or Rick Perry, the educated populace would very quickly dismiss them as intellectually unqualified to hold public office.  This is not a partisan group; it is a group that worked during a time when intellectual integrity and competence were required of public figures who posed as  leaders.  Charlatans were exposed and eliminated from leadership.  Folks tend to forget that that is the process at work in Watergate.   Errors of fact and reasoning were  not considered just differences of belief and opinion.  So, we come to the Hills to reclaim a lost heritage and to consider if we need to come out of retirement and find some way to work at re-establishing learning and knowledge as valuable enterprises. 

Sometimes change is retrograde.  It herds the uninformed and uncritical back to ways that America has fought and worked to  transcend.  It plunges the unwary back into the mindless sound and fury of reptilian behavior.    The media, traditional and new, has made the inanity of what we once termed "tavern talk" the discourse level of the nation.  It drums away and conditions people to accepting counterfeit discourse as the business of the nation.  Gresham's Law on money applies to communication:  bad (counterfeit) money drives out the good.  And so, we come to the Hills to see if there is any good at work and where.

As old professors, we see many talented and capable young people who  cannot find jobs that use their educations or engage their intellects at any level.  A young woman, a granddaughter of one of our participants, holds an impressive degree and just finished a temporary job in the east.  Now she will head for Europe to see if  she can't find work commensurate with her education and experience.  A professor of engineering is in a rage over a book whose author he heard interviewed on a national talk radio program.  The author claims that if immigration barriers were relaxed, he could bring thousands of young engineers in from India and Europe and China and put them to work in America.  He claims that American students are not trained with the "skill sets" needed in the contemporary economy.  The old professor says that contention is totally false and incomprehensible.   He says American universities can supply job-ready engineers for any enterprise in America.  America is not in the manufacturing business anymore, he says, and such enterprises have moved offshore to the cheap labor markets.  An agricultural economist says that a problem is that global corporations only interest is their own autonomy and they have no interest at all in contributing to the national economy.  For them, the corporations are their nations, and they run them with the form of governance that suits their ends, not serves any people.

A political scientist bemoans his profession.  He says that political science has little that is scientific in its purview today.  He said the profession at one time addressed the basic facts of the nation and examined where they fit into the political schemes of things.  Today, he claims, political scientists want to practice as pundits, using their professions as the pretext for spreading their partisan viewpoints.   We used to examine what the facts were, but now the facts are contrived, distorted, and withheld to fit the political agendas being sold.

A former dean claims that the university system that was created from the Land Grant College Act and the G.I. Bill has been dismantled.  He cites as evidence the fact that college presidents once were lead scholars.  Now they spurn their academic credentials and are almost totally engaged in fundraising and creating corporate alliances.  He dourly cites the example of SDSU, and its affiliation with Monsanto through executive sharing.  He says at one time you made a choice between academic life and corporate life.  The two areas are mutually exclusive and one often works in contradiction to the other.

A point of agreement is that public universities have undergone politicization and no longer serve the mission they did in building the country through the Land Grant College Act and the G.I. Bill.  They are not intellectually independent, but have redesigned themselves to be training departments for corporate entities that are displacing nations as the primary social and political institutions.  The problem is that universities are being run as businesses, not as universities in which learning and the processes of creating, refining, and transmitting knowledge are considered valuable activities to be engaged in.

So, what can a bunch of old professors do about it all?  First, face the fact that government is not the problem; the politics that consumes and undermines government is.  Secondly, face the fact that true education is an underground activity in today's social climate.  Old professors hold the accredited degrees and the knowledge of what collegial truly means.  And they understand that the future of the nation resides in the integrity of knowledge possessed by the young.

The faculty convened under the trees in the Hills this year.  Those old faculty may hold the last best hope for the aspiring young.  A freedom from politics as it is being practiced seems the only way to go forward.  As it is, we are stepping backward into a politics of ignorance, avarice, and oppression. 
Nature sets the curriculum.
Young bucks always kind of saunter to class. 


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States