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Elitism for dummies


Kurt Hochenauer August 24th, 2011

Is Oklahoma’s higher education establishment elitist?

That’s what state Rep. Tom Newell, a Seminole Republican, apparently thinks, according to a recent media report, and he wants to “rein” it in through more intense legislative oversight.

Newell’s comments were prompted by news that many Oklahoma universities and colleges were actually spending more this fiscal year than last year, despite a recent state budget cut. Higher education officials were quick to respond that tuition hikes, the use of reserve funds and record enrollment led to higher budgets. No one wants to turn away students in a state with a low college graduation rate.

But Newell’s elitism argument deserves serious debate.

Oklahoma has long held the reputation, deserved or not, of holding an anti-intellectual spirit. This comes from underfunding education in general, including at the college level, through the decades. It gets exacerbated by some current conservative political leaders who some argue often attack intellectualism from a religious perspective. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s two big college football teams get more press than academics.

Without the process, there would simply be no progress.

Even two Oklahoma icons, Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie, were known for their colloquial, down-home manner of speech that was the essence of anti-elitism or what some might call “anti-intellectualism.” It’s not so much they distrusted “book learning” or were dummies. Their language, with all the drawly “ain’ts” and the dropped Gs, spoke to everyone, the educated as well, but it was certainly a different language than that contained, say, in a formal classroom lecture by a physics professor.

In some ways, Newell’s elitist talk is part of the Oklahoma DNA. There will never be anything inherently wrong — just look at Will and Woody — with calling out people getting too big for their britches. But Newell’s elitist charge against higher education in general is not deserved, and part of the problem is language. Those in higher education here need to communicate better on a public level by explaining exactly what they do and how vital it is to the state.

On a daily basis, college instructors statewide are giving important lectures, responding to papers, directing argumentative class discussion and conducting science-related fieldwork. They are meeting one-on-one with students, explaining specific algebra problems or grammar issues. Sometimes, they must explain over and over until that “eureka!” moment occurs. It’s rewarding, but sometimes exhausting work.

This is the process that produces doctors, engineers, scientists and software specialists. It produces better agricultural practices and advances in medicine. It produces the architectural knowledge that constructs our bridges and buildings. It’s the process that maintains our history and literature.

Without the process, there wouldn’t be new technology advancements in computers, new cures and treatments for disease or new safety features for cars, trains and commercial jets. Without the process, there would simply be no progress.

It’s not always a clean-cut, linear process, but it is about as anti-elitist as it can get. The political reality of the state budget and higher education is one thing, but the work on the ground at our universities remains especially crucial and down-home these days, necessary and never highfalutin.

In today’s current political climate here and elsewhere, everyone in higher education has a duty to explain, without arcane euphemisms or the latest educational jargon, why universities and colleges are so vital.

Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.

 
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