For someone who has taught college students for more than 30 years, it is troubling to see how the current mindlessness of narrow-minded politicians and bean-counting college administrators threatens to undermine the long established and productive foundation of higher education. In the U.S. anti-intellectual politicians like Rick Scott, Scott Walker, Rick Perry and North Carolina's Pat McCrory don't want to waste taxpayer money on college programs like anthropology, sociology, philosophy, foreign languages, or literature. In their view these programs don't prepare students for "real-world" jobs. For them a university education has little to do with the cultivation of the mind, which, of course, develops a citizen's capacity for critical thinking, and more to do with "rote" skill acquisition, which tends to develop "the good worker's" capacity for docility.
Sadly such mindlessness has global dimensions -- even in relatively progressive and prosperous countries. Consider an important example from Norway.
Most readers of The Huffington Post have probably not heard of the town of Tromso, which is situated on a beautiful island in the far north of Norway. Tromso is remote. To get there you have to take a two-hour flight from Oslo. In this space of surreal northern lights, majestic fiords, and long, dark and snowy winters you can also find the northernmost university on the planet: the University of Tromso, an unlikely place to discover, of all things, a thriving center of Visual Cultural Studies (VCS).
Sometimes the most wondrous things in life are found in the most unexpected places.
The University of Tromso's program in Visual Cultural Studies has long trained documentary filmmakers from all over the world -- Japan, Thailand, Russia, Romania, Canada, the U.S., not to forget a healthy contingent of students from Mali and Cameroon. Graduates of the VCS program have made hundreds of documentary films about their home countries. Many of these films have made important contributions to local social and political discourse. Indeed, several VCS graduates have produced award-winning films. In short, the work of the VCS program has brought much distinction, if not prestige, to the University of Tromso.
Despite this enviable record, administrators at the university wanted to shut down the VCS program. Looking at the balance sheet of a relatively prosperous institution in a very prosperous nation, these decision-makers, whose orientation to higher education seemed remarkably similar to that of Rick Scott, Scott Walker, Rick Perry and Pat McCrory, argued that the costs of the VCS program outweighed its benefits.
The institutional demise of a world class program of study didn't make much sense to the VCS faculty, staff and students. Faced with imminent elimination, they decided to fight back. They asked their former students as well as colleagues in the global community of anthropology and documentary filmmaking to protest such a mindless proposal. They created a website, Save VCS in Tromso, and asked people to post a photo indicating support for the program. Supporters met the call with a robust response. From all over the world people sent in their messages -- in images and words. VCS shared these messages with people in their social networks, and action that exponentially increased the response. In two weeks VCS received more than 1,000 protest messages from former students as well as from senior scholars of international distinction (see Save VCS Tromso on Vimeo). This tactic proved to be effective. Indeed, the political impact of social media and visual representation convinced the administrators to change course. At a meeting on March 11, they voted to support the future of VCS at the University of Tromso.
This Norwegian example is a potent illustration of how university faculty, staff, and students can fight back against the mindless, destructive and disrespectful application of business models and cost-benefit analysis to university education. There is much beauty to be found in Tromso's northern light and global activism. In U.S. higher education, we should follow this model to preserve our most essential obligation: the development of young minds to meet the philosophical, political, economic challenges of the future.