Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Touching the Responsibility Void?

Feeling bad one evening after encountering some (relatively trivial) adversity of my own, I watched the documentary Touching the Void, about a mountain-climbing expedition gone terribly wrong and the amazing survival story that ensued when one of the climbers, who had been left for dead, crawled down off the mountain with a broken leg. (Whenever something goes badly in my life, it always serves me well to put it in perspective—I can say, yeah, well, OK, I didn’t win that poetry prize, but at least I’m not at 19,000 feet in the Andes with a broken leg in a snow storm.) I became unexpectedly obsessed with the story, so one film, two books and several google searches later, I’m still thinking about mountains, students, responsibility and contemporary culture.

The documentary is really a “docudrama” because it uses re-enactments—a technique I usually find rather illegitimate, but which in this case I was willing to accept because of how gripped I was by the story it told. The film mixed the reenactments with interviews with the two climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, and a fellow traveler who waited in the basecamp, Richard Hawking, to unfold a story that turned out to be so engaging that it kept me up an hour an a half past my customary bedtime. It wasn’t just  the high drama of Simon’s failed attempt to rescue Joe after he’s broken his leg and Joe’s subsequent almost unbelievable rescue of himself that captured my attention. Rather, it was something that Richard said about what he was thinking when Simon and Joe were overdue to return from the mountain. “I started to think is one of them dead, or are both of them dead? Even, if one of them’s dead not which one do I want to be dead, but if one comes back, who do I want it to be? It’s kind of quite cold to say it, but I guess I would have rather it had been Simon.” He felt that way because Simon was a nice, friendly guy, and Joe—well, Joe wasn’t. But of course, being me, I thought—you have to be a little bit mean to be able to drag yourself 3000 feet down a mountain through snowstorms down ice fields through strewn boulders with a shattered knee. I thought that was the whole of the story for me until I read the screen title at the very end that said: “Simon returned to England to face intense criticism from many in the climbing community for cutting the rope on his partner.” Given the story as portrayed in the film that criticism seemed very wrong, and the film left me curious.

So I went to bed and dreamed of mountains and snow and woke up still wondering about what Simon could possibly have done other than what he had done. I did a google search and found out that although I’d never encountered this story before, the book on which it was based, Touching the Void, written by Joe Simpson, is considered to be one of two contemporary classics on mountaineering, the other being Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about the 1996 disaster on Everest in which eight people died, a book I had read some years ago. I poked around a number of sites and found that most of the online criticism of Simon’s decision to cut the rope was based in highly technical ideas about how he could have done the belay differently, used the equipment differently, and I thought well, that’s just a load of Monday-morning quarterbacking, but I did note that the most recent post I found was dated 2010, rather extraordinary since the incident happened in 1985, the book came out in 1988, and the film in 2003. It’s clearly a story that has continued to fascinate many people. I then switched from searching on Simon Yates to searching on Joe Simpson, because another screen title had said that he had gone on to continue climbing and I was curious about how he managed that given the shape his leg had been in after the accident. That’s when I ran across the story that is what I really want to write about here.

Simpson’s book Touching the Void had been selected some years ago to be the subject of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in the U.K. (this is the successor to the old O Level exams, probably most familiar to Americans as the O.W.L. exams in the Harry Potter series). In 2012, Simpson had been subjected to what the British press had called a “twitter mob” attacking him because they had failed their GCSE exam in English Literature. Some of the tweets are reported in the stories cited below. “Your book is shit and you should feel bad," was one. But what really struck me was this one:YOUR BOOK IS THE REASON MY ENTIRE YEAR WILL FAIL OUR ENGLISH EXAM!!" Another, identified as being from a Turkish student, was in the same vein: "I wrote you a few months ago. I said I had an exam about your book. I failed because of you. You owe to me!"

For several years now students have been regularly saying to me and to my colleagues things that indicate that they do not feel a sense of responsibility for their own actions. They ask “why did you give me that grade?” I normally reply that I have “given” them nothing—that I have assigned the grade that they earned. This seems to be an ungraspable concept for some students. Their automatic response to anything in which they don’t succeed is “that’s not fair.” The definition of “fair” seems to be changing from “impartial” to “going favorably for me.” I rarely have conversations with students in which they say, “that was a fair test and I was underprepared and didn’t do well.” (Rarely—not never. I always find it very gratifying when a student does say something like that and vows to do better next time).

The idea that students who had failed an exam would contact the author of the book on which the exam was based and blame him for their failure seems to me the ultimate expression of that lack of responsibility. And it seems even worse that the author they chose to attack was not a novelist, but a memoirist whose book was about a near-death experience in which he had survived great suffering. (One of the tweets read: “Three chapters of crawling didn't inspire me to write about your book in my exam. It was rather boring really.” Perhaps another topic might be lack of compassion and/or empathy in this generation along with lack of a sense of responsibility.)

Actually, I was somewhat glad to see that this lack of taking responsibility is an international phenomenon, not specific to the millennial generation of Americans. (I’m not saying that students—young people—in previous generations always wholeheartedly took responsibility for themselves. Of course they didn’t. What I am saying is that the phenomenon seems increasingly widespread and pronounced among the current generation of students and young people.)(Oh, and yes, Joe Simpson did tweet some nasty comments back at them. Yes, not necessarily a really nice guy, but definitely someone I’d like to meet in a pub!)

I suppose that the irony in this case is particularly sharp because neither Joe nor Simon has ever blamed each other or anybody else for the accident and the aftermath. Quite the contrary.

In the documentary, Simon says that as he was walking down the glacier after he cut the rope, believing Joe had fallen to his death, finally knowing that he was going to make it down and not die, he started thinking about how he was going to tell Joe’s parents and his friends about what had happened, and that, “maybe I could think of a decent story that would make me look better. And I did think about that for quite awhile.” But he did not do that. As soon has he saw Richard back in base camp, he told him the whole truth.  In the book Touching the Void, Simon says of telling the story to Richard: “there was so much more [Joe and I] had managed to do that should be told. The rescue in the storm, the way we had worked together….I couldn’t do him the injustice of lying” (Kindle Loc 2058-59). Perhaps Simon’s comment points to what I find so disturbing about the students not taking responsibility for failing their exam, and blaming Joe Simpson for it: to do so is to do an injustice, and if there is anything at all I believe in, it is the necessity for justice.

Joe actually wrote the book because of the criticism Simon had been subject to, which he felt had been unjust. The dedication reads: “To Simon Yates, for a debt I can never repay.” Quite the opposite of blaming Simon for cutting the rope, Joe writes that he would have done the same and praises Simon for saving his life. Both of them knew when they were starting the ascent that by choosing to climb to a remote Andean 20,814-ft peak as a two-man team they were on their own. Joe quotes what he wrote in his diary in base camp before starting the climb, about preferring this mountain to the Alps: “no hordes of climbers, no helicopters, no rescue—just us and the mountains” (Kindle loc 184).  He reiterates: “We had responsibilities to no one but ourselves now, and there would be no one to intrude or come to our rescue” (Kindle loc. 228). They never went back on that and whined “somebody should have saved us.” Simon and Joe ultimately concluded that they were responsible for a near-fatal mistake in not taking enough fuel to melt snow to make drinking water, so that they were both dehydrated and in a rush to get off the mountain and kept going after dark and in a storm. Both take full responsibility for that error. Simon wrote in his own book, “Ultimately we all have to look after ourselves…In my view that is not a licence to be selfish, for only by taking good care of ourselves are we able to help others.”

So here’s the question I’m left with: how do we teach responsibility? How do we teach that the definition of “fair” is that if you do the work required you’ll pass the test, and that if you don’t, you won’t?

Touching the Void. Dir. Kevin McDonald. 2003
Simpson, Joe. Touching the Void. ebook. Copyright 1988.
Yates, Simon. Against the Wall. ebook. Copyright 1997.

Friday, September 10, 2010

More Prisoners than Students

University of California President Mark Yudof recently wrote:

Fifty years ago a vision of opportunity was born in California. I'm talking about the creation of the Master Plan for Higher Education, the document that turned our state into a global model for accessible, affordable, high-quality public universities and colleges.

With my MA and PhD from California public universities and my private-college BA partly paid for by Cal grants, I am the realization of that vision of opportunity. But am I a member of the last only only generation whom that vision benefitted?

Declining public funding for higher education has been a consistent trend for the past twenty years. In the California State University in 1965, the state general fund paid $15 for every $1 a student paid in fees. In 2009, the state general fund paid $1.40 for every $1 a student paid in fees. That $15 in 1965 represented the public commitment to the idealistic vision of the Master Plan adopted in 1960. The decline in levels of funding didn’t become drastic until the 1990s, but it has been plummeting since then, and the speed of the plummet seems to be constantly accelerating. As Yudof reports, in 1960 the UC received 7% of the state’s budget; today it receives 3%, and since 1990 the amount of the state funding per student in the UC has dropped 50%.

Last year, before the state budget for fiscal year 2009-10 was set, I received an “Open Letter to UC Alumnae and Friends” from the past and present Chairs of the UC Board of Regents and President Yudof. The letter asked us to contact our legislators and urge them to continue to support public funding for the UC system. That letter contained this information:

In the past 20 years, the amount of money allotted to the University through the state budget has fallen dramatically: General Fund support for a UC student stood at $15,860 in 1990. If current budget projections hold, it will drop this year to $7,680.

I was a graduate student in the UC in 1990. I was able to be a graduate student in the UC because the citizens of California were willing to support the UC system at a level in 1990 that was twice as high as the support it receives today. As the letter points out, this downward trend in public support for higher education has been accompanied by another trend:

In the same time frame, by the way, funding for state prisons has more than doubled, from $5 to $11 billion. It's been reported that, based on current spending trends, California's prison budget soon will overtake that of the state's universities and community colleges.

The Chancellor of the California State University System, Charles Reed, published an Op-Ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 27, 2009, in which he wrote:

During the budget debate, it became clear to me that something unthinkable has happened in California: Our fiscal meltdown has so distorted our legislative priorities that we are now a state that places a higher priority on prison than on higher education.

Chancellor Reed notes in his editorial that the budget cuts will cause 40,000 students to be turned away from the CSU. He writes:

The idea of turning away students is anathema to those of us who revere California's Master Plan for Higher Education and its once-proud tradition of accessible, quality higher education for all. It is a sign to me that California has completely reneged on its promise of opportunity to its people.

The state kept its promise to me in that it provided me the opportunity to get the highest level of education possible—a PhD. But if it shuts the public education door behind me, what kind of society will I be spending my old age in? I would much rather spend it in a state in which there were a large number of university-educated citizens, in particular a well-educated pool of healthcare workers, available.

Chancellor Reed goes on to say:

On the flip side, consider that California's prisons set the state back more than $10 billion per year. . . Now for the final injustice: It costs $49,000 per year to keep a prisoner behind bars in California. However, the state's contribution per student at the CSU is just $4,600. This dichotomy is not just outrageous, it's tragic. For such a relatively small amount of money, a young person could get a good education, secure a meaningful job and become a contributing member to the community and the economy. But instead of preserving this small investment in our young people, our leaders would rather spend 10 times as much to keep prisoners behind bars.

I think Reed accurately identifies a cultural shift—Californians are now more willing to fund prisons than to fund higher education.

One of the very odd things about this is that during the years when the increase in funding for prisons and the decrease in funding for higher education have been steepest, the crime rate in California has actually been falling. Precipitously. In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available on the California Attorney General’s website, the rate of violent crimes per 100,000 population was 485.6, lower than it has been since 1971. The rate reached its height in 1993 (1058.6 per 100,000) and has declined steadily ever since then. Nonetheless, between 1991-98, California had a 44% rise in its incarceration rate while the crime rate dropped 36.

As of 2008, California had about 171,000 adults in state prisons. Why so many prisoners? In 1994 California passed the infamous “three strikes” law, which applies to non-violent as well as violent felonies. (Just to put this in perspective, the U.S. as a whole has the highest prison population rate in the world, with 756 people incarcerated for every 100,000 in population. Closest behind us is Russia with 629 per 100,000. California alone has more people in prison than France, Great Britain, German, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands put together.) Not only has California got a large number of people in prisons; Californians want to keep them there. In 2008 Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed releasing 22,000 nonviolent offenders early to help solve the budget crisis, but this proposal created a huge oppositional outcry. California has, in fact, made it harder for prisoners to gain “early release” by passing Proposition 9 in 2008, known as “Marsy’s law,” which prevents prisoners from receiving credits toward early release awarded for good behavior or participation in particular programs. It also increases the amount of time inmates have to wait in between parole consideration hearings. (To find out more about California prisons and the victims’ rights groups that are financed by the prison guards’ union see the Prison Law Blog).

And what does this cost? California spends more than $10 billion a year on state prisons, spending 10 times as much on incarcerating each inmate than it allocates per student in the California State University System. Following logic of where the money goes, the Master Plan for Higher Education seems to be morphing into the Master Plan for Incarceration.

Contemporary Californians, unlike their predecessors in 1960, seem completely unwilling to consider making higher education a greater priority than prisons. On May 4, 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that state revenues lagged 30% behind what had been projected, worsening the budget outlook for the 2010-11 fiscal year. The Times reported that the shortfall “could mean even deeper cuts in government services — schools, healthcare for the poor and services for the elderly. Lawmakers may also be forced to consider more reductions in funds for public universities, as well as tax hikes.” No mention of the possibility of cuts to prisons. This represents a real cultural change: Ronald Reagan, as governor back in the sixties, initiated an early release program that reduced the prison population to the point where he could actually close a state prison (see Schlosser article cited below).

Why has this change come about, given that the crime rate now is as low as it was in 1971 and the majority of prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent crimes?

Eric Schlosser, in his 1998 Atlantic article, “The Prison-Industrial Complex,” attributes the phenomenon to “a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need.” He emphasizes the growth in the rate of imprisonment for nonviolent crimes that in other countries would usually lead to community service, fines, or drug treatment -- or would not be considered crimes at all” but which “in the United States now lead to a prison term, by far the most expensive form of punishment.”

Schlosser cites a stunning statistic: about 70% of inmates in U.S. prisons are illiterate. This strongly suggests that social programs and education would be much better answers than prison growth. Let’s educate ourselves and educate others and realign our values.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Demolition of Higher Education in California

Betrayed. That’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about the demolition of public higher education in the state of California.

End of the world as I knew it is another way I keep thinking about it.

Of course, it isn’t just me personally who’s been betrayed, it’s the grand vision of the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California. Since I’m a child of that Master Plan, though, I can’t help but take it personally. I was three years old when it was adopted into law, and I, along with millions of others, have benefitted from it all my life.

The Master Plan reaffirmed “California’s long-time commitment to the principle of tuition-free education to residents of the state” ( It established the tripartite higher education system: University of California, California State University System, and the Community College system, and established a financial aid program (the Cal Grant program), meant to help students who could be admitted to private colleges and universities in the state, but couldn’t afford to attend.

That would be me. As a first-generation student from a working-class family, I was admitted to Mills College, and couldn’t have gone without both aid from the college and a Cal Grant. That was the first benefit to me of the Master Plan. I got a first-rate undergraduate education, and then I went on to get a Master’s Degree through the CSU. Fees at San Jose State when I attended in the mid-1980s were something like $225/semester. My books cost more than my fees! I worked about 30 hours a week, and managed to get through the whole program without taking out student loans. And then I decided to get a PhD.

I was admitted to Stanford, but going there would have meant borrowing lots of money, so I went to the University of California, instead, and did indeed earn a PhD. And after a total of 11 years of publicly-supported higher education (through financial aid and public institutions), I had so little debt that I had it paid off within seven years of earning my final degree.

But things have changed.

The local paper just ran a story on high school graduates who’ve been accepted to colleges and can’t afford to go. It leads with someone who wanted to go to USC ($53,700/year) and can’t, but ends with a student who wanted to go to UC Berkeley (and was accepted there). He’s an honor student who has applied for scholarships—and who still can’t afford to go to the public 4-year university. “Instead, Rodriguez—the first in his family to go to college—got an Oxnard College scholarship that pays for tuition and books.” So there we have it—a bright, ambitious, promising first-generation student with the door slammed in his face. At least it slammed softly—he can at least go to Oxnard College. But it’s a community college with a transfer rate of less than 5%. And that’s not good enough! It’s not as good as I was given a generation ago.

A few years ago I heard the then-President of the American Association of University Professors call the California State University system the greatest experiment in democracy he knew of. (For confirmation of that, check out Well, that experiment is about to be shut down. Literally, shut down two days a month, its employees furloughed to cut 10% on salary costs, because the state is about to drastically cut the CSU budget—again. The CSU’s budget will have been cut by nearly a third from 2007-08; and in 2007-08, the CSU’s budget was already below the level it had been in 2001-02 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

How much more can it take before it bleeds to death?

There is already an unmet demand for places in the CSU—estimates are that 10,000 more students would like to enroll than there is space for. Now, the CSU may need to reduce its enrollment by another 20,000.

How much more damage can the state do to the vision laid out in 1960? Remember that “long-time commitment to the principle of tuition-free education to residents of the state”?

As late as 1987, in the Master Plan Renewed, the commitment to publically-supported education was rearticulated: “The state shall continue to be primarily responsible for funding postsecondary education, and students shall continue to pay a portion of the cost; but student charges shall not be changed substantially in any single year. Fees shall be maintained by the state and governing boards in a constant relationship to state support within each segment, and fee increases that do occur shall be waived or offset by financial aid for needy students.”

But in the revision to the Master Plan adopted in 2002, that commitment is explicitly rescinded: “Because enrollment in postsecondary education is not a fundamental right like K-12 enrollment, and because nearly all postsecondary students are 18 years old or older, the State does not strive to meet the full costs of operations for public colleges and universities through direct General Fund appropriations” (

According to an eye-opening and depressing report, “California at the Edge of a Cliff: The Failure to Invest in Public Higher Education is Crushing the Economy and Crippling Our Kids’ Future,” the “state has been shifting the costs of operating its universities from state taxpayers to students and their families since 1980.” ( Another report, “Cumulative Impact: How cuts to higher education in the recent past, today and in the near future will affect access and opportunity for California students,” reiterates this: “Higher education can enhance quality of life for students (long after graduation) and acts as a major engine of economic growth for the state. Nevertheless, during the past several years, the share of higher education costs paid by the state has been declining and the share paid by students and their families has been increasing” (

I keep thinking of the irony of President Obama recommending that every American get at least one year of higher education while California is reducing the number of opportunities available, and making the remaining opportunities more expensive.

What I’ve been doing here is what I was taught to do by my extensive, publicly-funded education: laying out rational arguments based on facts and research. But I began with how I feel—betrayed, and I want to end with how I feel. Going through higher education and then becoming a professor, I always felt I wasn’t really supposed to be here, that I was an outsider, not the kind of person who was supposed to be in institutions of higher education. Now it’s clear that I was right—the door was briefly opened. Now it’s been slammed shut again. And I feel like my fingers were in the doorway when it slammed.