Opinion: Stand up today for freedom to learn and freedom to teach

Wednesday, April 17, has been designated as a Day of Action for Higher Education by faculty and student groups across the country. A Georgia public university professor urges Georgians to stand up for their schools and their teachers.  (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Wednesday, April 17, has been designated as a Day of Action for Higher Education by faculty and student groups across the country. A Georgia public university professor urges Georgians to stand up for their schools and their teachers. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Today faculty and student groups across the country are holding a Day of Action for Higher Education. Nationwide, these groups are holding teach-ins, rallies and other public engagements to bring attention to the plight of higher education as it remains under relentless attack from within and outside its campuses.

One of the key claims this day wants to reinforce is the link between higher education and democracy. We need for our democracy not merely a workforce but a citizenry. We need skilled professionals but those professionals also need to learn how best to advocate for their profession. That means learning communication skills but also history, sociology, and, of course, civics. That is why, for example, a biology degree should include a wide course selection from the humanities.

Matthew Boedy

Credit: Peggy Cozart

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Credit: Peggy Cozart

Democracy needs an educated electorate, an electorate that doesn’t merely know how to do certain things but how to make better for all of us certain systems, how to create social progress, not merely individual achievement. This is why supporting the opportunity for all to go to college is important. The state — we taxpayers — should pay for higher education because it is an investment in our democracy.

For this day of action by higher education, I’m asking you to act for higher education. I asked in December in a preview of the legislative session that lawmakers make the case for higher education in their public engagements. I hope lawmakers did so, but a Senate bill that tried to sever our state’s relationship with the American Library Association didn’t help. But the failure of the bill showed me lawmakers still have some persuasive appeal.

I am asking you the public across the state to support higher education at the ballot box.

In any election, democracy is always on the ballot because we can elect state and federal officials who support higher education. We can but sadly sometimes we don’t. We elect people who mock academia without the slightest care for it. We elect people who lie about campus life. We elect people who disparage getting a degree, all the while forgetting their own.

And we elect those people because there are members of the electorate who mock, lie and disparage higher education.

I am asking you to not merely ignore those voices but work against them.

You can do that at the ballot box. You can also do that every day. Wear that alma mater shirt with pride. I know I do. And even if you don’t have a degree, be proud to support not merely the football team but the physics department.

Here is where I ask you to remember what it might have felt like to send your kid to college. To be honest, I haven’t yet experienced the latter. I hear it’s akin to sending your child to kindergarten. If you can trust your kid’s first grade teacher, you can trust that teacher’s teacher and on down the line until you get to me. I teach first-year English at one of our state’s public universities. And we are betting the future of the university on the public need for and trust of teachers.

If you can trust that line from teacher to teacher, refuse to join the chorus of bad faith actors trying to impose their preferred but highly limiting view of the world on higher education.

Education doesn’t work without trust.

Funding programs and meaningful salaries shows support. And I thank Georgia lawmakers and its governor for the three cost-of-living increases faculty and other University System employees have gotten in recent years. (Three if, indeed, Gov. Brian Kemp signs the budget proposal he backed.)

Those actions also show trust. You trusted the government to support a public need. The lawmakers trust us to continue to practice that public need.

I ask you today to trust teachers who also send our kids to our schools. Trust the freedom to learn. Trust the freedom to teach.

And if you need to verify, I am sure your local public school will be happy to have you volunteer. You can also, of course, speak to your child’s teacher.

While state lawmakers have decided unwisely to champion public money for students who studies show most likely have never attended a public school, you don’t have to go along with vouchers. We fund students through the trusted systems we created.

Education takes trust. So does democracy. Yes, we can and should teach civics in our schools. In fact, we do in many ways outside a specific curriculum. We do it through the daily public trust that is education. You trust me, I trust you. We rely on public institutions.

Democracy doesn’t survive without an educated electorate. It also doesn’t survive without a trusting electorate.

This week, many people who work in higher education want to show us all why they can be trusted. I ask you to pay attention and vote accordingly.

Matthew Boedy is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia and conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors.