I’ll admit that I’ve been enjoying the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The pictures are great, the courage and science are impressive, and the sheer audacity of the enterprise is admirable. But I’m especially struck by the clarity of purpose. That’s mostly missing now.

There was a time when it was possible to harness public resources towards a common, positive purpose. Yes, it was motivated by the Cold War, but so what? As a little kid, I had no concept of the Cold War, but I got the concept of “astronauts walk on moon” immediately.  I couldn’t see Russia from my backyard, but I could see the moon just fine. One measure of just how unlikely that mission was is that fifty years later, we’re still the only country in the history of the world ever to do that.  It’s still a point of national pride. And the technology spillovers offered raw material to the private sector from which it still benefits. Between the space program and ARPANET, much of the innovation of the last two decades — largely powered by folks who scoff at government — was made possible by massive, publicly-funded government projects.

It’s hard to imagine a comparable unity of purpose now.  Our politics have grown smaller. We “means-test” benefits, to ensure that nobody “undeserving” gets them.  We lock up asylum applicants and steal their children from them, keeping them in conditions worse than we keep convicted felons.  We shrug at foreign manipulation of our elections, and treat health care for our people as a greater mystery than the moon landing.  We’re the only advanced country that can’t seem to figure that one out. Meanwhile, we peddle conspiracy theories about global warming, immigration, and, yes, the moon landing.

Public higher education is collateral damage in all this.  Having been birthed as an audacious bet on the capacity of the people, it has been slowly strangled by austerity.  It struggles with the general skepticism towards public institutions. Even internally, so much of the dialogue now is about employability, as opposed to education, that the idea of a purpose beyond the market strikes many as hopelessly abstract.  A few months ago, at a reunion of my Aspen Presidential Fellowship class, I mentioned something to a younger colleague about the danger of reducing college to job preparation. She responded, in all apparent seriousness, “what else is there?”  

Once in a while, a green shoot breaks through.  I was heartened to read that some community colleges in Texas are getting enough additional public funding that they can actually reduce tuition.  It’s almost a “man bites dog” story, but refreshing for showing that it’s still possible to make a choice to respect the public as public.  

I’m old enough to remember the Canon Wars.  Back in the 80’s and 90’s, educators had vicious battles over which writers to include in the ‘canon.’  The ‘conservative’ perspective, back then, was that there are timeless truths that need to be passed along, and that education is a bulwark against historical forgetting.  The lefty perspective was that the old canon left out too many people, and needed to be looked at in ways that reflect the social underpinnings that determined who got to be remembered.  But the two sides shared a belief that the definition of the canon mattered. It mattered entirely independently of any effects on job placement. It mattered because education mattered; it was understood on all sides as part of a culture’s process of self-definition.  Now the very terms of the debate feel anachronistic.

The poignancy of the anniversary of the moonshot, for me, comes from a loss of the sense of possibility that the moonshot exemplified.  That wasn’t inevitable. It was the result of a series of choices, some of them seemingly reasonable in isolation, but with the cumulative effect of desiccating our sense of what could be done.  

I don’t know if we’ll send anyone to the moon again in my lifetime, or if anybody else will.  (If I had to guess, I’d suspect that either China or some tech billionaire will get there before NASA does.)  But I’d love to see a confident sense of positive public purpose again. There’s no shortage of challenges, ranging from the complicated (global warming) to the relatively straightforward (clean water in Flint).  Good public higher education falls somewhere in between. But hey, if we can put a man on the moon…


Inside Higher Ed