Education What is it Worth?
When I was teaching a course at UCLA in 2005, one of the scholars I most admired died. While I was never a student of Alan Dundes, I was lucky enough to hear him speak and read his many books. He died in the classroom, doing what he loved best, teaching. In his obituary, there was a story about one of his former students. Apparently Professor Dundes had a folklore lecture about “the check is in the mail.” One day an unsigned letter arrived saying just that. A week later, a check arrived for a million dollars. It came from a student who had taken him some 20 years earlier and was accompanied by a letter about how much his class meant to him. Dundes, being the extraordinary man he was, used the gift to endow a Folklore Professorship at University of California at Berkeley.
I found this story incredibly moving. Not because I wanted a million dollars, but because his student thought his class was worth a million dollars. This became my personal goal. To teach a class, give an education that someone felt was worth a million dollars. I knew it would be nearly impossible to find out if I ever succeeded. It became my personal goal.
As many of you know, California is in crisis. Our spectacular higher education system is being cut to the bone. Our UCs, Cal States, and our tremendous open enrollment community colleges are being defunded to the point of jeopardy. I’ve taught at each of these institutions. I’ve watched tuitions rise and wages of faculty and support staff cut. Worse, I see classes cut. I know some of you have seen the semesters I’ve worked 80-hour weeks to make sure that I live up to that standard I set myself in oversized classes. In this bleak environment there is one mitigating hope for the funding crisis and that is proposition 30 (No for 38, no funding for College with 38).
After 18 years in a one-bedroom apartment with a 45-minute commute, I now have a mortgage. I’m nowhere near poverty, but I’m still driven to pursue research or perhaps, have what other people call a vacation. If 30 doesn’t pass, my life will be cut.
The research you’ve been asking me to write about will be shelved indefinitely. That is certain. I’ll have to skip buying the Anthropology Association pizza for a meeting, forego new Halloween decorations, and not go to that show at the Hollywood Bowl. This isn’t suffering, but it is demoralizing. It makes me question if our society cares about education or democracy. As fewer funds are directed towards education, there are fewer opportunities for our population to become educated citizens, fewer opportunities full stop. Cutting more classes means no space for enrichment. No space to figure out where your talents and passions lie. No space to figure out what your degree should be in. I want Berkeley to continue to be able to hire a scholar like Alan Dundes. I want opportunity not to be defined by what is in your pocketbook, but by the quality of your mind and your work ethic.
So this is my new goal, I hope I’ve taught a class or given a lecture you think is worth 1/4 of a cent of sales tax. If you think I have, do whatever you can to get (Yes on) 30 passed. It won’t fix everything, but it will stave off disaster. If it passes, you might hear me talk about eating at a restaurant that serves molecular gastronomy, my progress on the ritual book or paying for students to get into a local museum.
Professor Wendy Fonarow PhD
P.S. Thank you Alan Dundes and Stanley Walens for giving me lectures and writing books worth more than a million dollars. Feel free to pass this on.