Apples: The Tree

This post is the first in a series.

Have you ever seen an apple tree get sick?

When I was a girl I spent summer days with my grandfather on the piece of property he called “the farm.” At some point in my childhood, the farm had a cherry tree, a peach tree, a plum tree, a grape arbor, black walnuts, raspberries, and apples (McIntosh-his favorite). The cherry tree got sick, turned into a truly impressive ant colony, and had to be cut down. The peach tree was blown over in an epic windstorm leaving a giant hole which I can’t remember how we filled.

When my grandfather started to get sick we made the decision to cut down the rows of raspberries which were my favorite but, without constant care, become a terrible weed.

As he got sicker he was less and less able to take care of the property. The walnuts, the plums, and the grapes seemed to be more or less self-sustaining, but the apples got sick from lack of care.

In the fall, the boughs were so heavy with apples that they touched the ground.

When my grandfather was well we would pick the apples. He would attach the peeler-corer to the kitchen counter and I would spin the crank creating one long ribbon of apple peel. We would make applesauce and grandpa’s original apple pie recipe (the secret ingredient is cranberry jelly). Even so, there were still too many apples and we would give them away. Some went to my stepdad who made his own applesauce recipe (the secret is Red Hots).

In the years after my grandfather got sick, it wasn’t so much that there was no one to pick the apples, but that there was nothing to do with them. Even that isn’t quite accurate. It’s not that we weren’t capable of making apple pies and applesauce without my grandfather; it’s just that the joy had gone out of it somehow.

The apples remained unpicked. The trees remained un-pruned. The bows bent with their heavy loads and the birds feasted on the unexpected bounty.

In the intervening years between when my grandfather got sick and when we sold the farm the quality of the apples went down as their quantity went up. The heavy loads of apples broke some of the branches and the trees got sicker and sicker.

As I walk around my campus those trees come to mind because, like those trees, my university is dying, slowly, from want of pruning and lack of leadership.

In the past three years, my university has built new buildings for a leadership center, the honors college, an honors college dorm, an active learning center, and the Bechtel Innovation Design Center (whatever that is). Meanwhile, older campus spaces, like the union, have made room for Amazon. Oh, and my university bought Kaplan. We also have a two billion dollar endowment. If money and new buildings were signs of health then my university would be robust.

The idea that unfettered growth is a symbol of unmitigated health is a peculiarly capitalistic idea. It is, in fact, the inherent flaw in capitalism because life tends towards balance–day and night, birth and death, growth and pruning, the second law of thermodynamics–any system dependent on sustained imbalance cannot be maintained without immense damage to its ecosystem. More succinctly,

Capitalism as Cancer

So, then, what happens when you put an evangelical-free-market-Koch-brother-sympathizing-public-school-killing former governor in charge of a land-grant university?

Unsurprisingly, the university starts to grow at an unnatural, unsustainable, unhealthy rate. The overabundance may have its own beauty, like those apple boughs so full of fruit they kissed the earth, but it is that sometimes poetic beauty that can be found in death which is wholly different from, and unmistakable for, the beauty of robust life in a balanced system.

For the past two years, my university has had record-breaking enrollment and you would think that, with so many new students coming to campus and filling seats for required classes, that there would also be record-breaking hiring of new faculty and record-breaking enrollment of graduate students, but this is not so. The number of faculty, at least in my college, has stayed steady while the Dean has initiated measures to curtail graduate student enrollment in some of our most highly ranked programs which, coincidentally, happen to be the programs that teach courses previously thought to be essential to a college education like, I don’t know, critical reading and argumentative writing.

My university is a land-grant meaning that our mission is/was/ought to be, “to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education.” (Source here.)

It’s that last part that’s dying, the “classical studies so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education.” When you think of the university as either a state-funded R&D program or a very complicated jobs training program then you don’t really need to teach everyone critical thinking or writing, let alone history, or, god forbid, cultural studies. After all, those things aren’t necessary for the majority of the working classes. They aren’t necessary to carry out orders for a minimum wage. Those are things the bosses need–and not even all of them–just the ones at the top. As the university shifts from a place where the “working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education” to a job-training program the quantity of students may go up but the quality of thinkers decreases.

Because the current university administration (“leadership” isn’t really an applicable word for the first person to jump off of the bridge) views this institution as a place to get job training rather than education (and, just as a reminder, those things are very different) they’ve introduced several new measures such as Degree in Three which, despite its tagline, is almost certainly a compromised education in the same way that once-a-week night classes never actually cover the same amount of material as traditional classes. They’ve also introduced the Back a Boiler program which, despite the layers of PR it’s coated in, is indistinguishable from indentured servitude.

Despite the profusion of buildings somehow associated with the word “leadership” programs like Degree in Three and Back a Boiler are not focused on creating leaders but on workers.

Not surprisingly, the past several years have also seen the university announce a number of business partnerships from the aforementioned purchase of degree-mill Kaplan to partnerships with Eli Lily and others.

These are the birds feasting on the rotten apples of a dying tree.

The university administration touts these initiatives and partnerships as signs of health and I think there is a genuine belief in the upper echelons that these partnerships will save the university (which wasn’t in danger until it was knowingly put in crisis so that these measures could be initiated but other people have said that much better). What they don’t seem to realize, or remember, or care about, is that when the tree dies and the apples are gone the birds will find somewhere else to feed and all that will be left is a university that died from lack of pruning.



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