Before he left office, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered an unignorable speech that has since been praised but ignored in practice. He warned that an alliance between government and the defense industries had created a “military-industrial complex” poised to dominate American foreign policy. All of our executive-driven wars since then have validated Eisenhower’s prophecy.
Recently, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg delivered an equally prescient warning in a semi-farewell address at the University of Pittsburgh. He said the cutting of state funding for higher education, in Pennsylvania and nationally, was curtailing innovation and research, eviscerating undergraduate programs and burdening students with onerous debts after graduation. Like Eisenhower, he stated the unignorable.
We have known since 2001 that America’s “war on terror” as well as its vain occupation of Afghanistan and illegal invasion of Iraq, with all its predictable recent implosions, have usurped dollars that would and should have gone to the states. The states tried to do what the federal government had once helped them to do, but they had to work with less and less. Mr. Nordenberg concluded that reduced federal aid to the states for higher education has already created an “innovation deficit that threatens America’s leadership.”
He is correct. Regardless, little can be done to correct the problem as long as the “endless war” policies of the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld cabal remain in effect. Although Barack Obama was nominated and elected because of his opposition to the Iraq war, he upped the ante in Afghanistan by sending 30,000 additional troops, and about that many remain in Afghanistan today.
Many who supported Mr. Obama (and I was one) expected more from a Nobel Peace Prize awardee, but he then legalized many of the same war policies he opposed as a candidate and added a few of his own. The “trained seals” in Congress have simply gone along while silly patrioteers and armchair neocon warriors, who, like the multi-deferred Dick Cheney, never saw the inside of a barracks, have demanded more.
What are the consequences?
A Harvard researcher has estimated the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at $2 trillion already, with the price tag expected to rise up to $6 trillion as we care for the wounded and rebuild our forces over time.
In the early years of the Iraq war, the United States was spending more than enough to cover Pitt’s entire annual budget, including the medical school, in six days.
The consequences for students have been dire. With reduced state aid and tuition increases, the median student debt upon graduation has risen to $29,400, with total student debt at an astounding $1.2 trillion. Many students face 26 years of payments — most of their working lives — to clear their debts.
And now that the cost of tuition and board tops out at $60,000 or more per year at top-notch institutions, even with financial aid more and more low- and moderate-income students are being priced out of a college education.
What about the effects on colleges and universities?
Most are cutting costs by exploiting adjunct teachers, who teach not as a sideline but because they consider it their calling. As they hope that a full-time tenured position might open up, they work for Walmart wages without benefits.
More and more college administrators are becoming bottom-liners who spend much of their time fund-raising and see the university as a business. They cut courses in the liberal arts and humanities, the very core of learning, in favor of business, technical, often computer-driven disciplines, confusing skill with knowledge and forgetting that mere facility and the capability of making wise judgments are not synonymous.
Some of the less reputable institutions inveigle gullible students with slick advertising that guarantees “success,” as if success and not significance is the goal of higher education. Students are perceived as customers or, worse, as mere conduits for student-loan-financed tuition payments.
One alternative for many students is to accede to the same kind of hyper-advertising from the military and enlist with the hope that, if they survive, they can rely on G.I. Bill benefits to get a college education later. Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex may involve them in random wars wherever the arms industries can be profitably engaged.
Chancellor Nordenberg has rendered a great service to academia and the general public by focusing on the price we are paying and will continue to pay unless we invest more in higher education. And a principal way we can do that is by rejecting military adventurism, an illegal back door to naked profiteering that has damaged our country at home and our reputation abroad.
We have opted for amnesia instead of history, ignoring the hundreds of billions already squandered for a decade of war as well as the human costs: nearly 7,000 American lives lost, more than 32,000 with trauma requiring hospitalization, 320,000 with brain injuries. The New York Times has reported that on average a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes — 18 suicides each day, 6,000 a year. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the Veterans of Foreign Wars ran TV ads saying it’s even worse: that every 64 minutes a vet dies by at his or her own hands.
Then there are the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed and the millions displaced.
We have chosen to ignore all this. If we continue to do so, we can ignore anything.
Samuel Hazo is distinguished professor of English emeritus at Duquesne University and director of the International Poetry Forum (firstname.lastname@example.org).