The Slow, Deliberate Erosion in Education

As a scientist, it took me a while to grasp why Iowa’s governor stood fast against mask wearing during a respiratory pandemic. Not only did she and her cohorts not support mask mandates, they banned them and made those who wore them pariahs. The net result was more covid deaths, but even worse than this, the college where I worked supported her.  We briefly had a mask mandate, following a student petition, but for the most part, this is what we signaled.

The message was: you can wear a mask if you want, you poor, weak thing instead of stressing the science: masks work to slow the spread of covid by at least 40%. In a place where people sit close and windows won’t open, this would have gone a long way to keeping covid out of the classroom. 

It took a while for me to process it was one more academic microaggression—Second Class Citizen status in a place of higher education. There was no need to protect the professors. If you wanted to protect yourself it was up to you to be the outsider. It was also expected that if we got covid, we had to carry on someway somehow.

As I had long suspected, this view is handed down from above and intentional. Rich donors hostile to academic knowledge are transforming colleges and universities in order to make them less like places where you think and more where you get some job training—including training how to knuckle under and put up with dangers. They’ve donated to anti-intellectual politicians, started their own programs, appointed their people to boards, and even gone the way of the “businessman college president.”  It’s no different than any oligarch buying the silence of their critics.

The bottom line is, I retired from a job thought I’d take to the grave with me or at least work at until age 70. As an educator from a family of public school teachers, college administrators, and librarians, being a professor was a familiar fit for me. The stimulation of new ideas, research, and writing was a dream come true.

This isn’t to say there weren’t snakes in the garden, such as the visit from the governor devoid of passion. As a chemistry professor, I became aware of the desire of legislators to both praise, harness, and censor scientists. It quickly became apparent that the powers that rule in Iowa didn’t want our opinions on climate change, pollution, or saving the wetlands. If we couldn’t produce some engineers, preferably conservative in outlook, what good were we?

I was only accused falsely by a student once, thankfully. It had to do with the Vagina Monologues, which my school no longer performs. This was around the time purity culture was rampant. Students even fell victim to the No Dating Movement, a form of benevolent sexism. The student was most certainly pushed to be angry with me by outside forces.

There were a few uncomfortable moments with the staff –unimpressed with the egghead professors–as well. When the science building, of which I was once dubbed the czarina, underwent renovation, I made my request to keep the humidity down in one room. It contained equipment which measured infrared (heat) absorption of molecules. In simple terms, substances can be held together by a plus-minus attraction as found in salt. They can be held together in a restless sea of their outer electronic charge as with metals. Or as with everything from water to oil, they can hold together by sharing their outer coating of electrons in clearly understood patterns. This equipment measured the later. But since the detectors were looking for shared electrons, the optics had to be made of substances in which electrons were not shared in order to make them transparent to what was being measured. Some of this was salt crystals. Predictably, my pleas were ignored, the salt in the instrument took on water, and the equipment needed costly repairs.

My past includes a long list of things I tried to shrug off.  Poor ventilation in my office—enough to give OSHA concern. My lab roof leaked. A student had terrible allergies whenever he walked into the room. Years later, a plastic bucket filled with collected rainwater that had been hidden in the ceiling burst with a shower of gunk and mold. I became so afraid the fume hoods would break down, as they were known to do, that I came up with a whole book of labs that didn’t need them. Here’s the thing—I was often chastised for bringing up these valid concerns as if I was a naughty, out of control pest instead of an employee worried about health and safety.

I’ve been given emerita status and can return any time to use the new equipment the college bought after I left. The people who ignored my demands for lab and office quality control have long since retired. Although I’d intended to, I don’t go back. I’m not sure why.

Across the nation, teachers suffer from poor salaries and lack of time for professional development. Want to know a lack of time example? I was grading papers beside her bedside when my mom died! It seemed perfectly normal to both of us.

Meanwhile, our governor has the luxury to pardon turkeys remotely to help stop the spread of disease. Turkeys are more important than teachers and students, who by the way, are spreading flu and RSV, but never mind, mask mandates are banned.

I’m writing this to bear witness. What we had in the way of education—supported and encouraged educators passionate about their subject matter and their students—is eroding faster than an Iowa field. Here in Iowa, few care to do anything about erosion. It’s too darn bad. We had a good thing.

5 thoughts on “The Slow, Deliberate Erosion in Education

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and heartfelt post. You speak to many feelings I’ve had but couldn’t quite put into words.
    It’s frustrating in particular because education is the remedy for so many of our current societal challenges…yet indeed it is being diminshed.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Paul. I was kind of scared to write it but have since heard from retired employees with similar experiences. There might be a little bit of age prejudice going on in addition to other stresses from cost cutting. I also have heard tales of coaches spreading misinformation and advising against any covid safety measures. Things could have been better and more supportive of scientific knowledge.

      Like

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