Decisions short-changing knowledge are liable to backfire.
These words are not mine; they belong to Robert Orben, the late American comedian who died in February of this year. But I think they need to be borne in mind in discussions and decisions concerning the current state budget.
The state’s intentions to underfund state universities is severely shortsighted. Undermining the value of higher education — which for me, as a philosopher, translates into knowledge and understanding — will have a detrimental impact on the current situation and future of our state.
A 21st century workforce more than ever requires more than just professional skills. Students today — who will be the leaders tomorrow — require knowledge about our world. Students need to understand and question ideas that hinder social progress —such as racism, sexism, injustice, inequality, and the climate crisis, to name just a few. Students need to know how to critically analyze and reflect, undertake productive inquiry, problem-solve creatively, challenge assumptions, and more — the sorts of things that, without thought, lead to the distortion and misunderstanding such as those evident in discussions of critical race theory and transgender experiences.
The pursuit of knowledge is a fundamental feature of being human. Throughout all our lives one of the principal ventures we all engage in is acquiring knowledge. As Aristotle said, “All human beings by nature desire to know.” Knowledge can be considered to have instrumental value, but it is also of intrinsic value; just having knowledge is good in itself. However, one cannot assume that just because we know something, we also understand it. As philosophers have argued, gaining understanding is a much deeper cognitive achievement than just obtaining knowledge. We may know that the incidence of gun violence is very high in this country, but do we really understand why this is so?
I strive to understand the nature of our world, and not just know it. I’d like to think I impart this attitude to my students. It requires an awareness of and desire to achieve an understanding which reflects the true nature of our world. Moreover, how well we understand a particular issue is going to influence how we respond to it. And the fact that within any society we are dealing with many complexities — such as differing opinions, diverse cultural, religious, and political views — makes true understanding only more complicated. This does not mean that our society is impossible to understand, but it does require an awareness that it is not a simple matter.
A few words about ignorance: Ignorance is often understood as the lack or absence of knowledge, but this is not its only form. It involves the absence of true beliefs, but also the presence of false beliefs. While a society can perpetuate forms of ignorance, we ourselves, perpetuate our own ignorance. I fear that the decisions being made by our legislators evince ignorance, rather than knowledge and understanding.
I’m feeling disillusioned — not because I may lose my job, but more because of the fundamental reason that the state government does not want to support regional universities that offer good quality, affordable, higher education to their constituents —a complete disregard for the value of knowledge and understanding. Under-funding the small, regional, public universities in this state risks eliminating the opportunities for many young people to gain a better understanding of the society in which they live. Both they, and the other members of the state, will be significantly worse off as a result.
Anna Malavisi is an Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies, Western Connecticut State University.