Episode 17: A free college manifesto

  
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Halfway through John Warner’s new book about higher education, it dawned on me that I was reading a manifesto.

The book is called Sustainable. Resilient. Free. The Future of Public Higher Education (2020, Belt Publishing). It’s a sweeping diagnosis of what ails higher education in the United States, written from a place of deep frustration.

John spent 20 years teaching in colleges and universities, including Clemson and the College of Charleston. He’s a talented educator and an incisive writer, and I’ve admired his work for years. I jumped at the opportunity to bring him on the podcast.

In the book, he argues for canceling student debt and making all public colleges free for students. He rails against student surveillance and the insipid utopianism of the edu-tech TED Talk circuit. John worked as an adjunct, not a tenure-track professor, so he writes from experience about the ways the industry grinds down its frontline workers.

One concept that I connected with was the idea of “vocational awe,” originally coined by the librarian Fobazi Ettarh to describe “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.” While the term originally applied to librarians, it could just as easily describe the mindset of college instructors, K-12 teachers, nurses, and journalists.

“To the person operating with a sense of vocational awe, the institution is so important that self-immiseration is a worthwhile tradeoff,” Warner writes.

Like any good manifesto, Sustainable. Resilient. Free. opens the imagination. It’s a book for disenchanted voters, workers saddled with lifelong college loan debt, and professors on the verge of burnout. I read it in two sittings, growing angrier and more hopeful with every page.

If you enjoyed today’s podcast and want to hear more from John, you can order a copy of his book from your local independent bookstore or via the Brutal South Bookshop page. He’s on Twitter (@biblioracle), and you can find links to his writing at johnwarnerwriter.com.

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