Cornell University

November 30 2012

Freedom to Learn

Cowie's "Last Lecture" focuses on higher education, inequality and the shift away from intellectualism

There's a connection between the highway express lane and the freedom we have to make life choices.

ILR Professor Jefferson Cowie made that observation Nov. 29 during his "Last Lecture" sponsored by the Cornell chapter of Mortar Board, a national honor society.  

The society invites distinguished faculty members to deliver remarks each year that they could envision as the "last lecture" of their teaching careers.

Cowie, an historian and award-winning author of "Staying Alive: The Last Days of the 1970's and the Working Class," says the highway analogy is a "symbol that captures our time" and that speaks to issues relating to inequality and higher education, the focus of his lecture.

"During rush hour, people can avoid congestion by paying more to drive on a private highway. So, there's a swiftly moving expressway for those who can afford it and a crumbling mess for those who can't," he says.

Without financial worries during his early college years, Cowie made a choice one October when he was hiking in California's Yosemite Park. That day, he decided not to return to the University at California, where he was studying engineering.

"That's the kind of freedom I'm talking about. This was something I was doing for my life, not my wallet."

Eventually, Cowie says, he did return to college but as a history major. When he graduated, "unencumbered, well-educated and debt free," he was able to make the choice to travel through Southeast Asia before settling into a career.

College students today, he argues, don't necessarily have the security to enjoy that kind of experience and freedom after earning their degree. Economic and vocational concerns have a profound effect on the choices they can make.

"The cost of higher education has increased 1,120 percent compared to when I went to college, and the average debt load for graduates is $25,000."

He also says that while rising inequality has made college less accessible, higher education has become less meaningful to those who can afford it.

"It's more about how instrumental education is in getting a job. People are more risk averse, more market driven."

"The argument that a life well-lived is better than anything Wall Street can offer" is a hard sell, he adds.

Cowie does hope for a return to the pursuit of "intellectual excitement" that higher education can offer.

"This requires some freedom of choice, too. Freedom to take education as its own self good and to think about what money can't buy…allowing you to pursue dreams to the fullest."

Cowie ended his lecture with remarks from Robert Kennedy, who in 1968 as part of an election campaign made statements that resonate even now as he thinks about inequality and the rise of monetary influence, freedom of choice and democratic principles.

Kennedy was referencing the Gross National Product, Cowie said, when he remarked that the GNP "does not allow for the health of our children or the quality of our education…neither measures wit nor courage…it measures everything in short except that which is worthwhile."