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Cracks in the Future

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So it’s dismaying to realize that the grandeur of Berkeley (and the remarkable success of the University of California system, of which Berkeley is the flagship) is being jeopardized by shortsighted politicians and California’s colossally dysfunctional budget processes.

Berkeley is caught in a full-blown budget crisis with nothing much in the way of upside in sight. The school is trying to cope with what the chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, described as a “severe and rapid loss in funding” from the state, which has shortchanged Berkeley’s budget nearly $150 million this year, and cut more than $800 million from the higher education system as a whole.

This is like waving goodbye to the futures of untold numbers of students. Chancellor Birgeneau denounced the state’s action as “a completely irresponsible disinvestment in the future of its public universities.”

(The chancellor was being kind. Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes watching the chaos of California politicians trying to deal with fiscal and budgetary matters would consider “completely irresponsible” to be the mildest of possible characterizations.)

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Walls for Learning

Digging around the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs website a few days ago, I came across a “Percent for Art” project from 1994 by Allan and Ellen Wexler for Public School 340 in the Bronx. The simply titled Drawing P.S. 340 is a “112 foot (34 m) wall mural [that] presents various floor plans and detailed construction drawings based on the actual architectural plans for the school, … elevation drawings of the hallway and variously scaled maps that situate the school in the community, city, and country. ” ()

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University of California campuses erupt into protest
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The Berkeley protest was one of many held across California in an unprecedented day of action directed at university authorities and state governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger as he attempts to curb the state’s multibillion-dollar budget crisis. Faculty, students and unions from the University of California’s 10 campuses including its two most prestigious, UCLA and Berkeley, joined forces in what was the biggest student protest for more than a generation.

The scale of the protests has come as a shock to state authorities. What began as a marginal dispute in the summer between university faculty and their management over cuts in salaries has in recent weeks escalated into a statewide walkout by students and faculty as well as a day of strike action by campus technical workers against layoffs and diminished terms and conditions.

The turning point came two weeks ago when university authorities warned of savage budget cuts to deal with a $750m (£466m) shortfall and mooted huge increases in the cost of tuition. “UC regents vote next week to raise student fees, already up 250% over the last decade, by an additional 30%,” was how one group of protesters summed up the situation today.

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A propos: Free Speech Movement 1964

Looking for an Honest Man

Life would be no better than candlelight
tinsel and daylight rubbish if our spirits were
not touched by what has been, to issues of
longing and constancy.

—George Eliot, Middlemarch

If asked to identify important topics for a new journal on national affairs, few of us would think first — if at all — of the humanities and their condition in American life today. The sorry state of elementary and secondary education would surely make the list, as might the need to improve scientific literacy and technological competence, so that, as we are often told, America may remain “competitive” in the globalized economy and high-tech world of tomorrow. Attention might be invited also to political correctness in college classrooms or campus restrictions on free speech. But the larger and more important educational issue of what college students should be learning and why — and especially in the humanities — is a subject below the radar for nearly everyone.

It was not always thus. Fifty years ago, when Europeans and Americans still distinguished high culture from popular culture, and when classical learning was still highly esteemed in colleges and universities, C. P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow did more than warn of the growing split between the old culture of the humanities and the rising culture of science. He took Britain’s literary aristocracy to task for its dangerous dismissal of scientific and technological progress, which Snow believed offered the solutions to the world’s deepest problems. In a vitriolic response to Snow, the literary critic F. R. Leavis defended the primacy of the humanities for a civilizing education, insisting that science must not be allowed to operate outside of the moral norms that a first-rate humanistic education alone could provide. The Snow-Leavis debate spread also to this side of the Atlantic, triggering for a time serious and searching discussions regarding the aims of higher education and the importance of the humanities.

Such discussions have, alas, largely disappeared not only from public discourse but even within the academy. Most professors in nearly all of our leading universities prefer to leave and be left alone, justifying their self-serving indifference to the goals and requirements of a liberal education by proclaiming for their students the American trumping value of choice. For themselves, they trumpet the maxim of Chairman Mao: “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” In contrast to 50 years ago, few licensed humanists today embrace any view of the humanities that could in fact justify making them the centerpiece of a college curriculum. This abdication is especially regrettable because it comes precisely at a time in which, thanks largely to the successes of Snow’s beloved scientific and technological revolutions, the meaning and future of our humanity cry out for serious and thoughtful attention. ()

(via Maurice)

Snakebit Web Trailer

Snakebit is a documentary film on the late architect Samuel Mockbee and the radical educational design/build program known as the Rural Studio that he co-founded deep in poverty-stricken Hale County, Alabama. Awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal Award for his work at the Rural Studio, Mockbee was an artist, builder and educator who instilled his passion and philosophy in those he believed will become a new generation of “citizen architects.” Snakebit is a 60-minute film for PBS that explores the effort by Mockbee to inject architecture’s future practitioners with the knowledge and passion to improve their community’s quality of life by putting compassion and ethical responsibilities at the heart of their design.

Aptly named Rural Studio because of its remote location in West Alabama, the program invites Auburn University architecture students to leave behind the typical academic setting to live and work together in the classroom of the community. The students design homes and neighborhood buildings that reflect the needs and wants of their underserved clients—many of whom don’t have indoor plumbing or a proper roof over their heads. With minimal funding, the students build their designs, relying mostly on donated and locally salvaged materials that keep costs low and the environmental impact negligible. The result is graceful, clever and often stunning structures that provide shelter for the body and soul while fostering a healthy dialogue between disparate groups of people whose assumptions about race, class and economic disparity are upended by the experience.

Snakebit is guided by frank, passionate, never-before-seen interviews with Mockbee that provide context and insight for the story of Jay Sanders, a young Rural Studio instructor, and a group of students who design and construct an environmentally responsible home for an eccentric, destitute Hale County native known to locals as Music Man for his love of song and dance. The story unfolds during the year after Mockbee’s untimely death from leukemia as the Rural Studio struggles to maintain the guiding spirit of its founding father. Snakebit is a rich, probing film that supplements this first-hand footage with perspective from architectural heavyweights and artists who share praise and criticism of the Rural Studio, including Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Michael Rotondi, Larry Scarpa, Pliny Fisk III, Coleman Coker, William Christenberry, Lori Ryker, Hank Louis, Steve Badanes of Jersey Devil and Chip Lord of Ant Farm. To further enhance Mockbee’s presence in the film, the producers use archival footage of Mockbee on the lecture circuit at major universities and cultural institutions as well as various television programs, such as Charlie Rose and Nightline.

The film follows up with Music Man, Sanders, his students and other Rural Studio graduates to see how the program has affected their lives. Through scenes with architects such as Hank Louis of Design/Build Bluff in Utah and Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, who have founded similar design/build programs, Snakebit captures the ripple effect that the Rural Studio continues to have throughout the profession. Mockbee and his team are the avatars for a new generation of architects and designers committed to putting social and environmental responsibility at the forefront of their practice. In a time when people feel increasingly overwhelmed by the social ills surrounding them, Snakebit is proof that there is ample opportunity to take a simple idea, coupled with creativity and dedication, to affect positive change in our communities. This film offers a dialogue about what it means to be both a successful professional and a responsible member of society—ultimately arguing that the latter is essential to the former.

(For @trianta =)