A Bird on a Reed

In a difficult environment for higher education and the nation, Mort Maimon discovers resilience in adversity in a somewhat surprising place.

April 18, 2018
 
iStock/Yes Brasil
 

The expanse of prairie stretching beyond our breakfast room window turned out to be an unexpected bonus. A decade ago, when my wife and I bought our house in the Chicago suburbs, curb appeal, room layout and proximity to the university were its major attractions. Sure, the calm, subdued beauty of nature struck me, essentially a city guy, as a pleasant novelty. But I regarded it offhandedly as “nice.” I had no idea how that superficial reaction would change.

My wife, Elaine, president of Governors State University, identifies the location of her campus as “where the prairie meets the city,” which aptly describes the setting of our home, too. At first, I occasionally surveyed the casual opulence spread before me with fleeting appreciation. I did enjoy glimpses of color change accompanying spring rebirth and autumnal retreat. I particularly liked being surprised by the infrequent appearance of a few deer, white tails flicking and heads jerking at any suggestion of danger. Rarely, I’d even spot a coyote slinking through tall grass, a reminder of sorts that generally benign nature contains elements that coexist uneasily. That realization foreshadowed what I came to feel about the culture now enveloping us.

For many, the past year has tested our sense of national direction as well as our expectations for responsible political conduct. Its initial surrealism has largely ceased to shock. The unthinkable has lost its prefix as the plummet from rationality continues.

At first, I kept my growing disaffection to myself, considering it perhaps an overreaction. I’m not, after all, someone generally uncritical about the machinations of government. Soon, however, I found my morose responses to a new normal replicated among many friends and colleagues. Adapting to this incomprehensible new world has required most of us to devise strategies that ease dismay and agitation, at least to some extent.

Mine often involves truly seeing what at first I only looked at: the prairie. Because each part generally contributes to an organized whole, it provides an antidote to encroaching disarray. Almost daily, finishing my coffee before driving to the campus with Elaine, I concentrate on elements like islands of wildflowers, to which category I’ve promoted that maligned “weed,” the dandelion. What I’ve seen helps sustain me when parts of the day scrape against the whole.

I’m glad I have so many visual inspirations, because contributors to my dis-ease exist both nationally and in Illinois. When national politics become temporarily unthinkable, follies of my state fill the angst void, particularly its lamentable policy toward public higher education. Recently, our public institutions endured more than two years without a budget. Somehow, the relationship between funding allocations and achieved value seemed not to occur to many policy makers, who were concerned primarily with enhancing reputations as tightfisted “guardians” of state revenue.

That posturing has ended, at least temporarily. Now we deal with various impacts of their “economies.” At many Illinois public universities, enrollment has dropped as prospective students opt for universities in fiscally responsible states. Some faculty members and key administrators, weary of repetitive financial uncertainties, have sought stability elsewhere. Not to be minimized, deferred maintenance has been deferred and deferred.

Perhaps worst of all, many low-income students have been discouraged entirely from seeking higher education. For the last three years, according to the National Educational Clearing House, 34 percent of prospective freshmen who met qualifications for admission to Governors State University enrolled nowhere -- not out of state, not at private institutions, not at community colleges -- nowhere. The state budget impasse and threats preceding it closed on-ramps to the middle class for those students. Long-term consequences of squandering this potential can’t be calculated.

As a veteran educator myself, I have always believed that the health of the eye does, indeed, require a horizon. Currently, that horizon grows more distant. To endure the agita accompanying this dour situation, I welcome new sources of comfort and perspective renewal.

One recent morning, taking my last look at the prairie, I noticed something I hadn’t observed before. Fastened to a reed that swayed violently in a strong morning wind was a small black-and-yellow bird. It clung tenaciously to its perch despite being buffeted in various directions. Captivated by the minidrama, I delayed leaving. After a minute or so, when gusts abated, the little creature flew off, leaving me to reflect on what I’d just seen.

Knowing virtually nothing about ornithology, I chose to mythologize the episode. I admired what I saw as strength, courage, resilience, balance and, yes, sheer stubbornness in a struggle against adversity. Some deep impulse, I projected, powered the bird to hang on until it could choose the next moment of its life rather than have it imposed by an outside force. Fantasy? So what! Why waste an insight whose time has arrived?

In our political climate, living constructively requires determination not to capitulate to multiple adversities. Surrendering to dejection, and, therefore, retreating morosely to inactivity cedes society to various idiocracies vying to seize control. Resistance to this aggressive takeover doesn’t require melodrama. It can be mustered effectively in the too-often neglected power of voting, which should be exercised without fail nationally, statewide and locally. And that includes in primaries. Numbers of votes, not irrefutable logic and thoughtful vision, command attention from some career-focused lawmakers.

And in social venues, we must rationally but with restraint (a difficult but attainable mix) counter the persistent onslaught of propaganda posing as ideas. Maybe we can help resuscitate the meaning of “news” and help demolish the science-fiction concept of “alternative facts.”

Working to correct our course will be arduous. Recovery from the blindsiding of common sense demands the determination of that bird I chose to imagine willfully resisting the winds. In our particular moment, regular outages of reason threaten an illuminated future. Still, we must actively resolve that good sense, for the most part, will ultimately be restored.

And “nowhere” cannot be accepted as an educational option. With the restoration of a regular state budget, applications for Governors State University’s next fall freshman class have increased by 15 percent. Like my avian model, we must, in all ways imaginable, actively help shape our destinies and make sure that universities remain places of hope.

Bio

Mort Maimon is a retired educator, a writer and a dedicated campus volunteer. His wife, Elaine P. Maimon, is president of Governors State University.

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