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Rhetorical Choice Awaits Penn Staters at Walk Out Event

on April 04, 2011 7:21 AM

Penn State students are faced with a big rhetorical question today.

As the student-organized Walk Out for Penn State takes shape at midday in front of Old Main, they could follow the personal route. They could talk about how Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed higher-education cuts would affect them, their families, their debt burden, their ability to be educated.

They could cast the budget proposal as an assault on them. They could, in effect, follow deliver a big personal plea in the model of a Rutherford, N.J., teacher who verbally bruised her governor, Chris Christie, last year.

"You're not compensating me for my education, and you're not compensating me for my experience," she told Christie in a public forum. She went on to say that "teachers (teach) because they love it. That's the only reason I do it."

Her commentary was impassioned, direct, very much personal. Reporters picked up on it. It got heavy play in the news and on YouTube.

It also, it seems, didn't work.

Let's be honest: What makes for good theater -- the animated, don't-piss-on-my-leg-and-tell-me-it's-raining  sort of stuff that grabs media attention -- often doesn't make for awesome political impact.

State lawmakers have long known about the rising personal hardships facing college students in Pennsylvania, namely the ever-higher tuition rates, and ever-bigger loans, that they endure. The hardships are real; they're awful; and they are changing the face of education and access in this commonwealth.

But airing personal variations on that already-known theme may not terribly affect the ongoing debate over higher-education funding.

Frankly, it can be easy for state leaders to write off personal pleas as self-interested, subjective rants. Or so it would appear.

Penn State students today could take a different rhetorical approach, though. They do have a choice.

Rather than make this already-controversial event all about them, university employees and the academy itself, they could try to engage Harrisburg in something more overwhelmingly philosophical, a debate rooted in principle.

Something -- you know -- less self-interested.

They could imagine an America where only the privileged are afforded an advanced education. They could chronicle the country's many great leaders and innovators who -- arguably -- would not have achieved their grand contributions without a system that puts higher education within reach.

They could take mull how a rural population -- stripped of the public education provided by Cooperative Extension and agricultural research -- might react when scavenging gas companies strip away their ways of life, too.

They could underscore the educational advancements made in places like China, which are revolutionizing how the world ticks, and emphasize why no promising American brain can be left behind.

They could, in short, personally divest themselves from this fight -- at least for the day -- and bring in the bigger-picture issues that Harrisburg needs to hear more about.

As of early this morning, nearly 800 people had indicated on Facebook that they plan to be at the Walk Out for Penn State. Organizers have written that they'll express "our unity and action in (the) face of Gov. Corbett's unprecedented attack on education" and demand that budget cuts be executed "in a way that ensures that the pain is evenly distributed throughout the entire university system."

Reasonable thought on its face, you could say.

But as I linger in the crowd with a notebook, I'll wonder -- waiting to see -- if maybe this rally can stand for something even greater, as well.

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