Bringing Public Back

I had a lively conversation with my students last week about the term “public domain.”  Teaching instructional technology to preservice teachers, I dedicate a few classes on the concepts of fair use, copyright and public domain so they better understand the legal implications of using copyrighted material in their future classrooms. Because of the complex nature of the law, some students struggle with the finer points of fair use.  “So, we can’t show Disney videos on Back to School night?”  Um, no.  You’d need a viewing license.  “I found this great content online.  Can I just print it off and share it with my students?”  It depends.

And so goes the complicated nature of copyright laws and fair use.

This year, for some reason, the students really struggled with the concept of public domain. Some thought that content available on Twitter and Facebook would be considered public domain works.  Others thought that anything available online should be considered in the public.  After some healthy conversation and loads of examples, the students came to better understand that the public domain encompasses any creative work where the copyright has expired, been forfeited or isn’t applicable. This generally applies to really old stuff (plays by Shakespeare, for instance) or works by governmental agencies (like photos from NASA).

I’ve been teaching these concepts for more than a decade and I’m finding that it’s becoming more difficult for students to grasp the concepts.  Some of this is probably due to the fact that circumventing copyright is so easy to do online. The students are downloading, remixing, sharing and distributing content more than ever. And they’re rarely considering copyright laws as they go.  While this is somewhat troubling, I find another aspect of this issue even more disturbing. I think we’ve lost a fundamental understanding of what the adjective “public” means and how it important the concept is.

The word “public” was originally derived in part from the Latin word “poplicus’ which means “of the people.” Through the years, there have been all sorts of public entities. Public roads. Public sewage companies. Each of these are supported by the people and contributes to the larger benefit of the people.  While we’ve been talking about public domain works, we could also look at public roads, public sewage or public housing.  Take public roads.  The people benefit from roads that are publicly built and maintained.  Public roads provide for safe transport for all.

But this post isn’t really about public domain works, public roads, or public housing.  It’s about public education. Along the way, we’ve lost the public in public education.  I work at one of the institutions in the PA State System of Higher Education. From conceptual and philosophical perspectives, each of the institutions in the state system is considered a “public institution.” Besides the fact that our buildings and campuses are owned by the taxpayers of the state, our public nature is also a central part of our missions.  We serve the people by offering affordable higher education to over 100,000 students and provide an educational route for prosperity and security to many first generation college students.

To be clear, this isn’t educational elitism.  College graduates typically weather recessions better than their less educated peers.  College graduates also earn more over their lifetime than individuals without college degrees.  But these statistics are often viewed as private benefits. If a person is able to earn more or have a more stable career, this isn’t seen as a public good in the same way as a public road. But it should be. A more educated public can earn more money and pay more taxes which offers greater economic stability to communities for things like public roads, public schools, public sewage and so on.  For the public instituions in the PA state system, 90% of our students come from within the state and almost 80% stay in the state after they graduate. Since almost 40% of our students are first generation college students, it should be clear how these private achievements serve the greater public.

But the public concept has gotten muddied over the years.  Some public entities are no longer really public. Take the people who manage public roads. Many of the workers aren’t public employees but instead work for private companies that have subcontracted with local governments. Returning to the public colleges in Pennsylvania, support of the 14 institutions in the state has been drastically decreased over the last twenty years.  Despite having the tenth largest public higher education system in the country, it ranks 49th in state funding.  Covering this summer’s appropriations hearings, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

“State funding per student for public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania is down 33 percent from 2007-08 when adjusted for inflation.”

In response to these reductions in appropriations, the state’s public universities have drastically raised tuition which makes education less affordable and accessible to the public it was designed to serve. Adding further disruption to the public concept, the state system is now fighting to institute sweeping policies that will undermine the quality of the education each institution offers to their students. These appropriation cuts, tuition increases and proposed systematic changes are not in the public good.  They don’t support affordable public education and don’t represent the history or spirit of public entities in our nation.

Considering all of these efforts, it’s no wonder that my students are struggling with the concept of public domain. Their academic and governmental leaders have undermined the public concept so completely that its lost its purpose and its value.

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