THE HIGHER education establishment last week made its early bid for a piece of the 1988 party platforms, and the result is a pretty good demonstration of why party chairman Paul Kirk wants the Democrats to downgrade the platform this time. A group of 33 college presidents and education leaders calling themselves the Commission on National Challenges in Higher Education is distributing to all the candidates of both parties a 4,000-word "memorandum to the 41st president of the United States." It lays out the group's analysis of its own task, and the government's: a potpourri of mostly familiar ideas and requests cast in a new, noble-sounding framework of government-education "partnership."
The idea, commission members say, is to move past the recriminations and standoffs of the Reagan years to new cooperation, and to get their ideas and agenda more attention during and just after the campaign. Of course, all 13 candidates have been saying at every opportunity how passionately they support education; it's not a bad idea to supply them with specifics, if not to support, then at least to chew on and react to. Will this report do so? On the tasks ahead for higher education and government, it offers such ringing originalities as the following: we need to "educate Americans for an increasingly interdependent world"; to "support education and research to help revitalize the economy"; to "encourage educational activities that address human needs and the quality of life"; to "restore respect for fundamental values and ethical behavior." The actual proposals range from those already offered by some candidates (Paul Simon's emphasis on teaching foreign language; George Bush's education savings accounts) to familiar big-ticket budget requests (restoration of financial aid levels, new funds to build research facilities) that have been on the lobbying agenda for half a decade. They call for adult literacy programs, worker retraining, greater awareness of the nontraditional student.
It all seems so unexceptionable. And not all of it even calls upon the government: there is a fair amount of simple self-exhortation, aimed, say commission members, not at specific government action but at showing the world that the colleges and universities "know we have a job to do." Such self-exhortations operate on what a commission member calls the Chinese water torture theory: say it again, again, enough times, and someday maybe people will do something. But 33 of the most influential people in higher education spent 16 months on this cliche'-heavy report, and there's not a word in it that hasn't been heard over and over. Now that the candidates have been brought up to date, a challenge to the educators: let this report be the last. It's time to stop talking and act.