Alaska in the Upside Down Expanded Version

This is an expanded version of the community perspective I wrote that was published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on July 21, 2019 in response to the budget crisis and cuts to the University of Alaska. I thought it was worth putting a version on the blog that provided a bit more context and extended quotes from Frederick Jackson Turner on the importance of State Universities.   Jennie

Alaska in the Upside Down, or Stranger Things in Alaska

In the spring of 1989, I was a junior at Harvard College looking for a senior thesis topic when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling approximately 11 million US gallons* of oil into Prince William Sound. Topic acquired, I returned home over the summer to travel through Alaska interviewing Alaskans from all walks of life: miners, teachers, fishermen, biologists, sales associates, homemakers, and politicians, including longtime Alaska State Senator Jack Coghill, later Lieutenant Governor (1990-94), and Governor Wally Hickel (1966-69 and 1990-94). All in all, I interviewed 47, mostly non-Native, Alaskans. Collectively they had lived an average of 31 years in the state, ranging from one year to seventy-five years. Twenty-three percent were born in Alaska.

I asked them what made a person an Alaskan? What kind of development was appropriate for Alaska? What was the role of government? How should we protect the environment? Had the Exxon Valdez oil spill changed their views? Throughout these interviews Alaskans used the language of the “frontier’ — what it means, how it should or should not change — to frame, explain, justify, and sometimes paper over their conflicting feelings about independence and governance, development and environmental protections.

These Alaskan’s perspectives mirrored those put forth in historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, first published in 1883. Turner argued that the unique characteristics of American democracy were developed through the frontier experience. Individuality, independence, egalitarianism, faith in the common man [Turner excluded women and minorities from his analysis], all were forged through the pioneer experience. While there is much to dislike about Turner’s Thesis, particularly his views toward Native Americans and his celebration of unbridled opportunism and exploitation,** his ideas also express some of the best of the frontier spirit that has flourished in Alaska.

Listening to the current budget conversation in the State, I am reminded of Turner and of the conversations I had with my fellow Alaskans in 1989. I hadn’t realized just how much of those frontier ideals are missing from the current discourse. For sure, some threads of the conversation have remained the same. Many Alaskans retain the distrust of government and over-regulation of industry expressed by my interviewees. On the other hand, some foundational values expressed then seem to have all but disappeared, particularly when it comes to ideas about Alaskan self-reliance, hard-work, and neighborliness. No topic illustrates that change more clearly than how some Alaskans now view the PFD.

Alaskans in 1989 weren’t complaining about the “free money,’ but they weren’t about to depend on it either. As one person told me, “We’ll take it while it’s here, but we don’t rely on it.’ Now, as some Alaskans argue that the PFD has become sacrosanct, it feels like the key Alaskan values I was raised with have been turned on their head. The PFD has gone from a tool to an entitlement and we have become more like “food stamp pioneers,’ the term one of my interviewees gave to people who wanted to have the Alaskan experience without the actual work. So, now we have PFD pioneers who believe it is more important than education, medical care, or public safety; more important than taking care of each other. Alaska is in the Upside Down and the PFD is our Demogorgon.

Turner didn’t just look at how the frontier shaped the American democratic character, he also looked at how we could retain it even in the absence of the seemingly endless and free resources of the frontier. His answer to that was the State University. In his essay “Pioneer Ideals and the State University’ Turner argues that State Universities are a critical tool for advancing and preserving American democracy and supporting sound governance and development of resources. State Universities unite “vocational and college work in the same institution’ and train people in “service to democracy rather than of individual advancement alone.’

His arguments rest on two basic premises; first, that education is necessary for sustainable development and growth in modern societies, and second, that education must be provided to all people of talent and interest, not just the wealthy and powerful. Turner’s essay is filled with the language of optimism and hope, and no paraphrase can do them justice so here are a few excerpts.

“In the transitional condition of American democracy which I have tried to indicate, the mission of the university is most important. The times call for educated leaders. General experience and rule-of-thumb information are inadequate for the solution of the problems of a democracy which no longer owns the safety fund of an unlimited quantity of untouched resources. Scientific farming must increase the yield of the field, scientific forestry must economize the woodlands, scientific experiment and construction by chemist, physicist, biologist and engineer must be applied to all of nature’s forces in our complex modern society. The test tube and the microscope are needed rather than ax and rifle in this new ideal of conquest. The very discoveries of science in such fields as public health and manufacturing processes have made it necessary to depend upon the expert, and if the ranks of experts are to be recruited broadly from the democratic masses as well as from those of larger means, the State Universities must furnish at least as liberal opportunities for research and training as the universities based on private endowments furnish. It needs no argument to show that it is not to the advantage of democracy to give over the training of the expert exclusively to privately endowed institutions.’

To do this work, he argues, universities must act as pioneers, free to investigate and follow new ideas.

“That they may perform their work they must be left free, as the pioneer was free, to explore new regions and to report what they find; for like the pioneers they have the ideal of investigation, they seek new horizons. They are not tied to past knowledge; they recognize the fact that the universe still abounds in mystery, that science and society have not crystallized, but are still growing and need their pioneer trail-makers. New and beneficent discoveries in nature, new and beneficial discoveries in the processes and directions of the growth of society, substitutes for the vanishing material basis of pioneer democracy may be expected if the university pioneers are left free to seek the trail.’

Cutting the University of Alaska leaves the State without this important driver of innovation and development. It abandons the citizens of Alaska, taking away their opportunity for education and leaving them at the mercy of outside experts, politicians, and economic interests. It is the opposite of the ideals and values that Alaskans have worked towards for over 50 years. We must not give up on our university, our young people, or our right and ability to chart our own course. I leave you with Turner’s final words on the subject:

“The pioneer’s clearing must be broadened into a domain where all that is worthy of human endeavor may find fertile soil on which to grow; and America must exact of the constructive business geniuses who owe their rise to the freedom of pioneer democracy supreme allegiance and devotion to the commonweal. In fostering such an outcome and in tempering the asperities of the conflicts that must precede its fulfillment, the nation has no more promising agency than the State Universities, no more hopeful product than their graduates.’

If you want to read more from Turner his full collection of Essays, “The Frontier in American History,’ is available online as a Project Gutenberg eBook.

*My original community perspective said 10.1 “billion barrels” – quite a typo! The 10.1 number was the estimate from 1990 when I completed my senior thesis. Estimates today are around 11 million US gallons.

**Some people may wonder about using Turner given some of the problematic aspects of his theory. I’ll write about that in a later post.

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