Being an Obamaniac, I am tremendously excited by last week’s election results, but I am also aware of the extent to which the financial crisis must dampen my expectations for change in federal cultural policy — the area of public policy in which I am most deeply engaged.
It is not likely that I will see budget increases for the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts, for instance, although I can think of a wide range of nonbudgetary changes that would please me after 14 difficulty years for the two Endowments. There are other positive changes I have worked for that now seem possible. One is in Cuba policy, since for the past 11 years I have been struggling to improve intellectual and cultural relations between Cuba and the United States. I was disappointed to see that the three Cuban-American congressional Republicans from the Miami area were reelected, but I still think there is realistic hope that the Helms-Burton Act will be repealed and that more normal relations will be restored. At the least, President Obama can act to remove the ridiculously restrictive travel regulations imposed by the Bush administration. In other words, some good things are going to happen during the next few years even if we are enmeshed, as seems certain, in a deep economic recession.
But I was reminded this morning to count my blessings, and to be cautious. I went to visit one of my current undergraduate students who has just learned that his mother (his single parent) has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. He is a foreigner, and an only child. We spoke about the ways in which he could both be helpful to his mother, and still complete his work this term. That can clearly be done, in part thanks to the wonders of digital telecommunications. We also spoke about potential problems in completing his future college work. That can be handled as well. But he has to face the imminent problems of his mother’s death, settling her estate, and figuring out how to fend for himself in what must seem a pretty frightening and uncertain world. I was impressed by his self-possession, and happy that he is in an institution that can provide some real support in a tough situation. But I really feel for him.
The visit to my student was a reality check for me. It reminded me that our students are young adults with real problems outside the classroom. We all know that, of course, but we need to be reminded that we have constantly to be aware of the lives we touch in and out of the classroom — and of those we do not touch. Sometimes we can help our students in these situations. Usually we cannot do much directly for them. But we can be there, and we can try to be aware. This morning that perception seems to me just as important as the election.