The way higher eduction used to be
Rick Perlstein laments on the current path of higher education. I seem to be trending a bit nostalgic lately. Must be my liberal arts education. From The Nation.
The history of American higher education over the twentieth century is an extraordinary one, the story of the creation of a powerhouse set of institutions that are the envy of the civilized world. Once they were the province, both among the student and faculty bodies, of children of privilege, generally WASPS. Then state land-grant universities and urban city college systems (where, in the state of California and New York City, tuition was free) expanded opportunities for entry into the middle class to new ethnic groups, farm kids, strivers of every description. The GI Bill expanded those same opportunities yet further through the glorious infusion of federal cash, and the Cold War imperatives that midwifed the National Defense Education Act expanded the administrative capacity of university after university such that when the frolicksome baby boomers began flooded their gates there was plenty of room to accommodate them. The trajectory, in other words, once went in only one direction: expanded opportunity.
Qualitatively, too, the expansion of college education became a genuine ornament of mass democracy. It made America more decent, more lovely, more cultured, more critical, even—ask anyone who went to college in the 1960s or ’70s—more fun. It made America richer too, both spiritually and materially; though in an important sense the first condition fed the second, as the liberation of intellectual imaginations midwifed a thousand productive careers in every field, careers that were productive precisely because they were inspired by a “liberal arts” attitude, not merely pinched Babbit-like commercial aspirations. Some of these folks, gifted with a college education, chose a professional life that continued within those colleges. It was one of the ways a capitalist society healthily reproduced itself: by making life in our capitalist society more worth living, more savory, more decent (and again: more fun); and, too, by producing the professionals and managers it took to keep that society running.
Now all we seem to care about is reproducing the managerial class.