Like most American citizens, I have a certain interest in national politics and in the political campaigns that are so much in the public news in these long preliminaries to the general election nine months from now. And like most people, I have opinions — sometimes strong opinions — about the issues and candidates. As I am not an expert in political science, I rarely can claim any greater authority for my opinions than those of any other attentive and reasonably well-informed observer. This year, however, American higher education, or at least the financing of higher education, appears likely to become a seriously debated issue. I devoted my professional life to higher education, so that if I have any claim to professional competence, this might be the field in which to attempt to deploy it.
There are really two questions here. Should college be free? And what would be the effect on American higher education if college were free? The latter is in my mind as important as the former, but I must leave it for another day. The issue of the moment is “free college,” and it has arisen not in a context of educational theory but in the face of economic reality. A college education is expensive, and many young people have burdened themselves with crippling debt in order to achieve it. Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the two men who must be credited with making the tone of this presidential campaign unlike any other I can remember, wants to solve the problem by making public institutions tuition free. His argument in a nutshell is this: In today’s economy a college degree is essentially a required entry-level credential for the adult workforce. Its role corresponds to that of the high school diploma in earlier generations.
This is true, but we need to ask “why?” The conventional answer is that our world has become much more complex and demanding, more high-powered and high-tech than that of our forebears. The real answer, in my opinion, is that the quality of our secondary education has deteriorated badly — in many parts of the country disastrously — since the time of our forebears. We have in this country a virtually uncontested consensus in favor of universal, free education; since 1918, it has been a mandatory universal requirement. However, we no longer seem to have the consensus that free public education ought to be good enough to create an educated citizenry in a state system competitive with those of other leading nations of the world. My parents were high school graduates, and proud of it. They considered themselves privileged. Many of their peers had dropped out of school at the first legal opportunity on account of limited capacity, disinclination or cruel economic necessity. My parents, though faced with large financial challenges and the social upheaval of a world war, could read and write, and never ceased to do so. If like me you have ever taught a college “freshman composition” course, you may find that claim incredible.
One of the reactions shared by many of the first viewers of the Ken Burns serial on the Civil War — in which contemporary documents were frequently cited — was amazement that the private letters of so many of the common soldiers, not one in a hundred of whom had experienced “higher education,” were beautifully written and rhetorically powerful. At what Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference did Indiana farm boys learn to write like George Eliot? The answer is: a village school. Some years ago, when I was reading the memoirs of W. T. Sherman, I was struck by his brief account of his early education in a schoolhouse on the Ohio frontier in the 1830s. This education had supplied him with sufficient mathematical and engineering training, by the age of 14, to work on a surveying crew prospecting the path of a proposed new canal. On the humanities side, “we studied all the common branches of knowledge, including Latin, Greek, and French.”
The last year for which I was able to find complete statistics was 2012. In that year there were 17.7 million students in undergraduate degree programs in the United States. That is roughly five percent of the national population. Of these, 13.4 million were in public institutions. There were 4.25 million in private colleges and universities including the — to me — staggering number of 1.5 million in for profit colleges. This represents a very large proportion of the cohort of high school graduates in this country. That is, there are not too many young people who graduate from high school but who do not go on to college. Most people don’t even think of the high school diploma as a respectable terminal accomplishment.
I am not so naïve as to think that reclaiming the lost standards of American secondary education would be easy. Perhaps it would not even be possible. But with all due respect to Senator Sanders, whose intelligence, sincerity and idealism I greatly admire, I think it would be both more sensible and more politically practical to try to direct the huge financial resources needed to the free education we already all believe in, than to apply it to a revolutionary new program of massive “social promotion.” You should not have to go to college to learn the names and functions of the parts of speech or to solve an equation with two variables.
I first grasped the depth of the hole we were in back in the 1970s when I found myself, in my early 40s, at a large undergraduate musical party with hundreds of young people mildly lubricated with alcohol and cannabis. The music was very loud and, for the most part, very bad. But the DJ put on the Paul Simon song “Kodachrome.” At its opening words, the crowd went wild. “When I think back / On all the crap I learned in high school / It’s a wonder / I can think at all.” I could tell that the enthusiasm arose not merely for a song they liked, but for sentiments they shared. High school was crap. And, of course, I had to think back myself. What I remembered chiefly were two rather conventional and unglamorous middle-aged ladies in Texas, one of whom had taught me the subtlety of the “formal conjunctive adverb” while the other led me to grasp the sheer genius behind the periodic table of elements. I wondered then and wonder now whether in my highfalutin university I myself have ever taught anything so effectively.