Now that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is ascending as a presidential candidate, expect to see quasi-scholarly attacks about the devastating legacy of Republicans on higher education. As James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley noted recently, Walker’s problems with the University of Wisconsin arising over budget cuts and altering the words of the school’s mission “are those almost everyone in the Republican field could soon have.”
Yes, and expect attacks to come from places like the Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently published Dan Berrett’s article, “The Day the Purpose of College Changed.” The day is February 28, 1967, when newly elected California Governor Ronald Reagan claimed that taxpayers shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” at universities. As an example, Reagan described a four-credit course at the University of California at Davis on organizing demonstrations. He said, “I figure that carrying a picket sign is sort of like, oh, a lot of things you pick up naturally, like learning how to swim by falling off the end of a dock.”
Reagan found “whole academic programs in California and across the country” “similarly suspect.” The Los Angeles Times’ response, “If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized, then it is nothing,” is applauded by Berrett as “giving voice to the ideal of liberal education, in which college is a vehicle for intellectual development, for cultivating a flexible mind, and, no matter the focus of study, for fostering a broad set of knowledge and skills whose value is not always immediately apparent.”
The decline in liberal arts enrollments in the 1980s, when business administration became the most popular college major, is traced back: “On that day in 1967, the balance started to tip toward utility in ways not even Reagan may have anticipated.”
Republican governors continue to degrade the popular opinion of liberal education, Berrett maintains, as he quotes Pat McCrory: “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school,’ the Republican governor of North Carolina, said on a radio show a couple of years ago. ‘I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.’ In other words, it’s an intellectual luxury” – and “private goods.”
McCrory presumably follows the lead of Reagan, who in the same year he announced budget cuts, hypocritically dedicated a library at his alma mater, Eureka College, a small Disciples of Christ school, while citing the greats of liberal learning: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Maimonides.
In contrast, “plenty of governors through the years have understood that a liberal education also has a public benefit.” At one time, “A farmer reading the classics or an industrial worker quoting Shakespeare was . . . an honorable character.”
Real “Liberal learning”?
As an alternative to the small-minded trend of utilitarianism, Berrett presents the efforts of the 100-year-old, 1,300-member Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), which promises to “devote the entire Centennial Year to a far-reaching exploration of the connections between high-quality liberal learning and Americans’ global future and of the changes needed to drive equitable access to high-quality learning for the millions of students who remain underserved. . . .”
Berrett praises the projects on “educational quality, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and civic learning, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education.” One of these projects, the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) program, encourages students “to learn by tackling society’s ‘big questions’” through Signature Work.
Although Signature Work’s goal is presented as overcoming the disparity of “providing liberal education to some students and narrow training to others,” the projects are described as either career related, or related to “significant societal challenges such as health, literacy, sustainability, or human dignity.”
Nothing references Shakespeare or the classics, the kind of “liberal learning” that Berrett claims Republican governors are threatening.
In reality, the AAC&U promotes the kind of activism that one finds in the “gender studies” departments that Governor McCrory denounced.
Such politicization has entered the required subjects, such as freshman composition, that recall “liberal learning,” if only by name. The activity that Reagan mocked in 1967, a four-credit course on picketing and protest, has become institutionalized. Last year I wrote about a University of South Florida freshman composition instructor sharing tips in a professional journal on requiring student participation in “Slut Walk” and “Take Back the Night” demonstrations. Other composition courses focus on such topics as “sustainability” and “composing gender.” This is the legacy of the 1960s protests.
In addition to twisting the definition of “liberal learning,” Berrett misrepresents the facts –facts readily available in the biography Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power by journalist Lou Cannon.
Cannon is a liberal. Yet, he presents Reagan’s actions in full context. It’s a context that Berrett ignores.
Cannon recognizes that Reagan’s predecessor, Governor Pat Brown, did some creative accounting, leaving Reagan to begin his term with a deficit. Berrett makes no mention of this.
Berrett also perpetuates old charges of anti-intellectualism already refuted by Cannon: “Reagan’s academic critics accused him of anti-intellectualism. He gave them ammunition by saying, or so it was reported, that the University of California ‘subsidized intellectual curiosity.’ But while Reagan in the long tradition of populism certainly exploited the anti-intellectual biases of his constituencies, he was in awe of people with advanced degrees. One of the reasons that Reagan was offended by the [campus] demonstrations was that he took higher education seriously.”
Reagan is known for his firm stance against protestors who violently took over California’s public campuses in the 1960s. He explained to Cannon decades later his belief in outlawing activism that interfered with the rights of others, namely other students.
Although Reagan as a college student was “more concerned with dramatics and athletics than with his studies,” he was proud of being the first in his family to graduate from college (paid for with a partial scholarship and a job washing dishes) and interrupted his 1980 presidential campaign for a trip to his alma mater.
The Real Legacy
Berrett himself illustrates the politicization of liberal learning. At the Chronicle of Higher Education critics of the degraded form of “liberal learning” are ousted. Naomi Schaeffer Riley became a casualty when she dared to attack politicized Black Studies.
Such courses do not deserve any public funding.
But the liberal arts, rightly understood, are of value to students. They produce knowledgeable, civic-minded, clear-thinking, and articulate citizens. As evidenced by employers’ complaints, our liberal arts departments are failing to teach even basic skills, such as writing clearly, correctly, and convincingly. Shouting, marching, and sign-carrying are no substitute for studying Aristotle’s Rhetoric, reading classical works, and writing essays.
Conservatives do support privately funded independent institutions, such as the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, where I am a fellow, because they offer liberal learning, in its true meaning.
Scott Walker, and other Republican candidates, should make that distinction—and often.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research website. The featured image is of newly elected Governor Ronald Reagan confronting student protestors in Sacremento/Bettmann, Corbis, AP image.