When Edwin Starr released his anti-anthem “War (What is it Good For?)” in 1970, the number of high school graduates in the United States heading off to college was near peak, just north of 50%. The percentage had been growing for over twenty years, thanks in large part to World War II era perks for veterans.
For the previous three hundred years, college had been, more or less, the province of gentlemen, with all the privilege and snobbery that F. Scott Fitzgerald reveals in This Side of Paradise. College cost a relative lot of money and prepared mostly white men for soft-hand positions like the ministry and law, or even loftier pursuits of literature or philosophy.
The GI Bill shook all that up, making college accessible and affordable, just as our thrall with a technology-based consumer society ratcheted the demand for engineering and science. College became more than a place to refine etiquette and noodle your brain; you could also learn useful stuff. Slide-rule meccas like Cal Tech and Purdue flourished. As did niche start-ups, like Berklee School of Music, whose mass-churn business model embraced music’s electronic potential and, within two generations, grew from concept to the largest music school in the world.
Through the 1950’s and 60’s Americans embraced the aspirations of accessible higher education. College was a passage to a better life that provided marketable skills and made us better-informed individuals and more engaged citizens. We had the best institutions in the world, we were the best-educated citizens: indisputable facts (to us) at the time. Neither of my parents graduated from college, but each of their children grew up assuming that we would. It was our honor, even our patriotic duty, to participate in the privilege.
Back to “War (What is it Good For?).”
In 1970, a more immediate benefit of attending college held sway: student deferment draft status to avoid Vietnam. Going to college became a short-term strategy as well as a long-term objective. But the disparity between those who trudged through the rice paddies and those who loitered within ivory towers established the fault lines that define our culture wars to this day.
By autumn 1973, when I was a college freshman, American troops in Vietnam dwindled. The draft was gone. College enrollment declined proportionately. Diminished as well, was college’s aspirational notion. Upper classmen whose political protests had shut down MIT in 1970 and again in 1972 dazzled my emerging awareness. Yet no such activism occurred during my four years on campus. And by the time I graduated in 1977, the riskiest thing a student did was apply to business school.
Also, during those four years, the cost of MIT tuition exactly doubled. A walloping acceleration that’s kept on climbing ever since. Over the last forty years, college costs accelerated at more than double the rate of inflation.
Today, college is big business. Expensive to attend for reasons beyond the hefty ‘list price.’ Expensive because the amount of state and federal student aid has diminished (students and families paid 33% of the total cost in 1980, versus 51% today). Expensive because families contribute proportionately less of that cost, bumping up the amount students borrow. Expensive because student loans are more costly than the direct-federal loans of the 1970’s. (Whereas my 3% interest did not begin to accrue until after I completed college and national service and graduate school—a period of eight years—today’s students accumulate interest from the date they sign the note, often at higher rates.)
As the sticker price of college ticks up, tales of diploma-less success proliferate. The business case for college is skinnier than it was fifty years ago. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are billionaire dropouts. Venture capitalists underwrite genius ideas fresh from high school. If going to college can’t trigger our first million, why waste four years piling up that debt?
There are two fundamental flaws with current arguments against going to college. First, though college is not as ‘lucrative’ as in the glorious 70’s, it’s still a way smarter investment than not. For sure, a student has to be prudent: early education majors graduating with $100,000 in debt will likely never balance sheet to black. But study after study reveal that college graduates enjoy more financial success (twice the lifetime earning of high school graduates), career stability, satisfaction, longer lives, and overall well-being than their less credentialed counterparts.
Second, and I believe more importantly, are the non-quantifiable benefits of education. To cultivate our curiosity, become more aware of ourselves and our surroundings. To be better-informed individuals and more engaged citizens. Growing up emmeshed in John F. Kennedy’s stirring, “ask what you can do for your country,” I was indoctrinated in the idea that education promotes culture as well as craft. Younger folks, nursed on 1980’s dictums that “greed is good,” and “the government is the problem,” don’t even possess a metric for education as societal benefit.
The United States has never been a nation that particularly values education, certainly not for its own sake. We don’t erect statues of great scholars in our city squares, as seen in China. We don’t elect intellectuals as President, as sometimes occurs in Europe. We value the clever and the rugged over the thoughtful.
To be sure, education in the United States is in precarious shape. It’s too expensive, too irrelevant, too internally focused, yet—trigger warning—too sensitive. It indulges the individual, dismisses the collective, and reinforces our demand of rights over our moral responsibilities. How could it be otherwise? A nation’s educational system is the most direct expression of its values; the cultural glue that welds cohesion. And so in this moment, when what most binds Americans is our vast disagreement, education all too accurately reflects our challenges.
Yet, I do not despair.
“The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught.” Henry Adams penned those words more than a century ago, decrying the futility of a nineteenth-century educational system increasingly irrelevant to his rapidly changing times. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether his years at Harvard might have somehow informed The Education of Henry Adams, named Modern Library’s best English-language non-fiction book of the 2oth century.
Education will survive the internet, the culture wars, legislated revisionist history, even fascism. It will have to shed the too-often tepid approach of bottom-line driven, special interest pandering colleges. It will have to shake off America’s narcissistic, myopic vision of itself via-a-vis the world. It will have to become more inclusive, so that essays reflecting personal experience, like this one, don’t feature so many pics of white guys.
But I am confident that we will do it. For no matter how long fear and narrow visions of power try to rein us in, ultimately, education is the only thing that expands and enlightens human experience.
War…huh…yeah…What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing!
Education…huh…yeah…What is Good For? Absolutely Everything!