The governor had bad news: The state budget was in crisis, and everyone needed to tighten their belts.
High taxes threatened "economic ruin," said the newly elected Ronald Reagan. Welfare stood to be curbed, the highway patrol had fat to trim. Everything would be pared down; he’d start with his own office.
California still boasted a system of public higher education that was the envy of the world. And on February 28, 1967, a month into his term, the Republican governor assured people that he wouldn’t do anything to harm it. "But," he added, "we do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without," for a little while at least.
"Governor," a reporter asked, "what is an intellectual luxury?"
Reagan described a four-credit course at the University of California at Davis on organizing demonstrations. "I figure that carrying a picket sign is sort of like, oh, a lot of things you pick up naturally," he said, "like learning how to swim by falling off the end of a dock."
Whole academic programs in California and across the country he found similarly suspect. Taxpayers, he said, shouldn’t be "subsidizing intellectual curiosity."
That phrase quickly brought Reagan scorn. The following week the Los Angeles Times editorial page warned that his budget cuts and "tampering" with higher education threatened to create second-rate institutions.
"If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized," the editors wrote, "then it is nothing."
The Times was 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.
Reagan was staking out a competing vision. Learning for learning’s sake might be nice, but the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for it. A higher education should prepare students for jobs.
Those two theories had long existed in uneasy equilibrium. On that day in 1967, the balance started to tip toward utility in ways not even Reagan may have anticipated.
The notion that a liberal education is of dubious value has become entrenched in the popular imagination, even as its defenders argue the opposite. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, liberal education’s chief advocate, celebrates its 100th anniversary this month. Its choices have shaped the story of liberal education, too. The group appears to be in fine shape, with a $10-million budget, more than 1,300 member colleges, and high-profile projects on educational quality, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and civic learning, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. But such projects and respect on many campuses haven’t stopped the public from largely dismissing the idea of liberal education.
College is defined so narrowly and instrumentally now, AAC&U’s president, Carol Geary Schneider, has said, that it’s "ultimately dangerous both to democracy and to economic creativity."
Once prized as a worthy pursuit for all, liberal education that day in 1967 became pointless, an indulgence, a joke.
It wasn’t always a punchline. Thomas Jefferson argued for increased access to liberal education—among white males. A broadly educated populace, he said, would strengthen democracy. People "with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens," he wrote in 1779. Such men wouldn’t be easily swayed by tyrants.
Still, there were dissenters, Michael S. Roth notes in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. Benjamin Franklin mocked liberal education for focusing on the frivolous accouterments of privilege. Harvard College’s students "learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely and enter a room genteely," Franklin wrote. When they graduated, they remained "great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited."
A century later, prominent thinkers were still striking a balance. Booker T. Washington believed "knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life" so that newly emancipated black Americans could determine their own economic fates. W.E.B. Du Bois sought to broaden what counted as real life, so that "the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t be reduced to the pursuit of dollars," Mr. Roth writes.
Du Bois lent grandeur to that vision in The Souls of Black Folk: "The final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man."
Tensions between the two visions lingered into the 20th century. In 1942, a consultant to what was then the Association of American Colleges worried that institutions had "lost sight of the value of a liberal education" and that their curricula had "deteriorated into a hodge-podge of training in technical skills."
Still, the prevailing consensus endorsed liberal education. A presidential commission chartered by Harry S. Truman recommended in 1947 that colleges strive to more fully realize democracy "in every phase of living," promote international understanding, and deploy creative intelligence to solve social problems. College wasn’t a way to get a job or make a buck.
For a long time, the pushback to that philosophy was productive. It forced higher education to be dynamic, to respond to conditions beyond campus, says Mr. Roth, who is president of Wesleyan University and sits on the AAC&U board. People understood that liberal learning served individuals, regardless of their jobs, as well as society at large. That’s no longer true, he says.
A farmer reading the classics or an industrial worker quoting Shakespeare was at one time an honorable character. Today’s news stories lament bartenders with chemistry degrees. "Where once these ‘incongruities’ might have been hailed as signs of a healthy republic," Mr. Roth writes, "today they are more likely to be cited as examples of a ‘wasted’—nonmonetized—education."
Reagan rose to power by highlighting how colleges had veered dangerously away from mainstream values. He seized on campus unrest at Berkeley to connect with voters who hadn’t gone to college but wanted their kids to. But the buildings their tax dollars paid for were burning.
The new governor didn’t spend time talking about the tension between Jefferson’s and Franklin’s visions. There was little political payoff in nuance. Reagan, one of his campaign aides told The New York Times in 1970, doesn’t operate in shades of gray: "He lays it out there."
Liberal education is often described as the opposite of vocational education. It reflects the belief that college should develop students' intellectual capacities, not simply train them for jobs. Once called "the great dream of the postwar era," liberal education has become a punching bag.
As his second term and the 1970s began, demographics, economic uncertainty, and world events reinforced Reagan’s ideology. Two philosophical shifts, toward social egalitarianism and free-market orthodoxy, took hold.
Higher education felt those shifts. Professorial authority diminished. The unraveling consensus on the curriculum accelerated. Colleges increasingly viewed students as customers. Economic inequality and insecurity rose, as did the wage premium of a college degree. And that became one of higher education’s main selling points.
The long postwar boom, for both the economy and for higher education, was ending, and the oil embargo, in 1973, further strained the economy. Enrollment data showed students fleeing from the liberal arts, disciplines commonly associated with a liberal education, and flocking to professional and pre-professional programs.
Higher education became more of a buyer’s market. Overall enrollments dropped. As that trend continued, colleges sought out new customers, especially adults and first-generation students, many of whom wanted their investments to pay off in jobs.
1965: 43 percent of graduates earn bachelor’s degrees in the letters and sciences, the disciplines often identified with liberal education.
1967 As governor of California, Ronald Reagan argues that taxpayers should not be "subsidizing intellectual curiosity."
1973: The oil embargo stresses the economy. Enrollments drop. Students flock to practical and pre-professional majors.
1976: The Association of American Colleges devotes itself to promoting liberal education and withdraws from lobbying.
1980: Reagan is elected president. About one-quarter of degrees are in letters and sciences. The business major becomes the most popular.
AFP, GETTY IMAGES
1985: Curricular consensus fractures as the canon wars rage. In a report, the AAC decries an "anything-goes" curriculum.
1993: The web browsers Mosaic and Netscape Navigator help popularize the World Wide Web. As facts become more readily available online, liberal education and curricula in general emphasize habits of mind and skills like critical thinking.
1998: The group now known as AAC&U formally defines liberal education for the first time. It is not married to particular disciplines, but "fosters a well-grounded intellectual resilience, a disposition toward lifelong learning, and an acceptance of responsibility for the ethical consequences of our ideas and actions."
2005: AAC&U’s campaign "Liberal Education and America’s Promise" promotes students’ development of "strong intellectual and practical skills." About 450 campuses and 10 states participate.
2015: As AAC&U celebrates its 100th anniversary, its president worries that college is often described as a means to gain technical skills and a job. "If we were inventing higher education in the Soviet Union circa 1980," the president, Carol Geary Schneider, tells The Chronicle, "we’d say the same things."
Many of the sector’s chief associations had long refrained from lobbying because they found it "vulgar," according to the higher-education scholar Harland G. Bloland. College leaders, he said, advocated not self-interest, but the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge. They spoke the language of liberal education.
But after some cajoling from lawmakers, most of the higher-education associations shifted tactics. The lone holdout was the AAC.
By 1976, it faced a crossroads. Five years earlier, it had set up a subsidiary group to represent independent colleges. But trying to be two things at once—a lobbyist for a particular type of institution and an advocate for liberal education in general—became untenable. So it spun off the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a lobbying group for private institutions. Left behind was an AAC that would look after the curriculum and liberal education.
On one hand, that gave it freedom and broad appeal. Schools of business and engineering joined the fold. And not lobbying on behalf of liberal education meant not inviting the federal government into curricular matters. "We’ve been able to be more forthright and direct about needed change in higher education," says Ms. Schneider, the group’s president, "because we never have to worry about what the House of Representatives has to say about our recommendations." Still, AAC&U has worked closely with several states’ higher-education departments.
But not pressing for federal legislation has its minuses, says John R. Thelin, a professor of the history of higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky. AAC&U, like most of the big higher-education associations, is in Washington, where political power determines winners and losers. "AAC&U doesn’t see itself as a lobbying group," he says. "They see it as a more subtle game."
But being too subtle risks leaving you on the sidelines.
By the time Reagan won the presidency, in 1980, practical degrees had become the safe and popular choice.
That year students were most likely to major in business. The discipline’s rise seemed inexorable. In the 1930s, around the time Reagan went to college, about 8 percent of students studied in "business and commerce." When he was elected governor, that share was 12 percent. By the time he moved into the White House, more students majored in business than anything else. It’s held that top spot ever since. In the early 80s, most freshmen said they’d chosen their college because they thought it would help them get a better job. The previous top reason? Learning more about things that interested them.
It was a rational response to changing federal policy. Under the Reagan administration, the maximum Pell Grant decreased by about a quarter. Student loans became a more common way to pay for college, even as the president made their interest payments ineligible for tax deductions. As student debt rose, so did the urgency of earning a living after graduation.
Free-market ideas permeated higher education. "The curriculum has given way to a marketplace philosophy," wrote the authors of "Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community," commissioned by the AAC in 1985. "It is a supermarket where students are shoppers and professors are merchants of learning."
Meanwhile, liberal learning floated from its traditional moorings. After the associations’ split, the concept no longer resided so clearly with liberal-arts colleges, and the next logical home, academic departments in the arts and sciences, didn’t offer refuge for long. The fierce canon wars of the 1980s revealed little consensus on what belonged in the curriculum. How could anybody defend a liberal education when no one could agree on what it was?
The battles were especially passionate in the humanities, reflecting anxieties about demographic change in the country and on campuses, says Andrew Hartman, an associate professor of history at Illinois State University. Reagan showed little interest in the canon wars, but he is often associated with a strain of thought that grew out of the 1960s and gained strength when he was president. It saw professors as idle elites antagonistic toward the values of the white working class, says Mr. Hartman, author of the forthcoming A War for the Soul of America. "Liberal education," he says, "gets wrapped up in that."
While the ideal of liberal education faded during that period, it survived. The Sputnik crisis had justified a huge investment in education that lifted all boats, says Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California at Irvine. Responding to the Soviet threat opened opportunities for generations of middle-class Americans, argues Ms. Liu, author of The American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique. "Liberal education was the great dream of the postwar era," she says.
But the conclusion of the Cold War ended that dream, she says, and a more instrumentalist view of college has become a point of bipartisan agreement. President Obama, she says, "sees education as a redistributive process" in which "community and state colleges will teach vocational skills so people can get jobs."
Education once sought to develop people’s potential, says Ms. Liu. Now it’s all about training. "Training," she says, "is what you get through mindless repetition."
Liberal learning is now a luxury good, she says. "It’s become the education of the 1 percent."
If the definition and value of liberal education are in doubt, so is the question of whom it’s for.
Even Jefferson and Du Bois thought such a privilege should be limited—to those "endowed with genius and virtue" or belonging to the "talented tenth," respectively. The AAC&U pushes a more expansive vision: that a liberal education is for everyone who seeks to make meaning in their lives and to participate in democracy.
"The purpose is broad knowledge that enables you to navigate the world you inherit, to develop powers of the mind to make reasoned judgments and cultivate a sense of ethical responsibility, and to connect those goals to the world," says Ms. Schneider, the group’s president.
Those objectives should not be restricted, she says, to liberal-arts majors. They are useful for teachers and technicians. "We argued in 1915 and we’re arguing today that we need good citizens," she says. "A welder is a citizen, too."
Politicians Then and Now on Liberal Education
Politicians have both led and reflected popular opinion on the purpose of college and the role of liberal education.
"Those persons whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and … they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance."
—Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, 1779
"All of needful science for the practical avocations of life shall be taught, where neither the higher graces of classical studies nor that military drill our country now so greatly appreciates will be entirely ignored."
—Rep. Justin Smith Morrill, describing the Morrill Land- Grant Colleges Act of 1862
"There are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without." Taxpayers should not be "subsidizing intellectual curiosity."
—Gov. Ronald Reagan, Calif., 1967
"If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. … Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so."
—Gov. Rick Scott, Fla., 2011
"If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job."—Gov. Pat McCrory, N.C., 2013
"Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art-history degree."
—President Obama, 2014 (he later apologized)
"Pathetic Obama apology to art history prof. We do need more degrees that lead to #jobs"
—Sen. Marco Rubio, Fla., via Twitter, 2014
And for students in traditional academic disciplines, liberal learning can’t be purely theoretical. The AAC&U started the campaign Liberal Education and America’s Promise a decade ago to encourage students to learn by tackling society’s "big questions." More than 450 campuses have signed on, and this month the association said it would expand the campaign, pushing for every student to complete a project involving field research, an internship, a practicum, or community service.
Such projects, the AAC&U argues, draw on the vital skills of critical thinking, writing, quantitative reasoning, and teamwork that liberal education cultivates. That’s what employers have consistently told the group they’re looking for in new hires, Ms. Schneider says. "They just didn’t use the words ‘liberal education.’"
Those words are often confused or conflated with "liberal arts," not necessarily a positive association. The word "liberal," the association acknowledges, has become a term of opprobrium. Recent research in economics found that top students from low-income backgrounds reacted to the term "liberal arts" with comments like "I am not liberal" and "I don’t like learning useless things."
When politicians mock particular disciplines, it doesn’t exactly bolster popular opinion of liberal education. "If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school," Pat McCrory, 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.
To people like Mr. McCrory, such luxuries are exclusively private goods. That said, plenty of governors through the years have understood that a liberal education also has a public benefit.
One governor, dedicating a library at small Eureka College in 1967, made the case.
Standing in front of the new building, the speaker invoked the accumulated wisdom behind him. "The truth is," he said, "the answers to all the problems of mankind, every one of them, even the most modern and the most complex, can be found in this building."
He grounded his remarks in sociological theory and sprinkled in references to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Maimonides, counseling students to read them critically. Past democracies had become mobs when they didn’t adequately protect minorities. Even the greats made mistakes.
"One of mankind’s problems," the speaker said, "is we keep committing the same errors."
His name was Ronald Reagan.