To the Editor:

The essay, “The 50-Year War on Higher Education” (The Chronicle Review, October 14), resonates more with me than any I’ve read in many years. It provides insight into the last 60 years of our political history, little of which is appreciated or even understood by the public today. That history does much to explain the erosion of democracy here. It covers the exact years when I was in graduate school at NYU, 1962-65, and references events that were and still are highly relevant for me. For example,

A group of prominent intellectuals — Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Sidney Hook among them — blamed the disorders less on the students’ disrespectful behavior than on the spineless actions of the university’s ostensibly liberal leadership.

Sidney Hook was one of the most prominent American political philosophers of the mid-20th century, a disciple of Vermont’s John Dewey, and chairman of NYU’s Philosophy Department during all of the years when I was studying there (1958-65). (In later years, a major survey of college and university faculties around the world judged the NYU philosophy department during his tenure as chair to have been the finest philosophy faculty ever established at an American university, and it has retained that ranking.)

Even while at work on my dissertation, I was energized politically by reading about Mario Savio at Berkeley:

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“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” -- Mario Savio, Berkeley, 1964.

And then, Governor Reagan reinforced the significance of the demonstrations, stating that he would put them down “at the point of a bayonet, if necessary,” marking this as the worst assault on truth to occur anywhere in America. The public’s reaction to that proved how moribund its political consciousness was, and how much it needed the awakening it was about to get. The banner in the background of Reagan’s speech at Berkeley in 1967, “Keep Politics Out of Higher Education,” expressed the deepest ignorance I’d ever seen thus expressed. And this was occurring at the same time as I read the greatest political speech I’d ever read in my lifetime, the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech at NYC’s Riverside Church.

For the next 50 years, higher education confronted a toxic combination of reduced public funding and diminished public legitimacy. American politics had turned to the right. Threatened by the social movements of the 1960s as well as by the economic crises of the 1970s, political elites abandoned the liberalism of the New Deal and Great Society and instead embraced the free market. By the 1980s, an increasingly conservative political culture prioritized personal success over the common good.

This was pandering to the most reprehensible instincts of man, exactly the opposite of the politics (“the highest form of ethics”) of the ancient Greeks. Most sadly of all, much of the American public is still critical of higher education without having learned that its reaction was programmed in order to hide the truth about American hegemony and militarism, the original insight delivered by Savio. Not having learned that may now doom us and the whole world to annihilation, quickly by nuclear war, or more slowly by climate change.

John Steen
South Burlington, Vt.

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