This week marks the beginning of my 37th year at UMM and my 47th consecutive September on a New England college campus. The times, they are a-changing.
American higher education is on the cusp of a financial, cultural and political reckoning that will leave it smaller, poorer, less popular, less powerful and decidedly diminished. Those changes, as deserved as they may well be, will probably not be accompanied by any recognizable change in attitude, humility, leftist indoctrination practices or self-regard and esteem.
The Chinese Communist Party Pandemic is certainly the immediate precursor of the coming changes, but it is 50 plus years of misguided education policies and the left’s successful “long march” to take over and control academia that has led to this moment of reckoning.
The artes liberales were originally literally the curriculum for free people. A thousand years ago “free” was a decidedly narrower and smaller cohort of people - it did not include serfs, slaves, peasants, women, apprentices, soldiers or, indeed, most of the population. As freedom and democracy expanded, the liberal arts were seen as what citizens needed to know to take an active and productive role in civic life, and as essential to producing a virtuous, knowledgeable and articulate citizenry. In contrast, the elements of the technical arts and education- engineering and the trades, while essential to building and maintaining the physical infrastructure of civilization (think Roman aqueducts and roads), were not accorded similar esteem.
The classical liberal arts (the trivium) included grammar, rhetoric and logic. In medieval times, the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy were added. During the Renaissance, the studia humanitatis of history, Greek and ethics. In the modern era, the liberal arts curriculum includes humanities (arts, language, literature, philosophy, religion), mathematics, natural sciences (biology, physics, chemistry, geology) and social “sciences” (economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science). Over the last 50 years, a great deal of the original curriculum has been cut or deemphasized (Western heritage and history, grammar, logic, religion) in favor of identity politics and assorted grievance studies such as African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, and LGBTQ Studies. Unfortunately, while majors in English and history produced graduates whose critical thinking and problem-solving skills translated into valuable job skills pretty quickly, the same cannot be said for Grievance Studies.
After World War II, access to higher education expanded with a series of government subsidy policies: the GI Bill (school choice anyone?), Pell grants, subsidized student loans and other assorted increased state and federal support. These subsidies increased the demand for higher education, with predictable results - the price (tuition) skyrocketed as did faculty, administration, and staff salaries and compensation. Higher education practices price discrimination as there is a very high manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) which hardly anyone actually pays because financial aid reduces the actual price to the buyer based on their income and wealth, and possibly their athletic talent, race and sexuality. Imagine filling out a student financial aid application (FAFSA) and turning it over to a car dealer or house seller before negotiating the sale price.
Student debt has increased dramatically. When coupled with low graduation rates and unfortunate majors, many millennials and zoomers are hobbled by an inability to earn sufficient income to pay off their debt and start their economic lives (buy a car and a house). The left’s proposals to forgive student debt and provide “free” college show how bankrupt higher education’s liberal arts have become. “Forgiving” student debt makes anyone who paid off their debt (or parents who helped their children do so) into dupes and idiots, and will certainly not encourage responsible borrowing and lending in the future. “Free” college ignores a fundamental truism that studying economics reveals the value of any “free” goodwill eventually approaches its price. Squad member and socialist AOC is pushing these policies; she is an honors economics graduate of Boston University.
Education was and still can be the road to opportunity, but choices must be made with attention to costs and consequences. The liberal arts were originally the curriculum for free people and free societies. The academy was once committed to free speech and free inquiry but has replaced that with speech codes and indoctrination. Higher education is no longer the path to freedom, but instead, to quote a Nobel Prize-winning economist, the road to serfdom.
Jon Reisman is an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias. His views are his own. Mr. Reisman welcomes comments as letters to the editor here, or to him directly via email at [email protected].