by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
In 1862, the Morrill Act provided for the building of land grant universities throughout the country. Their purpose was to make higher education, especially in agriculture and technical arts, available to people who previously would not have had access. With a single act, higher education went from being a pursuit of the elite to an opportunity available to many. However, it was not until the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill), that higher education became available to large numbers of people because the cost was covered by the United States government. From 1944-1949, nearly 6 million veterans attended college at a cost of $6 billion to the government. This act and the subsequent unprecedented numbers of young people graduating from college was the single greatest driver in the development of the middle and upper middle class in the U.S.
Why did the federal government encourage so many people to attend college? In part, the program allowed returning soldiers to retrain for civilian jobs and life. This step was necessary because reintegrating returning WWI veterans was a failure with many returnees unable to make a financial living. In WWII, the federal government spent large amounts of money in big science programs to win the war (rockets, atom bombs, etc.) and this funding helped universities to grow and become centers of intellectual life and technological innovation. Soon, higher education was viewed as a ticket to the middle class. A second reason that higher education was emphasized was that “broad exposure to the humanities following the emergence of fascism and Stalinism served as a prophylaxis against political extremism”. In other words, education, especially in the humanities, was a way to prevent extremist governments that had been defeated in WWII and that were growing in Eastern Europe.
From 1945-1978, public higher education expanded as more people attended college and more colleges were created to fill the need. Though private schools continued to thrive, public investment in education was seen as essential. All that came to a slow stop beginning in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected, giving federal power to an austerity movement that sought to shrink government, reduce government spending, and provide fewer resources to the lower and middle classes. On both the federal and state levels, public funding of higher education began to decline. Fast forward to today, and universities in the English world are closing, are shutting down humanities and social science programs, and the stalwart of a modern democratic education—the liberal arts—is being dismantled by budget cuts and reorganization. The emphasis has moved from graduating democratic citizens who are critical thinkers to producing people trained in job and technical skills. In the twenty-first century, the liberal arts have been supplanted by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine).*
At the same time that the decline of the humanities has occurred in higher education, the U.S. finds itself in a Constitutional crisis that threatens to bring us into authoritarianism. This is not a conspiracy theory and it is not simply rejecting the policies and actions of a single individual in the White House. Much of a political party and a portion of government bureaucracy is enabling this slide to happen. There are 73.8 million people who voted for the candidate who has pushed the nation toward authoritarianism. Many of these voters are whites who did not attend college.
While it may simply be a correlation, there is an interesting parallel between the dismantling of the liberal arts and humanities and a preference for authoritarianism. Perhaps it is just coincidence that the rise of American fascism is happening after decades of defunding and closing the liberal arts and humanities programs that were created as a “prophylaxis to fascism”. if there is a connection, then stronger efforts must be made to increase humanities and liberal arts education (and funding) at all levels of our educational system. Not everyone will attend college, but everyone needs to learn how to think critically and how to recognize misinformation and seek out good sources. Thus, philosophy and sociology should be taught in middle school; anthropology and critical theory in high school.
Rather than an austerity mindset that says cut budgets, cut tenured faculty, and cut programs that do not lead directly to obvious jobs (study engineering to become an engineer; study English to become anything you want), the U.S. needs to increase our efforts to teach the liberal arts. If we once believed that such an education could prevent fascism and authoritarianism, and moving away from those ideas has allowed fascism and authoritarianism, then the answer is liberal arts education for all. Will this convince 73.8 million people to resist a populist candidate? Unlikely, but it may make it less likely for the next generation to be entranced. There will always be a large part of the population for which college is not the right choice, and by providing more job-related training for them and infusing the liberal arts in all levels of education, they will benefit as well. And if this is simply a correlation, then no harm for providing people with a broader, critical thinking curriculum that builds engaged and informed citizens. For higher ed, we need to stop letting neo-liberal economic policies dictate a common good, and place the liberal arts front and center once again: A continuing democracy depends on it.
*Of course, some STEM students do get liberal arts courses, but the vast majority of their course work is focused on specific knowledge and skills that help them do specific jobs rather than to be generalized critical thinkers, writers, and researchers.