Freedom vs Federal Subsidies of Higher Education IV

Speech prepared for delivery by Dr. John A. Howard, President of Rockford College, before the United Republican Fund Forum at Chicago’s Pick-Congress Hotel, Thursday, January 17, 1963.

A story is told about a commercial flight that encountered some difficulties. Midway between two distant airports one of the engines caught fire. The passengers were naturally dismayed. While the pilot was trying to extinguish the fire, a second engine burst into flame and then a third. When all four motors were hopelessly ablaze, the pilot with a parachute on his back entered the passenger cabin and, unlatching the emergency exit, shouted to the passengers, “Don’t anyone panic. I’m going for help.” And out he jumped.

As one who is working in the field of education, I find it about as reassuring to be promised Federal aid as the passengers of the plane felt at the pilot’s promise. Help isn’t help unless it helps. The lifeguard who drowns the swimmer on the way back to shore may be praised for his intentions and may win some votes for his heroism, but he loses the vote of the victim.

In order to judge what will strengthen and what will damage our educational system it is necessary to agree upon what we want education to accomplish. This is easier said than done. For one thing many of us don’t have a very clear idea of what education is. The definition has become clouded in recent years by an upsurge in research and a wide-spread impression that research and education are to some extent synonymous. When people look to education to keep us ahead of the Russians many of them may think it is simply a matter of pouring money into one end of the educational machine and grinding out research at the other in the form of satellites and bigger bombs and rockets to the moon. This is not education.

Education is a process that happens to a human being. Whether it takes place in a classroom or in the school of hard knocks, it is the accumulation of a person’s knowledge and experience and the effect of that knowledge upon the person’s judgments, decisions, and performance in the course of his daily existence. Education cannot be measured by a diploma or a degree, nor by the physical plant in which the person went to school, nor even by the eminence of the teachers in whose classes he sat. The quality of a person’s education can only be judged by how he performs. If we truly understand this point, it is safe to proceed to examine the purpose of education, that is the kind of human performance we wish to bring about.

Dr. Sterling McMurrin, the recent United States Commissioner of Education, speaking for America at an international conference last July, voiced the aims of education in this fashion:

“The educational enterprise of a people must ultimately be judged by its effectiveness in cultivating fully the rational capacities of the individual, his critical facilities and his independence of mind, and his abilities for artistic creation and appreciation by its contribution to his achievement of that intellectual, moral and spiritual quality of life that describes the proper character and vocation of man. Above all, the nature and quality of a nation’s education must be judged by its relevance to its people’s personal dignity, their sense of individual worth, and their enjoyment of genuine freedom.”

It will be recognized that in the international context this statement may well have served to put educators from certain other nations on the defensive, but that circumstance in no way diminishes the validity of the phrasing. On the contrary the character of the audience made it all the more important that the educational objectives of a free society be phrased with the greatest possible skill and accuracy. To repeat, “Above all, the nature and the quality of a nation’s education must be judged by its relevance to its people’s personal dignity, their sense of individual worth, and their enjoyment of genuine freedom.”

Let us accept Dr. McMurrin’s statement of our educational purpose — and I for one would be hard put to improve on it — and we will have a criterion for judging whether Federal aid is the kind of help which helps, or whether it is the reverse.

First, we should observe that a society which places primary emphasis on the dignity of the individual and his freedom of action forfeits certain safeguards to the individual which may only be provided at the expense of his freedom and dignity. Since man is imperfect — or at least is generally so regarded — and is also infinitely variable, no form of government can be devised which will serve all men equally well. Governments fall somewhere on a scale between the extremes of freedom and regulation. That government which is designed to maximize individual liberties permits the greatest development of the positive and creative qualities of each person while it does little to protect the citizen from his own shortcomings. The regulated society on the other hand may shield each person against his own and others’ failings, but it circumscribes his creative impulses and represses such characteristics as responsibility, initiative, and integrity. The free society is predicated on the predominance of the affirmative qualities in man’s nature. Its byword is opportunity. The controlled society, even in its best form, assumes the ascendancy of man’s baser motives. Its byword is protection. Unfettered opportunity or protection — they do not lie in the same direction. When we move toward one, we depart from the other.

The remarkable history of our nation in cultural advances as in commercial growth, in peaceful motives as in military success, in inventive genius as in philanthropic undertakings is, I believe, more directly attributable to the free character of our society than to any other favorable condition. The heights which we have attained in every field of endeavor were reached because individual people or individual organizations were free to dream great dreams and to succeed or go broke in trying to realize them. Our history is not without its sordid and cruel chapters, nor have we run out of momentous problems to solve, and yet on the tally sheet of civilizations ours stands supreme, for the good that has been wrought far outweighs the evil and the opportunities available to the members of the society have never been greater.

All that has just been said about American society in general applies equally well to the educational system in this country. Although it is not without its flaws, it has set an example to the world of ingenuity, adaptability, dynamism,and growth. The one condition which has contributed most to its success has been its freedom. That freedom is manifested in the extraordinary diversity of programs. At the higher education level (and my remarks from here on will pertain only to higher education), the colleges are spread out along the political spectrum from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. Their curricula, their calendars, their course format, and their programs of student activities are as widely varied as their enrollments and the communities in which they are located. The freedom which has characterized education has indeed fostered individual creativity and placed reliance upon the critical powers, and the judgments, and the inventive talents of individual educators and individual educational institutions.

Now let us try to observe what effect Federal funds have upon the educational system. Since eight Federal agencies now spend a billion and a half dollars a year on education, we are not exactly confined to hypothetical cases.

For one thing Federal programs have an inherent rigidity. Applicable as they must be to a vast number of institutions, chaos would follow if the door were ever opened for exceptions to suit particular circumstances. A certain well-known university applied for and was authorized a Federal construction loan. The terms of the loan required that the construction contract be awarded to the low bidder. Dismayed to discover that the low bidder had a rather shaky credit rating, the university asked permission to employ the second low bidder. The request was denied for the government understandably found it impractical to make its own investigations of the circumstances of the loan. For good reasons government programs must be inflexible.

Government programs may be the result of political compromise with some astonishing results. In the Federal program of language institutes for school teachers, public school teachers are paid a stipend for attending whereas teachers from private and parochial schools are not. What reputable college would ever be a party to such a double standard in a program of its own devising?

Government programs reduce diversity among the separate educational institutions. The terms under which Federal funds are granted must specify the purpose and to some extent the nature of the program for which those funds are spent. Were each institution undertaking the same objective independently, each program would be different. Some would be better than the standardized form and some undoubtedly worse, but the advantage lies with independence. The uniformity required by the government cannot avoid stultifying effects.

Government programs are generally more costly than programs locally initiated, not only because of the salaries of all the echelons of officers
who must collect, administer and distribute the funds, but because the government dollar is committed in advance to a specific program and is not weighed on either the scales of thrift or the scales of alternative uses as are all the unrestricted funds that an institution earns and enlists through its own devices.

Let us add one other point to this list which could be a much longer one. Each college and university is seeking the best students and the best faculty and as much money as possible. Under the present system of diversified sources of funds, the only way to obtain these three essentials is to create a superior educational program. Can anyone deny that this striving to reach institutional superiority is one of the most productive aspects of our educational system? Once we accept the postulate that government must guarantee and pay for whatever the separate educational institutions do not provide through their own wisdom and energies, we shall begin a new era. That decision would seem to mean that each college will have a right to and will receive from the government the money it needs. There lies the road to mediocrity and worse. Think about that one a while.

Now let us back away from present concerns and turn the clock back a few years. What I am about to read is so surprising in these days that I want to cite the secondary source, failing the opportunity to see the original document. This passage comes from a statement made by Dr. Robert Millikan of the California Institute of Technology on June 7, 1949. It was supplied to me by President Emeritus Cowling of Carleton College. I quote Dr. Millikan:

“A joint report was put out in March, 1945, by the problems and policies committee of the American Council on Education and the educational policies committee of the NEA. It states the views of some 20 of the most distinguished ecucators in the United States.” Among the quotations Dr. Millikan gives from that joint report are these:

“The first purpose of this document is to warn the American people of an insidious and ominous trend in the control and management of education in the United States. Its second purpose is to propose policies and procedures by which citizens may resist and reverse this dangerous trend.

“For more than a quarter of a century and especially during the last decade, education in the United States, like a ship caught in a powerful tide, has drifted ever farther into the dangerous waters of Federal control and domination.

“This drift has continued at an accelerated rate during the war. Present signs indicate that unless it is sharply checked by an alert citizenry, it will continue even more rapidly after the war.

“It is the deliberate and reasoned judgment of the two educational commissions who join in the appeal which this document makes to the people of the United States that the trend toward the Federalizing of education is one of the most dangerous on the current scene.

“Education should be placed high on the list of services to be continued under state and local control. The ability to make distinctions as to what should and what should not be centralized permits some nations to preserve their liberty.”

It would be well for us to review some other statements of this period. President Fmeritus of the University of Minnesota, Dr. w. C. Coffey, wrote in April, 1949:

“New comes the proposal to support the public school system out of Federal funds. Local control of education is fundamental to the American type of democracy. More than any other activity education calls for adaptation to local needs and a sense of local responsibility for its successful prosecution. If the responsibility is placed elsewhere, democracy is unavoidably weakened at the grass roots.”

And Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur in 1948 reaffirmed his belief as he had stated while Secretary of the Interior:

“It seems to me that there is a distinct menace in the centralization in the national government of any large educational scheme with extensive financial resources available. Abnormal power to mould and standardize and crystalize education which would go with the dollars, would be more damaging to local government, local aspiration and self-respect, and to State government and State self-respect than any assistance that might come from the funds.”

Just one more quotation, this from a report to the Trustees of Columbia University by President Nicholas Murray Butler. Although the date of that report was 1921, Dr. Butler’s reaction to proposed Federal funds for education seems equally applicable today:

“It is now proposed to bureaucratize and to bring into uniformity the educational system of the whole United States, while making the most solemn assurance that nothing of the kind is intended. The glory and the successes of education in the United States are due to its freedom, its unevenesses, to its reflection of the needs and ambitions and capacities of local comnunities, and to its being kept in close and constant touch with the people themselves. There is not enough money in the United States, even if every dollar of it were spent on education, to produce by Federal authority or through what is naively called cooperation between the Federal government and the several states, results that would be at all comparable with those that have already been reached under the free and natural system that has grown up among us.”

The purposes of American education set forth recently by Commissioner McMurrin were the same purposes upheld by these educational statesmen of another era. The thwarting of these purposes by Federal participation in education foreseen by them in their day has already to some extent come to pass in our own.

If those educational leaders who are now pressing so eagerly for great new Federal subsidies of education have in mind some new national purpose for education let them disavow the supremacy of “the people’s personal dignity, their sense of individual worth, and their enjoyment of genuine freedom,” and make known what greater good they aspire to. If, on the other hand, they believe that the purpose remains the same and that it can somehow be sustained and fulfilled through Federal means despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, let them tell us how.

It is to be wondered if this generation of college executives sees its mission in such a different light from its recent predecessor, and if not, why there are so few voices opposing the Federal advance into their bailiwick. One possible answer suggests itself from our own campus. The professors involved in the Federal language institute to be held on our campus next summer are not a little uneasy about their President’s outspokenness on the issue of Federal educational programs. Can it be that Federal funds are already so important on so many campuses th at the great body of college executives is silent out of hesitancy to bite Uncle Sam’s provident hand? That is a question which can only be answered by some soul-searching on the part of each person concerned. We should, however, emphasize the fact well-phrased in a recent editorial by Leo Rosten in Look magazine. He said:

“The greatest political invention known to the race of man is the idea that men shall be protected in their sacred right to criticize the state itself.”

Ladies and gentlemen, in the views of this speaker, the freedom, the creativity, the integrity, and the ingenuity of our educational system are threatened by further subsidies on the part of the Federal Government. Such aid does not appear to be the kind of help that helps. The principal advantage claimed in its behalf is to protect some margin of future students against the possible failure of the individual institutions to provide enough room for them. The protection thus achieved if the legislation passes will be offset by a comparable sacrifice of freedom and flexibility and opportunity for all future students. We cannot move toward freedom and regulation at the same time.

As educational institutions may lose their diversity and dynamism and creativity, so will the society which they serve.

I do not know of any college or university executive who would not agree that every aspect of education now supported on our campuses by Federal funds could be carried on at least as effectively by a comparable amount of money from other sources, and in many, many instances could be carried on with more imagination, more flexibility, less bother and at a much lower dollar cost if the funds came from the traditional sources.

Now let us go the next step. You can continue only so long saying why the other fellow’s answer to a problem is wrong. If you do not offer some good answers, then a bad one may seem better than none.

The problem is to provide sufficient facilities and teachers to accommodate larger numbers of students. If our economy is to remain strong, we can do no less than make college education available to the same percentage of youth as is now enrolled. Just to serve the same portion of the college age will require very substantial expansion of collegiate services. And, of course, we cannot stop there. The pace of increase in applying technology demands a comparable increase in the skills of the labor force.

It will be necessary to devote a larger part of the gross national product to education. The issue is whether this urgent objective is to be achieved through congressional action — which forces the people to pay more for education and at the same time diminishes the diversity and circumscribes the creativity of the separate colleges — or whether the nation can be persuaded to provide the necessary funds through the traditional sources and thus preserve the freedom and the strength of American education.

The latter course takes hard work. Fund-raising is often a frustrating and thankless task, but no priceless asset is earned or retained without labor and sacrifice.

I cannot believe that my colleagues in college administration would so readily sacrifice the full potential of their respective institutions, nor would shirk the task of local financing if they fully realized what was at stake. As bleak as their financial future may appear to them, it cannot be the reason for abandoning educational integrity. The course of educational statesmanship is to protect the greatest creative potential and the greatest institutional individuality. I don’t believe that course lies via the Federal Treasury.

The college executives and the officers of government who may have a part through their silent or vocal support of Federal subsidy will have to answer to history for the consequences of their work.

May this nation recognize in time the stake it has in keeping education decentralized and unfederalized. If these views make sense to you, I urge you to do everything in your power to defeat any forthcoming educational subsidy bills and also to increase the flow of funds to higher education through other channels. The accomplishment of both objectives is essential to the strength and vitality of the nation.


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