Federal Aid to Education: Stampede to Disaster

This is a copy of a speech delivered by Dr. John A. Howard, Rockford College president, before the 27th annual conference of the Investment Bankers Association of America, Central States Group, at Chicago’s Drake Hotel, March 13, 1963.

A story is told of a motorcycle driver who, on a wintry night, reversed his jacket so that the bitter winds would not come through the gaps between the buttons.’ The jacket was somewhat uncomfortable back-to-­front, but it served the purpose. As he sped along the road, he skidded on an icy spot and the poor fellow crashed into a tree.

When the ambulance arrived the first-aid men pushed through the crowd and asked a man who was standing over the victim what happened. He replied that the motorcycle rider seemed to be in pretty good shape after the crash, but by the time they got his head straightened out he was dead.

So it goes when people get excited and take quick action to provide a remedy for a problem without clearly understanding what the problem is. Now we are being rushed into ill-advised remedies for education which violate the nature and neutralize the vitality of the educational system that has ably served this country’s needs under circumstances the most various. The qualities of the educational system, strength or weakness, wisdom or folly, diversity or uniformity will inevitably be reflected in the society some years later. As we may undermine the effectiveness of our schools and colleges, we circumscribe the potential of our society.

The title of these remarks, Federal Aid to Education: Stampede to Disaster, makes use of strong terms. They are intentionally arresting. It is my belief that we as a nation are unwittingly placing in jeopardy our entire system of education and that the tocsins of alarm must be sounded so loudly and so frequently that the people and their representatives in Congress and even the educators, themselves, will think through the consequences of the course we now pursue and change its direction.

What is a stampede? It is a rapid mass movement. It is engaged in thoughtlessly. It is caused by fright. It is dangerous, and it is exceedingly difficult to stop. The press toward Federal subsidy of education, in my judgment, meets precisely each of these qualifications.

Except for a few lonely voices, the men and women in our Federal government when they turn their attention to education are discussing not whether the United States Treasury shall pay more of the costs of education but rather which costs and in what manner. On January 29th of this year President Kennedy issued a White House Message on Education. “Our concern as a nation for the future of our children,” said the President, “- and the growing demands of modern education which Federal financing is better able to assist – make it necessary to expand Federal aid to education beyond the existing limited number of special programs.”

The requested expansion is set forth in a single comprehensive bill entitled the National Education Improvement Act of 1963. It is “aimed at meeting our most urgent education problems and objectives, including quality improvement; teacher training; special problems of slum, depressed and rural areas; needy students; manpower shortage areas such as science and engineering; and shortages of educational facilities.” The program proposed seeks Federal funds to meet all of these problems and more besides.

Shortly after the President’s message, Republican members of the House Committee on Education and Labor reported in a news conference that they would propose legislation of their own to provide Federal funds to meet the problems of education. Even before the President’s message more than one hundred and twenty bills affecting education had been introduced in this Congress. The most influential educational associations of America are all on record repeatedly urging the Federal Government to provide money for buildings, scholarships, research and many other items including, in some cases, faculty salaries. The mass movement aspect of the Federal aid stampede is an assertion that will be readily granted.

The charge that it is a thoughtless movement will require more elaboration. Let us take an example of what passes for thinking among the advocates of Federal subsidy of education. Recently there appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly an article entitled “The Blessing That Is Federal Aid.” It was written by McGeorge Bundy at the behest of Princeton’s President Goheen.

Mr. Bundy, you will recall, had served for some years as a Dean at Harvard before joining the White House staff of advisers. If anyone is in a position to phrase convincingly the argument for Federal subsidy of education, it is this man who is one of the key formulators of national policy and who has the perspective of substantial academic and administrative service at our most renowned university.

His proof of the blessing rests on four points. The first is that Federal funds allocated to higher education have been productive. None would be foolish enough to contradict his statement that Federal funds have been productive. They have indeed been productive. Who could spend a billion and a half dollars a year on anything without producing quite a lot of something? The question is not “Have Federal funds been productive?” It is instead, “How productive in contrast to the same amount of money from other sources and what have been the by-products?” A claim that much has been accomplished begs the issue.

Dean Bundy’s second point is no more relevant than his first. He states that Federal funds produce freedom in education because if the scientist and the scholar do not have the funds to carry on their work their poverty limits their freedom. The Federal monies certainly do liberate scholars to practice their profession.

Again the logic is incontrovertible, but the argument completely misses the mark. The Federalness of the money, which is presumably the bone of contention, is totally unrelated to the fact that the funds received by the scholar free him to do his work. Any money, regardless of source, does as much.

Mr. Bundy’s final two efforts to prove the benefits of Federal educational subsidy are: a claim that the restrictions governing the use of Federal funds are fewer than those that govern the use of money from other sources, which is errant nonsense, and a claim that the method of determining the operational details of Federal educational programs is more in keeping with the great academic tradition than is the method of determining the nature of programs paid for by funds from other places. Here he refers to the practice of asking representatives from a number of educational institutions to assist in planning programs subsidized by the Federal government. This process assures that the standardized programs subsidized by government represent the best thinking, or at least the best compromises, that can be obtained from the most highly regarded scholars in a given field.

An admirable practice it is if you must have standardized programs, but it is certainly not in the American academic tradition wherein each college or university plans its own programs according to its own specific opportunities and limitations.

These four points constitute the proof offered by Presidential Advisor Bundy that Federal aid is a blessing. If this were an isolated example of justification for Federal aid by something less than thought, it would be necessary to support further my contention that the Federal aid movement is an unthinking stampede. However, this is about as effective a case as has been made and Princeton’s president must have so judged it for he presented it to his alumni apparently in an effort to qualm their fears about Federal funds.

Except in the case of those people who candidly seek to centralize all functions of society, there is not any sound argument for using Federal funds in preference to other funds.

The third characteristic of a stampede is that its cause is fright. Here our postulate needs little in the way of support. A whole new Federal invasion of education was launched in response to the great fear that struck on October 4, 1957. Sputnik the First sent a chill into the hearts of all of us. The startling realization that Russia had outdistanced us in space technology rocked us as a nation. We were suddenly willing to grant new powers to government and suppress historic and well-reasoned objections to certain Federal activities, out of plain, old-fashioned fear.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 put into being vast new programs some of which can be labelled “defense” only by an interpretation of the word so broad as to render it meaningless. Furthermore, it seems as if the fright is being perpetuated by many who are committed to Federal support of education. The President’s message already referred to closes with the recitation of Soviet superiority in the number of scientists produced each year. The implication is clearly that we cannot hold our own in the Cold War if the legislation is not enacted. The Federal aid movement is urged on by scare techniques and the stampede gains momentum.

Before we consider the consequences of this movement, let us turn back the clock fifteen years when President Truman proposed a similarly sweeping program of Federal legislation to pay educational costs. The storm of protest he aroused, although now largely forgotten, demonstrated a degree of unanimity on the part of educators at all levels seldom witnessed before or since. Typical of the comments of that era was a statement by President Gould of Carleton College.

“I miss no opportunity to reiterate my opposition to Federal aid for education. As a matter of fact, the more I talk about it and the more I think about it, the more serious does that threat become. It is almost stupefying that intelligent people cannot see what may happen if we continue to promote movements in that direction.”

Joining Dr. Gould in the opposition were the presidents of Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, Brown, Beloit, Grinnell and a host of others. These were not the narrow-minded reactionaries of the period but the most highly respected statesmen of their profession. Theirs was not a newly conceived attitude. Listen to another statement issued in March, 1945.

“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.

“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 con­ trol 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 danegrous on the current scene.”

The quotation comes from a joint report issued by the problems and policies committee of the American Council on Education and the educational policies committee of the National Education Association. These two committees were speaking, in effect, for the whole power structure of American education.

It is to be wondered what has taken place in recent years to bring about a complete reversal of the firm position of the educational leadership of our country. The principles which underlay earlier objections remain intact. No new discoveries have outmoded the principles. I am suggesting here that the principles have been disregarded in the stampede, and that we will be unutterably foolish if we do not return to principles as the basis for action in meeting educational problems.

The new thinking which buttresses the clamor for Federal subsidy cheerfully rejects principle as a primary consideration. In a book published last spring, The Federal Interest In Higher Education, the authors candidly recite a list of fictions which were introduced by the Congress in order to obtain the passage of educational legislation. Several brief quotations from that volume illustrate this astonishing point.

“In general, the potentially divisive character of the issue has been avoided by the creation of a number of polite fictions which allow the substance of the legislation to be considered without too much argument over its implications for the separation of Church and State. Such adjustments are not made without a price being exacted somewhere. Sometimes the price has been the excision of program elements that could not be covered by the agreed-on fictions, and at other times the price has been the setting of dents that encumber future action…”

“As we have said, there is nothing inherently wrong with such fictions. Indeed, in cases like the one just cited, they allow implementation of what a majority feel to be desirable social policy by providing an honorable way to avoid a contentious issue. The difficulty is that ruses good for one set of circumstances may not be good for – indeed , may be positively obstructive to – another set … “

“In a broader sense, it is surely true that no society – in the world, at least – has ever been able to afford the luxury of facing squarely all the issues that divide its people. The use of fiction as an instrument of cohesion is an indispensable social tool.”

The authors of these incredible statements are Dr. Homer Babbidge who was until recently the Assistant United States Commissioner of Education and Dr. Robert Rosenzweig, an Assistant to the Commissioner of Education. Their book is considered by many the most authoritative and convincing presentation of the case for Federal aid to education.

What, ladies and gentlemen, have we come to when dishonesty, or fiction which is a politer but nevertheless synonymous term, is engaged in by the Congress to hoodwink the people into the acceptance of programs which would be rejected on principle?

Now let us examine some of the reasons which underlie the traditional rejection of the Federal Government as the means of support for education. In the first place as the Federal Government becomes the largest single source of funds for college after college, and there are a number already in this category, the institution becomes beholden to the government.

This is not a chimera born of a doctrinaire distrust of government. Recently I wrote to the president of a large well-known university inviting him to join a group of college presidents in making known the arguments against the ever-growing Federal subsidies of education. He replied that although he was in full agreement with our position that the subsidies are not in the long-range best interests of the colleges or the country, his own university was now so dependent upon funds from Washington that he could not exercise his rights as a citizen on this issue without jeopardizing the university he served.

Think about that answer, if you will. The mere flow of Federal money has silenced the opposition. This loss of freedom on the part of those who depend on government for their income was the reason for refusing suffrage to the residents of the District of Columbia.

Let us project the Federal aid programs ahead, not too many years the way things are going, to the time when all colleges and universities will receive the largest part of their budget from the United States Treasury. Is it possible that all faculty members in that day will feel some obligation to vote for whichever party promises the largest amount of additional educational subsidies regardless of other partisan differences? This is not an unlikely result. Political freedom is sacrificed by those who depend upon government resources. Can we afford to sacrifice the political freedom of the whole academic community?

Earlier we referred to the by-products of Federal programs of education. First let us be quite clear that there is no need to depend upon conjecture for ascertaining the effects of Federal funds in education. I recently received a manual of almost eight hundred pages devoted to a brief description of each of the educational programs in which the United States Government now engages.

As a matter of fact, college executives may now subscribe to a periodical solely devoted to the presentation of new Federal programs, and new interpretations or changes in old programs. Indeed the scope of current Federal programs offers plenty of opportunity for observation.

The current issue of Nation’s Business contains an article describing the overlapping, the inconsistencies, the distortions and the general confusion which characterize the aggregate of government educational programs. The source of information for that article is John F. Morse who has just completed a nine-month study for the Higher Education Subcommittee of the House of Representatives. I commend to you Mr. Morse’s statements. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that we must have a Washington super-authority to make plans for the academic segment of our society and to coordinate as well as pay for education through a central bureaucracy. This will be the disaster referred to in the title.

The predominant characteristic of American higher education has been its diversity. Each collegiate institution has its own particular nature, totally distinguishable from every other. The degree to which spiritual concerns affect the student during his undergraduate years ranges on different campuses from predominance to insignificance.

Similarly the political impact upon the student varies from pure conservatism at one college to extreme lib­eralism at other institutions. The curricula are varied to a much greater extent than is generally recognized. Scripps College in California and St. John’s in Baltimore place primary emphasis upon the humanities. Antioch in Ohio and Northeastern University in Massachusetts plan studies to support directly intermittent vocational experience.

Programming of class schedules, the division of the academic year into time units, the presence or absence of fraternities, the size of the town, the percentage of students who carry jobs, the mores prevalent on the campus, and the strength of the student government are just a few of the many variables which color and mold student attitudes and vary the scope of student knowledge, totally apart from the nature and persuasiveness of the particular teachers in whose classes the student enrolls.

As graduates of these various institutions come together in any enterprise bringing with them their own views, their own bands of knowledge, their prejudices and their experiences, that enterprise is the livelier and the more creative for the variety in its constituent personnel. I subscribe to the hypothesis that it is this convergence of diversely educated people in a free interchange of thought that has been the one condition which more than any other has enabled our nation to make the achievements it has in commerce, in culture, in comfort, and in all the other aspects of our society.

What fosters this diversity? Principally it is the autonomy of the various institutions. As a college executive conceives or receives a new idea that seems promising, he has to sell it to only his own faculty and board of control. If he can convince them that it is a sound project and can find the financial resources to implement the plan, it is tried. The innovations of each college will arise out of its own peculiar circumstances, the particular strengths of the faculty, the philosophical objectives, the limitations or the advantages of the facilities, and, yes, the personal biases as well as the imagination and courage of the President and his governing board. It is the independence of each collegiate body which fosters diversity.

Each new educational undertaking of the Federal government reduces the diversity of American education. Indeed, I believe most college executives would agree that those programs now supported on our campuses by Federal funds could be carried on at least as effectively by a comparable amount of funds from other sources, and in many, many cases could be conducted with more creativity, more imagination, more flexibility, less bother and at a much lower cost if the funds came from the traditional sources. Given such an agreement, why then do not the same executives oppose Federal aid. The answer is money.

Money is a good servant but a dangerous master. Money becomes the master when it takes precedence over other considerations. The reason that it is so difficult to justify Federal aid to education is that apart from an outright philosophical commitment to the centralization of the services of society, the only justification for Federal aid is a lack of money, and the awkward fact that the Federal Government is far more prodigal with its funds than are other sources. If only the proponents of Federal aid would come right out and state this fact, we could face the issue head on and measure what the easy money buys against what we must sacrifice in order to obtain it.

It is undeniable that our increasingly technical society requires an increasingly skilled and knowledgeable population and, to accomplish this end, a larger part of the gross national product must be invested in 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 forfeit 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 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 position.

May this nation recognize in time the stake it has in keeping education decentralized and un-federalized. 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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