Hidden Dangers In Federal Aid to Education

This is a copy of the speech delivered by Dr. John A . Howard, Rockford College president, at the 91st Commerce and Industry luncheon in Chicago, December 6, 1962. The luncheon is sponsored by the Institute for Economic Inquiry.

I shall forego any introductory pleasantries and plunge right into the subject, for 25 minutes is all too short a time to phrase the case for a little-known and poorly documented view on one of the most critical issues of our time.

Not only is this speaking time brief, but the calendar is running out fast before the next congressional effort to enact federal subsidy of higher education when the proponents will have the vigorous, aggressive and extremely capable leadership of Harvard’s Dean Francis Keppel, the newly appointed Commissioner of Education.

To begin with, let us make sure we recognize the role education plays in this world. Every great political theorist has stressed the direct relationship between the strength of a government and the nature of the educational system that serves its people. If the educational program is purposeful and dynamic and flexible, so shall be the nation in which it operates; if it is rigid or uniform or indifferent or corrupt, the nation will soon reflect those characteristics.

The educational system prefabricates the national mind and spirit; it forms political and economic attitudes; it either fosters or smothers such personal qualities as initiative, courage, self reliance, pride, patriotism, and resilience.

Most businessmen would feel foolish if they knew as little about the companies in which they own stock as they do about the collegiate institutions they support through gifts and taxes; and yet, in the long run, the lives of their children will be far more directly affected by the character of the educational system than by the wisdom of the financial investments made to protect those children.

Education, gentlemen, is that function of society which predetermines what the society shall be. Your shares in the United States of America are directly involved in the national decisions about education.

Let us go one step beyond the importance of education and consider what education is. Education is a word we use frequently and which we assume we understand, but I wonder how many of us could give a quick definition that would make sense. Contrary to what we might think, education is not classrooms, nor teaching tools, nor teachers. It is not even the acquisition of knowledge. Education is a process that happens to a human being. It is the effect of new knowledge upon the person’s convictions, judgments and actions.

As an illustration, two people can study the economic history of the United States and learn the same facts and dates, but one may interpret what he has studied as the development of capitalistic imperialism and a masterful plot to dominate the peoples and the markets of the world, while the other may observe the triumph of individual initiative and free enterprise under a form of government conducive to them.

In each case, the education far surpasses mere accumulation of knowledge by a student. Education is the development of attitudes and the changes in behavior that result from the interaction between the sources of in formation -teacher , text, and experiment- and the student’s own thinking conditioned by his experiences.

With this definition in mind, we can proceed to the matter of federal subsidy of education. I wish to make it clear that from here on my remarks are directed to the matter of subsidy of college education, the area with which I am most familiar.

The case in behalf of federal subsidy is based on two premises. First, we do not have sufficient facilities or professors to accommodate the tide of qualified college applicants that will be ready for college in a few years, and nothing short of a crash program will bring about the expansion needed to provide for those students. Second, in our contest with communism, we must press forward in our discovery of new scientific and technical knowledge at the fastest possible rate.

I agree completely with both premises and I am not acquainted with any responsible educator who doesn’t. What I challenge – clear down to the roots of my being -­ is the conclusion that the nation will be well-served by meeting these critical needs through federal funds. I am perfectly certain that such a course, while perhaps providing a temporary cure, will ultimately deform, if it doesn’t kill the patient.

Education is a machine of society. None of us would dream of trying to repair a machine without first understanding thoroughly its function and how the parts relate to each other. There is another societal machine that was repaired by technicians who were unaware of how it worked. The fantastic mess in American agriculture stands as a monumental example of the damage that can be wrought by enthusiastic and well-intentioned, but short-sighted repairmen.

There is a rock’n’roll song popular now – “Fooled me once, shame on you. Fooled me twice, shame on me.” Well, shame on us, if we permit our educational program to be “fixed” by similar national techniques.

I shall try to present a series of contrasts between federally paid for education, as proposed, and the current system of education supported by a variety of sources of funds. In my judgment, each of these contrasts is sufficient reason to vote down federal subsidy, and when taken together, would seem to be incontrovertibly persuasive.

Contrast number one involves the objectives of education. The federal subsidy claimants speak only of national security and the common good as if such things existed independent of the individuals who comprise the nation. The number of students served and the volume of research ground out by the educational machine are the criteria of success. When financial plans are made for a single institution instead of a nation, the primary focus can be and should be on the service to be provided to the student, and such questions taken into account as “How will this proposed service support or conflict with our established and primary services?”

President Nathan Pusey has recently cited the distortions Harvard University has experienced in its educational pro­gram as it has participated increasingly in federal research. The president of the University of Louisville admits with some dismay that all eight Ph.D. programs in his graduate school are in science and came into being in response to federal subsidized opportunities. Do you believe for a moment that if the faculty and dean of that graduate school were free to plan their own program that the result would be the same? It is unthinkable.

When funds are made available in Washington for national purposes, the best interests of the individual college and of the student are subordinated and suffer accordingly.

The national strength in education is not something apart from the strength of the individual institutions. If our national programs warp and interfere with institutional purposes, the national strength is diminished. It is not the accuracy of the weapon, but the philosophy of the gunner that wins wars – and that is not just a happy aphorism – as the military difficulties in Laos and Vietnam testify. We may get the guns built in these crash programs, but look you, gentlemen, to the gunners.

A second area of contrast involves the relationship between the institution and the source of funds. In federal subsidies, the money is guaranteed if specific conditions are met. Those who vote the funds are so remote from the educational programs that are paid for that they cannot know whether the money is well spent.

Once again we have examples to warn us. The foreign aid programs are perhaps as varied and as widely scattered as would be the educational programs. It is only a question of how big is the percentage of foreign aid funds that is wasted, or worse, put to use against the national interest. Under the present educational system, whether funds come through state municipal legislative bodies, whether they come from students as tuition, or from gifts and grants, the source of the money is closer to the services purchased and the calibre of those services can be better judged.

Furthermore, the dangers of padded budgets and unneeded waste are inherently greater in the expenditure of guaranteed and remote Washington funds, than in the spending of dollars that have to be justified to a nearby personal or public treasury.

In the case of a national program covering hundreds of institutions, the terms of the grant must be specified in detail. The program is concrete and rigid and no exceptions can be permitted. When funds are allocated for an individual institution, by comparison, the program can be flexible, and even though it must meet specific needs, it can vary with the particular circumstances.

A third concern is the effect of the source of funds upon the personnel of the institution. If the federal government becomes the largest single source of educational monies, then the educational employees are almost inevitably bound to support that political party which promises the most money for educational purposes, regardless of what else the party stands for. If the funds come from other sources, the personnel of the college are free to choose individually the party they wish to support.

A no less startling comparison arises in the selection of college executives if the colleges are dependent upon the federal treasury. A man’s Washington contacts will be of supreme importance in the choice of the college president. This is not to suggest that fund-raising capacities are not now a requisite for the chief officer of an educational institution, but there is a vast difference between recruiting money on the basis of the importance of a given educational program, and the lobbying required to get a claim for government largess processed ahead of rival educational claimants.

As the federal program of educational subsidy increases, you will see scholar-presidents replaced by the academic counterparts of the generals and admirals who now serve industry.

A fourth contrast is to be found in the role religion plays in the educational process. If we are willing to accept a definition of education that penetrates beyond the mere accumulation of knowledge and the accomplishment of research, a definition that focuses on the attitudes and the changes in behavior of the student, then we will quickly see that one of the greatest challenges – perhaps the supreme challenge to teachers today – is to help the student see his place in a world permanently imperiled by nuclear weapons.

Where will the individual human being find the courage and the optimism and the confidence to plot a productive and effective life in a fear-ridden world? For most people the answer to that question is in the area of spiritual understanding and commitment. But we have a government in which church and state are happily and wisely and seemingly permanently separated. Ergo, as state moves into education , church moves out.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. What happens is that federal funds are made available to nonsectarian programs. As the percentage of educational budgets which is financed by the government rises, this exclusion of religion will become more critical.

Today, I will attend to only one other point, although you will already have thought of some obvious ones, such as the bite of each tax dollar that supports the bureaucracy of any federal program, the tangential controls which may be enacted by Congress or by executive order to accomplish social objectives, the unending necessity to enact new programs to offset the imbalances created by the old, etc.

My last point is the effect of government subsidy upon the diversity of educational institutions. If there is one aspect of our colleges and universities that has been uniquely responsible for the dynamism and the strength and the vitality of the American nation, it is the extraordinary variety of experiences provided to the students of this country. There are colleges that are extraordinarily liberal politically and others at the opposite extreme. There are colleges with a whole curriculum built around the humanities and others with academic programs focused on and supplementing work experience. Each campus has its own unique personality.

The people who have studied in these divergent back­ grounds have different views and different perspectives as they come together in common tasks. They bring different knowledge and different philosophies to bear on common problems and out of the interchange and argument and competition arises a vibrant and an alert economy.

Now as all these differing institutions turn to the same source for their dollars there will be a rapid and inevitable curtailment of the diversity. However sound the enabling legislation, and however wise and inclusive the policy boards that administer the funds, there must be either legal or policy restrictions by which decisions can be reached on who gets how much money, and in what order. Some institutions will qualify under the terms prescribed without changing anything. Many others will have to change in order to qualify.

Great diversity is simply not consistent with central planning; uniformity is not consistent with educational dynamism. We have before us a choice: dynamic diversity or static centralization.

It should be observed that most of these dangers have been recognized by people who favor the federal subsidy of higher education, and there has been a great deal of searching to find ways to minimize the difficulties, while still providing funds from the federal treasury. Well, faced with so many compelling reasons not to turn to the government, the obvious answer is, “don’t.” And we shouldn’t. The two original premises remain and we in education, and you on the outside, must rise to the task of providing funds through the traditional sources to meet expanding enrollments and to hold our own in the technological race with communism.

Perhaps this is too much to ask. Perhaps it is no longer possible to carry on the costly process of education without federal planning and federal funds. If it is an impossible task, we at Rockford College are too stupid to recognize it. We are building a wholly new campus through private resources. We are now in our fourth year and on schedule. The interesting thing is that if this small college – with no church affiliation, with a small endowment, with no men graduates over the age of 30 and hence a very limited potential support from alumni – can build a whole college without tax monies, then it may be rather difficult for other institutions with tasks which are certainly no greater to claim that they must have federal funds.

Gentlemen, if you share our concern about the general federal subsidy of higher education, and if you recognize as we do that once education has become dependent upon government , no other part of society can remain free, then you will want to fight the legislation which, as sure as spring, will come around next year, and you may want to raise some of these questions with the colleges and universities you support through gifts and taxes.

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