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A Truthy Explanation

Ronald Reagan didn't create this problem.


January 26, 2015

Stephen Colbert may be between gigs right now, and his character as an only slightly exaggerated Bill O’Reilly may be gone forever, but his idea of “truthiness” lives on.  He defined “truthiness” as statements that _feel_ right, whether they’re “true” or not.  

Dan Berrett’s piece in the Chronicle, tracing the decline and fall of liberal education in America to a statement by then-governor Ronald Reagan in 1967, is truthy.  For academics of a liberal bent, it feels true. All the right villains line up in a row, and the side of the angels gets to feel suitably besieged. Too bad it isn’t true.

The piece traces a shift in popular and student perceptions of the purpose of going to college. Taking the late 60’s and early 70’s as the implied norm -- already a red flag -- and looking entirely and only at four-year institutions -- red flag number two -- it asserts that the culture has finally caved in to its more philistine instincts. Now, students rarely claim that the purpose of higher education is to develop a philosophy of life, and fealty to the idea of higher ed as job training has become a prerequisite to being taken seriously.

Berrett traces the recrudescence of instrumentalism to Governor Reagan’s comment in 1967 about “intellectual luxuries.”  

Well, no.  

From Berrett’s piece, you wouldn’t know that Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life had come out just slightly before. Or that “eggheads” took a beating in the 1950’s, exemplified by the political fate of their namesake, Adlai Stevenson. Or that the surge in enrollments in the humanities around the late 60’s was actually a historical outlier, occasioned by a combination of abrupt coeducation, draft dodging, rapid institution building, and a never-to-be-repeated surfeit of middle-class jobs.  

You wouldn’t know that more community colleges were built in the decade of the 1960’s than have been built in the four-plus decades since, or that the ones in Governor Reagan’s California didn’t charge tuition.  (#FreeCommunityCollege may be a new hashtag, but it’s an older idea.)  For that matter, you wouldn’t know about community colleges at all.  And that’s too bad, since community college humanities are thriving like never before.

Yes, economic reality eventually set in and cooled some enthusiasm for risk-taking.  But that happened in the 1970’s, and pretty much stayed. (Berrett’s own chart shows remarkable stability in perceptions of higher ed from about the 1970’s to the start of the Great Recession.) In retrospect, it would have been surprising if that didn’t happen.

When a pair of brutal recessions hit,and state and local governments responded by starting a decades-long trend of cost-shifting higher education to students, students noticed and adjusted accordingly. The increase in anxiety since the advent of the Great Recession is simply an intensification of a trend that had been going on for nearly forty years. Add to those trends an increasingly winner-take-all job market and the winnowing away of options for a middle-class income that don’t require college degrees, and student attitudes make sense as reflections of a changed reality. Treating attitudes as entirely independent variables just gets the history wrong.

If we’re going to get the future right, we need to get a more accurate understanding of the recent past. The economy has changed much more quickly than colleges have, and today’s students see the disconnect. They’re rightly concerned about it. Ronald Reagan giving contradictory speeches in 1967 is beside the point. The point is that the Golden Age, such as it was, was a brief fluke, and long-term anxiety is the historical norm. Maybe if we start with that, we can finally start to get a real handle on what we want to see come next.  



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