No wonder conservatives and libertarian voters are getting increasingly jaundiced about higher education. They’re reading more and more devastating take-downs of America’s colleges and universities like those expressed by author George Gilder in an interview by Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal. I quote liberally to make sure readers get the full effect.
As we talk of capitalism and America’s universities, Mr. Gilder sits upright, unable to mask his indignation. “The point is that we didn’t want manufacturing in this country, and we suppressed it. All of our colleges are devoted to stopping things rather than starting them.” The “whole focus” of science in American higher education, he says, is on “the dangers and perils of technology rather than its promise.”
America’s university system, says Mr. Gilder, is “incredibly corrupt and ideological.” How did it come to be like that? Surely, I observe, it wasn’t that way when he graduated from Harvard in 1962. “It was beginning to get that way,” he says, and he revs his engines for a fresh sortie. “The rise of affluence through the 1960s created this kind of amazing irresponsibility that resulted in a whole generation losing track of reality.”
The pithy apercu is Mr. Gilder’s forte. He tells me here that “human beings have a propensity to believe in leftism — in the idea that government can “answer all of their problems, guarantee the future, and relieve them of the challenges of life.” The idea of a “completely providential government” arose in America, and a “whole generation of young people were given college loans in a fabulous national mistake, in which the Republicans participated.” These loans were used by the university system to “increase perks and tenured luxuries” — all of which led to the “diversity campaigns and CO2 panics” that currently dominate university faculties.
The only way to undo this “vast blunder,” says Mr. Gilder, is to forgive student loans across the board and “extract the money from all the college endowments and funds that were used to just create useless departments and political campaigns.” More than $1.5 trillion in student loan money is outstanding, according to the Federal Reserve. That money, Mr. Gilder says, “wasn’t deployed to improve education. Not a scintilla of evidence has been adduced that learning has been improved. It was used entirely to lavish on bureaucracies that, in turn, paid tribute to government and leftist socialism.”
The impact of these loans, and of the academic ecosystem they engendered, has been catastrophic, in Mr. Gilder’s view. “The result was to destroy the entrepreneurial optimism of a whole generation of young people, to drive them toward socialism, which they now tend to favor, and even dissuade them from marriage.” The last is a consequence of debt, “which cripples them for the future.”
Gilder’s critique is hyperbolic at times — more accurately describing elite institutions than community colleges and land-grant universities — but it captures the way in which many institutions use tuition, fees, room and board to soak the booboisie, whose values they often ridicule, and extract wealth by means of student loans from the poor and minorities, whose well being they supposedly espouse. Talk about privilege!
At some point the middle class will revolt against higher ed. At some point. Right now, there are few signs of declining enrollment at at small, less prestigious liberal arts institutions that have priced themselves out of the market. But the more people listen to intellectuals like Gilder, the sooner the day of reckoning will come.