How did President Obama become, by Oscar Wilde’s definition, a cynic?
Last week, the President boasted in his State of the Union address that his administration was preparing tools so parents and students can “compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
Part of a national movement to quantify the return on investment students get from college, Mr. Obama’s “scorecard” will include information about jobs and salaries of individual colleges’ alumni.
Mr. Obama never had a moment of vocational education until he went to Harvard law school as his trade school at the age of 27. But he apparently didn’t encounter Mr. Wilde’s definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
There could be no greater act of cynicism than to attach a monetary value to a college education. By encouraging the notion that higher education is primarily about an economic payoff, the President is undermining a peculiarly American invention, the liberal arts degree.
Six years ago, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth College, which rejected my petition to create my own American Civilization major because the faculty committee knew I was drawn to journalism and thought my proposal too career-oriented.
In his address, Mr. Paulson, a onetime English major who went on to run the investment firm Goldman Sachs, said: “And to you parents out there who wonder about your sons and daughters graduating today with English majors — I like to hire English majors. Seriously, as an employer, I have long believed in a liberal-arts education from a U.S. college or university. I believe that Shakespeare, Socrates, and the Peloponnesian Wars are great preparation for successful careers.”
How much bang in today’s marketplace do you suppose you get from the Peloponnesian Wars?
Mr. Obama is offering his college initiative at a time of great peril to the liberal arts.
In 1990, David Breneman, who had just completed six years as president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, identified 212 institutions as liberal-arts colleges. Two decades later, the number had dropped to 130.
An evaluation of the state of liberal education prepared late last year by three respected specialists warned that “American higher education will be diminished if the number of liberal-arts colleges continues to decline.”
Where the President has gone wrong — along with those college trustees who have contributed to the 39 percent decline in the number of liberal-arts institutions — is in assuming that Americans need to be trained for a living rather than educated for life. This is more than a semantic distinction. It is the difference between reading Shakespeare in college and mastering accounting.
Seventy-one years ago yesterday, my uncle, who later died in a PT boat in combat off Guadalcanal, wrote a letter to my father, then a high school senior. He wasn’t much for preaching, but in this letter he wrote from the heart.
“If you went to a trade school you’d have one thing you could do & know — & you’d miss the whole world of beauty,” Philip Alvan Shribman wrote from the U.S. Navy transport ship Crescent City somewhere in the Pacific.
“In a liberal school you know ‘nothing’ — & are ‘fitted for nothing’ when you get out,” he wrote. “Yet you’ll have a fortune of a broad outlook — of appreciation for people and beauty that money won’t buy. You can always learn to be a mechanic or pill mixer etc., but it’s only when you’re of college age that you can learn that life has beauty & fineness.
“Afterwards, it’s all struggle, war: economic if not actual. Don’t give up the idea & ideals of a liberal school. They’re too precious, too rare, too important.”
In this letter, cherished by three generations of my family, my uncle argues that the liberal arts were what the Allies were fighting for in World War II.
He was right. It is a tragedy that this American treasure is under assault from a President who was the beneficiary of those values.
College debts and rising tuitions are true crises. But if you wonder whether college is worth it, don’t look at the government’s jobs and salary figures. Instead, take a look at the return-on-investment rankings for alumni 30 years out. Eight of the top 10 colleges specialize in the liberal arts.
It turns out that you can get a pretty good bang out of mastering the Peloponnesian Wars after all. It is, in fact, priceless.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org