The Long Shadow of James B. Conant 7

For there is great merit in the idea of “general education” when it is not circumscribed by a “great books” program. American colleges do fail to provide a common core of learning. Most students gradu¬ate without any exposure to knowledge about American political, legal, and business institutions; they are no better equipped to peti¬tion a congressman, or to write a will, or to buy stock than they were when they left high school. What they have received, for the most part, is specialized training in a scholarly discipline—the conse¬quence of the curriculum having been handed over to the depart¬ments, whose members are selected on the basis of professional attainment rather than commitment to teaching or to “general” learning. Despite the widespread call for it in Conant’s time, gen¬eral education has seldom been tried, even in the “great books” for¬mat. Where it has been, it has commonly taken the form of “distribution requirements”—that is, mandatory smattering.

What happened to Conant’s educational ideals? The three decades after the Second World War, from 1945 to 1975, were a period of enormous growth in American higher education. It is a period known in the literature on higher education as the Golden Age. The number of American undergraduates increased by almost 500 per¬cent, the number of graduate students by nearly 900 percent. In the 1960s alone, enrollments more than doubled, from 3.5 million to just under eight million; the number of doctorates awarded annu¬ally tripled; and more faculty were hired than had been hired in the entire 325-year history of American higher education to that point. At the height of the expansion, between 1965 and 1972, new com¬munity college campuses were opening in the United States at the rate of one every week. This growth was fueled in part by the baby boom, in part by the sustained high domestic economic growth rate in the 1950s, and in part by cold war priorities. After the Second World War, the national government began the practice of contract¬ing research out to universities, largely through the efforts of Co- nant and his government colleague Vannevar Bush, former race president and dean of engineering at MIT and director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war. After Sput¬nik, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided large government grants to universities, directed principally at science and foreign languages. In this expanding universe, the ideals of meri¬tocracy, disinterested inquiry, and the general education curricu¬lum centered on the “great books”—the ideals for which Conant stood—were not often questioned. They were part of the culture of assumptions in which higher education operated.
After 1975, though, the higher education system changed. Its growth leveled off, and the economic value of a college degree be¬gan to fall. In the 1970s, the income differential between college graduates and high school graduates dropped from 61 percent to 48 percent. The percentage of students going on to college therefore began to drop as well, and a system that had quintupled, and more, in the span of a single generation suddenly found itself with empty dormitory beds and a huge tenured faculty. One of the ways in which colleges and universities responded to this crisis was by ex¬panding the pool of candidates for admission, since there were fewer white American males for selective schools to choose from. After 1970, virtually every nonmilitary all-male college in the United States went coed. People had talked before 1970 about the educa¬tional desirability of coeducational and mixed-race student bodies, but in the end it was economic necessity that made them do it. In 1947, 71 percent of college students in America were men; as late as 1965, 94 percent of college students in the United States were clas-sified as white. By 1998, a minority of college students, 44 percent, were men, and 71 percent were classified as white. Most of this di¬versification happened after 1975, and a single statistic makes the point. In the decade between 1984 and 1994, the total enrollment in American colleges and universities increased by two million, but not one of those two million new students was a white American- born man. They were all nonwhites, women, and foreign students. The absolute number of white American men in American higher education actually declined between 1984 and 1994.27
Faculty demographics changed in the same way, a reflection not so much of changes in hiring practices as of changes in the group that went to graduate school after 1975. Current full-time American faculty who were hired before 1985 are 28 percent female and about 11 percent nonwhite or Hispanic. Full-time faculty hired since 1985—that is, for the most part, faculty who entered graduate school after the Golden Age—are half again as female (40 percent) and more than half again as nonwhite (18 percent). In 1997, there were 45,394 doctoral degrees conferred in the United States; 40 per¬cent of the recipients were women (in the arts and humanities, just under 50 percent were women), and only 63 percent were classified as white American citizens. The other 37 percent were nonwhite Americans and foreign students. The demographic mix in higher education, both students and faculty, completely changed in the span of about a generation.
As the new populations began to arrive in numbers in American universities after 1970, the meritocratic rationale was exploded. For it turned out that cultural differences were not only not so easy to bracket as men like Conant had imagined; those differences sud¬denly began to seem a lot more interesting than the similarities. This trend was made irreversible by Justice Lewis Powell’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978. Powell changed the language of college admissions by decreeing that if admissions committees wanted to stay on the safe side of the Constitution, they had to stop talking about quotas and start talking about diversity instead. Pow¬ell’s opinion blew a hole in meritocratic theory, because he pointed out what should have been obvious from the beginning, which is that college admissions, even at places like Harvard, have never been purely meritocratic. Colleges have always taken nonstandard- ized and nonstandardizable attributes into account when selecting a class, from musical prodigies to football stars, alumni legacies, and the offspring of local bigwigs. If you admitted only students who got top scores on the SATs, you would have a very boring class. “Diver¬sity” is the very word Powell used in the Bakke opinion, and there are probably very few college catalogues in the country today in which the word “diversity,” or one of its cognates, does not appear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *