Remember college, Mr. Bush?

Samuel Hynes

March 03, 1992|By Samuel Hynes

NOW THAT the House is about to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which the Senate passed last month, and the administration has presented its budget proposals for education, can begin to see what lies ahead for Americans who want to be educated. What I see worries me.

The administration aims to increase financing for Pell Grants, which help low-income students go to college. That's good news. But President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander propose financing that increase by taking money out of the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant program and the College Work Study program. That's bad news.

These programs help needy students to make it into private colleges and universities. Cutting their funds would reduce the chances of poor students going to one of these schools, whatever their qualifications. Mr. Alexander has suggested that these students can go to the less expensive state and community colleges. That sort of thinking is troubling, for what the secretary is anticipating is the elimination of lower class and middle class young people from the most expensive institutions. Surely there is a better way of organizing federal support for higher education.

Thinking about this problem, I recalled the opportunities that existed 45 years ago, when President Bush and I and thousands of others returned home from World War II to resume our university lives. Our generation received a special kind of double education. At an age when boys in peacetime go off to college, we went to war and lived as men in the world. Only after the war, when we had learned something about life, did we go back to college and learn what books have to teach about it.

Mr. Bush must have taken for granted that his second education would follow the first. But for young men like myself, from families without much money or education, it was the experience of the war that made a university seem essential. And the G.I. Bill made it possible. A large part of an entire generation lived different and more productive lives because of that combination of war experience and educational assistance.

It's a pity that only a fighting war could accomplish that end. Right now, when our country is engaged in so many other wars -- against drugs, poverty, homelessness, crime, ignorance, the polluted environment -- wouldn't it be splendid if young people could fight in those wars, and then, when they had learned about their world and about themselves in action, go to college? Congress is considering a Police Corps, which would offer scholarships to students who serve as police officers after graduation. Why not also a Teaching Corps, a Day-Care Corps, an Urban Corps, an Environment Corps?

Where would the money come from? The money is already there in the form of the just under $12 billion in the fiscal 1992 budget for student aid. It would only be necessary to make the grants from that sum conditional on public service. The financing of student work on social and environmental problems could come from the appropriate agencies.

It isn't only the students who would benefit from this double education; the universities would benefit, too. President Bush must remember what Yale was like just after the war, when the veterans were on the campus. I certainly remember the atmosphere at the University of Minnesota. It was partly pure intellectual excitement -- all those ideas, after the years of guns and planes. But it was also a feeling of classless equality; for once American higher education seemed truly democratic.

I have not found that atmosphere in American education of late. My students have been bright, but they seem to put on an education as though it were a Brooks Brothers suit that their fathers paid for. They don't see education as an opportunity to change the world. I don't think they want to change it. Can it be that the only idealists left in this country are the veterans of the last Just War?

If I were writing the legislation to make real my dream of classless higher education, I'd probably also make it possible for some students to do it the other way round, and get their book education first (as they do in ROTC). The universities would benefit more from the young people who came to them after they had done their fighting; society would probably benefit more from the presence of fighters who had first gotten some academic training.

As I come to the end of my teaching career, I still worry that the students I have taught have not been moved to serve their country and the world. And I think sadly that if they do not feel a need to make the world better, they will make it worse, simply by existing in privileged positions without caring.

My generation can remember a time when our universities were not like that. President Bush could help us recover the spirit of that time. If he did, the students, the universities, the country and the world would benefit.

Samuel Hynes is professor emeritus of English at Princeton University.

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