Magazine article The American Conservative

Higher Ed [Not Equal to] Higher Class: Do We Know Why We're Sending More Americans to College?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Higher Ed [Not Equal to] Higher Class: Do We Know Why We're Sending More Americans to College?

Article excerpt

Now that the Obama administration has added another string to our education bow in the guise of two years of free community college, it is not hard to guess how this will play in college-worshiping America. It will "metastasize," to use the current analogy for the deadly spread of government, until we get four years of free traditional college. More people than ever before will enroll in the pursuit of academic degrees, and we will find ourselves squarely in the path of another social upheaval brought about by America's love affair with higher education.

I lived through the last one. When I entered college in 1953, girls did not give much thought to what they would major in because it didn't matter; the idea was to "go to college" because that was the idea. Many were frankly working on their "MrS." but meanwhile, until Mr. Right came along, they had to register for something. There was always "Ed." They didn't expect to teach because they didn't expect to work, but it was "something to fall back on" (That meant death, not divorce.) Some girls chose the soft sciences like Sociology ("Soc") and Psychology ("Sike"), but most gathered in the undistracting and undemanding liberal arts. The most popular major was English because "All you have to do is read"

College was made for me and I for college. I simply went on doing what I would have done anyway, would rather do than anything else, what I had been doing since reading Gone With the Wind at the age of eight. The only difference was that now nobody was telling me to get my nose out of that book and go out and play. Now I got credit--literally--for reading. I even got extra credit for reading more than the assignment, like all of Thomas Hardy's novels instead of just The Return of the Native. I had already read them in high school, but I read them again just for the sheer pleasure of it because re-reading books I loved was even more fun than reading them the first time.

On it went. In my senior year I finagled my way into several doctoral-level courses because I could not resist any literature class whose catalog description began with the words "The Flowering of ..." Scheduled for older adults who worked full-time, these esoteric classes tended to meet on Fridays from 7 to 10 p.m., when Mr. Right was otherwise occupied, so he and I never crossed paths. But I didn't care. I was happy.

Then I graduated. Uninterested in teaching but unable to do anything else, I ended up in the kind of job the '50s considered woman's work: "Help Wanted, Female" with some meaningless perks like calling a file clerk a research librarian. I went from happy to miserable in a trice. The ironic moral of my college experience was inescapable: nothing is more depressing than looking at an office full of typewriters and dictaphones when you know what deus ex machina means.

Around this time, housewives started wearing aprons inscribed "For This I Spent Four Years in College?" They had found Mr. Right, but they were just as unhappy as I was because at last we had something in common. I was a lower middle-class reading machine and a great many of the English majors with their minors in Art and Music

Appreciation ("Preesh") sprang from the same walk of life, yet we had experienced the same cultural and aesthetic exposure once reserved for aristocrats of earlier centuries who made the "Grand Tour" The difference was, the aristocrats could go back to being aristocrats, whereas we had to go forward and be something better than we had been before. …

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