Fall of Liberal Arts, Part II: Education caught up in reform Liberal Arts education caught up in school reform

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Feb 6, 2015 No Comments ›› Dan Bodine

By Dan Bodine


Note: This is Part II of  2-part series on the fall of America’s liberal arts, and what it all means. Part I can be found here.)


Calling universities “prostitutes” for using liberal arts programs as cash cows (Part I of Fall of Liberal Arts, link above) are strong words, yes.

Something about our national patriotism clabbered, I’ve always felt, back in the ’70s, to justify such contemptuousness. As people, our idealism, our psyches, hardened then; for many, they became mean. Spiteful! What could’ve caused this? A violation of the crudest kind, I dare say!

Allow me a little bit of personal nostalgia.

Growing up in Cleburne, Tx, in the ’40s and ’50s, Life’s goal seemed simple. The harsh realities of World War II’s harsh economy — even well into the social giddiness of what was turning into a post-economy housing boom — was singed into people’s minds like a hot branding iron on rawhide.

That brand of thinking carried with it always certain pain. And respect for it. Not just lives lost in the war but people remembered empty stomachs and why you had to penny-pinch, too. For their children! Whatever they might fancy aspiring to later, there was but one thing to plan for now:

“Get an education, kid! Whatever you have to do to get it, Get It! ‘Cause it’s THE ONE THING THEY (government, re-po man, closet spooks, etc.) CAN’T TAKE AWAY FROM YOU!!!

Thus, because we already knew what we were to do in Life next (get educated), we enjoyed our childhood more, I dare argue. Using curiosity, imagination and creativeness in our play!

My ol’ classroom buddy — James E. (Jim) Myers, and I, i. e. — once fashioned some tin-can “walkie-talkies” out of an Irving Elementary 6th grade science experiment. Hee, hee. Had high-level talks back and forth from the White House to Wall Street, out in the back of his mom and dad’s plant nursery in the afternoons.

Once even rigged up a telegraph “key switch” to a speaker of sorts and took it to the classroom. While Coach R. G. Bowles was explaining a lesson, James (sittin’ behind the “cutest girl in the school)” took down notes of a song I was tapping out on the telegraph line, supposedly passing it to her.

The words you could hum along to, to the tune of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”:

My girlfriend’s name is Jerry West

When it comes to girlfriends she’s the best!

Cutest girl in the school

‘Cause she doesn’t pl-aa-y pool!

Jer-ry, Jerry West!

  Queen of my heart!

I hadn’t realized he hadn’t passed the note along to her ’til she told me one day after this she was going steady with Bradford Riza, an uppity boy from her uppity church I think, who was an 8th grader in the local uppity junior high school. Naturally it lowered me quite a bit!

But those were the days when education was fun. Wholesome! Furthermore, Life was so prioritized you knew your purpose in Life after education. One of these days you were to be somebody, as in responsible! It was a citizenship thing!

After high school you went through this transition period. For some it meant vocational colleges or trade schools, or apprenticeships — learning certain businesses.

For others, it meant higher learning first (colleges and universities), then getting inserted into a profession on a lower level and working your way up. And usually military service was worked in somehow, too. There was the Draft.

But you knew that to be someone responsible was going to happen one day for you.  This was America!

It was an inheritance you were standing in line for — a burden of responsibility, some even called it — that was coming down to you. You had to step into the role! That’s what the script called for!  As a loyal citizen-in-the-making you were merely acting out some responsible part in Life’s Great Script. To keep it going!

This is what today’s simpler times refers to, I think. An era where Americans were all little cogs in this great big wheel called America-the-Greatest-Land-on-Earth. And everyone (looking back now thru rose-hued glasses some, of course) had this role to play — inherited from family, society, whatever

And by simply playing out that role — stepping up and being the responsible person who you were supposed to be — would make America even greater. You knew it! Ad infinitum! By gawd!

So what happened? What changed it? What changed our liberal arts tradition? And turned our fine research universities into prostitutes?

Believe it or not, friends, it wasn’t Republicans! Hee, hee. (They cued it well; but this first step wasn’t theirs.) The word liberal itself got caught up in a wave of reform, I think! And heat came out of it.

  Cars in a double line 12-23-73 at gas station in New York City. Marty Lederhandler/AP

First there was the Arab Oil Embargo (over 40 years ago now) when fuel prices hit the roof! Remember those blocks-long lines at service stations? The indignity of it all!? Over gasoline?!! Followed, no less, than by double-digit inflation!

Well, high-top anger came out of it, too! I mean, from business heads who lost money big-time! Fed up, they were! And the shrinking dollars…Consumers couldn’t stand it! The nation desperately needed a boogeyman!

This is America! You don’t have that right! A-hab the A-rab was told.

And ga-zam! Like an economic miracle, Sunbelt transformations popped up in its wake. A new kind of conservatism had been planted. One towy-headed. One that’s now grown further now into right-wing extremism!

Some reaction to an economic jab, huh?! To keep it kosher, the response had to be in-kind! A right was violated! This will be bare-knuck! How in the world you gonna do that, Jethro?!

Bombing the hoodeenies out of those Arabs for not selling us oil then would’ve been politically incorrect, yes! Developing alternative energy ratt quick was even less palatable.

I mean, we done hurt enough! Gonna make us hurt some more?!!

Selling the evils of hogwash for a pretty penny was easier!

Thus, corporations began relocating to southern and western states to avoid higher heating bills and such.

It became the time of the right-wing capitalist lurch!  Left both their higher-wage union employees (probably all liberals!) and the communities who’d long-time supported them, all behind scratching their heads.

And lo and behold… In the West, Southwest, South, with creation of all these new jobs, wonderful and great economic opportunities started popping out from behind every bush! And Greed was not far behind! Creating spin-off deals that added the term radical capitalism to our national playbook.

If you own an oil well, then dammit, git you one!

Later in the ’70s when the New Right (this coalition that had formed by then — largely of business people, and some conservative activists angry over moral issues) got a real whiff of what was happening economically, they were able to galvanize what amounted to a new political reform movement, the Moral Majority, as a secondary spinoff. To really turn this country around.

And that 1980 election sealed the deal! Evangelical Americans — our nation’s finest people sold on the cause — basically got hoodwinked at the polls. The term liberal arts got sucked into the blowback of school reform spray. And melted in budget cuts!

If we’re any closer now to setting up God’s kingdom on Planet Earth than we were before that election, then the Seattle Seahawks really did win the recent Super Bowl!

Over the following decades that pivotal election would hand the New Right et al (35 years later now, so right it’s moved to libertarian extremism) the keys to the nation’s economic engines. Thus universities — left in the budget lurch by devolution — responded by finding other suitors. To stay alive.

Cold, but simple facts.  Our true liberal arts heritage was part of the destruction of an era of reform. If not totally gone now, it’s certainly headed down the tube. Schools fell victim because everyone knew that liberal meant evil! Cut the budgets!

Richard Viguerie — one of the original figures who founded the New Right and “whose use of direct mail revolutionized political strategies for mobilizing grassroots support” —  a few years ago wrote “Conservatives Betrayed:”

He wanted to explain how neoconservatives led by “… George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.”

Imagine, feeling like you’ve been bushwhacked! Ha!!!

But as the nation now drifts further and further rightward, no doubt a lot of leaders from that era are unhappy. And nervous. Where will it go?

Not just Viguerie, but a lot of folks from lobbyists, scientists to other college educators and researchers, who all have helped weaken those hallowed halls that once held up a nation at its proudest moment, I dare say. Who bolted in exchange for some monetary gain. Many, to keep their careers alive, no doubt.

And what are they all now? What is that P word?

Be nice, dear! Be nice!

It’s all hindsight, of course, but until someone can stop the bleeding, blood on their hands is going to be around for a while.

Pray it’s not forever!

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