The concept of a free public education through high school as a right of every young American was surely one of the noblest notions ever embedded in the framework of American society. And when the federal government built on this foundation after World War II, offering under the G.I. Bill of Rights to pay for the college education of any veteran, it seemed an act of enormous generosity and high wisdom. And so, indeed, it was. Without it, millions of Americans could never have afforded the education that would enable them to enjoy higher incomes, and lead richer lives, later on.
But any project so vast must have a down side, and this one was no exception. Many of those eligible for the subsidy were simply incapable of doing college-level work. For these, there rapidly sprang up new schools ready to take their money and, after a shoddy pass at educating them, send them out into the world with a college degree. Similarly, many existing schools "dumbed down" their curriculums to accommodate the slow learners. The predictable result, over recent decades, has been to cheapen the significance of many college degrees. Some are worth little more than a diploma from a good high school 50 years ago.
We may imagine that gifted students don't realize this, but the fact is that many of them do, and bitterly resent it. A case in point is the son of a friend of mine, whom we shall call Peter.
Peter is a bright and aggressive young man, now in his mid-20s. I sometimes jokingly say that he can be president someday if he wants to. More judiciously, it is fair to say that he will succeed in almost anything he puts his hand to.
He was certainly Ivy League material, but there was one problem. He is white, you see, and lost out in the competition with applicants whose SAT scores and general competence were lower, but whose skin color made them irresistible to college admissions officials bent on "diversity."
So Peter wound up going to a well-regarded liberal arts college, but not one in the Ivy League. And in due course he graduated, having encountered no more obstacles, as Bugs Baer once said, than a fish going over Niagara Falls in the rain.
But Peter comes from a well-educated and highly conservative family, and he could tell, just from the conversation around the dinner table, that he had been short-changed at college. There were all sorts of important subjects that he had never heard of, or been taught anything about. Soon he was asking his father, and family friends like me, to recommend books he could read to make up for the gaping lacunae in his education.
Not long ago we had lunch, and he told me he was halfway through a book I had recommended to him purely as entertainment: Winston Churchill's "A Roving Commission," which is Churchill's account of his first 26 years. I asked him if he had yet reached the part where Churchill, as a war correspondent with the South African Light Horse in the Boer War, was captured by the Afrikaners, but escaped and made his way back to a hero's welcome in England.
His response was vague, and slightly embarrassed, and only slowly did I realize why: Peter had not gotten that far in the book, had never heard of the Boer War, and had no idea what I was talking about! Moreover, he was furious at his own ignorance, and furious at the college that had left him floundering in it.
I will grant that the Boer War is, and perhaps always was, something of a sideshow. But it is hard to believe that any acceptable course in modern European history wouldn't make at least a passing reference to it. (If the college in question has a course in African history these days, as it well may, the Boer War is no doubt covered there; but such courses are usually intended chiefly for African-American students in search of their "heritage.")
But that is what we are doing to our children. In dumbing down our colleges to accommodate the ineducable, we are depriving talented youngsters of the education to which they are entitled. They are paying dearly for our neglect and so will we. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn.)
William A. Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.