Saturday, June 06, 2009

D Day and American Higher Education

Richard Vedder

Three score and five years ago today a large number of young Americans participated in one of the most unselfish, most principled, most courageous acts in human history --the D Day invasion of Normandy. It was also one of the bloodiest and deadly of all American military actions --so much blood flowed at Omaha beach that for a time the Atlantic Ocean was truly red. See Saving Private Ryan for a good depiction.

What does this have to with colleges? On one level, nothing, but at another level, a great deal. The young Americans storming the beaches of Northern France were not fighting to promote national glory, increase our nation's wealth, or achieve hegemony over a larger area, but rather they were trying to thwart the triumph of evil. They were fighting for what was right, principled and humane, against the ugliness of Nazism. And almost none of them had been to college. The Greatest Generation, to use Tom Brokaw's oft-used phrase, was, relatively speaking, less educated, if degrees and diplomas are your measure. But in some fundamental sense, they were as wise and knowledgeable as most college kids today --maybe more so, in that they knew the difference between right and wrong, were disciplined and mature, and had done a lot of "learning by doing."

Would today's youth stand up for our nation in peril? I think they would, despite being somewhat lazier, less disciplined, and more spoiled then their ancestors who spent childhood during the Great Depression. Americans still have a sense of great patriotism and a "can do" spirit that the educrats in our public schools who worry about self esteem and being politically correct cannot erase, as hard as they seemingly try. Ditto our college professors.

But a lot that is important and good in life is not taught in college --indeed, not even taught in school. D Day was a time of killing and death -- but a killing designed ultimately to save lives and to make them more humane and decent. Today our college kids work 25 to 30 hours a week, maximum, going to school (on average --there are, of course, notable exceptions, some of whom I am proud to say work with me at CCAP). They drive pretty nice cars, live in air conditioned comfort, have rec centers and student unions to party and play in. They live the good life. Are we over indulging them and over-invested in the appearances of creating better values, knowledge, wisdom and critical thinking? I think probably we are. And I am proud to be a descendant of those far less formally educated men and women who risked life and limb to protect and preserve the Western Civilization with which we are so fortunate to be associated. TO be sure, times have changed, and the needs for more cognitive skills is greater, necessitating some expansion of formal learning. But the law of diminishing returns applies to higher education like everything else.

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