What Joe Biden Didn’t Mean to Say

Unlike the GOP, the Democratic presidential hopefuls seem united about education policy, to the point of boringness.  In his promise not to join the race, however, VP Joe Biden made some odd historical claims about schooling.  Surely he didn’t mean to imply what my nerdy ears heard.

Say, it ain't so, Joe...

Say, it ain’t so, Joe…

The Democratic leaders seem to have rallied around the promise of free or reduced college tuition for all.  That was the point Vice President Biden made.  “We need to commit,” Biden intoned,

To 16 years of free public education for all our children.  We know that 12 years of public education is not enough.  As a nation, let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education 100 years ago.

With apologies to the SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let me clarify at the outset: I am no Biden-basher.  I will be voting Democrat in the upcoming presidential election.  Guaranteed.

But that doesn’t mean that Democrats get a free pass to Stupid.  Let’s politely ignore for the moment Biden’s implication that students in the USA now receive 12 years of public education.  For most kids, the real number is thirteen years, including kindergarten.  In many states, it is fourteen years or more, including pre-k and preschool.  But let’s not focus on such details.

The real stumper in VP Biden’s claim is that the United States committed to free high school for all in or around 1915.  That just doesn’t fit, for two reasons.  First, the history of high school attendance and tuition is much more depressing and complicated than Biden implies.  Second, there is a much more obvious parallel that he and other leading Democrats could draw.  Why don’t they?

To take them one at a time: Every nerd knows that a majority of 14-17-year-olds did not begin attending high school until the 1930s, not the 1910s.  Moreover, most so-called “public” high schools—the line between “public” and “private” schools as we know them was vague—stopped charging tuition by the 1870s, not the 1910s.  As historian extraordinaire William J. Reese has demonstrated in his book The Origins of the American High School, the high school has had a long and jagged path from elite finishing school to mass institution.  There was no obvious transformation 100 years ago.

Here’s the worst part for Biden: The reason more kids began attending high school in the 1930s was depressingly obvious.  The Great Depression crushed the economy and squeezed the most vulnerable workers out of scarce jobs.  For young people, there was often no viable option outside of school.  I know Biden didn’t mean it, but his promise to revisit America’s commitment to high-schooling for all implies a desire to return America’s economy to the dumpster.

Nerds have another question for Democrats: Why don’t they make the more obvious parallel?  This great nation has a long history of free college tuition.  Some of the best of our public institutions began with free (ish) tuition for locals.  If we want to go back that far, The University of Pennsylvania was opened as a radical new vision of higher education, one that would be attainable to all.  Cornell University, too, promised that students could work their way through without worrying about tuition costs.

In more recent and relevant history, the University of California system—still home to our country’s most prestigious public universities—long promised a tuition-free education for residents.  The City College of New York, too, was built on the idea of free elite college educations.

Of course, students still paid in one way or another.  School was not absolutely free but rather a mish-mash of fees and living costs.

When they talk about free college, why don’t Democratic leaders talk about this history?  Maybe they do and I just haven’t paid close enough attention.  But in recent debates and speeches, Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders, Governor O’Malley and now VP Biden all repeated this dream of free college as a new thing, an innovation, a shiny promise.

Why don’t they sell it instead for what it is: One of America’s most cherished traditions of higher education?

I have a hunch.  Democratic leaders don’t want to be seen as old-school leftists, rewarming the failed policies of the 1780s, 1860s, 1930s, or 1960s.  Instead, they want to appear to offer the public something new, something bold, something untried and remarkable.

I’m all for it.  My beloved university is not tuition-free for all, but it fulfills the promise of affordable public higher education for many of our students.  I believe in the American tradition of affordable and attainable higher education for those who want it.

But I also believe in learning from the past.

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Why Campuses Have Become Timid

You’ve heard the lament: College campuses these days have become intellectual hothouses; students force teachers and administrators to crush any hint of controversial thinking; students insist on atmospheres purged of ideas that might upset them. In the new issue of The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt offer an analysis of the phenomenon. But why didn’t they invite a historian to their party? For two smart guys, their answers are sadly shorn of any of the historical context that best explains our current “snowflake” syndrome.

The authors review the recent happenings on college campuses. Professors complain that they are muzzled and beleaguered. Students who offend are crushed under the bootheels of climate enforcers. Comedians no longer perform on college campuses.

Macro-aggressions . . .

Macro-aggressions . . .

Instead of feisty arenas in which a universe of ideas battle ferociously, some college campuses have become daycare centers at naptime, the authors charge. Why?

The recent trend toward what Haidt and Lukianoff call “vindictive protectiveness,” they argue, results from generational trends. Today’s college students grew up wearing helmets everywhere. They grew up on Facebook; they grew up in an era of vicious partisan polarization. The results, they conclude, are more than sad. They are scary portents of the ways campuses have pushed students to think in negative ways.

All these things make sense, but they ignore the obvious explanation from the history of higher education itself. Instead of as a psychological “vindictive protectiveness,” an historian of higher ed might explain today’s student activism as an exhibition of “insurgent inclusionism.”

Today’s sometimes-excessive zeal for inclusionism might be traced most immediately to campus tumults of the 1960s. To take examples only from my home state of New York, battles at Columbia, Cornell, and City College of New York all laid the historic seeds for today’s campus activism.

At Columbia, student leftists took over the administration building and helped set a precedent that evil lurked incarnate behind the carved doors of deans’ offices. At Cornell, students demonstrated that no excess of violence would be too much in order to promote their agenda. At CCNY, the very structure of the school itself was turned on its head.

These were all very different episodes, but all of them set the precedent for student moral activism. The good guys in every case were those who were willing to go to any extreme—even shotgun-wielding threats—to create “inclusive” atmospheres.

The moral definitions were established. Those who resorted to extreme measures to promote more egalitarian campuses, places more welcoming to non-white, female, and underrepresented students were the good guys. Those who resisted were the bad guys.

These days, talk of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” seems an obvious historical development of that moral logic. Insurgent inclusionism dictates extreme tactics to be sure that no historically underrepresented group is left out. Why do student activists take such extreme measures against “microaggressions?” Because such things are seen as the latest flowering of white, male campus elitism.

Haidt and Lukianoff are likely aware of this obvious historical trajectory. I understand that they are mainly interested in other questions. Furthermore, I’m a fan of Haidt’s work. I considered it a big compliment when a recent reviewer planned to teach a culture-war class using my recent book along with Haidt’s Righteous Mind. As a psychologist, however, Haidt seems to ignore the obvious historical logic for our current campus climate, and that historical logic is important.

Without it, it’s easy to get caught up in the alarmist tone of the article. As I’ve argued before, today’s campuses are not as monotonous and timid as these sorts of articles imply. We should not tremble at the thought that student activists are up in arms for moral causes—even if we disagree with the tenor of their protests.

Campus activists these days consciously model themselves on the strident moralism of their 1960s ancestors. Do some of their protests verge into the merely silly? Yes. But overall, the logic of their protests has developed from the best traditions of student activism.

We don’t need to define away student protests as psychologically suspect.