The Decline, Fall and Rebirth of the American College

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The Decline, Fall and Rebirth of the American College

As Stanford University’s Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote, “most Americans who came of age in the 1970s revered universities despite the 1960s protests and the beginnings a process that resulted in today’s widespread chaos and disrepute.”  Americans of “the G.I. Bill-era” first enshrined the idea of upward mobility through the bachelor’s degree and the positive role of expanding colleges to grow the new suburban middle class.

Administrators in the 1960s and 1970s were relatively few.  Most faculty saw administrative assignments as a temporary, if necessary, evil which took precious time away from teaching and research.  Often the best scholars and classroom teachers were drafted for such unwelcome duty and they were praised for sacrificing a year or two of their careers for the good of the institution.

Back then, professors taught large loads consisting of four or five classes a semester. Conferences were rare.  And teaching was still valued as much as scholarship.

The result was that college tuition as well as room & board stayed relatively inexpensive. There were few student loans.  Students who went into limited debt usually paid off their obligations in a year or two after graduation.  Most students found part-time jobs on campus and lived frugally.  Most did not even own used cars; those who did were valued as rare assets.

There was nothing in the student union or gym analogous to a rock-climbing wall or latte bar.  No one had TVs in their rooms.  Life at affordable colleges retained elements of what Hanson referred to as “boot-camp poverty.”

In the campus “free speech areas,” protesters were calling for more free speech, less censorship, and an end, once and for all, to racial segregation and discrimination.  In other words, even after the damage of the 1960s, there remained vestiges of the characteristics that had once won universities widespread public confidence. 

And justifiably, universities were seen as essential to the upward mobility of the postwar Baby Boom.  Students generally graduated within four years and relatively few spent years on campus before failing to graduate.

So, what went wrong?

Hanson, who has spent decades on college campuses put his finger on the problem:  “The former students of the 1970s came into power and gradually began to reject the very code of conduct and training of those who taught them...

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