College then and now

Fred Reed lays it down in his latest column.

Long ago, before 1965 say, college was understood to be for the intelligent and academically prepared among the young, who would one day both provide leadership for the country and set the tone of society. Perhaps ten percent, but no more than twenty percent, of high-school graduates were thought to have any business on a campus.

It was elitist and deliberately so. Individuals and groups obviously differed in character and aptitude. The universities selected those students who could profit by the things done at universities.

Incoming freshmen were assumed to read with fluency and to know algebra cold. They did, because applicants were screened for these abilities by the SATs. These tests, not yet dumbed down, then measured a student’s ability to handle complex ideas expressed in complex literate English, this being what college students then did.

There were no remedial courses. If you needed them, you belonged somewhere else. The goal of college was learning, not social uplift.

. . .

That is how things were. Then came what are roughly called the Sixties, actually the late Sixties and early Seventies.

They changed everything.

The first and worst change was the philosophy that everybody, or much closer to everybody, should go to college. Disaster followed. There descended on the schools huge numbers of adolescents without the brains, preparation, or interest needed for college. They had little notion of what college was for. The very idea of cultivation seemed undemocratic to them, as of course it was. They set out to avoid it. And did.

Since they were not ready, and for the most part could not be made ready, colleges dumbed down courses. Remedial classes proliferated. These worked poorly.  When a graduate of high school can barely read, there is usually an underlying reason why he will never be able to read.

. . .

What the students didn’t want was an education, to the extent that they knew what the word meant. They wanted courses that were easy and fun. Soon there were things like “What if Harry Potter were Real?” and “The Comic Book in the Struggle for Gender Equality.” These were vacuous, but the students didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared. They were in a USP—a university-shaped place—that had the form of schooling, such as numbered courses with solemn-sounding titles, credit hours, and buildings with blackboards. They  thought they were in college. They weren’t really, but didn’t really want to be.

College, once a passage into adulthood, became a way of avoiding it. Immaturity and narcissism flourished well into the students’ twenties. This was perhaps because they had never had the experience of having to do things, such as work in a gas station or manage a paper route.  They confused universities with their parents and worked to outrage them. With the righteousness of the still-pubescent, they demanded justice for everything and, having no experience of rational argument, or of thought of any kind, called for the abolition of anything that didn’t suit them. To their delight, they discovered that administrations would cave. Expelling them would have been  a wiser course. They became the prissiest of prissy moralists.

. . .

The result was that students who wanted to learn nothing did so, at great expense and to little advantage to themselves or society, and were ruthlessly exploited by banks and rooked for exorbitant tuition while failing to grow up.

There’s more at the link.  Read it and weep.

I learned from the example of my parents – either or both of whom would have beaten me senseless if I’d behaved as the ‘students’ of the ’70’s and beyond did.  Neither of them earned so much as a school-leaving certificate in the pre-war years of the Great Depression in England.  My father entered the Royal Air Force as a so-called ‘boy apprentice’ in 1936, graduating from the three-year Aircraft Apprentice Scheme course taught by No. 1 School of Technical Training at RAF Halton in 1939 – just in time for World War II.  He had a ‘good’ war, being commissioned in 1940 and ending the conflict as a Squadron Leader (equivalent to a USAF Major).  My mother worked as a shop assistant at John Lewis during the day, and stood watch at night with a bucket of sand, a bucket of water and a stirrup pump, to extinguish German incendiaries dropped on British cities.  The picture below isn’t her, but it illustrates her ‘war work’ for years on end.  Not only the soldiers were on the front lines.

After the war, my parents emigrated to South Africa and began to work at ‘improving’ themselves, in the parlance of the times.  During twelve years of raising a family and studying part-time at night, they each earned the equivalent of a school-leaving certificate, followed by three degrees;  Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate in their respective fields.  They never asked for any favors from anyone;  they paid their own way, worked like dogs, and earned their qualifications the hard way.  While they studied, Dad worked at several jobs (sometimes more than one at the same time) while Mom raised their kids.  They were immensely proud of their academic and life achievements, and had every right and reason to be so.

I followed their example when it came to my own studies.  I’ve written about my experiences during the ‘evil years’ in South Africa, so it won’t surprise you that my studies were somewhat intermittent.  Also, by the time I left high school, my father was preparing to retire and my parents were about to move to another town, so there was no prospect of them paying for my studies.  That didn’t faze me.  I paid my own way (with a little help from them now and again, when they could afford it), and studied part-time, as they had done.  I ended up with four University qualifications, the last being because the good Lord changed my career direction (after I’d already become a company director) and redirected me into the ministry.  Like my parents, I had to learn self-discipline and the need to apply myself.  I don’t think it did me any harm.

I look at many university students today and I wonder what the heck they think they’re doing there.  They certainly don’t seem to be learning anything – rather, they seem to be incessantly whining at life, the universe and everything.  They seem to expect ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ and ‘compassion’ and ‘understanding’ and a bunch of other things that life isn’t exactly noted for handing out like candy.  Here’s a clue, special snowflakes:  life doesn’t owe you anything.  You have to get out there and earn it – and sometimes wrest it from the grasp of a resisting, actively non-cooperative fate!  No-one’s going to give you anything.  You have to get it the hard way.  If you expect anything else, you’re either a fool or a moonbat.

I hope Fred’s young lady, to whom he wrote the words above, learns those lessons before it’s too late.



  1. I graduated college in 1973, so I have had that experience. My major was chemical engineering, and only about a third of those of us who started as freshmen earned that degree. I made it by the skin of my teeth. My daughter graduated from the same university in 2012, and the changes were apparent even to a casual observer. A university education should be a work-hard-play-hard experience, not a play-most-of-the-time romp, which is why we see on an annual basis the surveys that demonstrate that far too many graduates (!) don't know basic history, civics, and communicating in written English, much less any science. Too many times, the experience is one of social interaction, not education. At inflated expense, which is fueled by government-provided loans, which shackle, too often, both students and parents with debt. Almost like it was designed that way.

  2. A slight tangent is that this reflects on the special idiocy of Bernie Sanders and the other pushers of "free college".

    A college degree is valuable – to the extent it sill is valuable – because not everyone can do it. Not everyone can master the work. If everyone has an Associates or Bachelor's degree (depending who's making the campaign speech), it will become like today's High School diploma. You actually see this already in that the only degrees that are getting hired are the ones with strong skills imparted. Not many jobs for Offended Minority Studies degrees.

    If college becomes "14th grade", the perks and higher pay will go to the Master's Degree holders, the Ph.D.s or some degree that doesn't exist yet.

    Meanwhile, the electricians I hired to run 220 in my attic tell me they have such a hard time finding help that they'll pay the tuition for a certificate from the junior college.

  3. Sadly, the impression of college before 1965 is romantic but not realistic. The problems of higher ed are very old. True, perhaps before the 1930s coming to head in the 1960s and early '70s, the schools did try to hold to standards, but the students were only better because just to get to school before the '60s you had to have done some of practical life.

    I've come across the following articles

    The first is a discussion of the preparedness of nationwide applicants to West Point revealed by the new entrance test:
    The Inefficiency of the Public Schools
    Author(s): Charles W. Larned
    Source: The North American Review, Vol. 188, No. 634 (Sep., 1908), pp. 336-346 Published by: University of Northern Iowa
    Stable URL:

    This one is a discussion what university is capable of providing:

    Marks, Percy, "Under Glass", Scribner's Magazine Vol 73, 1923, p 47

    "The idea is, of course, that men are successful because they have gone to college. No idea was ever more absurd. No man is successful because he has managed to pass a certain number of courses and has received a sheepskin which tells the world in Latin, that neither the world nor the graduate can read, that he has successfully completed the work required. If the man is successful, it is because he has the qualities for success in him; the college "education" has merely, speaking in terms' of horticulture, forced those qualities and given him certain intellectual tools with which to work-tools which he could have got without going to college, but not nearly so quickly. So far as anything practical is concerned, a college is simply an intellectual hothouse. For four years the mind of the undergraduate is put "under glass," and a very warm and constant sunshine is poured down upon it. The result is, of course, that his mind blooms earlier than it would in the much cooler intellectual atmosphere of the business world.

    "A man learns more about business in the first six months after his graduation than he does in his whole four years of college. But-and here is the "practical" result of his college work-he learns far more in those six months than if he had not gone to college. He has been trained to learn, and that, to all intents and purposes, is all the training he has received. To say that he has been trained to think is to say essentially that he has been trained to learn, but remember that it is impossible to teach a man to think. The power to think must be inherently his. All that the teacher can do is help him learn to order his thoughts-such as they are. "

    This one discusses the move to control by the "research men" to the detriment of teaching:

    "We are informed by many that education is failing us. And well it may he so, if producing books is eulogized and repaid by advancement, while the efforts to produce men are scoffed at. It has been dinned in our ears that education must save us at the present juncture. To which, if true, I reply that, unless we regain the love and art of teaching, we are lost.

    "The truth is that at present the teacher exists by sufferance only, and stands against the current in the scholarly fraternity-a fact recognized by students as well as by faculty. For the educational field has been preempted by the so-called "research men." Their standards of scholarship have been set up as the only norms."

    The Ban on Teaching by AN Instructor, Scribner’s Magazine, Vol 73, 1923

  4. There's been affirmative action in college admissions for a long time, mostly about who was going to bring money to the college. It used to mostly be rich families getting their kids in. Then it expanded to football players who would cause football fan alumni to donate. Now it's other favored groups who will bring in Federal money.
    And the .gov wants to keep the bubble going as long as it can, since student loans are around 1/3 of the assets on the Federal balance sheet.

  5. At some point reality will reassert itself and it will do so with a vengeance, rendering those with special snowflake degrees instantly superfluous to the actual workings of civilization.

    As long as a society has sufficient surplus to permit the squandering of some that society can survive, even prosper, while doing so. As that surplus becomes less easily maintained, or shrinks – as has been happening for several years and is accelerating now – those dependent upon the surplus will find themselves in very difficult positions. It won't take the proverbial survivalist's apocalypse for that to happen either, simply a moderate economic sea change from the rewarding of bullshit to demanding performance as business achievement becomes paramount. "How do you feel" will be replaced overnight with "I need this job done" and not all will have the capability, nor the attitude, to rise to the occasion.

    This will not be an enjoyable experience for either side; self inflicted wounds rarely are.

  6. "No-one's going to give you anything. You have to get it the hard way."

    They expect to steal what they want, under the "moral cover" of SJW ideology.
    This is going to be their version of asset forfeiture writ large on the working population as a whole.

  7. I began college in the 80's but after a quarter where I neglected to turn in a paper did I leave and never return. I had to work to pay for school and missed an assignment in history. I was called one evening by the TA-teachers assistant and he apologized because he had lost my paper but had the paper my grade was on. He wondered if it would be okay that I did not get my paper returned to me. I said that was fine…upon the end of the quarter I was ashamed at how I accepted the grade more that I was angry at a grade given for an assignment I did not do.

    I have never stopped my own love of learning but I knew then that it was a joke. In the past few years I took some art classes at the local college and I felt like I was in a Twilight episode. I was not permitted to paint anything that was too Native American as this was cultural appropriation. My classes were filled with mostly uneducated young people that expected learning to be catered to their expectations rather than information and knowledge. I haven't taken any more classes and I do paint/draw and create anything I so desire.

    Thank you for this post it is very much how things are.

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