This week, as political rhetoric, misinformation, and political cowardice climb to previously unimagined heights, it might be useful to step back and inspect the cowardice of an earlier, simpler era. In the mid-fifties, with Eisenhower in the White House and Republicans in Congress, they ended the GI Bill. It expired on Jun 30, 1956.
A few of you may be old enough to remember this program from personal experience, and most of you will have read about it. This is the bill which allowed millions of working class veterans to obtain a college education. This one government program doubled the percent of the population with college degrees, and the engineers, scientists, and teachers produced by this bill helped fuel the post war boom of the 50s and 60s. We beat the Soviets in the space race with GI bill engineers. The sheer economic benefit of this program per tax dollar spent far exceeded anyone’s expectations. It was the most efficient investment of tax dollars in our history. Yet in 1956, they quickly and quietly ended it.
For me, this was particularly disastrous. All through high school, I had expected to go into the service for two years and then spend four years in college, just as my brother had done. But the program ended in June of ’56, and I did not graduate till June of ’57. Deprived of this chance at an education, I really had no “plan B.” My father was a packing house worker with four children, and we were a one income family, as my mother stayed at home caring for my youngest brother, who was totally disabled from polio. Though we never lacked the necessities, there was no money whatsoever for higher education.
I began working my way through college by working a semester, then attending school for a semester. I was physics major with a minor in economics, and my goal was to become a high school science teacher or an engineer. By the time I had two years of college, I was twenty-two, the age at which people were then being drafted. So when I quit school to take another job, I got a letter from my draft board. My country’s government not only failed to assist me in obtaining an education, but by ending the GI Bill without ending the draft, they actively prevented me from doing it on my own.
I enlisted for three years to avoid being drafted for two years, because by serving an extra year, I qualified to attend a better school and serve in some kind of technical capacity. I felt it was better to be a technician for three years than a ground-pounder for two. When I got out of the Army, I was an electronics technician, and was about 26 years old. There was still no GI Bill, and I had no more money than when I enlisted. To re-enter college would mean going back to working every other semester, meaning it would take till I was 30 just to get a BA, which was a little absurd. I took the training which the Army had given me and became an industrial electrician. Mainly because of my Army experience, I was able to become an IBEW journeyman without serving an apprenticeship. They finally re-instituted the GI Bill in 1968, and made it retroactive to August ’64, so I would have been covered. But by that time, the life choices I had made in another direction were pretty irrevocable.
I made a better wage as a skilled building tradesman than I would have ever made as a high school science teacher. And I was treated with more respect, and had a more interesting and creative job than I would have had as an engineer. (I draw these comparisons advisedly—I worked with engineers for forty years, and have spent forty years married to a teacher.) But the abrupt ending of the GI Bill still pulled the rug out from under me, and I have always resented it bitterly, even though this action did not deprive me of a remunerative, rewarding, and socially useful career. I resented it because I understood why they did it.
By the mid-fifties, the more affluent middle classes figured out that if the GI Bill were to continue indefinitely, we would reach a point where having a BA or BS did not automatically guarantee a comfortable white collar job. Families who had always been able to afford college realized that, at some point, their kids would have to compete with college educated blue-collar kids. As my daughter once remarked, “No one so distrusts meritocracy as the affluent parent of a mediocre child.” So these privileged families, mostly a Republican constituency, began writing to their congressmen, demanding that we stop educating “those factory workers’ kids.” And Congress obliged. It’s easy to see why the Republicans in Congress would do such a thing. Screwing the working class is their “raison d’être”. But why would the Democrats quietly go along with it? Even with a Republican majority in both houses (and I don’t remember for certain if there was), there would surely have been enough Democrats in the Senate to mount a filibuster, at least for long enough to make the public aware of what was happening. While the majority of Republicans may have approved of this change, the majority of American workers did not. If you were a blue collar parent then, the GI Bill was your only hope that any of your children would ever see the inside of a college classroom. The Democrats could have easily stopped this, but they let it quietly slip through. Why? Probably because these congressional Democrats knew that their own kids would be in college with or without government help—and they weren’t very happy to see their kids competing with factory workers’ kids either. It was the most outrageous sellout of the working class in my lifetime—and it was a bi-partisan sellout.
I have been bitter about this for 50 years, but no more. After five decades of re-evaluation, I have decided that although the decision to end the GI Bill was undertaken for the most base and cowardly of reasons, the result may have been less disastrous than the alternative. Untill now, I had assumed that the result of continuing the GI Bill education benefit would merely be a little increased competition for the good jobs that would accrue to those with college degrees. But I now believe that this is a little naïve. What would really have happened is that there would have been no good jobs—none whatsoever. With an extreme oversupply of baccalaureate applicants for every professional position, wages for teachers would have declined to the minimum wage, and the same would have been true for engineers, scientists, and white collar professionals of all sorts. We can be sure that this would have been the outcome, because that is precisely what is starting to happen right now. According to an online article by Debra Leigh Scott, How the American University Was Killed, in Five Easy Steps, two thirds of all college classes are now taught by adjunct instructors, mostly PhDs, who work full time, often 80 hours a week, for wages as low as $20,000 a year. The PhD job market has become a train wreck. And a large and growing percentage of those with baccalaureate degrees now accept low wage jobs that could easily be done by high school graduates, yet they have a $50,000 student loan debt. But the train wreck which we are now having would have begun 50 years ago if they had continued the GI bill. Although it may have been necessary to artificially restrict access to higher education, I still think that the way they went about it was a bit tacky. It was as though we were trying to get seats aboard a lifeboat. For ten years, they let anyone on board who was a veteran. But when the supply of lifeboats started to run out, they said, “Hold it. First class passengers only—steerage to the rear.” As a member of the steerage class who spent a few years clinging to a piece of flotsam, I have spent my life thinking how comfortable it might have been to be in the life boat. I now know that if they had let me on board—they would also have let millions of others on board—and the damn boat would have sunk. It’s stupid to regret having missed a chance to drown.
Is it preferable to be having this train wreck in the professional market happen now, instead of 50 years ago? I believe that it is. Because, although the percentage of jobs which actually require a college education is less than the percentage of people we now send to college, it is still about twice the percentage that required these skills in 1962. So while there are millions who do not ever use their college specific skills on the job, there are millions more who do.
The real problem is that we still sell higher education as job training. One of my last electrical apprentices was a philosophy graduate. He did not regret having spent four years as a philosophy major. He explained that a real education must teach you how to make a living—and also how to make a life. His college studies had taught him how to make a life, and now his apprenticeship would teach him how to make a living. That was 15 years ago. Since then, he has made a pretty good living—and a very good life. And at no point have I ever regretted any of the time I spent in college, even though none of it was really a requirement for the electrical trade. (In fact, when I applied for membership to an IBEW local union, I deliberately neglected to mention that I had ever attended college, for fear that there might be, in the minds of some members, an active discrimination against college trained people.) But while the physics was obviously useful to me in the trade, what I valued most was the humanities, the macro-economics, and the sociology.
During the 1980s, Iowa was hit by a severe depression that lasted the whole decade. This was called The Farm Crisis of the 80s, and it wrecked all sectors of the regional economy. The number of IBEW electricians with full time jobs in Waterloo went from 300 to half a dozen. And since the rest of the country was having a recession, although much less severe, there was really no place to go where an out of town job seeker would have a chance at a job. Nearly half the marriages among local union members ended in divorce, and two members committed suicide. The stress on families was severe, both financially, and emotionally. At that time, the Reagan administration was claiming that if you did not have a job, it was your own fault—you just weren’t trying hard enough. This was, of course, a cruel hoax, but many believed it—which only increased their suffering and desperation. We all were destroyed financially—but not all of us were destroyed emotionally. The handful of us who had been exposed, even briefly, to a college liberal arts curriculum rejected the Reagan hoax for the nonsense that it was. We understood enough macro-economics enough to see that our plight was due entirely to a regional depression which we did not cause and could not cure. We knew that our only option was to be patient, hunker down, and wait it out--and above all, not to begin blaming ourselves. We lost ten of what should have been the most productive years of our lives—but we never lost our self respect. No matter what you do for a living, a liberal arts experience broadens your perspective in ways that can give you a better life. I have written more in these pages on this subject. You may wish to read, Should Education be Sold as Job Training?
I have never been to a dog track, but I have been told that the pack of dogs runs in pursuit of a mechanical rabbit which runs along a track and which is operated to stay just ahead of the dogs—close enough so that the dogs think they are going to catch it—but not close enough so that there is any chance that they actually do. I have also been told, by a friend who raised racing dogs, that is very important that the dogs never catch the phony rabbit. Because if any of them ever do, and they find out that the “rabbit” is just a bunch of gears and springs covered with a little rabbit fur, they won’t ever chase it again. For four generations, Americans have been struggling to get as much education as possible, in the belief that if they could ever get the right amount, the elusive rabbit of a higher socio-economic status would be theirs. And until now, enough have actually achieved this goal to keep the others interested. But the pack of hounds is closing in on the phony rabbit quickly, and if they catch it, the racetrack of higher education will be deserted for a generation. I think it’s time people be given a better rabbit to chase—a better reason to run round the track of higher education.