The Day the Purpose of College Changed, by Dan Berrett

After February 28, 1967, the main reason to go was to get a job

If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized, then it is nothing.

The newly elected Gov. Ronald Reagan confronted student protesters in Sacramento just weeks before dismissing “intellectual luxuries.” (Bettmann, Corbis, AP Images)
The newly elected Gov. Ronald Reagan confronted student protesters in Sacramento just weeks before dismissing “intellectual luxuries.” (Bettmann, Corbis, AP Images)

The governor had bad news: The state budget was in crisis, and everyone needed to tighten their belts.

High taxes threatened “economic ruin,” said the newly elected Ronald Reagan. Welfare stood to be curbed, the highway patrol had fat to trim. Everything would be pared down; he’d start with his own office.

California still boasted a system of public higher education that was the envy of the world. And on February 28, 1967, a month into his term, the Republican governor assured people that he wouldn’t do anything to harm it. “But,” he added, “we do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without,” for a little while at least.

“Governor,” a reporter asked, “what is an intellectual luxury?”

Reagan described a four-credit course at the University of California at Davis on organizing demonstrations. “I figure that carrying a picket sign is sort of like, oh, a lot of things you pick up naturally,” he said, “like learning how to swim by falling off the end of a dock.”

Whole academic programs in California and across the country he found similarly suspect. Taxpayers, he said, shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.”

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Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and educational quality. Follow him on Twitter @danberrett, or write to him at dan.berrett@chronicle.com.
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