THE POLITICS OF THE ACADEME
It is a perfectly reasonable criticism of Ronald Reagan that he does not entirely understand the influence of the academic establishment. Not very many politicians do, and it is not enough merely to tell them that that influence exists. Barry Goldwater was scandalously late in harnessing what academic support was available to him for the asking. Richard Nixon’s cheering squad always sounded rather like William Yandell Elliot plus the deans of the schools of business administration of midwestern Baptist colleges. Actually, there is a great deal of potential support available to a right-bent public figure, but he must know how to discharge the correct vibrations to shake it out, and Governor Reagan didn’t know how to do that in January 1967, and does not know — and here is his most baffling dereliction of the moment — how to do so even now. It isn’t really all that difficult. The supporters, as I say, are there: one has only to meditate on the silent vote against Clark Kerr among the individual university campuses in California who for years have deeply resented his importunate ways; and there are the others who recoil against the anti-intellectualist spirit of the Berkeley disorders, and even against the antipersonalist impulses of macro-education.
But those folk need to be approached in just the right way, and it may be the single lesson — he gives signs of mastering almost all of the others — that Governor Reagan has not learned. So that when simultaneously Reagan voted with the majority to dismiss Kerr, and came out (via a subordinate who spoke out ahead of schedule) in favor of uniform reductions (10 percent) in state spending, and in favor of charging tuition at the University of California and the state colleges, all the educators felt the tug of class solidarity that Karl Marx, Eugene Debs, and James Hoffa never succeeded in eliciting from the proletarian classes. It was a field day for the professors and the students, who delightedly burned their governor in effigy. The canny and brilliant Jesse Unruh, lord of all he diminishingly surveys in the evenly-divided state Assembly, quickly took his advantage. Only months before, because he had seen the necessity to deplore the excesses at the Berkeley campus, he, too, had been burned in effigy; but now, in gratitude for his scornful resistance of the governor’s position that students should contribute to the cost of their own education, the placardists bore signs: “JESSE SAVES.” The speaker was vastly amused, and vastly instructed: He knows, he knows, the strength of the Harvard vote.
And then Governor Reagan made probably the principal verbal faux pas of his career, a remark to the effect that the state of California has no business “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” The difference, Mark Twain reminded us, between the right word and almost the right word, “is the difference between lightning and lightning-bug.” Intellectual curiosity is a very good thing; intellectual frivolity is not. When asked to document his case against educational excesses Governor Reagan brightly observed that he did not see why the state should need to support courses in “how to burn the governor in effigy.” An amusing response, the kind of riposte that an Adlai Stevenson or John F. Kennedy would make with pleasure and profit. But Ronald Reagan needs to remember that he is a Republican and a conservative, and does not have the ordinary man’s license to exaggerate. In fact, industrious reporters discovered, the course in question was being offered by an organization adjacent to the state university, which teaches the theory of nonviolent resistance; and though to be sure the university was extending credit to students who took the course, it was technically untrue to say that the taxpayers were spending money to finance the burning of their governor in effigy. Just a little research would have armed the governor with copious examples of the abuse of education. It can be maintained (and is, by some people) that all life is an education; in which case, as a matter of logic, one automatically loses any argument to the effect that training in this or that is a waste of money. But Reagan could have split the university community and got going a very useful debate by asking whether in fact all of the gentlemen and scholars in the university system were prepared to defend the notion that courses in home economics and fly fishing and hotel hygiene and life adjustment are a part of the life of the mind to the advancement of which the voters of California are dedicated.
And then, too, Reagan should raise the question: Granted the infinite desirability of more and more education, what are the practical limits that even an idealistic community should observe? During the past decade, enrollment in California state colleges is up 397 percent, operating costs are up 260 percent, capital expenditures are up 260 percent — whereas population and hence the ability to pay is up only 39 percent. Question: How much further? Here is a very serious question, which Governor Reagan has an excellent opportunity to probe. The society would be ideal in which everyone with a velleity to become a doctor of philosophy could proceed to stroll through the years of his early manhood in order to become one, at no expense to himself. But — as Professor Ernest van den Haag of New York University tartly pointed out a few years ago — isn’t it a fact that the figures show that professors will earn more money than plumbers and taxi drivers, and that therefore to tax plumbers and taxi drivers to subsidize the education of professors is a form of regressive taxation, and therefore antiliberal, by a definition with which both Mr. Champion and
Mr. Kopkind could agree?