Historically, the primary function of schooling has been to teach the young how to live responsibly and productively in their own society. In our day, the notions of civic, familial, and vocational obligations have been virtually banished from pedagogy. Today’s ethically and morally barren system of education has not only failed to fortify its students against perverse conduct (as is evident in the high rates of crime, AIDS, and drug addiction), but has even joined those tragic blights as a social pathology for which there seems to be no acceptable course of remedy.

It is time to bypass the taboos of the reigning educational orthodoxy and probe some of the now-forbidden chambers of the House of Intellect. Especially promising are the archives of that wisdom which used to inform and guide America’s schools and colleges in their remarkably successful socialization of earlier generations of students. The consideration of just one principle, now jettisoned but previously treasured, will illustrate the value of what has been scrapped.

Until the middle of this century, the educational profession clearly recognized that the character of the educational service was determined as much by the source of funding as by the amount of money supplied. Above all, there was an aversion to having the federal government pay for America’s schooling.

In March 1945 the American Council on Education and the National Education Association issued a joint bulletin of alarm to the American people. The following are the introductory paragraphs from that declaration.

The first purpose of this document is to warn the American people of an insidious and ominous trend in the control and management of education in the United States.


Its second purpose is to propose policies and procedures by which citizens may resist this dangerous trend.

For more than a quarter of a century and especially during the last decade, education in the United States, like a ship caught in a powerful tide, has drifted ever further into the dangerous waters of Federal control and domination.

This drift has continued at an accelerated rate during the war. Present signs indicate that unless it is sharply checked by an alert citizenry, it will continue even more rapidly after the war.

It is the deliberate and reasoned judgment of the two educational commissions who join in the appeal which this document makes to the people of the United States that the trend toward the Federalizing of education is one of the most dangerous on the current scene.

The prediction was correct. An exceedingly generous program of educational benefits for the veterans was enacted and a postwar campaign was mounted to have the federal government provide general funding for education. President Truman became increasingly forceful in his advocacy of the educational subsidy bills introduced in 1948 and 1949, but he met his match in that legislative contest. Dr. Donald Cowling, the president emeritus of Carleton College, mobilized and coordinated a team of professors and university administrators, lawyers, clergy, and other prominent citizens who patiently and relentlessly explained to the Congress the damage which federal funding would do to the educational process. Their views prevailed.

It is instructive to review the arguments they offered. A particularly potent statement used in their campaign was taken from the annual report President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University made in 1921 to his Board of Trustees.

It is now proposed to bureaucratize and to bring into conformity the educational system of the whole United States, while making the most solemn assurance that nothing of the kind is intended. The glory and successes of education in the United States are due to its freedom, to its unevenness, to its reflection of the needs and ambitions and capacities of local communities, and to its being kept in close and constant touch with the people themselves. . . .


A school system that grows naturally in response to the needs and ambitions of a hundred thousand different localities, will be a better school system than any which can be imposed upon those localities by the aid of grants of public money from the federal treasury, accompanied by federal regulations, federal inspectors, federal reports, and federal uniformities.

This concern that the local community retain its sense of primary responsibility for the performance of the educational program was repeatedly stressed by the anti-federal aid spokesmen of the 1940’s. Dr. W.C. Coffey, president emeritus of the University of Minnesota, wrote, “More than any other activity education calls for adaptation to local needs, and a sense of local responsibility for its successful prosecution. If the responsibility is placed elsewhere, democracy is unavoidably weakened at the grass roots.”

Brown University’s President Wriston wrote of the baleful impact which existing federal subsidies had already had upon vocational education-under the Smith-Hughes Act. “The Hoover Commission showed one effect of subsidies had been to distort the structure of State departments of education and strongly to overbalance them in the matter of vocational education. It reported that ‘Federal activities have discouraged rather than encouraged the assumption of educational leadership and initiative by State educational agencies. . . . Of all the aspects of our education, the one which by common consent is in the least satisfactory repute is vocational education. The net adverse effect of Federal subsidy upon State and local responsibility did not appear immediately, but Federal dominance is an indirect and long-term consequence.”

The Nobel laureate in physics, Robert A. Millikan, noted that federal funding not only undermines local control, it also corrupts the central government. “Local self-government in education is one of our most priceless American heritages. . . . It is the great safeguard against the malignant disease politely called patronage, better called political corruption, which is the chief device through which the party in power in Washington can, and to no small extent already does, seek to indoctrinate the public in the interests of the maintenance of its own power.”

The principle of avoiding federal aid survived the Truman years and held firm until Sputnik was sent aloft on October 4, 1957. It is hard for people who did not live in the pre-satellite era to imagine the astonishment, awe, and fear which that first Russian orbiter inspired. The general public was easily persuaded that the Soviet Union was light-years ahead of the United States in technical and military knowledge. The solid resistance to federal involvement in educational funding was shattered by the advent of the space age. The clamor for federal action gave rise to crash programs in science, research, and foreign languages packaged with the highly palatable designation of the National Defense Education Act. The Act was passed; the old wisdom was jettisoned.

By 1961, the large outpouring of federal dollars was generally held to be so beneficial that further expansion of the federal role in educational support didn’t need the justification of national defense. The Kennedy administration introduced bills to provide construction funds for college campuses and scholarship monies for students. Most of the testimony in the hearings on this legislation was favorable, but a corporal’s guard of 29 private college presidents, hoping to repeat the success of the Cowling group, urged the Congress to vote down H.R. 8900 and S. 1241.

Although their effort received little more than polite inattention from the legislators, the arguments that were presented then, and in further statements of concern over the next two years, were based on observations of the damaging impact the prodigious infusion of Washington dollars was already having upon the educational system.

The following are passages from the initial statement from the 29 presidents to the Congress.

Now the federal government proposes to advance from the provision of assistance in particular fields to a general outlay for all institutions of higher education in their building programs and in their scholarship funds. This transition from the particular to the general is a drastic change of national policy, and should not be undertaken without the most thorough evaluation of the consequences. We believe the destructive results, will far outweigh the benefits. . . .


At the present time the variety of sources of funds for colleges and universities reenforce the diversity of educational programs and educational philosophies among the various institutions. . . . It is generally agreed that the diversity of our educational institutions is a principal cause not only of the advanced state of educational services in the United States, but also of the vitality and success of our economy, our culture, and our political system. . . .

A provision of one bill, now before Congress, for instance, would make construction funds available to religious institutions, provided they are not spent for facilities in which religious activities take place. If enacted, this provision would make it necessary for any institution which begins the first morning class with prayer to change its program in order to qualify for the grants. . . .

As anticipated by those college presidents, religion was a casualty of the ever-growing dependency of American education upon the federal government. Given the separation of church and state, church had to move out as increasingly state moved in to the campuses. For example, the Catholic universities that had boards of trustees primarily composed of clergy were obliged to reconstitute those boards so that laymen were in the majority. At the precollege level, textbooks have been drained of almost all meaningful references to religion, as revealed in the studies of Professor Paul Vitz. The full consequences of relegating religion to the periphery of the schooling process will not be known for some time, but one senses that the “Me Generation” is a natural product of an acculturation devoid of the Ten Commandments and other traditional religious standards of virtuous behavior.

Another consequence of federal funding is the hastened and reenforced withdrawal of academic institutions from a concern with standards of individual behavior. In 1962, Harvard’s President Pusey noted in his annual report that the enormous influx of new. faculty members hired to conduct federally-funded research was having an unanticipated and disquieting impact upon the university. It seems that the new faculty members had become so numerous that they could outvote the professors who were experienced in, and wise about, the purposes, mores, virtues, and traditions of the university.

President Pusey may have foreseen that the ancient purposes of education would not survive the ultimate dominance of research on the campuses. In America until well into the 20th century, education was expected to train each new generation in the ideals of American society and to teach the young the obligations they must accept and the taboos they must observe so that those ideals could prevail. Gordon Chalmers, in summarizing his admirable volume of educational philosophy. The Republic and the Person, wrote that the object of education is moral maturity. That book, published not long before Sputnik, was widely acclaimed.

If students are to be imbued with these ideals, they must be convinced that certain things are good and contrary things are bad. Such a concept is alien, even anathema, to the mind fixed on research, which necessarily and wisely is conducted on the assumption that all points of view must be considered. Research, by its very nature, must be inclusive in its conduct. Education, if it is to socialize and acculturate the young, cannot accept the equal validity of all points of view. An ideal by definition is a concept of what is good.

It will be seen that the principle governing research has to a great extent supplanted the principle of educating for moral maturity. The consequence is a society that year by year is converting itself into a moral wasteland. Crime, AIDS, drug addiction, and other social pathologies multiply because of the moral paralysis created by the research viewpoint. Our society cannot bring itself to say to the user of illegal drugs, “That’s a bad thing. You mustn’t do it, and if you do, you will be punished.” So we spend our effort finding ways to solve the problem indirectly by going after the traffickers of drugs. There must be no condemnation of the user. Research and education can coexist and provide mutual support on the same campus, but only if the different principles that apply to those two functions are understood, protected, and kept operative.

Alexis de Tocqueville concluded his Democracy in America with a prediction and a set of options. “The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst. But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.” The conversion of American education from a locally-controlled to a federally-dependent system has served to advance the thrust of equality in America, which in some respects has been beneficial. But this change has been harmful to the behavior of the citizens toward one another and to the viability of the institutions of society, for it has been aimed at the lowest common denominator of what is regarded as acceptable behavior.

Earlier generations of professional educators insisted that the control of education be lodged with the locality where, as with the family, the higher notions of what is good and right can be applied in the decisions regarding the young. It is, I believe, unlikely that religion would be excluded from education in the United States and homosexual safe sex would be taught in the classrooms if parents were voting on those matters.

Forty-four years ago the National Education Association and the American Council on Education warned the people against federally-funded schools and colleges. That admonition was eventually discarded in favor of what were judged to be considerations of larger import. This may have been a blunder. As America tries to redeem its system of schooling from the grossly unsatisfactory state into which it has fallen, the wisdom of the people who in earlier generations conducted a far more satisfactory program of education is worthy of careful study.