I entered Michigan State University in September 1973, near the peak of the post-baby-boom expansion of American public universities. I turned eighteen that November.
What else happened in 1973? The draft was suspended. The Paris Peace Accords officially ended the Vietnam War, a non-victory that became a defeat two years later. The Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision. In a DC parking garage, ‘Deep Throat’ met Bob Woodward for the last time to leak information on the 1972 Watergate break-in and its cover-up by President Richard Nixon and his staff.
In October 1973, OPEC imposed an oil embargo, quadrupling oil prices and feeding the ‘Great Inflation’ that had started in the mid-60a. In the mid-70s, smaller, more fuel-efficient cars came to the US, and ‘Made in Japan’ turned from a stamp of cheapness into a predicate of quality that rivalled Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, and American Motors – symbols of American prosperity.
It was the beginning of the end of American ascendancy after World War II, the three decades when the U.S. military-industrial complex grew and reigned worldwide.
I came of age right at the end of the America that Donald Trump says he wants back, which imagined itself dominant, unrivalled, undefeated, white and Christian, and without official malfeasance.
(Of course, the 1950s and 1960s had actually been full of turmoil, internal divisions, and misadventures abroad. Here's a shorthand reminder: Korea, McCarthy, Berlin, Cuba, Dallas, Selma, Gulf of Tonkin, Watts, Detroit, MLK Jr, RFK, Chicago 1968.)
But for a time, in post-greatness America, opportunities for people beyond the economic and social elites remained a reality. Universities had grown as the GI Bill and good jobs paved the way to a college education for far more Americans than before World War II. Americans still thought educating individuals was a social good, and states generously subsidized college education.
I benefitted from these circumstances, first as a student and later as a professor. Tuition was cheap, and I could indulge in the life of the mind, the Bildung - mental self-cultivation - that I was studying in my German courses. This tradition of the German-speaking educated middle classes also influenced American higher education, not least when German and Austrian intellectuals fled the Third Reich, many of them the educated Jews who had fully embraced Bildung as their path into Central European society.
In the US, Bildung translated into ‘liberal arts’. Of course, a classic question about liberal-arts majors was (and still is): ‘What are you going to do with that?’ When I graduated, MSU President Clifton Wharton invited Honors College students to a reception at his house. He shook my hand and asked what I’d majored in. When I told him German, he gave me a look that said, ‘I thought honors students were supposed to be smart.’
Notwithstanding this smirk, I went on to the University of Michigan, earned a Ph.D., and got a one-year job at the University of Minnesota. In 1986 (Challenger disaster and Chernobyl) I came to Bowling Green State University, where I got tenure in 1993 (Clinton takes office) and a second promotion in 2002 (months after 9/11), and retired early in 2015 (Trump announces his candidacy).
Despite modest origins, I had risen to join the elite. Of course, a middle-sized Midwestern university is not the elite elite, it’s more like the elite lite. We of the elite lite filled the ranks of university and college instructors who helped educate the growing middle class.
I had grown up in a neighbourhood with members of the new middle class, industrial and service workers, mostly not college-educated. My father had a white-collar job at a blue-collar wage. He never finished college. For most of his career (which I doubt he saw as a career) he was a copy editor at a major newspaper.
There were books in our house, and I was good at school. When I decided on my career, I continued doing what I liked and knew I could succeed at. I stayed in school for about forty years. (One reason I retired early, at 59.5, was because I finally wanted to see what it was like not to go to school.)
Neither of my parents, who didn’t finish college, could give me much guidance on higher education. When I was applying to graduate schools, I hardly knew what a professor was. Still, my mentor Kurt Schild told me I could go to Harvard – the elite elite. ‘You have the calibre’, he said.
Calibre is necessary, but you also need muzzle velocity.
I had the talent to be a high-powered scholar, but I hadn’t grown up among the elites, and I didn’t have fierce ambition. You need at least one of these to join (or continue in) the elite elite.
With my background, just wanting to be a professor was pretty adventurous, and it came with a big dose of bluish-collar caution: Above all, I needed to make a living. Getting a job was not a path to a career. Having a career was a path to a job.
We of the elite lite may have degrees from elite-elite schools, but we work at state universities and liberal-arts colleges. Many of us have risen from non-elite backgrounds to do advanced research and give young people the same opportunities we enjoyed.
There is less pressure to publish than at elite-elite institutions, but full participation in our research fields is expected. Teaching is just as important as the scholarship that informs it. The elite lite has produced some great college teachers, scholars who devote time and energy to their intellectual heirs, to the educated citizenry of the future.
During my years as a professor, public commitment to higher education eroded. Between 1985 and 2008, there was a steady decrease in state subsidies, which became a sharp drop after the crash of 2008. In the ‘lost decade’ since then, those cuts have not been compensated for.
This gradual defunding meant higher costs to students, who increasingly have to go into debt. Higher education looked less and less like a good deal, and more like a scam.
At the same time, good old American anti-intellectualism has been growing again. College students are often seen as coddled, naive, and misguided, and if they decide that Bildung is a value, they are mocked (against empirical evidence) for thinking that a degree in English or philosophy could get you a job.
Financial strictures also mean fewer tenured professors. Most college classes are taught by part-time temporary faculty, who often work at several institutions at the same time. More and more, the elite elite works directly for the 1% at elite-elite institutions, while the elite lite clings to precarious jobs that pay less than their grandfathers' assembly-line work.
With the loss of attractive jobs and Ph.D. programs in the liberal arts, the blending of egalitarianism and intellectual vision – Bildung for everybody – will go away. The elite lite will die off, or at least no longer be elite. And public higher education will simply be lite.