Higher Education

Higher education is a mission–not an excuse

March 1, 2017

Trent England

By Trent England

Thomas Jefferson ignored the presidency when he wrote his epitaph. Instead, he chose to be remembered as author of the Declaration of Independence and Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom and as “father of the University of Virginia.” Creating the university mattered so much to him because Jefferson believed education is necessary for the survival of individual freedom and democratic government.

Jefferson was not alone. Rabble-rousing revolutionary Sam Adams wrote, “If Virtue & Knowledge are diffused among the People, they will never be enslav’d. This will be their great Security.” George Washington, in his Farewell Address, called for “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” John Adams advocated government spending “for the liberal education of youth.”

Many of these quotes are tossed around in debates about education policy, usually about spending. Too often, however, our debates miss the point the American Founders were trying to make. Public education is important, probably essential, to the success of our state and nation. But public education is a mission.

To put it another way, public education is not a building, not a law, not even an institution. Public education is not a jobs program, though a person’s job is understandably very important to him or her. Public education is also not daycare or a substitute for intact families, churches, and the other “little platoons” that characterize a thriving society. It is not a way to get lazy teenagers to finally move out.

The mission of public education is to create an educated public, a people capable of self-government. Really, this means two different kinds of education. One is for everyone, the kind of education that produces citizens. The other is for those who might be chosen by their fellow citizens to lead, the education of statesmen. This was Jefferson’s purpose in founding a university.

Are our public colleges and universities today fulfilling this mission? Do they turn out productive citizens and future statesmen?

Consider Oklahoma’s largest state university. Last year, OU paid $40,000 to rapper YG—whose lyrics celebrate violent crime, casual sex, drug abuse, and racial stereotypes—to perform on campus. Seemingly immune to irony, this year administrators spent thousands of dollars on a 24-hour tip line to report “incidents or concerns” about “campus climate and bias.” This investment in political correctness seems to be working—in November a person handing out gospel tracts at OU reportedly generated multiple calls to campus police.

How do students at OU actually fare? Many do great, of course, but a third never graduate. Those who make it average nearly $20,000 in student debt. A few will enjoy a semester in Italy, but the vast majority of students will benefit not at all from the university’s $20 million Tuscan villa. The same is true of many fabulously expensive buildings in Norman. The university’s website brags about new on-campus apartments: “From the luxurious pools and hot tubs, to the putting green ... OU Traditions Square is a great place to call home.”

Citizens and legislators should push back against political correctness and financial extravagance at OU and other state universities and colleges, but not because higher education is unimportant. It’s just the opposite. The mission of higher education is too important to let it be an excuse for overpaid administrators to feather their own nests.

Thomas Jefferson’s vision of higher learning enlivened by the spirit of free enquiry is hardly served by either vulgar rappers or bias hotlines. The legislature should take higher education seriously by holding our institutions accountable to the mission of creating an educated public.

Trent England serves as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he also is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for the Advancement of Liberty and directs the Center for the Constitution & Freedom and the Save Our States project. He also hosts a radio program, The Trent England Show, from 7 to 9 a.m. every weekday on Oklahoma’s AM 1640, “The Eagle.”