Eisenhower's warning about Higher Education

Most people recall Eisenhower's Farewell Address as being about the Military-Industrial Complex, but it was also a critique of higher education.
Most people recall Eisenhower's Farewell Address as being about the Military-Industrial Complex, but it was also a critique of higher education. Before becoming President of the United States, Eisenhower was the president of Columbia University.

His address was prescient. Many of the things he cautioned about have come to pass. He warned: "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded." His advice was ignored. In the late 1960's, federal government funding was as high as 73% of all research funding. It has paled somewhat since then, as industry has gotten more involved, and that itself may be just as questionable. He wrote, "each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration; the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy."

Eisenhower wrote: "It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system – ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society." He lamented that "a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity," and said to, "be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

Naturally, he also warned about greed and short-sighted thinking: "that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth."

The military-industrial complex is driven in part by greed. It is a jobs program for the military-industrial elite, which of course needs an enemy to justify its existence. Our foreign diplomacy and international trade policies both antagonize the people of the world. While we claim to be a people that love freedom and liberty, our actions are often just the opposite. The 'short-sighted' Nixon-Kissinger blueprint for the Mideast set the world on fire. The oil embargo by OPEC occurred before Nixon left office. The 'shock' was a price increase from $3 to $12 per barrel. Having Kissinger lead the 9/11 Commission was like having the fox investigate a chicken coop massacre.

Eisenhower stated "together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose." That was hardly a green light for the disposing of democratically elected leaders as the CIA was prone to do. Eisenhower recognized that the Cold War was between our SOB's and theirs in client states, but he never lost sight that peace and prosperity for all peoples was the goal. The genius of America is not to be locked in a gated community, nor was it the goal of Karl Marx for workers to hide behind a wall. A corporate overlord can be just as merciless as a monarchial one, as the global sweatshop attests. Nobody should be lording over anyone. We produce and consume for each other's enjoyment and vitality. The sprawling divide of inside and outside, rich and poor, privileged and exploited, is not our "political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."

However, I would argue that the intellectual and spiritual failure of the universities was far more insidious than the displacement of "the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop." Nobody in America has time anymore. We work too hard, play too hard, compete too hard, embrace too many fears and fill the landfills far too rapidly. We have defined success incorrectly. We have a glut of everything. We graduate too many people in every profession, and we have created a society where there is not enough time, money, leisure or understanding. Our partisan Congress is just the tip of the iceberg of systemic malfeasance. We can lay much of the burden at the feet of higher education, because they are the intellectual leadership the nation. No, not in the faculty, though they certainly deserve their own lion's share of blame, but on the administration of higher education. Yes, people like Eisenhower himself, and the Board of Trustees. After all, they are the ones that make the big decisions.

It was in higher education where hedge funds were invented. College administrators followed the suggestions of a faculty member and used endowment funds to play the stock market in a bold new way. When I was in college, there were no 'trading floors' on campus. Today, almost every school with an (alleged) first-class business school has one. The next generation are indoctrinated into the indifference and absurdity that 2+2=5. We have erected a system of financial alchemy. The mathematical and computer science departments are foot soldiers in 'growing the endowment,' while blithely ignoring the trillion dollars of debt that children are under. The cost of being taught falsehoods is very high. It is critically important that we understand where money comes from is just as important as where it goes. That is what a balanced view requires. Gain alone cannot be a blanket justification.

Pensions for workers were abandoned for everyone but public employees, but even their money is fully invested in Wall Street. Why? So we can make the numbers bigger and bigger, and in so doing, make others poorer and poorer? Zero is still a fixed point. As the National Debt grows to keep pace with private hoards of tax-exempt income, the collusion within the military-industrial complex becomes more pronounced. Everyone is financially afraid of numbers. Eisenhower called communism "a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method." Presumably the same could be said of militant Islam, but isn't the real problem the imperialistic habits of empires? Did we not make the same complaints about the British Empire when we were its subjects? Was the Roman Empire any different? Might is not right. It never has been and never will be. Eisenhower wrote: "a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield." When the official policy is to not negotiate with terrorism, (or across party lines) then we leave war as the only possible alternative. Is this really the face of reasonable men? It is irrational fear and blind pride, which can spread like a wildfire as easily as truth and justice. Our history of violence is no more righteous than our enemies. Our excuses no more reasonable or true. The angry and the weak need a place at the table of decision-making. Democracy can only work if we have faith in the process and the inherent goodness of one another. All humans have the same aspirations, and make the same mistakes. Higher education should be leading us to the solutions, not into the problems.

Eisenhower wrote: "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." I think we are long past the 'potential' stage when children graduate from high school and are immediately faced with a choice of debt or a career. and uncertain employment or subsistence no matter what they choose. It is a waste of human resources to treat the next generation this way. We have already witnessed the rise of gangs, an explosion of substance abuse and the widespread abuse of power and self-dealing. But worst of all is the militarization of society. "We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations." Post 9/11, the militarization has spread to all areas of society. Even our classrooms are a battleground of paranoia. The ivory tower casts a long shadow. If we have lost balance, then it is not hard to figure out the how and why. As Eisenhower wrote: "We should take nothing for granted." We should demand that endowments be disbursed, and the children freed from debt as a first step. Many more steps will need to follow before we are truly free.
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