John Brademas

Has Education Failed … Or Have We?

VTR Date: March 26, 1988

Guest: Brademas, John


TITLE: Has Education Failed…Or Have We?
VTR: 3/26/88

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is no stranger to this table, either. John Brademas, president of America’s largest private university, New York University, was known as “Mr. Education” when for twenty-two years he so well represented the third district of Indiana in the Congress of the United States. On THE OPEN MIND, he and I have often discussed the politics of education, the title, too, of a recent Brademas book. And, given his profoundly important role in creating most of this nation’s major federal legislation relating to education, the arts, and humanities in the years of our times, we’re not likely today to roam very far from politics, which is, after all, the art of the possible…and Dr. Brademas is so skilled at making what’s possible into what is.

But if here on THE OPEN MIND some years ago, even before he took office as President of NYU, my guest and I found what he subtitles his recent book — Conflict and Consensus on Capital Hill – to be the key to any discussion of education in America, now perhaps we must focus, too, not so much on the practical as upon issues more philosophical or ideological…for they, too, have become harshly real.

Dollars and buildings, and student aid, and faculty salaries are all enormously important – and massive assistance for them will or will not come as needed from government. Lord knows we haven’t resolved that problem of support, of devoting sufficient learning and the teaching that these resources must serve. In recent years there has been an extraordinary output of studies, of books, of reports critical of the content, the basic orientation and intellectual direction of American education, both higher and lower…and though, ultimately, these lines of criticism must converge, today I want to ask President Brademas how much or how little he agrees with critics like Allan Bloom, whose best–selling The Closing of the American Mind argues that ‘higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.’

Is this reality, or myth…as others have argued, simply nostalgia, like Education Secretary William Bennett’s longing (perhaps motivated by the politics and economics of conservatism) to return to a supposed “Golden Age” of American education…one that never really existed?

So, Dr. Brademas, I know it’s not an easy subject to deal with – we’ve been drowned, almost, in these critics of American education. What’s your own view?

BRADEMAS: Well, let’s take what Allan Bloom has been saying, for example, when he complains about what he calls “the closing of the American mind” and urges the proposition that higher education, the colleges and universities in the United States, have been responsible for impoverishing the souls of the students on American campuses. With respect, I think that Professor Bloom is really reliving, in the 1980s, his own experiences on a very troubled university campus in the 1960s. And in all candor, I don’t think he has really kept pace with what’s going on on American university campuses today. I’m especially struck by his pretension to be concerned about the state of democracy in our country because one of the persons on whose philosophy he leans most heavily to make his case is Plato. Now I was…my father was born in Greece so I’m always sympathetic to those who have something kind to say about the Hellenic heritage, but I should not have thought that Plato could be set forth as a very good philosopher on whom to base an argument for democracy because, after all, Plato believed in rule by an elite.
That’s not really, fundamentally, a democratic ideal. I think also that Professor Bloom is not aware of the extent to which today’s university students are very, very hard working – very dedicated. Take New York University for example. Eighty percent of the students at NYU today have a job, a part-time job. They are working very hard, they’re highly career oriented. I have, on your program I think Richard, before described, at least in term of their interest in politics, New York University is “a hotbed of student rest.” Our students come from largely low and middle income families and because they need the money, have part-time jobs. But also many of them have financial assistance. They don’t have time to engage in the kind of activities that somehow Professor Bloom sees them as engaging in. with respect to Secretary Bennett…again, with respect, his charges and allegations, the ones with which he came into office early on, you may recall – that today’s university students are preoccupied with stereos and convertibles and vacations at the beach – are really not taken very seriously because they don’t represent reality in today’s universities. I must say that American colleges and universities are as self-critical as probably any institution in the American society. We are always taking our pulses, we are always engaging in accreditation and evaluation activities to be sure that we are providing the best possible education. And we can always do better. There are, after all, almost 3,400 post-secondary institutions in the United States – junior colleges, four-year colleges, research universities like New York University, and I really do not think that if one reads Professor Bloom or listens to Secretary Bennett, one hears much hard evidence that has been set forth to justify what I think at heart are their highly subjective, and in some cases highly ideological points of view.

HEFFNER: Let’s take those points of view though, let’s dismiss the ideology, if we can – what do you find to be true as a criticism, somewhat along the lines that they will address themselves, of American education? Let’s say they go too far.

BRADEMAS: All right, let’s take one place where I do agree with the thrust of their positions, and that is the importance of the liberal arts. I believe that it is correct to say that in recent years more and more American students have been turning away from the liberal arts. In no small part, because they don’t feel that, in career terms, an education in the liberal arts will give them the best opportunity to find a job in a highly competitive society. At New York University, however, we have, for some years now, long before Professor Bloom’s book was published and long before Bill Bennett became Secretary of Education, been insisting on a very tough set of liberal arts requirements for our students. For example, we require, among others, courses in mathematics, in writing the English language, and a foreign language, in study of non-Western cultures and civilizations, science – some of the ingredients of a first class liberal arts education. So I agree with them on that point. The only observation I would make is that some of us have been making that speech long before they came on the scene.

HEFFNER: Okay, but in all fairness, how effective has that speech that some of you have been making? I hear what you are saying about NYU, I trust that’s till true of my Alma Mater, Columbia.

BRADEMAS: I’ve heard of that place!

HEFFNER: You’ve heard of that place! I told you I’m envious when I hear how successful, if that’s the key word, NYU is. But if we were to take the nation as a whole, John, are you really sanguine…you said before about the youngsters at NYU – they work so hard, they pay for themselves in large measure, they work to support themselves, they are family oriented, they are practical – does that drive toward the practical – job orientation – does it or doesn’t it fit what your own ideals are of the educated person? You’re a scholar, you’re educated better, I think, than almost any university president in the country – your studies at Harvard, your studies at Oxford – how sanguine are you about the general direction…let’s forget Bloom, let’s forget Bennett.

BRADEMAS: I have my criticisms…I am critical of the fact, for example, that not enough American university and college students are studying modern foreign languages or foreign cultures and civilizations. And as you know, over twenty years ago I wrote some legislation aimed at encouraging more efforts in that respect, and in my book, The Politics of Education, I talked about the continuing deficiencies that we face in American education in teaching language. I think we’re making headway, I think we’re making progress. It’s not enough to suit me! In like fashion, I think we need to do a better job of teaching some of the quantitative subjects, like mathematics and science, to which I pretend no particular expertise, but I do think I know enough about them to assert that if the United States is going to be able, effectively, to compete in the kind of world in which we live, we have to have students who are scientifically and mathematically literate coming out of our colleges and universities…and that’s part of a liberal arts education as well. I’d like to see students go into history more than they do now. It is always a course of…a subject of surprise and distress to me when I meet a college student who is not altogether sure who Walter Lippman was. So I’m saying, on the one hand, the liberal arts are essential. I’m saying second, we’re doing better at a lot of colleges and universities in the United States. But I’m saying, finally, we’re not doing well enough. And I’m trying, therefore, to give you a balanced appraisal of the situation.

HEFFNER: But you know, just between us, and I really mean that, as a historian, as a scholar – what is your bet about where we’ll be fifty years from now? Now you said we were making progress. Ernest Boyer when he was here, when I pressed him, said so and then began to hem-and-haw a little about it because he’s not so sanguine about that. Where do you really think we’ll be…because if we’re not going to be where you want us to be, maybe we have to make some other contingency plans in terms of public policy.

BRADEMAS: Well, life is contingent. History is wide open. That’s part of the whole concept of the program that you have so well operated for so many years – OPEN MIND. History is open. Of course, there are some factors in history, such as the land and the sea and the air, that are there, but in large measure, the human mind is free to roam. I think, therefore, that it may be difficult to look fifty years ahead…I guess, having been in politics so much of my life, I’m looking only several months ahead to see who is elected President of the United States, for example – what kind of a congress we’ll have, by the way, than what kind of a President we’ll have. But, on…it is true, in no small measure – not entirely, I don’t want to overdo the point – but it is in large measure, I think, dependent upon the kinds of leadership that we choose for our country at the national level and in state governments that will determine the kind of future that we have. I say that in respect to education because, especially in the area of higher education, we do depend in important ways on support, particularly in the field of science and technology and also for student assistance, on federal funds. And you know I’ve been a very sharp critic of the Reagan administration in this respect. I think that in the final analysis I find myself wholly in agreement with Alfred North Whitehead, who once said that…that great philosopher…in the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute, the race that does not value trained intelligence is doomed. And it is revealing to me, to talk politics for a moment, if I may intrude that subject on your question, that George Bush has suddenly been campaigning on the proposition that he wants to be an education President. That’s brand new, as Bob Dole has pointed out in his own campaign. We didn’t hear that speech from Mr. Bush until the last few months. There is apparently a sensitivity on his part, as I think it’s fair to say, there is a sensitivity on the part of the leading Democratic candidates to the key role that education plays in our increasing anxiety as a nation about our competitive position in the world economy. One can hardly pick up a report of a group of business leaders these days without understanding their appreciation that training, research, science, technology, will really determine the role of the United States in the world. There is a second dimension of the role of education, in my view, that ought to be part of our concern in public and presidential campaigns, but ought to be part of our general concern. And that is the crucial role that education plays in the security of the country…in the making of our foreign policy. I, as you said, served in Congress for twenty-two years and I saw the troubles that presidents of both parties got into when they really did not know, nor did their advisers very much, about countries such as Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia or Iran or Nicaragua. There was simply a profound ignorance on the part of the highest leaders of our country about the cultures of those countries. And that ignorance caused the most painful sacrifice in terms of human beings and treasure that our country has experienced in a long time. So education is crucial to our economy, education is crucial to our national security, and I don‘t think I need to press the case, that education is vital to the quality of the lives we lead.

HEFFNER: But John, do you think that there is a political difference…I think we’ll both agree, others may not, that more resources need to be devoted to education in this country…but going back to the Bloom argument, and indeed, in a sense, going back to the Bennett argument, the quality of that education, what is basic to it – the ideology, if you will – will that be changed one whit depending upon one party or another?

BRADEMAS: Absolutely!

HEFFNER: Tell me how. How?

BRADEMAS: First I want to say a word about Mr. Bloom. You must not be under any illusions about what Allan Bloom was proposing. Allan Bloom believes that a handful of people, of young mean and women, from upper middle-class families, should go to college and chiefly focus on the study of philosophy. He would…he is hostile to the very idea of a large complex university like New York University, where the sons and daughters of immigrants and the grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants, come and study all manner of subjects. That is not what he had in mind. He has in mind the idea of Plato’s academy, if you will. It happens, I may say, anecdotally…I happen to have been elected a member of the Academy of Athens…so I take issue with him all the more! Now let’s come to your fundamental question – and that is, what difference does it make who is elected President of the United States in terms of education policy. I will assert, straight-forwardly, that Ronald Reagan is the first president in our life-times to have waged war on education at every level – through his budgetary policies, through his rhetoric, through his tax policies, and through regulations. You must recall that in every budget that Mr. Reagan has offered to Congress, save the one he proposed at the start of this year, he has pressed for almost savage reductions in federal funds for higher education, let’s say. For example, in the budget a year ago, he asked for a 45% cut in money for student aid below what Congress had appropriated the year before. This year, I think he must have, he and his leaders must have suffered from a fit of “election yearitis”, because for the first time in all these years, Mr. Reagan has said, ‘Let’s spend somewhat more on education.’ He has ceased his effort to eliminate certain programs, or sharply reduce monies for them – such as education for handicapped children, for example: an area that, as you know, is of great interest to me. Now, in the primary in New Hampshire, Senator Dole, for whom, I may say, I have very great regard…and I like George Bush and I like Bob Dole – I served with both of them in the House of Representatives. So what I’m saying is not personal, I’m talking about the substance of issues. But Senator Dole said in New Hampshire…I think I quote him more or less accurately…George Bush says he wants to be President of Education. Well, where was George Bush when Reagan was cutting billion, billions out of the budget for education all those years? Did he say not, said Bob Dole? No, he did not. He was silent. All of a sudden George Bush has found that apparently the American people place a high value on education, so he’s talking about it. But the fact of the matter is that all the six…how many presidents? I served with six presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford – three Republicans – Kennedy, Johnson and Carter – three Democrats. All six of those presidents, three of each party, favored the use of federal funds to support education. Ronald Reagan is the first to have fought the use of federal funds for education. It is Mr. Reagan who has made this an ideological issue – a partisan issue – because both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, during my service in congress, and I’m glad to say in the last few years, have said, ‘No, Mr. Reagan, we are not going to allow you to tear up the Elementary-Secondary Education Act, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, The Guaranteed Student Loan Program, the Pell Grant Program. We are not going to allow you to eliminate graduate students form eligibility for the Guaranteed Student Loan Program, we are not going to allow you to eliminate the Museum Services Act, we are not going to allow you to cut funds for libraries and for the National Arts and Humanities Endowments. NO.’ And Republicans and Democrats in the Congress of the United States have been the ones who have protected the national investment in the mind, in learning, in teaching, in knowledge.

HEFFNER: John, it seems to me…you’re talking about numbers. Suppose this nation chooses Greeks bearing educational gifts. Suppose…

BRADEMAS: …Not a bad idea.

HEFFNER: I know you feel that way. Suppose the numbers are there – the dollars are there. Will that at all address this other question that we were talking about, the kind of education? Not whether there will be enough money, enough dollars, but whether we will move back, perhaps – although I don’t think it ever happened – to a time when we were putting more emphasis upon those liberal arts that you cherish?

BRADEMAS: And the answer is yes and no. Money alone is not enough – there has to be a mind-set, there has to be an attitude that, let us say, the liberal arts are important, that the study of foreign languages is important, that the study of science and mathematics is important. But having said that, do not delude yourself – without the money, you can’t do anything to make good on these philosophical commitments.

HEFFNER: Okay. But, again, I would ask, looking into the future, a few months, as you prefer, or years – there is a sense that I have that we are getting…the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer educationally, intellectually. If that continues, don’t we have to make those contingency plans for a nation that perhaps is closer to Plato’s republic than to Jackson’s democracy? Isn’t that what we must look to?

BRADEMAS: I think there is, implicit in your question, a very profound challenge that faces this country. And that’s the challenge of what one may call ‘The Underclass.” The fact that we now have more people living below the poverty line than we did some years ago, the fact that our big city public school systems are, in many respects, in disarray, with very high drop-out rates, and that big city school systems are in large part Black and Hispanic, at least to a greater extent than is the situation in smaller-sized and rural American communities – this whole configuration of forces represents a profound social challenge, economic challenge, political challenge. And I believe that colleges and universities, among other institutions, in the life of the country, and not just the government, have a very serious responsibility to help the public schools…to cite that one segment of society which is a good symbol of the issue we’re discussing…to help the public schools cope with this problem. Several of us here in New York City, for example, who are university leaders, have been meeting with Richard Green, the new Chancellor of the public school system here, to try to make clear to him that we stand ready to help. But I think if we don’t do anything about that problem, we are going to move in the direction of a two-tier society wherein people who have wealth and ability are going to…

HEFFNER: …Education…

BRADEMAS: …are going to have access to education and it is going to be a very dangerous, volatile problem.

HEFFNER: It interested me…before you spoke, not contemptuously but negatively, about the Platonic orientation of Allan Bloom…yet, you say you are distressed when you find the college undergraduate who doesn’t know who Walter Lippman was. But Lippman, my God, sixteen years ago and more now, recognized then, that one had to organize intelligence because perhaps within the framework of majoritarian democracy, we were not going to be able to pull our weight the way we should.

BRADEMAS: I don’t want to be misunderstood when I make my criticisms of Plato. Indeed, I remember that I was invited to the White House when President Kennedy was in office, to attend a luncheon for the late Archbishop Makarios, the newly elected President and first President of Cyprus. And on hand at that luncheon was Professor Raphael Demos, of Harvard, who had been my philosophy professor, and had been John Kennedy’s philosophy professor, and was a great scholar of Plato. And as you know, Plato was the author of the idea of the philosopher-king…that is to say that the people who should rule in the society of Athens were the philosophers. So when I walked through the …into the White House and into the dining room and I saw Professor Demos, he looked up at me and said, ‘Ah, John, you are now a philosopher-king!’ I have great regard for merit. I believe that…and in this respect I am a Calvinist…I believe in the doctrine of hard work. And my late Greek father once told me a Socratic proverb to the effect that things of value come only with hard work. I believe that. I don’t believe in just giving people something for nothing. And in that respect, I guess you could say I’m very conservative, but at the same time I believe in making it possible for every child in the society to have that opportunity to advance on the basis of his qualifications. And that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been so distressed at the policies of the present Administration which I think have shut the door to opportunity on the part of too many people in our society.

HEFFNER: John, have you ever considered that possibly, for good reasons or bad, because of people whose policies you reject, or the dynamics of our society, we don’t live in an age any longer, and will not, in which the ideals that you want to embrace have a real good place, a viable place?

BRADEMAS: I really haven’t considered that. I guess, because I am a child of the United States, I believe in the American dream. I believe in the possibility of advance on merits…and most of my life as a legislator was devoted to opening doors to people who otherwise might have had them closed…and I still believe that as President of New York University.

HEFFNER: That’s an optimistic note on which to cut and that’s the sign that I’m getting. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. John Brademas.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us next week, and if you would like to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s distinguished guest, please write THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”