The Impious Legacy of US Education
Religion & Liberty Online

The Impious Legacy of US Education

Virgil's Aeneas fleeing the sack of Troy with his father on his shoulders and leading his son by the hand.

“Even the conventional everyday morality,” writes Vladimir Solovyov,

demands that a man should hand down to his children not only the goods he has acquired, but also the capacity to work for the further maintenance of their lives. The supreme and unconditional morality also requires that the present generation should leave a two-fold legacy to the next,—in the first place, all the positive acquisitions of the past, all the savings of history; and, secondly, the capacity and the readiness to use this capital for the common good, for a nearer approach to the supreme goal. This is the essential purpose of true education….

According to Solovyov, there is a basic, commonsense morality by which most parents feel an obligation to leave an inheritance to their children and give them the opportunity and know-how to use it. He goes on to argue that this principle ought to be expanded generationally: “the present generation should leave a two-fold legacy to the next,” passing on what it has received and instilling in the next generation the ability and desire to use the heritage of human history for the common good. This, he believes, is the “essential purpose of true education.” As commencement ceremonies are celebrated throughout the country this month, how well, I wonder, do we match up to this standard in the United States today?

With regards to the first aspect of this “two-fold legacy,” since the 1960s we have seen a steady rise in grade inflation in higher education, i.e. the lowering of our academic standards and therefore the quality of higher education. The most recent inflation has been growing steadily since the early 1990s (with the possible exception of community colleges) after a brief deflation in the 1980s. Thus, for too long now one generation has received a golden inheritance but has been satisfied with passing down a bronze equivalent.

With regard to the second aspect (which is partly dependent upon the first), tuition costs (adjusted for inflation) have increased by a factor of 227% for all institutions from 1980-2010 (215% for public institutions and 235% for private). At the same time, the Pew Research center reports that Millennials “are on track to become the most educated generation in American history.” As a result, as Laura Pappano of the New York Times has noted, “Colleges are turning out more graduates than the market can bear, and a master’s is [now] essential for job seekers to stand out.” Due to these rising costs and rising enrollment, student loan debt in the United States has recently hit the staggering $1 trillion mark.

How did this happen? I have recently written about the spiritual peril of over-studying and idealizing younger generations, to which Jordan Ballor commented,

It strikes me that this peril is at play in a number of areas in our contemporary life, including education. What happens when the student (of whatever age) becomes the customer, and the customer is king?

I remember being told in elementary school how studies were showing that in our day everyone needed to graduate from high school if they hoped to have a decent job and a bright future someday. By middle and high school, we were being told the same thing with regards to college educations. Not surprisingly, more of us ended up going to college, including, no doubt, the sort of people who are not really academically interested or inclined. Now we are being told that we better get our master’s if we really want to make it. Expect standards of graduate schools to decline as enrollment increases.

In effort to help our generation, standards were lowered so that more of us would end up earning bachelor’s degrees. The result—which could have been predicted by an elementary supply and demand curve—is that we have lowered the quality of a product (college degrees) and increased supply. Naturally, demand has plummeted. In the meantime, more education requires greater financial aid. Combine this with the huge tuition jump since the 1980s, and it becomes clear how we have reached the $1 trillion student debt mark for the sake of degrees that are only as valuable as high school diplomas were thirty years ago and represent an education that is often not much better in quality.

Interestingly, for Solovyov generational duty is a matter of piety. This is not unique to him though; in fact, it is the classical picture: Virgil’s Aeneas fleeing the sack of Troy carrying his father (who holds the household gods) on his shoulders and protecting his son by his feet. He could run much faster if he shirked his father off his back and left his son behind, but if so it would mean their deaths. Factor in the (growing) $15.6 trillion national debt that we are set to inherit, and I fear that, for many in the Millennial generation, the Greeks are fast approaching while their Aeneas has, albeit unintentionally, forgotten them in the smoldering ruins of star-crossed Troy.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.