P. H. Cordner

Sex, Money, Murder: Purdue University and Losing the Plot of Youth: Part I

In Commentary on March 9, 2010 at 13:52

Purdue University is an important part of the state’s efforts to keep educated people in the state. In order to accomplish this, most of the pre-war academic spirit of the university has been distilled into an enterprising pseudo-vocational school, designed not to create educated individuals, but parts for an “economic engine.” This transformation has had the unfortunate side effect of creating a prosaic student body, the majority of which don’t aspire to anything more than a high-salaried occupation, and who reflect some of the most serious problems of our current youth culture. In our first installment examining this phenomenon, we examine Purdue University today and trace it back to its beginnings, specifically the Morrill Acts of 1862. This first installment will have the least amount to do with the admittedly sensational title. Bear with me.

Purdue University is a feather in the cap for Mitch Daniels and his “Economic Growth Crusader” public image, which has a good possibility of sending him to the Republican National Convention in 2012. The state beams so often of our entrepreneurial spirit, and proven leadership in aerospace, engineering, and biotechnological industries. These aren’t bad things by any means, they’re actually pretty wonderful attributes of an institute of higher learning. However, these wonderful attributes for graduate and post-graduate students don’t trickle down to the bread and butter of the undergraduate student body. The donation machine President Jischke helped create has been pouring money off campus, into sweetheart deals for industries like Purdue Research Park, and the construction of new buildings for the colleges of Engineering and Science. The result of this long-standing focus has been the stagnation of Purdue’s humanities department.

An impressive humanities department is an essential part of a world-class university. The purpose of the university (small u) is to educate its students in both practical and classical matters, so that they possess a complete understanding of the world in which we live and work, and whose judgement can be trusted to come from a wellspring of wisdom and education, thereby improving their contribution to our society at large. A college education, in the medieval and pre-industrial days something exclusively for the aristocratic class, was an indicator of cultivation, wisdom, and experience. The changes brought on by industrialization helped open these institutions to more people, giving the burgeoning middle class the same wisdom, education, and cultivation once reserved for the nobility. For the first time in human history, the powers of rhetoric, philosophy, logic, mathematics, and natural sciences were available to a great number of people, and these educations helped create the truly great American middle class, one of the biggest sculptors of the modern world we live in today.

In response to these shifting classes, the US Government passed the Morrill Acts of 1862, creating our nation’s land-grant universities, of which Purdue is a prominent member. Land grant universities under the Morrill Act were designed to be agricultural colleges, places where the rural, uneducated populations could come to learn the new mechanical and technological innovations in the field of agriculture. The Morrill Act describes its mission thusly:

without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

This was one of the greatest investments the US government ever made in education. American agriculture quickly became the envy of the world, and grew in lockstep to our burgeoning population, and this continued well into the modern age, especially during World War II. Purdue has a proud legacy as part of this transformation and the rise of the US as a global power.

Even with these beginnings, an explicit purpose of technical education, and an important part in serious practical accomplishments, the Morrill Act stated that this would not be to the detriment of scientific and classical studies. The goal of the Morrill Act colleges was not to create technical vocational schools distinct from classical education, but to combine both of them to create a “practical and liberal education of the industrial classes.”

It might sound like it would be difficult to gather young farmers and introduce them to the wonders of tractors and Socrates simultaneously, but we have to remember that the widespread anti-intellectualism and antipathy towards liberal education present in our provincial populations today wasn’t as much of a factor. It was certainly present, but the rural students of yesteryear were just as aspirational to the upper classes as we are today, and in the 19th century, a classical education was the mark of an upper-class individual that, with enough Protestant hard work, anyone could attain thanks to this new and glorious Union. The rise of conspicuous consumption in the late 19th century started a shift away from an education as a badge of honor, and the post-war Boom and consumer culture of the 1950’s created all kinds of new, easier methods of displaying your wealth and accomplishments.

Combine the Cold War directive to focus on science and mathematics, and the popular sentiment against the student movements of the 1960s and 70s, and you have a recipe to cement the status of the liberal arts education as a punch line in the eyes of the middle class American. Modern aspirational people, by and large, pine for expensive cars and vacations in the Caribbean, not the antiquated, aristocratic (even Un-American) ideals of education, cultivation, and sophistication.

We’ll explore the attitudes of youth towards sophistication, the effects of mass media and the internet, and good old-fashioned American Puritanism in our next installment.

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  1. Fascinating! I can’t wait to read more.

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