“Open the Door, Eli” by Peter Brier
Nevertheless, curriculum, technology, and cost, are all secondary to the truly revolutionary phenomenon of education in our time. I am thinking of access, which drives curriculum, technology, cost, and more; access – the incredible opportunity of access for millions of people to education at every level. That is the great contribution of America in the second half of the Twentieth Century. From the G. I. bill to integration, from student loans to affirmation action, from the growth of community colleges, which in many cases do not require high school diplomas for entry, to the expanding enrollments of the most prestigious university in the land, increased access has been beaten a steady drum. Europe is following in our footsteps. The European Union has made increased access to a university education an international policy.
Access for what purpose? Lucrative employment for all? Is material gain the principal motivating force driving the hunger for learning? Is the main purpose of the new technology to broaden and facilitate access an end in itself? Is there something about the proliferation of knowledge in the postmodern world that has been translated into the idea that more and more people must be enlisted in its pursuit? Are the increasing numbers of people seeking access to education a quantitative challenge that must be met primarily with quantitative solutions?
No, of course not. I can hear the impatience of your answers. It’s an American imperative! Universal education was the hope of the pilgrims and the policy of Jefferson. Our national hope is an educated polity that will have the knowledge and imagination to sustain a viable democracy. Despite the anti-intellectualism that has characterized our popular culture and pleasures, we have always supported schooling – universal schooling at all levels. True, the land grant colleges soon evolved into agricultural and industrial academies that served our material needs, but they also inspired great state universities dedicated to research and higher learning. Yale and her Ivy sisters turned theology into a seed bed for
secular learning and scholarship that in our own lifetime surpassed the achievements of their European forbears. In the Nineteenth Century, reactionary Henry Adams had his doubts that America could escape the contamination of an immigrant wave, but by the middle of the Twentieth, American higher education congratulated itself on having had the foresight to provide political asylum to European scientists and scholars who helped turn returning World War II G. I.’s into one of the best-educated generations in our history.
My story belongs to a chapter in the drama of access. In the early 1950s Yale’s typical freshman class was still at least fifty per cent prep-school admissions, and the rest were public high school graduates with a few Catholic school graduates thrown into the mix. Approximately 100 students, suitable but not among the top candidates, who needed financial aid were denied any help but were admitted. They were expected to come up with aid elsewhere or fall by the wayside. Most went to less expensive colleges. This would have been my situation, but I was one of the hundred fortunate enough to receive help from an outside source. The irony is the help I received was the direct result of another hurdle confronting students seeking admission to Yale: the secret quota system that kept Jewish enrollments at a steady ten percent every year. That injustice was not corrected until 1962 – largely the result of pressure by Richard Israel, the Hillel director of the day (Dan Oren, Joining The Club – A History of Jews at Yale, Yale University Press, 1985).
When my rabbi in Chicago in 1952 heard that I had been admitted to Yale but could not afford to attend, he went to the Temple Board and talked some wealthy laymen into donating one thousand dollars to help with my first year. Rabbi Morton Berman, Yale 1921, was a New Haven boy. He had served as a Marine Chaplain on Iwo Jima, and after the war was very active in the Zionist cause. Before World War II began, he was sent on fact-finding missions to Europe in 1938 by his patron, Stephen S. Wise, and witnessed the desperate and largely unsuccessful efforts of his fellow Jews trying to get visas at the American Embassy in Vienna. It left an indelible impression, and when he had a chance to help the child of one of those families fortunate enough to have reached asylum in America to go to Yale, he pulled out all the stops. The truth is that my being a Jewish refugee intimately helped me to get into Yale!
When my son Jonathan applied to Yale in the 1990s, he was not admitted. He went to Berkeley and finished his graduate work in architecture at the University of Michigan. Not bad. Since by his time the Jewish enrollment at Yale has risen for beyond the nasty ten per cent of my own day, the only to which I was entitled included “affirmation action” and the failure of my legacy privileges. Legacy privileges? I now presumed to the class distinctions of the very groups that had almost denied me a Yale education fifty years earlier! A few years later I was mollified when my daughter Moriah, Yale ’04, like my son a private school graduate, was admitted. Legacy? Gender balance? Application essay? Merit? Ah, the rights and rites of access.
If, however, we are persuaded that material enrichment is not the primary purpose of education, and if we do not believe that distributing information is the same as education, then we have more to think about than merely widening assess. We are right to worry about bringing justice, social and moral, to admission to the table. Perhaps we need to concern ourselves a bit more with what is being served there.
Through the years I have noted in alumni notes and reunion books that many in our Class chose education as their profession. Yale ’56 was well represented at all levels in both public and private education. I taught English literature for more that thirty years at Cal State L. A., and I was gratified to learn at the 40th Reunion in 1996 that quite a few men rounding out careers in business and law were enriching their lives as teachers of disadvantaged kids in special programs.
I can’t help thinking that the inclination to teach lies in many of us because of the marvelous teachers we had at Yale – men like Maynard Mack, Henri Peyre, Vincent Scully, Paul Weiss, to name only a few – who not only taught their subjects well but also embodied qualities of character, personality, values, and feelings that we were delighted to discover could actually be realized in one human being’s thoughts and ideas. I’m talking about more than just role models. That cliché doesn’t do justice to what these men gave us and what they contributed to our sense of what education was really about.
We may have been the last generation to experience the full meaning of a liberal education. Maybe we were a bit staid, too conforming in manners and thought, and basically disengaged for political and actual concerns. Those who followed us more than made up for our deficiencies. But our teachers were able to instill in us the virtues of the disinterested mind, a curiosity fed by beauty and reason, not by resentment and ideology. In the ‘Fifties “alienation” and the “nuclear threat” darkened our skies, but we took solace from the encouragements of men like Henri Peyre. Here he is addressing a Freshman class of 1958: “Times are tragically grave. But do not let yourself be overwhelmed by them…Do not forsake humor and the healthy capacity to laugh at yourselves…Accumulate knowledge while you are here, and especially knowledge of the past, which will provide you with lessons, will enrich your memories with stores of associations and acquaint you with the cultural heritage which it will be your lot to preserve.”
Today’s college curriculum is largely skeptical of the past and subjects it to a welter of the theories designed to free us from the past’s ghosts rather to learn from its accomplishments. Who would dare to belittle the ghosts of the past? Nevertheless, the tyranny of the present can be as oppressive as the tyranny of the past.
We are one of the first generations to enjoy what is impersonally called a longer life expectancy. I don’t have the statistics, but I’m willing to bet that there are more of us here to celebrate a 50th reunion than there were ten or fifteen years ago for the 50th reunions of previous classes. Ours is a legacy of what Matthew Arnold called “sweetness and light” and we should use the years we have left to arouse young and old in our communities to the joys of reading the great books and perfecting the ability to make what Henri Peyre called “transitions” – connection beyond our politics, backgrounds and contemporary milieu. In Peyre’s words, our memories, though wounded (“Where ARE the car keys?), are “enriched” with “stories of associations.” We are the past. It is not a distant other for us. The present needs the past to understand itself. Start a book club. Volunteer as a tutor. Help feed what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “think-feel.” Do something while you still can to make sure that the world of education will provide access to more than its doors.