Education as an elitist venture

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Of the many contributions the United States of America has given to the process of civilization in the human condition, perhaps the most impressive, and yet the most subtle, is its fundamental belief in and commitment to an educated electorate.

The Founders of our Nation were highly suspicious of advancement in a culture based solely upon inheritance and/or allegiance to a supreme ruler or ruling class, no matter how despotic it may have been.

To make certain that the form of government they sought to establish would be free of any such privilege they declared and even insisted on “an informed electorate,” as we have heard so many times before.

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Still, it was left to the individual States to establish educational systems from elementary through secondary schools.

Other organizations were left with the task of establishing forms and institutions of higher education – i.e., colleges.

So it was that the vast majority of our early colleges and universities were founded by various religions.

Harvard and its vast library came to us from the Puritans.

The Presbyterians founded Princeton.

The Roman Catholics founded Georgetown University, and the Baptists founded Baylor University.

Shortly after individual States began to see the necessity of higher education, they began their own system of state universities.

Then, along came the land-grant colleges and universities with their specific charges of serving the fundamental, practical higher educations necessary for the specific kind of economy not only of the individual state but of the Nation, as well.

From this entire system, our Nation has emerged as a pillar of educational success and excellence in the world.

Yes, there certainly are people with opposing political, religious, and cultural views to ours, but do we ever wonder why it is that those same people send their children to American universities to be educated?

For Heaven’s sake, Yale is so gracious and “broad minded” that it admits officials of the Taliban as students!

The point of this particular harangue is that while our American Founders saw the absolute necessity of having a well-educated populace, they were still highly skeptical of those who seemed “over” educated.

After all, of what need did someone bound to the land as a farmer have to comprehend the oscillations of the heavenly bodies which surrounded us?

Except to know that from the most recent “almanac” the third full-moon of the year was the best time to plant some crops.

And it is no wonder that for this country’s first one-hundred seventy-five years or so, only those of the most affluent caste even thought about attending schooling after graduating from high school.

Indeed, until a decade or so before World War II, it was considered a significant accomplishment for someone to have completed the eighth grade in our schools.

My, how things have changed!

Today, college, while still an option for a minority of our population, is available to anyone who wishes to make that venture.

It is no longer an extension of aristocratic privilege.

It is no longer a badge worn only by those of the “elite” in America.

In fact, in the world which we have fundamentally formed with our senses of democracy, capitalism, and meritocracy, higher education has become a necessity for success and economic security.

But prior to World War II, higher education was plainly and simply an extended path for the “elite” in America.

Between the G.I. Bills subsidizing education, intercollegiate athletics, and student loan programs, accessibility to higher education became more viable.

America took advantage of it.

The consequences of this evolution of educational access for our Nation have been monumentally successful.

We have a stock exchange over $11,000 today.

In 1992, when I was living in Naples, Fla., a rather successful fellow Rotarian who was a stock broker vowed at one of our meetings that (and I quote here directly because of its significance), “The stock market will drop to 1950 before it ever hits 2000!”

A little more than two decades later we have exceeded that number five-fold plus!

Now, even counting inflation in the equation, I doubt that few will deny that this phenomenal economic growth is due in large measure to the realization that education is not just an elitist venture anymore.

It is a necessity for survival in a world shrunk by communications and transportation.

The preparation for higher education begins in the elementary classes and extends throughout all of our public education to graduation.

If we compare what knowledge was available to those generations of Americans who preceded us with what is available, indeed, what is required, today there is little doubt that they would be amazed.

I can remember my great-grandfather, Pap Woodruff, almost whispering in his inimitable Scottish brogue as I explained the wide applications of nuclear energy when I was a college freshman, “Aye, Lad, it’s a wonderment!”

To which he added a moment later, “And wonderment is the beginning of all understanding.”

To his memory I reply, indeed it is, Pap!

And today, education is no longer an elitist venture.

It is a necessity for survival!

-Dr. Arthur Ogden is the Campus Director for Alabama Southern’s Demopolis Campus and holds all his degrees in philosophy.

He can be reached at