As Garrison Keillor points out, today is the anniversary of President Roosevelt’s signing of the GI Bill in 1944. What an extraordinary piece of legislation that turned out to be. Congress was scared of its potential effects. Looking back on it, they had a right to be scared. Millions of people were educated under the bill–the greatest mass education legislation since the Land Grant education acts were signed in the Lincoln administration. Universities, too, were scared to death that their teaching would become watered down by the doubling of enrollments–a complaint that persisted into the 1960s on elite college campuses.
But as Keillor tells us, an awful lot of very smart people took advantage of the GI Bill. To his list I would add my professor at Illinois, Arnold Stein, who went to Harvard after scribbling poetry in European foxholes, and then found his way to the University of Minnesota, the University of Washington, and Champaign, Illinois. While I don’t believe that everyone is necessarily college material, I do believe that the GI Bill was an extraordinary boon to all of us. The philosopher Eric Hoffer was once asked if there was anything he knew for certain. He named four things, one of which was that “human potential has been wasted on a massive scale.” The GI Bill was not only an attempt to set right the injustices toward veterans of the first World War, it was also a bold social experiment in living and thinking a different way; an effort not to waste the human potential among our citizens. Universities do have tremendous problems to deal with every day–a lack of funding from short-sighted legislators, security for their vulnerable students and faculty, social unrest among those who are aggrieved or who consider themselves mere consumers rather than students. But those universities do not lack a talent base–both men and women–from which to draw in order to solve their problems, or ours. For all the complaints we read in the press every day about how dumb those college kids are, or about how unhappy they are with social progress, there are at least five college students busting their tails, holding down a job or two, going to school at the same time, and yet taking full advantage of the amazing resources that are available even at small schools.
And take a look at who’s at those schools: everybody. Many college campuses are far less tolerant than they should be (which is another way of saying that the parents often behave worse than the kids), but I have great hope that, because of that diversity, universities and society as a whole will be far more tolerant in fifty or a hundred years than they are now. Social evolution creeps along at a pace akin to biological evolution sometimes; and, as is the case with biological evolution, most of us won’t live to see the big social changes that are coming. But if we are to learn to live more warmly with those who are different from us in their religion, their politics, or their sexual orientation, universities are going to be the places where those changes begin. We may remain provincial boobs to the end of our days, but our children, thank heaven, will not.