By Simon Brown

When we talk about higher education, it’s very easy to begin talking about “elites.” The language of “elite colleges” and “elite degrees” comes so naturally that it can be difficult to tell whether those terms are referring to a subset of institutions or describing higher education itself. The association isn’t just colloquial. The economist Thomas Piketty has traced a narrative of international political realignment that now pits a “business elite” of shareholders against an “intellectual elite” of college degree holders. The identity as an “elite” can feed graduates’ guilt over their educational opportunities and privileged perspectives, even as it also subtly, even apologetically, asserts an elevated status.     

If university graduates and their professors recognize their degrees, sometimes regretfully, as guarantors of a higher rank in a social hierarchy, the advocates of that hierarchy have often disagreed.  Some of the most influential theorists and defenders of an ordered society in the modern period have cautioned against higher education’s corrosive effects on distinction and aristocracy. Whether or not university graduates actually challenged the status of entrenched elites, advocates of those elites have repeatedly insisted that they have. An intellectual history of those warnings helps us understand how higher education could be consistently seen as a challenge to hierarchy and the political order that it insures. 

The criticism that higher education is a threat to the social order and the elites who stabilize it has taken distinct forms, but with similar implications. The statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon, witnessing a steady increase in the number of students taking scholarships from lower schools to secure places in the universities in early seventeenth-century England, advised against more funding for education in a letter on the use of an endowment. As more students ascended the academic ladder, he warned, more would lack the employment they think their education has earned them. The scholarships would produce only “more scholars bred than the state can prefer and employ.” Education of this kind “fills the realm full of indigent, idle, and wanton people, which are but materia rerum novarum,” or “the stuff of revolutions.” Higher education, in other words, teaches the humble to be proud, then resentful, then rebellious. 

Subsequent generations witnessing the upheaval of the English revolution applied and extended Bacon’s diagnosis. The historian Edward Chamberlayne, writing after the monarchy was restored in the 1660s, identified poor “half-learned” students as the volatile ingredients that had sparked revolution. Having dropped out of the universities when their scholarships expired, he argued, they had turned to preaching resentment and sedition. For Bacon and Chamberlayne both, the trouble is not just higher education. Poor students striving and inevitably failing to escape their rank and turning to revolution to reorder those ranks posed an existential threat. The historian Mark Curtis’s study of “alienated intellectuals” of early seventeenth-century England argues that this diagnosis may have been partially correct.    

As the English Revolution proved those early theories of education and upheaval for its contemporary chroniclers, the French Revolution of the following century became a case study of the turmoil that critics saw as the practical consequence of abstract education when it fell to the wrong hands.  

It was not just bitter dropouts and unemployable academics who were the culprit; intellectual life cultivated a way of thinking about politics and authority that proved suspect. Edmund Burke, the most influential spokesman for the Old Regime in England amid the reactionary ferment against the Revolution, contrasted academic approaches to political theory with the prudent and practiced governance he advocated. He argued that abstract theorizing unmoored from the reality of rule had supplied the Jacobins with their dangerous politics. “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine?” he pressed. “In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.” Theory empowers those who have never had command of anything to imagine how the world would be better if they did, and professors teach theory.

It’s clear how Burke’s criticism of theory and the professors who teach it, along with the “sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators” who have supplanted chivalrous knights as counselors of state, could supply a framework for a conservative critique of higher education. If “experience” is the source of legitimate knowledge about society and governance, then students and academics have the least claim of anyone to participate in government. It is those with experience — in other words, those who already rule and have ruled — who should continue to. Though he does not name professors or students directly, Alexis de Tocqueville extends the same analysis in his own history of the Revolution, targeting those philosophers who thought “pure theory” sufficient to justify their right to rule in place of the aristocracy. 

While we’ve heard a lot of talk of the “populist” rejection of highly-educated experts, both Burke and Tocqueville articulate a decidedly elitist anti-intellectualism of the kind Sophia Rosenfeld describes in her recent book Democracy and Truth (see the JHI Blog’s interview and Tocqueville 21’s forum on Rosenfeld’s book). None of these critics witnessed the rise of the modern research university or the mass provision of higher education, but they developed two lines of thought that would persist until the present. University education threatened the social order by inflating the aspiration and subsequent resentment of the poor, and by teaching “pure theory” that was unknown and unnecessary to those born for rule. On account of who it taught and how it taught, the college posed a challenge to the natural hierarchy.    

As more and more young people in the early twentieth-century United States graduated high school and flooded the iconic midwestern state schools–often research universities by that point–the conservative response was there to greet them. The critic Irving Babbitt made the college and its embattled humanities curriculum a staging ground for a literary movement — “New Humanism” — and identified the influx of first-generation students with the rise of social sciences, business schools, football games and everything that tarnished the elite trappings of the liberal arts college. 

The problem of too many students was consistently connected with the problem of dangerous curriculum and, possibly, the rebellion it could spark. When campus rebellion from Berkeley to Columbia did appear on the evening news throughout the 1960s, it brought together critics from sections of the political spectrum that would move closer over the course of the century. Social conservatives worried about lax morals and political agitation found common cause with economic reformers who blamed the problem on low tuition and few consequences for misbehavior, as Melinda Cooper has recently argued. High tuition could deter some students and college loan payments could discipline others — except, of course, those with the wealth to avoid both.  

That retrenchment in public university funding defines the political economy of higher education in the United States, and in Great Britain, up to the present day. That has not stemmed the number of students attending universities, including low-income students who often depend on ever heftier student loans to fund it.  

Still, even laments for the plight of debt-burdened students have become an opportunity to reassert the elitist critique of higher education. A Stanford and Yale-educated senator, speaking at an event for the aptly-named Edmund Burke Foundation this summer, lambasted the “higher-education monopoly” for burdening students with debt. At the same time he condemned college professors for teaching abstract commitment to a global community rather than rooted commitment to the nation. His solution to both problems has been to redirect federal money toward apprenticeship programs. 

An argument like this speaks a language that rings populist, celebrating, like Burke, the honest work of the farmer over the dangerous theories of the metaphysics professor. Even though metaphysics isn’t taught very often any more, other impractical liberal arts have taken its place in these critiques, from the benign jokes about “underwater basket-weaving” to the sharp invective against “Gender Studies”. They are the necessary contrast to an education that is practical and that can practically help students from lower social and economic status repay their loans on their own. They should learn to be farmers, mechanics, whatever is in demand instead, a much better outcome than graduates with anger and the education to articulate it.   

Simon Brown is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History Department at UC Berkeley.