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Benezet, Louis T. 

Higher Education is Not a Commodity. 

American Association for Higher Education, 
Washington, D.C. 

14 Mar 71 

5p. ; Address presented at the 26th National 
Conference on Higher Education, Chicago, Illinois, 
March 14, 1971 



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EDRS Price MF-S0.65 HC-S3.29 

Attitudes, *Educational Benefits, Financial Needs, 
♦Financial Problems, ^Higher Education, *Public 
Opinion 

♦Carnegie Commission on Higher Education 



ABSTRACT 



This paper comments on the Carnegie Commission 
reports on higher education and discusses some of the issues higher 
education and the public have to face. Higher education is in a 
crisis and in desperate need of continuing financial support from the 
federal government. The Carnegie Commission can help the public 
understand some of the problems by pointing out that higher education 
is not a commodity, and that the chief beneficiary is not only the 
preson tfho gets the degree, but society as well. The Commission has 
recently made proposals for a 3-year baccalaureate, for credit for 
outside experience, and for other types of extramural education. The 
case for 4-year residential colleges may be weak and, if so, they may 
have to disappear, for it is not the particular forms of higher 
learning that have to be preserved. Higher learning is a process of 
human growth and change, and the students of the sixties and 
seventies became aware, perhaps for the first time, of the humanity 
of all men and the need to connect education with a wider view of 
humanity. The Commission can also help in letting the public know 
what is happening that is good and important on campus today, and 
help inspire a public confidence without which the funding of higher 
education becomes progressively impossible. (AF) 



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Opening General Session 
Sunday Evening, March ill 

HIGHER EDUCATION IS NOT A COMMODITY* 

Louis T. Benezet 

P resident 

State University of New York at Albany 




It may be foolhardy to ask a university president in these days to comment 
on the state of higher education. Most of his response will add up to one 
strangled cry, “ Help 1 11 

Evidence that the administration in Washington does not understand how the 
strength of institutions of higher learning is being eroded is useful in one 
way that I can see. It reminds us that colleges and universities will not be 
saved by gobs of money from the feceral budget. A continuing federal support 
we must indeed have. It will need to be accompanied by comparable efforts on 
the part of each state, each locality, and each private sector, both corporate 
and individual. 

It is depressing, to be sure, that the Presidents message on higher education 
last fall and ae.ain this year has rested its case upon financial aid to the 
student. Little is offered for the colleges except a prospect of research studies 
from a National Educational foundation* As a recent NEW YORK TIMES editorial 
observes, that is like offering a drowning man “research on improved swimming 
techniques.” 

It is safe to presume that Richard Nixon while a student at Whittier College, 
Robert Finch while at Occidental, and Elliot Richardson while at Harvard 
heard not once but often that education was costing their colleges more than 
it was costing them. We may presume also that this message was in their 
alumni letters in years following, as alumni letters have read from time 
immemorial. We are told, however, that the administration was surprised when 
the higher education community reacted negatively to the September message. 

The series of lucid reports which have come from the Carnegie Commission 
under Clark Kerr ! s direction have helped us better understand why we are in 
such trouble. The latest report, Less Time, More Options , proposes alternative 
methods for dispensing higher education so that it may be gained more quickly, 
more flexibly, more non-residentially by learners of all ages and all life 
stations. 

Yet financial matters are at such a point that we who labor in higher edu- 
cation cannot refrain from feeling that the Carnegie Commission, to quote an 
old phrase from W. H. Auden, lectures upon navigation while the ship is going 
down. 



It is not the Commissions fault. In the four years since it was organized, 
a national situation already serious has grown into a crisis. The fact that we 



^Address on “New Directions in Higher Education,” A Commentary on the Carnegie 
Commission Reports, presented at Opening General Session at the 26th National 
Conference on Higher Education, sponsored by the American Association for 
• p| igher Education, Chicago, Sunday, March lij, 1971* Rights to reprint or to quote 
lyl re restricted. - 






Opening General Session 

Sunday Evening, March lh - 2 - 



have crises also in the cost of medical care, in the insolvency of city 
governments, in the overburdening of social services, and in the plight of 
certain transportation industries points to something out of kilter in the 
national economy* That subject is beyond us this evening, let alone beyond 
my own brief comments upon the Carnegie Commission's splendid work* It might 
be noted in passing, meanwhile, that the banks are full of money that citizens 
last year raised personal savings from 6 to 7^* and that creature comforts 
continue to increase. As a local item one could point to the explosion of 
sales this winter in snowmobiles, which average, I believe, about *>900* Still 
the taxpayers are in revolt about the cost of public services; and higher 
education at the moment hangs literally in the balance. 

My own position, which I warned at the outset is a bat one for a spokesman 
on the subject, forces me to say that we simply must have the focus of public 
attention on our financial crisis. The Carnegie Commission was not charged 
to make a crisis report. Others are being issued from several sources. 

Meanwhile, there are, I believe, things that the Carnegie Commission could 
do to help the public understand the crisis. With its national prominence it 
could help direct the nation's attention to a basic error in thinking about 
college education* This is the same error which was implicit in the President's 
message of last September* 

The error in the public thinking is that college education is a commodity. 
Extending the error is the belief that college education is a commodity which 
a person by various means purchases for his own benefit, like a suit of clothes, 
or a book on how to win friends and influence people, or ? set of weights to 
increase his biceps and chest capacity. 

Higher education is not a commodity. The chief b-neficiary of higher 
education is not the person who gains its credits and degrees. Higher education 
is a series of experiences which, if sudcessful, create changes. These changes 
enable a human being to be of greater value to society. Society in turn depends 
upon positive human changes happening if it is to survive. The beneficiary is 
society itself. 

The individual benefits too, of course. But what he becomes capable of 
doing as a result of his education benefits society well beyond himself. To 
prove this it is not necessary to point to a Charles Hall who in a laboratory 
at Oberlin College in the l 880 's discovered the electrolytic process of 
producing aluminum. Thomas Edison, after all, never went to college. No, the 
social benefits we derive from higher education are more broadly diffused than 
that. Brought together, they can make the difference between an enlightened 
society of men and women and a mass of humanoids who will either stay at dead- 
level or who will fall back into varying stages of retrogression. 

When economic times are bad, or should we say recessed, the commodity 
view of higher education increases. A clear fallacy in the commodity theory 
of collegia exists today in the unemployment among our most highly educated 
including over £0,000 Ph.D.'s, yet the economic subtleties involved are not 
well understood. 



Opening General Session 
Sunday Evening, March II 4 



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When students demonstrate, the commodity view of the public toward education 
becomes a club wielded with zeal by old grads, hard hats, legislators, and 
here and there a state governor* The thought that young people should behave 
so badly after all that charity and taxes have given toward their education 
brings many people, including some who have gone to college, to the point of 
fury* Few administrators would be rash enough to suggest that students now 
and then might be demonstrating for a long-range benefit to society which 
has not yet reached its time* (Unhappily, the manner in which some of them 
demonstrate too often tips the balance into disruption* ) 

Higher education as social benefit above individual benefit had its day 
following the Soviet Sputnik in October, 1957* All at once the public 
realized that the university does have something to do with national well- 
being* A period ensued characterized by public claims such as that we should 
"start rocketry in kindergarten* 11 The social benefit attached to college 
education I fear was mainly identified with the production of celestial 
hardware* Then in July, 1969, the Americans got to the moon first; and thus 
the 12-year saga of educational excellence was declared successfully condluded. 

The current Carnegie proposals for a three-year baccalaureate, for credit 
for outside experience, and for other types of extramural education axe being 
widely studied. They will have large impact upon educational process in the next 
few years. With the critical financial state that colleges are in, we should 
be driven to explore such options even if they did not have a solid educational 
rationale behind them. 

In 2 curious way, nevertheless, the new emphasis upon non-residential and 
career-centered methods of gaining a college degree could make college look 
even more like a commodity to the public* Not a few may become re-convinced 
that four campus years spent roaming from dormitory to classroom to library 
to student union to gymnasium does indeed represent a waste of expensive time: 
"See, you can get it all by smart living and reading a book now and then." 

If we plunge into short courses, three-year degrees, credit for outside 
experience, and all the rest, will there be a remaining case at all for 
residential four-year baccalaureate education? Perhaps the case cannot be 
made. If so, it is time after three centuries that we admitted it. 

There will be nagging persistence among some of us that college education 
once again is not a commodity that can be wrapped up in various sizes and 
dispensed over the counter according to the customer's taste* The trouble is, 
we never have discovered how to determine when a person can be said to have 
become college-educated* We don't know the inside ingredients or the mental 
processes that go into it* Nor do we know how to distinguish a coliege- 
educated person in the best liberated sense from a person who has gone through 
the same four years, passed his courses and exams and received his diploma, 
and who may thereafter live his life as a narrow, self-serving soul incapable 
ever again of absorbing a new thought. 

Perhaps the case for residential college cannot be made. We might be 
facing the era of its passing. Economic indices alone have all but written 
the epitaph for its headstone. If so, let us make the obsequies brief, lower 



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Opening General Session - L| - 

Sunday Evening, March II4 



the coffin quickly, and turn to other forms of dispensing higher learning. 

For it is not the particular forms of higher learning we should be fighting 
to preserve. What needs most to be said is that higher learning, yet once 
ar*ain, is not a commodity. Higher learning is a process of human growth and 
change. It can happen through self-teaching or through contact with broadening 
experience; or it can happen best when campus conditions under fine professors 
are brought together in deliberate ways so that time, steady influence, and 
freedom from distraction can all work to produce the growth-changes in people 
which our future society must have if it is to survive. 

I spoke briefly of the era of the r 60 *s when we were pursuing excellence 
by shooting at the moon. Something else happened during that decade. It was 

a turbulent, anxious time as it still is today. Yet in that decade there 

grew on many a campus for the first time perhaps the base of a widespread 

belief in the humanity of all men: rich and poor, black and white, man and 

woman, American and Asian, educated and uneducated. 

Students have pressed this credo upon their elders. They accuse the elders 
of refusing to practice humanity in national policy or even in the educational 
processes on the campus itself. Younger professors, some of whom started the 
decade as undergraduates, have joined the new priesthood of believers. Young 
doctors and young lawyers are turning from more lucrative aspects of their 
trade to do service in needy places* Such idealism is hard for some to keep 
at a time when we have been incapable of removing ourselves from a brutal and 
futile war overseas. Still it has come out of this past decade. 

If we can maintain the humane spirit and at the same time retain substance 
and process in higher learning, then 1 believe the campuses might still lead the 
way to an era finer than any we have seen. There is on American campuses a 
current desire to connect education with a wider view of humanity. Some of its 
implications are disturbing; some of its protagonists appear intolerant and 
at times irrational. Anti-intellectualism on campus is always a paradox. 
Demonology and animalism as reactions to academe are so grotesque as to be hard 
to believe. 

Yet good things are happening also. They carry an importance for higher 
education as growth rather than as commodity* The current press toward 
environmental studies is a student growth reaction that is typically promising. 
The mass reception of Lord Clark*s magnificent film series, "Civilisation," 
is another. 

If we could have a Carnegie report which makes clear, not just to educators 
but to the public, what is happening that is good and important on campus 
today, it might help inspire a public confidence without which the funding 
of higher education becomes progressively impossible * Some of the Commission 
reports have presented elements of this: contributions by Howard Bovjen, 

Harold Hodgkinson, Kenneth Kenniston*, We need a summation, I believe, that 
can speak for the higher learning in ways that our misunderstanding public, 
increasingly our antagonistic public, can hear and perhaps heed. 



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Opening General Session - J> - 

Sunday Evening, March ill 



Few thinking persons could disagree with Clark Kerr that higher education 
is not granted a manifest destiny. Probably we never had it. What we had 
were the traditions of the select few. The select few brought along the 
heritage of knowledge and culture. In this, America's first three hundred 
years, or at least the first 2!5>0, were not greatly different from Periclean 
Athens or Florence of the Medicis. The Land Grant College, to be sure, was a 
different thrust. Still it remained for decades under the influence of an 
economy of scarcity in higher education. 

Now we have embarked upon an adventure to bring higher learning to the 
many. We are finding — and why should it surprise anyone — that it is costly to 
do this. The public is balking at paying the price. Still, other elements 
of society are asking that the price be paid. It is less costly, they say, 
than continual war overseas or revolution at home between the haves and have- 
nots. Of course, it will be up to higher education to make those inferences 
valid. 

It is worth our effort to seek more effective ways and more efficient 
ways of bringing higher education to the many. Meanwhile, we must keep working 
to persuade the public that a full investment in higher learning for the many 
will be the best investment we ever made. If the investment does not return 
to ourselves, then it will to our great-grandchildren. Let us end on the hope 
that we may be fortunate enough to have them. 



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