In the 1967 movie, "The Graduate," Dustin Hoffman plays a kid right out of college who, like many a real-life kid, can't decide what to do with his life. At a party, an older man gives him some blunt career advice: "Plastics."
In real life the part of that older man could be played by William Bennett, the secretary of education, who has some equally blunt advice for kids heading for college: Consider business instead.
It was Bennett, the creator of the term "counterfactual," who said that if his own son came to him one day and said he wanted the $50,000 promised for his college tuition to instead "start a little business," he "might think that was a good idea." I, for one, think Bennett's being countertruthful. We all know his kid's going to Harvard.
It is terribly trendy of Bennett to denigrate higher education. A holder of graduate degrees (philosophy, law), a former college teacher and a champion of both liberal arts and the classics, he has nevertheless chosen to slum with the politically fashionable. His newly adopted school of intellectual thought is Entrepreneurial Hype and his text is Time magazine's celebration of the profit-making summer Olympics. The business of America is once again business.
But it does not take a brace of degrees to understand that when you choose between an investment in a college education or in "a little business" you are comparing apples and oranges. They are both worthwhile, but different. College is the place where, as the new dean of the Yale Law School, Guido Calabresi, told his students, you can "just let yourself go intellectually." The idea is not to turn a profit, but to turn an idea or even, if you have to settle, a phrase. Even so, education frequently enriches more than the mind. The stock portfolio often follows suit.
In fact, Bennett himself recently wrote an essay for The Washington Post defending the liberal arts from those who contend it "never put a scrap of gold or silver in anyone's pocket." It does, too, Bennett insisted. He then went on to make the case that liberal arts graduates actually hold jobs and make money -- sometimes lots of it. His article was directed toward those young people who think that only computer scientists earn a living and everyone else flips burgers at McDonald's.
We all know the value of education, and surely Bennett knows it better than most. Why then is he championing the new yahooism -- the mindless ethic in which profit and private enterprise are exalted as the equal of knowledge and wisdom? The answer has to do with ideology and policy. Conservative ideology (although not necessarily Bennett's) holds that too many kids are in college anyway. Policy mandates that tuition assistance programs be cut. Bennett's just telling those about to get the shaft not to take it too hard: They're not missing anything.
The plain fact is that if the administration gets its way, some people will not be going to college -- and lacking the requisite 50-grand, not into a "little business" either. Others will be settling for colleges they don't really want. Bennett's boss, the president, has proposed making students from families with incomes of $32,500 or more ineligible for subsidized loans. The administration has also proposed a $4,000 yearly cap on federal aid to any student. Even a philosophy major can figure out that with private college costs running as high as $14,000 a year, neither $32,500 in income nor $4,000 in grants is going to get junior a raccoon coat and sheepskin.
The upshot is that some kids are not going to be able to do what Bennett himself did in an era when college was a lot cheaper. A one-time scholrship kid, he worked, saved and scrimped to get his degrees. Now other kids may not be able to do the same. This may or may not be mandated by fiscal reality and it may be the only way to ensure a college education for the very poor; but it has to mean the end of the dream for lots of kids. They want what Bennett once had -- college, not the "little business," which can come later.
Bennett has stood the story of "The Graduate" on its head. When he was young, he knew what he wanted. It's only now that he's confused. He's the secretary of education. But he thinks he's the secretary of commerce.