More Better Citizens: Obama's Higher-Education Agenda, Part 4B of 8

Peter Wood

This is the mid-point in my series of articles on President Obama’s agenda for higher education. Beginning with Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda in early February, I said I would post a series examining the eight major components of his plans for higher education, and then try to put them together as a whole. In part one of the series, Supersizing, I reviewed the president’s dream of ushering in a gargantuan expansion of higher education. In part two, I looked at his proposed use of Price Controls. In part three, College for All, I traced his evolving theme of sending all American high-school graduates to a least one year of formal postsecondary education. In part four, Better Citizens, I looked at some of the ways Obama has sought to use colleges to promote progressive values among students.

I take this effort to promote progressive values to be the heartbeat of Obama’s higher education policies. He has other goals too, but shaping students into supporters and supporters into political activists is what brings the rest to life.

In “Better Citizens,” I focused on three parts of the beating heart: his blurring of the line between academic study and political action in the 2008 presidential race; his successful grab for extraordinary new power over higher education in 2010, when “Direct Lending” for student loans was heaped onto the Protection and Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—with virtually no debate; and his appointment that same year of a “Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement” that has just recently delivered its report calling for a new kind of “civics education” that would put progressive political aspirations front and center in the college curriculum.

These three seemingly disparate elements are joined together as part of an inclination to make higher learning a handmaiden to ideology. It is an approach that has little patience for colleges and universities as an independent and autonomous part of civil society, and instead makes them subordinate to political aims. In this “part B” of part four of the series, I want to round out that picture by looking at the ways Obama’s diversity policies, his proposed loan forgiveness for public service, the Common Core State Standards, and his much earlier involvement with an organization called Public Allies show his overall determination to use higher education as a tool of political ideology.

But First

But first some historical context. There is plenty of precedent for using higher education as a tool to advance a political ideology—but it is a precedent from Europe and other parts of the world. The dominant but eroding tradition in the United States has been for colleges and universities to maintain a wary distance from partisan politics. George Washington wanted to establish a national university, but was unable to carry the argument. Thomas Jefferson effectively won the debate by successfully founding the University of Virginia, which embodied a civic ideal for higher education but not a political program.

Behind that debate in the early republic was the history of universities in Europe, where universities had never enjoyed much real autonomy and were often directly responsive to rulers eager to advance one or another ideology. During the “Great Schism” in the 14th century, when the papacy was divided between two rival claimants, the idea of a studium generale, the university as an institution founded on universal principles and under an authority that transcended local politics, hit an insurmountable barrier. Which authority? The pope in Avignon or the one in Rome? Universities that claimed to be above the fray were now clearly in it. As Paolo Nardi, a professor of history at the University of Siena, puts it in his contribution to A History of the University in Europe:

The Paris studium offered the most intense turmoil and the most bitter internal divisions between its nations and the faculties until the supporters of Clement VII won the day with the decisive backing of the French kings…[T]he firmly Clementist attitude of the French crown caused irremediable divisions among the teachers of the Paris studium, preventing freedom of discussion and driving opponents into exile (1383). Nor did Urbanist ardour abate; in 1384 Pope Urban VI launched an active university policy, granting Vienna a faculty of theology and in 1385 founding the Heidelberg studium, whose masters at once refused to recognize academic degrees awarded in Paris by the Clementist chancellor.

Wade into the history of the university in Europe where you will, from the 14th century to the 21st, and you will find universities and their faculties positioning themselves as political actors, and political actors using universities to advance their programs.

The United States has never been immune to the temptation. But various circumstances held it in check. The sectarian origins and rivalries among American colleges made them poor soil for growing larger political ideologies. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1818 in the Dartmouth case, where Daniel Webster successfully argued that a private college should not be subject to the political interference of a state legislature, established a guiding principle:

It is the case not merely of that humble institution. It is the case of every college in the country.

The rise of the research university and the prestige of values-neutral scientific inquiry raised a still higher wall against the politicization of higher education. And the AAUP’s 1915 founding Declaration of Principles insisted that, though faculty members had an inviolable right to speak freely about the scholarly controversies in their disciplines, they were also under an inviolable obligation to refrain from engaging in politicization of their positions:

To the degree that professional scholars, in the formation and promulgation of their opinions, are, or by the character of their tenure appear to be, subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted; its proper influence upon public opinion is diminished and vitiated; and society at large fails to get from its scholars, in an unadulterated form, the peculiar and necessary service which it is the office of the professional scholar to furnish.

This is an affirmation of the ancient ideal of the studium generale, minus the circumstances that hung university faculties between the dueling authority of two popes. The American university had one pope: the scientific pursuit of truth.

On the other hand, the Morrill Act in 1862 establishing land grant universities, the GI Bill in 1944, and the Higher Education Act in 1965 all lean in the direction of more state control and therefore more likelihood of colleges and universities being drawn into political strife. And, of course, beginning in the 1960s, the cultural bulwark that had kept the university at a remove from politics began to crumble. The demand to make college “relevant” translated into making higher education a kite flying in the windy skies of political passions. The Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron Statementlaid out a vision of the universities as the new engine of progressive politics.

President Obama’s policies owe distinctly more to the Port Huron Statement, than, say, Daniel Webster’s pleading before the Supreme Court in 1818 or the AAUP defending academic freedom in 1915.


On December 2, 2011, the Departments of Justice and Education released a “joint guidance” for colleges and universities urging them to be as expansive and aggressive as possible in their use of racial preferences. The documents are offered as the current government’s reading of what is allowed under the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor permitted the University of Michigan Law School to use race as a factor in “wholistic assessment” of applicants, as long as this was justified as a step in pursuit of “diversity.”

Before this new DOJ/DOE “Guidance,” the Supreme Court and the Bush-era Department of Education had issued opinions that pointed in the opposite direction: “diversity” as a goal of college admissions departments was permitted but only within fairly narrow limits. “Quotas” were disallowed and the institutions (said the Bush DOE guidelines) were under an obligation, “Before using race” to make “a serious good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives.”

I’ll reserve most of what I have to say about this policy to part 5 of the series, which will deal entirely with Obama’s diversity policy. What I want to note here is that the joint DOJ/DOE Guidance is explicitly about promoting a set of political values. The authors of the Guidance take it as entirely proper to use the powers of two major executive departments to advance this program. They do not justify it as a measure to rectify any historical injustice or to improve the quality of education in the United States. Rather, the Guidance declares that the pursuit of “diversity” by means of racial preferences in college and university admissions is a way of creating “learning environments” which foster “interaction” among “students who have different perspectives and life experiences.”

Why should that be important? The Guidance offers only very thin and somewhat circular explanations. “Such interaction is an education in itself.” Colleges and universities have already decided “diversity” is a “compelling interest.” It will produce “benefits” (of an undescribed nature) for the “educational, economic, and civic life of the nation.”And students, will of course, “sharpen their critical thinking and analytical skills.”

Behind these pretexts and evasions, of course, lies the simple desire to reinforce an official ideology by giving it as much institutional warrant and government backing as possible. This about propping up a leaning tower of suppositions.

Loan Forgiveness

The idea of forgiving student loans under various conditions was enacted into law shortly before Obama came to office. He endorsed it and has repeatedly expanded it.

The pre-Obama 2007 College Cost Reduction Act created a program that went into effect in July 2009 that allows to individuals who pursue careers in government and nonprofit organizations to pay off their student loans at reduced rates scaled to their income, and then erases what’s left of the loans after ten years of service. This “Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness Program” (PSLF) is a big incentive for college graduates to prefer public-service jobs over private-sector opportunities—a bit of Greek public policy in the United States. That same 2007 Act created a system whereby individuals not in government service could limit their loan payments to 15 percent of their “discretionary income” and have the remaining portion of their student-loan debt forgiven after 25 years.

Obama has taken a series of steps to make all these terms easier. The details get complicated, but under Obama’s “Pay As You Earn” program, monthly loan payments are cut from 15 percent to 10 percent of monthly discretionary income and the debt vanishes entirely at 20 years instead of 25.

Those were some of the steps Obama announced in October 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests. He acted by Executive Order, so Congressional approval was bypassed, and he accelerated to January 2012 some steps that had already been enacted but were to take effect in 2014.

While the Occupy Wall Street protesters complaining about their student loans seems to have re-focused Obama’s attention, he had addressed the topic earlier. In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama called for expansion of the 2007 legislation, and his changes went into effect in July 2010. The “income based repayment” system (IBR) is tracked by a nonprofit group called which explains the good news that “some people are eligible for IBR who were not before.”

IBRinfo also provides a handy explanation of the October 2011 changes and there is a White House Fact Sheet that offers still more detail.

An interesting sidelight on loan forgiveness for public service recently emerged. Under Bush, the kinds of “public service” that qualified for loan forgiveness on the short schedule  did not include public service in religious institutions, labor unions, or partisan political groups. The exclusion of religious organizations initially did not include nonprofits affiliated with religious groups, such as sectarian based hospitals and social welfare agencies. In 2008 and 2009, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program issued rules that excluded people working in those nonprofits in positions that involved worship, but on January 31 this year, the PSLF folks issued new guidelines that narrowed still further the definition of workplaces that qualify. It looks as though most of the people employed in these religiously-affiliated agencies will no longer be eligible for loan forgiveness.

The irony hasn’t been lost on people working for charitable groups who find that for the purposes of the Obamacare provisions covering employer-provided health-care coverage for contraception, abortion, and sterilization, they are just like everyone else; but when it comes to forgiveness of student loans, they are in a separate category.

But let’s not lose sight of the larger point. When Obama took over the federally subsidized student-loan industry in 2010 and consolidated it as “Direct Lending,” he created a situation in which a vast number of students were suddenly direct clients of the government, rather than customers of many different lenders. The patron-client model was pregnant with political implications, among them the need for students to look to federal authorities for more favorable treatment of their financial obligations. Loan forgiveness and reduced payment schedules had already been invented by Congress during the Bush administration. Obama has now found how useful these tools can be as instruments of reward and punishment.

Common Core State Standards

I have written about the Common Core State Standards several times (in The Core Between the States and The Core Conundrum) and will do so again as part 6 of this series, but they deserve a special mention in this part of my policy analysis under the heading of “Better Citizens.” The Common Core State Standards are, of course, an initiative in K-12 education and are being promoted by the transparent fiction that they have originated in the minds of state officials and have been “voluntarily” adopted by 45 states. The reality is that the Obama administration has devised a way around the Constitutional and statutory obstacles to the federal government setting in place a national school curriculum.

The Common Core is not a completely done deal. Some states are belatedly resisting; it may face legal challenges; and teachers who are beginning to encounter the ways it dumbs down instruction and thwarts good teaching are beginning to speak up. Jeremiah Chaffee, an upstate New York English teacher, for example reports in the Washington Post about how the Common Core recommends teachers teach the Gettysburg Address. One of Chaffee’s comments seems especially pertinent. The “exemplar” he and his follow teachers worked with advised them to:

“avoid giving any background context” because the Common Core’s close reading strategy “forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all.”

A context-free Gettysburg Address? The scripted lesson prohibited the teachers from talking about funerals or memorial services as unwarranted “context.”

Note the “level the playing field” explanation of why instruction must be (impossible as this is) shorn of all context. This is a curriculum that fetichizes “fairness” at the expense of learning. Students must be treated as equally ignorant, which of course, drastically dampens their learning from one another.

The Common Core, to the extent it actually becomes the baseline of K-12 instruction in the United States, will in a decade or so be primarily responsible for what students who attend college bring with them to the college classroom. What exactly that will be is hard to say, but it is beginning to look a lot like banality. The Obama administration has put its priority on educational egalitarianism pitched to average or slightly below average intellectual talent and cultural amnesia. It has a program for standardizing that into public schools coast to coast. In place of education as a path to intellectual enrichment, we will have education as a path to even greater social conformity.

Public Allies

Diversity, student-loan forgiveness, and the Common Core are of the moment. The Obama administration is pursuing them to advance a variety of policy goals but each also contributes something important to the broader goal of using education to shape students into “socially aware” political actors grounded in progressive values. Where did this approach come from?

It seems rooted in Obama’s early experience as a community organizer, and it has a specific precedent in an organization called “Public Allies.” Obama joined the founding advisory board of Public Allies in 1992, just after finishing his degree at Harvard Law school. Stanley Kurtz in Radical-in-Chief supplies some of the key history:

Public allies was founded by Vanessa Kirsch, a Democratic Party activist and leader of a network of “young progressive women.” Kirsch designed Public Allies to connect young people to left-leaning community organization, non-profits, and government agencies. A stress on “diversity and multiculturalism” was common to the organization, but the three local pilot programs would each have a unique focus. The Washington branch would concentrate on placements in government, for example, while the Chicago program would focus on drawing young people into community organizing.

Public Allies Chicago recruited about 30 students each year and placed them in ten-month apprenticeships, essentially training them to become political activists. Eventually Obama stepped down from the board to avoid a conflict of interest after he persuaded his fellow board members to appoint Michelle Obama to head Public Allies’ Chicago office.

We can learn a bit more about Public Allies from Michelle Obama’s  column, “From the Director” in the Public Allies Chicago Newsletter, “Check-In.” In the Winter 1995 issue she explained: 

In the spirit of National Service, Public Allies Chicago is “getting things done!” We began our second year in September with 40 Allies selected from over 300 applicants. Allies represent the diversity of the city with a class that is 44% African-Americans; 25% Latinos; 18% Caucasian; 10% Asian-American; and 3% Native American. Further, 43% are male; 57% female; 25% fall between the ages 18-21; 68% range from 22-25; 7% are within the ages of 26-30; 23% have either a high school diploma or GED; 33% have attended college, and 44% are college graduates.”

Public Allies is Obama’s approach to higher education in microcosm. Education and indoctrination are, in this context, indistinguishable. And the goal of both is to recruit.

This article originally appeared on March 25, 2012 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.


Obama’s Higher-Ed Agenda

Supersizing: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 1 of 8

Price Controls: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 2 of 8

College for All: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 3 of 8

Better Citizens: Obama's Higher-Education Agenda, Part 4A of 8

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