Fascism and Higher Education


THE early Americans were determined that education should be free from political control. Being liberals in the original and true sense of the term, they believed in the integrity of the individual as opposed to the despotism of the state. This integrity or dignity of the individual was, of course, basic in democracy. Among other things, it implied the right of the citizenry to think independently, to seek truth honestly, and to determine without political interference what should constitute the education of their children.

One cannot understand American institutions unless he remembers that they were established by a people emerging from mediæval despotism and acutely conscious of the dangers of totalitarian government. To borrow from Knickerbocker Holiday, they preferred the inefficiencies of democracy, ‘government by amateurs,’ to the efficiency, economies, and effective methods of dictatorship.

Hence these early Americans undertook to set up the kind of government and social order which would contain certain essential safeguards against that despotism to which a corrupt society always reverts. These safeguards consisted in the series of checks and counterchecks characteristic of our form of government and now under attack by those more concerned for efficiency than for protection from a forgotten despotism. That such checks and safeguards also exist in our educational system is not so generally recognized.

It was the experienced judgment of these early liberals that education, religion, and the press should be free from political domination. These were the institutions of thought. They had to be untrammeled if the individual was to be free. Hence it came about that early America produced a peculiar system of education, its outstanding characteristic that it was to be supported and controlled by the people, by parents, by citizens — but not by the state.

First evidence of this principle was the establishment of academies and colleges which were supported and controlled by the people or by the churches

— not by the government. Second, more striking and quite incomprehensible to a European, was the system of boards of education in wards, townships, cities, counties, and ultimately in states. To ensure the independence of these boards from the parallel groups exercising political control, they were given the power of raising taxes separate and apart from those imposed by the governmental units. The fact that politics and politicians appeared on these boards should not be misleading. The boards of education, however corrupt some might have been, were nevertheless free from the control of the local or state government

— just as free as the electorate wanted them to be.

A third evidence of this rather amazing principle is found in the Constitution of the country, in which the federal government was assigned only those responsibilities specifically named, from the list of which education was purposely and conspicuously absent. Thus educational activity was prohibited to the federal government and, indeed, left to the states only by inference. In the states it was taken over largely by the counties, cities, and townships, and within these units by boards separately elected and possessing their own powers of taxation. The system was clumsy, inefficient, duplicative, and decentralized, but its implications were inescapable.

More recently there has developed another evidence of the American principle of separation of education and the state, in the incredible system of voluntary and independent accrediting associations. To a European, past or present, this situation is as weird as Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass. Here are universities, junior colleges, municipal colleges, and high schools, all supported by the state, grouped with academies and colleges independently supported and controlled — and all being accredited or discredited by voluntary associations holding no charter or authority from the government and operating indiscriminately across state lines. These voluntary associations are the New England, the Middle States, the North Central, the North West, and the Southern Associations of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the Association of American Universities, and the American Association of Teachers Colleges. These associations exercise final authority in the areas indicated by their titles.

To one used to state control, as it exists in France or elsewhere in Europe, this is a phenomenon, if not an absurdity. But to the student of despotism all of these American phenomena are the crude and clumsy weapons of an emerging liberalism fighting against a constantly recurring pattern of governmental despotism and centralized dictatorship.


That the absence of such safeguards is dangerous is proved by the conditions in Europe to-day. In continental Europe, virtually all institutions of learning and all higher education are supported and controlled by the state. In three of the most important nations there has arisen a mediæval dictatorship streamlined by modern propaganda and dominating the processes of thought. In none of these several nations did the universities constitute an obstacle to reaction; they became involved without a struggle. A few individual professors protested before their escape or liquidation, but the universities immediately became the champions of all that the degenerating state demanded.

The tragedy of this situation is illustrated in Germany, where the universities had been noted for their freedom of thought and their liberalism. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, to quote one scholar, ‘the philosophers Fichte and Schelling, the scholar and administrator Wilhelm von Humboldt, the preacher-humanist Friedrich Schleiermacher, and a number of others advanced the bold doctrine that a university exists primarily for the furtherance of knowledge, and that the state should not only guarantee the university freedom from political interference, but assume a positive responsibility for the promotion of scientific progress as well.’

The years during which such freedom was actually maintained in the German university might have argued against any danger in a higher education supported by the state. However, as always happens, there came a time when he who paid the piper called the tune. The demagogue and the totalitarian state appeared. The gymnasia and the university surrendered, without a struggle, all that had given them validity. The universities were centralized and made a mere branch of the national political system controlled by the party. The depths to which they fell can be expressed no better than in their own words: —

We renounce international science. We renounce the international republic of learning. We renounce research for its own sake. We teach and learn medicine, not to increase the number of known microbes, but to keep the German people strong and healthy. We teach and learn history, not to say how things actually happened, but to instruct the German people from the past. We teach and learn the sciences, not to discover abstract laws, but to sharpen the implements of the German people in their competition with other peoples.

The conclusion seems inevitable that state support of the German universities prepared the way for their immediate use by the totalitarian state, and that the universities were consequently of little value in maintaining the privileges of democracy or the rights of constitutional government. This was equally true in Italy and Russia. It may be predicted that, should dictatorship arise in France, the state-supported university will be its first instrument — not its last conquest.

Returning, for contrast, to the American system, we find within state education a series of safeguards already described. But more important than these technical devices is that ideal of education free from political control — an ideal which is sustained by the independent colleges and universities. So long as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Chicago, Lafayette, Washington and Jefferson, and others hold that ideal, it can never be seriously or permanently violated in the state-supported institutions. From the public elementary school to the state university, the comparative freedom from political domination and interference now enjoyed is defended and ensured by those parallel institutions which are actually independent. They are the champions. They set the tone. So long as they are free, the politically supported institutions will never be entirely enslaved.

The independently supported and controlled colleges are essential factors in the maintenance of the integrity of education in this nation.


There are dangers, however, within the present situation. Many of the checks against centralized and political control of education are being threatened or abandoned. School boards are being consolidated or eliminated in favor of larger areas and units. Desirable as this consolidation may be in other respects, it is nevertheless a move toward centralized control. The state has taken over more and more of the support of education in the township, city, or county. Whatever may have been the necessities under which this came about, the fact remains that it removes most of the power of the local school boards and places it in the hands of the state authority on education, which is direetly amenable to those in political office. The very principle of independent. taxation by a separate educational board is thereby abandoned. The funds contributed by the state are from the state treasury and a part of the general taxes levied under direction of those in political authority. Thus by subsidy the states break down the freedom of local boards of education.

The system by which accrediting of institutions is done by voluntary associations having no relationship to the state is under constant attack. States are attempting to take over the accrediting of colleges and schools and are placing the weight of their influence against accrediting by the associations.

Most striking of the attempts to break down the safeguards of the American system is the frequently agitated proposal to establish a federal department of education, which shall have at its head a secretary of cabinet rank.

Meanwhile, the camel pushes his nose into the tent. Federal aid for state education is asked by the Thomas and Larrabee bills now pending in the Senate and House respectively. Through the NYA with its aid for students and the WPA with its aid for state-supported institutions, the federal government now seeks for ways in which it may subsidize higher education. Every pretext is seized. The threat of war evokes a plan to initiate flying training on ‘ hundreds of campuses.’ The proposed extension of social security to the colleges will, it is prophesied, involve an ultimate contribution by the government of one third of the cost of the pensions. Every such contribution to the equipment, facilities, or expenses of educational institutions is, in the end, a method of invasion by subsidization. Further and more direct support will be ominous.

When such support has been accepted, control is certain, regardless of laws, safeguards, or even the Constitution. The holder of the purse strings will control, law or no law. The camel will then be within the tent. The former United States Commissioner of Education, President John J. Tigert of the University of Florida, states this clearly and authoritatively: —

We have shown that federal aid to the schools must be attended by federal control under present conditions if we are to avoid general waste and misuse of these funds. We have also pointed out that federal control will tend to become greater and that centralized operation of the schools is a menace to our institutions and ideals. ... If we turn over to the federal government the responsibility of the operation of our schools, we have forged the weapons whereby some able and self-seeking individual may some day transform our political, social, and economic system.

The most serious threat, however, against the freedom of all higher education lies in the danger imperiling independent colleges and universities. Paralyzing taxation of corporations, as well as business conditions, is reducing the endowment income of the colleges; while confiscatory taxes on private wealth and income dry up the only source from which support and endowments can come. Surplus wealth is being appropriated rapidly by state and federal government.

That gifts to colleges continue for the time being is nothing short of amazing. Apparently they indicate the determination of the American people that colleges, as well as other institutions, shall not pass into political control. These continuing gifts may also reflect the desperate attitude of those who contemplate the loss of their possessions through state appropriation and who wish to use a fraction of their money for the maintenance of these significant and nonpolitical institutions. Whatever the cause of current giving, the sources which make it possible will disappear if present governmental financial policies are continued.

The irony of the situation is, however, that these funds thus taken by confiscatory taxes from the support of the private colleges are used by the state to set up and enlarge duplicating and competing institutions under state control .

There are three methods by which the state is entering upon a devastating, wasteful, and destructive competition with the private college. The first is by the expenditure of huge funds to draw to state universities students quite capable of paying their way in either state universities or private colleges. For example, in the state of Pennsylvania great annual appropriations go to certain state-related universities. In return for such appropriations, these universities give quantities of large scholarships to students chosen by the politicians of the state. The students are frequently able to pay all of their expenses, and are frequently not deserving of scholarship appointments on any ground whatsoever. But the matter is entirely within the discretion of those holding political office. In cases without number, students who would pay their own way and be educated in private institutions are thus educated at the cost of the state and the taxpayer. The independent college is thus deprived of support and students at the taxpayers’ expense.

The second method by which competition at taxpayers’ expense is established is through the normal schools that are in many states being developed into low-grade liberal arts colleges and low-grade universities. Again Pennsylvania is an example of what is happening in many if not all states of the Union. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania there are fifty colleges and universities which are privately controlled, among them many of the best and strongest in the nation. They represent an investment of $122,000,000, none of it tax money. These colleges give annually in scholarship aid $4,391,000. They produce without cost to the state three thousand more qualified teachers each year than can be used in the state. Nevertheless, the state spends $1,860,000 a year to support fourteen teachers’ colleges, ten of which could be eliminated. The Commonwealth spends on teachers’ colleges $1,000,000 a year to do work much of which would be done better, and at no cost to the taxpayers, by independent colleges. To greater or lesser degree this holds for most of our states. In addition, the federal government is at this time spending $15,000,000 for additional buildings in these teachers’ colleges and in the state university, many of which are unjustified and unneeded. The teachers’ colleges have engaged in a steady propaganda to become liberal arts colleges, to secure greater appropriations, and, at the cost of the already overburdened taxpayer, to invade further the field now cared for without cost by the privately supported colleges and universities.

The third form of duplicating competition at public expense is in the establishment of municipal and junior colleges. The purpose of this movement is to give each town and bailiwick, regardless of its already great burden of taxation, regardless of its now inadequate elementary and secondary system of education, regardless of its poorly paid teachers — to give each such town its college. The standard of such colleges would inevitably be low. The greatest values of college and university are impossible in these overgrown high schools. Rather than achieving academic objectives, they tend to become parking places for the unemployed and to continue an impractical education for the masses. But low standards, community indebtedness, and educational needs at other levels do not stay the tide of this movement, and another threat against the independent colleges gathers strength and momentum.

There are several reasons for the insatiable extension of tax-supported education at the cost of private education, for the assumption of further financial burdens by already bankrupt towns and communities, and for the expenditure of public funds for the duplication of educational work already carried on without cost to the state. The first of these reasons is the blind and noble devotion of the American people to anything bearing the name of education. Second is the persuasive and unanswerable influence of great men doing a great work in the field of public education. Finally, however, there is a less happy cause: the politician welcomes any extension of power or patronage. To him it makes no difference whether it is new roads or new canals or new colleges. Anything which means more families on the public payroll, more votes under government subsidy, and more friends in positions of any kind, means more power to the man in political office. Hence it is that funds for colleges and universities can always be secured, and that the federal government as well as the state is eager to help by subsidizing existing or new institutions of learning.

No present-day politician in high office or low wants this power for fascistic or demagogic purposes. However, the day may come when he will be replaced by the demagogue who, like Huey Long of Louisiana, will find educational patronage no less effective a weapon than any other.


The danger, then, is that the state will either control through subsidy or stifle by competition the independent colleges and universities and thus destroy the champions of freedom in education. That the elimination of many if not all of these institutions which fail to accept government support is possible would be questioned by many. It may not be inevitable, but it is possible. ‘It can happen here.'

Nothing can be proved by analogy, but it is wise to recall that there was a time when the academies were powerful, numerous, and very significant in the education of this nation. Beginning in 1630, the academy movement reached its height in 1850, at which time there were 1007 academies in New England, 1636 in the Middle Atlantic States, 2640 in the South, and 753 in the upper Mississippi Valley. There was a total of 6086, with 12,260 teachers and an enrollment of 263,096 students. In the state of Pennsylvania alone there were 524 such academies. These institutions were venerable, the oldest in the country having been founded in the early eighteenth century. They were endowed as are our colleges to-day. The loyalties of distinguished alumni clustered about them; in them were educated the great and the good. Nothing, it was believed, could destroy these institutions, established in the name of religion, related to the church, eminent for scholarship and great teaching, endowed by good patrons, and entrenched in the hearts of alumni and public.

However, there appeared the public secondary school. From 1630 to 1750 it gained little ground. The arguments against it were not dissimilar to those now heard against the municipal colleges and the slate universities. But after 1850 these publicly supported schools began to grow. They doubled and redoubled in number and in student population until there are now approximately six million students in the public high schools. Most of the academies have been closed. Their properties, assets, and endowments were turned over, in most cases, to the public schools. Only a few of the original six thousand academies remain to-day.

This may or may not have been serious in the field of secondary education. Its corollary in the field of higher education, the closing of the independent colleges and universities, would, on the other hand, be a major tragedy. Not only have these colleges a peculiar and unique service to render, but, more significant in a totalitarian world, their closing would mean the passing of the last champions of the freedom of education from political control and domination.

It may be too much to hope that all of our independent colleges will survive. It would be well if some were to disappear. But it is essential to the maintenance of democracy in a fascistic age that most of the colleges shall survive, that they remain absolutely free from political fear or favor, that they stand like gigantic fortresses against the regimentation of thought by political dictatorship of any kind, and that they guard their sister institutions under state control from the dangers implicit in that form of support. This is a mission which justifies the independent college and university and which should demand unprecedented support from all who realize the significance of free, untrammeled, and liberal education.