Friday, March 9, 2012

Again on Reagan and education: A California academic speaks

Initially, I had planned to write on the media response to Reagan's primary victory over George Christopher.  Unfortunately, nothing I found was really sparking my interest.  In the meantime, I ran across some interesting material related to last week's post on Reagan impact upon education.

I've been reading an obscure little paper back authored by Reagan's former personal secretary Helen Von Damm--Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.  The book is largely composed of correspondence Reagan engaged in while governor of California.  Unfortunately, Von Damm sought to organize the material more as chapters in an overview of Reagan and his political philosophy, and often omitted information that would be of great interest to the historian (i.e., specifically who the correspondence was addressed to, the date, background occasioning the letter, etc.)  Nevertheless, I found the following statement by Reagan on the purpose of education quite interesting:
Education is not the means of showing people how to get what they want.  Education is an exercise by means of which enough men, it is hoped, will learn to want what is worth having. -- Ronald Reagan (Von Damm, 1976, p. 88)
Clearly this is the not the perspective of the troglodyte anti-intellectual that Reagan was so often pilloried as being. Indeed, even some liberal educators of California came to recognize that truth over the course of Reagan's governorship.  Today's post closes with Von Damm's account of a letter sent to Governor Reagan by a California academic.
Another unexpected letter came from a state university administrator.  "Well," began the letter, "I guess I need to say that, in my judgment and after eight years of your administration, you've been a damn good governor.

"There is of course the fiction that you've destroyed either the University of California or the California State University and Colleges, or both, but you know and I know--and every thoughtful, analytic person knows--that is not true.  Indeed, in my judgment, while you might have been from time to time too tight on the reins your overall support for higher education, and especially the CSUC, has been adequate and beneficial.

"But your contribution has been in another direction, really:  forcing us in higher education to reexamine our beliefs, our values, our directions, our policies, and procedures.  In a certain sense your very early 'cut, squeeze, and trim' proposal (remember the 10 percent across-the-board cutback in early 1967?) got our attention in the same way the mule-master gets the attention of the mule--you sure got my attention, and in the last seven years I've come to see that a great deal, most if not all, of what you were trying to say to my colleagues and me surely makes sense, academically and fiscally.

My 'conversion' started, but did not finish, during the year...of greatest activism:  the moratoria [sic], the Cambodian incursion, and the actual use of violence.  I think, until that year, I really didn't believe in my heart that faculty members could be so irresponsible, that their 'liberal principles' were so damn flexible as not to be principles but mere prejudices and whims.  I learned; and you do not know it, but you helped teach me--you went to most [of] the CSUC board meetings then, and spoke, and I tried to listen and understand.  Finally, I did.

Hence this letter, which is an awkward attempt to express a kind of belated appreciation.  You've been a good governor, and equally important, a good educator in the lessons you've taught.  I only wish it were you, and not the governor-elect, who'd occupy your office for the next four years. (Von Damm, 1976, pp. 64-65)

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