The Obamas' Jeffersonian Moment

Last week I sat with about 100 other college and university presidents invited by the White House to discuss boosting access to and success in higher education. We spoke about the myriad ways that big public universities, like UC Berkeley, and small liberal arts schools, like Wesleyan University (my institution) are reaching out beyond the usual suspects to find talented folks from across the economic spectrum.

Michelle Obama was introduced by Troy Simon, a young man whose life was turned upside down in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He explained how he went from being an illiterate, angry and disruptive adolescent to putting in the hours and hours of extra work to learn to read and acquire math skills "I saw my brothers and sisters heading down the same path," he said, "and decided to change my life." He spoke with confidence and poise, attributes he had clearly earned as he joined a cohort now studying at Bard College.

The First Lady spoke passionately about how education changed her own life -- how she learned from her older brother that someone like her could indeed have access to an Ivy League education. Adapting to the ways of Princeton wasn't simple, but growing up in Chicago, she had already had to do a lot of quick thinking and adapting to change.

I reflected back to my own college days at Wesleyan in the 1970s. My parents didn't go to college, and at first I found campus life and the course catalog more than a little confusing. I certainly didn't call home for advice, but I was fortunate to have small classes and devoted professors who helped me find my own direction.

The President spoke, too, about how education changed the trajectory of his family's life. "My mother had me when she was just 18 years old," he reminded us, "yet she had the support she needed to complete her education and eventually earn a Ph.D." Social mobility depends on education, and American can't afford to become a place where only the children of the wealthy have access to opportunity.

When the Obamas link education, opportunity and social mobility, they are drawing on deep currents in American history. Thomas Jefferson argued that only through education could the people be counted on to govern themselves. Although blinded by his racist and sexist prejudices, access to instruction regardless of wealth was a key component of his political vision. Government was responsible for ensuring access for those who could not afford to pay for themselves. Jefferson thought that the health of the Republic would depend on its ability to renew itself by finding talent of the first rank, and he developed a system that would find gifted young people who previously would have been overlooked because they hadn't come from the "right families." "The best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually," and the state would be able to benefit from, "those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated."

Raking the rubbish for the talented who would then be cultivated at the public expense would prevent the creation of permanent elites based on wealth that would try to turn the government's powers to their own private advantage. Privilege for this revolutionary was the enemy, and he was determined to undermine it through education.

Jefferson believed strongly that given the variability in human capacities and energy there would always be elites -- his notion of equality was an equality of access or opportunity, not an equality in which everybody wins. But he also believed strongly that without a serious effort to find and cultivate new talent, the nation's elites would harden into an "unnatural aristocracy," increasingly privileged, corrupt and inept. His plan for the "diffusion of knowledge" aimed to create a basic level of knowledgeable citizens while providing the most talented among them with the ability to become tomorrow's elites -- a "natural aristocracy," as he called it.

Despite their many differences, we can see in Jefferson and the Obamas a common commitment to a broad, open-ended education as a vehicle for disrupting entrenched elites. When the best educational resources are dominated by the wealthiest, they become an elite bent on cultivating their pleasures rather than on extending knowledge and cultural vitality. If you want examples, just go see The Wolf of Wall Street. They become an "unnatural aristocracy," using the university system as an extension of their privilege.

That's why the Obama administration called this summit of university leaders to discuss how to expand access to and success at colleges and universities. But the administration must do more than convene. The Federal Government can cut off those schools that use the current system of loan guarantees to prop up profits rather than to facilitate degree completion. And the Feds can create incentives for all colleges and universities to invest in access and academic success rather than amenities to attract elites.

And we academic leaders must do more than talk. We must reach out to find highly capable students from outside existing elites. This is what schools did decades ago in becoming coeducational -- they began to break down gender elitism. Now we must follow a parallel path in regard to economic elitism.

Some may argue that this is just a cynical ploy to cover up the dependence of these schools on those very elites. It is certainly true that almost all highly selective schools depend on philanthropy to support financial aid, and that these funds are often limited. But our financial aid programs must not just become thin veils to cover entrenched privilege. They must be robust enough to ensure the presence on campus of a critical mass of students whose parents did not attend college, or whose economic circumstances prevent them from easy access to the pathways for success in this country.

I often come across tours on our campus, the parents looking especially lost, or the students looking particularly intimated by the whole process. Remembering my own visits years ago, I try to ensure that these families get a strong sense of the deep promise and possibility of undergraduate education. As Jefferson announced as our nation was founded, and as the Obamas reinforced last week, it is essential that we make that promise and possibility available to more than just the usual suspects. For the sake of the quality of our education, and for the sake of the future of our country, we must ensure that college remains a vehicle for social mobility, not just a cement of social privilege.