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Read Grover Cleveland's eerily modern 1900 hot take on the value of college

via University of Illinois Urbana Champaign

Pieces arguing over whether college is "worth it," or if college "pays," constitute a pretty vibrant journalistic subgenre nowadays. Usually, doubts over the value of college are portrayed as the inevitable consequence of skyrocketing tuition and spiraling student debt.

But this debate is actually far older than the current student debt problem. Case in point: the May 26, 1900, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, the then-prominent weekly magazine. The cover story is titled "Does a College Education Pay," and it's authored by Grover Cleveland, who had finished his second term as president only three years prior:

Grover Cleveland — "Does a College Education Pay?"

I happened upon the article after my folks gave me a print of the original cover of the issue (at left below, next to the interior cover featuring the ex-president's image encased within crown molding or something):

Photo at left by Dylan Matthews; at right by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

"Those who antagonize collegiate education are always with us," Cleveland begins, already exhausted by a conversation that would continue for over a century more, "and we often hear them inveighing, with differing degrees of emphasis, against the expenditure of time, money and effort which such an education exacts."

After dismissing what he regards as the stupidest contingent of college skeptics ("these we may properly disregard, with the wish that an intelligent environment may improve their condition"), he first tackles "self-made men," his generation's Mark Zuckerberg/Bill Gates equivalents who found fortune and success without a college degree. Such people, he surmises, are overgeneralizing: "The binding, fettering imagination that their own success indicates that the slight education they have been able to gather, and which has answered their needs, must be sufficient to compass success in all other cases." They also neglect increasing demand for high-trained professionals:

It certainly should not escape their notice that the methods profitably employed in every enterprise and occupation have so changed within the last fifty years that a necessity has arisen for an advanced grade of intelligence and education in the use of these methods; and that as this necessity has been supplied, a new competition has been created which easily distances the young man who is no better equipped for the race than our self-satisfied, self-made man.

Cleveland is ardent that economic evaluations of the worth of college are reductive and underrate its importance:

When we are told that failure is indicated by the lack of wealth or honors, and that their acquirement proves success, it is quite pertinent for us to reply that the rewards of liberal education are not thus limited. Many a college-bred man labors in the field of usefulness without either wealth or honors, and frequently with but scant recognition of any kind, and yet achieves successes which, unseen and unknown by the sordid and cynical, will bloom in the hearts and minds of men longer than the prizes of wealth or honor can endure.

"There is such a thing as a sour and morose pursuit of study which leads to a sour and unsympathetic temper," Cleveland concedes, warning against universities that devolve into insularity and elitism, which leads to "a supercilious distrust of the intelligence of all who are not members of their order." But on the whole, he's extremely positive about higher education:

While the training of the mental powers paves the way to success in every occupation; as long as pioneer work is needed in every extension of our progress and civilization; as long as our national safety rests upon the intelligence of our people; and as long as we require in our public service pure patriotism, obedience to quickened Conscience and disinterested discharge of duty, a college education will pay.

The language is dated, but the overall shape of the argument — touching on college's economic returns, insisting upon the importance of a liberal education beyond its pecuniary rewards, concerns about academic elitism — feels startlingly modern. It's a reminder that even though colleges themselves have changed enormously, many of the same debates and policy disputes remain; indeed, there was a federal attempt to rate colleges all the way back in 1911, more than a century before President Obama would try and fail to set up something similar.

Cleveland's other views haven't aged particularly well at all. As president, he violently broke the Pullman strike in one of the biggest anti-labor actions by a US president ever, he signed into law the Scott Act limiting Chinese emigration to the US, and his records on American Indian reservations and civil rights were appalling. And his most notable other popular writing was a 1905 article in Ladies' Home Journal arguing against women's suffrage: "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours."