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MAGNA CUM LAUGHABLE

FOR DECADES, CONSERVATIVES HAVE WAGED A LONELY WAR ON COLLEGE, BUT THEY ARE FINALLY WINNING. THEY SUDDENLY HAVE ALLIES ON ALL SIDES, EAGER TO TEAR DOWN HIGHER EDUCATION AND START OVER
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THE LAZY RIVER MAY SEEM ike a pleasant diversion, but it is that rare aspect of life capable of eliciting bipartisan outrage. Those of us who do not enjoy lazy rivers condemn them, especially if their cost figures into the tuition we pay for our children to attend an institution of higher learning. The lazy river is not yet a staple of the American college campus, but there was a time when science laboratories on campus were rare too.

By a lazy river, I don’t mean the backwoods of Arkansas, midsummer, willows bowing to the muddy water. That is not, in fact, a lazy river. Imagine instead a swimming pool stretched into a sinuous strip. Give it a gentle current. Give kids inflatable tubes. You now have a lazy river. As do many— probably too many—American campuses.

The lazy river has recently become emblematic of what ails higher education, with the requisite New York Times denunciation—“No College Kid Needs a Water Park to Study”—in early January. It is a symbol of excessive cost and decreasing educational returns on investment. More broadly, the lazy river is a sign of American indolence, the nation that once tamed the Mississippi now slumbering poolside, scrolling through Instagram.

Of course, complaints that college students are pampered wasteoids were around long before an Orlando Sentinel columnist said the University of Central Florida’s proposed $25 million athletic complex—including a rivulet of laze—was “a sign of whacked-out times.” Suspicions about the American university are nearly as old as the institution itself, which began with the founding of Harvard in 1636. Benjamin Franklin, who never attended college, visited the campus in 1722. In an editorial published that year, he mocked Harvard as a place where students “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely…and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.” And that was long before the University of Virginia started offering a course about the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Decades later, Franklin started his own institution, the University of Pennsylvania, where students would “learn those Things that are likely to be most useful.” This mission continued into the 20th century. “Now it is very much a pretrade school,” The Harvard Crimson said in 1956, “while the other Ivies uphold…education for education’s own sake,” adding that the “Penn undergraduate is not especially concerned with his courses.” Touché.

A decade after that assessment, a wealthy and cocksure undergrad transferred from Fordham University, in the Bronx, to Penn. The school gave Donald Trump a practical advantage, though perhaps not quite in the way Franklin had intended. When Trump ran for president, he frequently spoke of his two years at Wharton as confirmation of what he already knew about himself and needs so desperately to tell others. “I’m, like, a really smart person,” he said in the summer of 2015, referencing his time there. He later said Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, would not have been admitted to Wharton. “Got to be very smart to get into that school, very smart.”

But for Trump, intelligence has little to do with educational achievement. He is, like more and more Americans, contemptuous of experts and their expertise. “Professor,” writes Michael Wolff in his new book, Fire and Fury, “was one of his bad words, and he was proud of never going to class, never buying a textbook, never taking a note.”

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THE WAR ON COLLEGE For decades, conservatives have waged a lonely war on college, but they are finally winning. They suddenly have allies on all sides, eager to tear down higher education and start over.