Stereograph of damage from a tornado at Grinnell College

Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views/New York Public Library

Damage from a tornado at Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa, June 1882; stereograph by James E. Everett

I once loved Iowa. I read about its early days as a part of the great mission field where, beginning in the 1830s, settlers from the Northeast came to establish towns and colleges to create an antislavery culture that would resist efforts by the slave states and interests to claim the new territories for their system. These settlements were utopian societies of a kind. In general the colleges were integrated by race and gender. Everyone, students and professors, did the physical work the college required, and in most cases no one paid tuition.

As conscious history this is all more or less forgotten even by those who live among the fine schools—Oberlin, Grinnell, Carleton, Knox, and others—that share these origins. Segregation in Iowa public schools became illegal in 1868. Marriage equality became legal in Iowa in 2009. Granting all perturbation and backsliding, generous lives had been lived on that fecund soil, and a generous spirit inhered in it. In Iowa I developed a theory that history can persist and reassert itself whether it is known and acknowledged or not. I was pleased to believe that America’s best moments and aspirations might persist in the same way. Now I am obliged to look at Iowa as a far less reassuring paradigm of our possible future.

Kim Reynolds became governor in 2017, having served as lieutenant governor under Terry Branstad. She was elected to a full term in 2018, then reelected in a landslide in 2022, bringing with her an overwhelming majority of Republican legislators. Since then, Iowa has become a theater and a laboratory for root-and-branch retrogression. I am glad for Iowa’s sake that nationally so few people know or care what its legislature does. At the same time, there is benefit to be had in watching how this important faction governs, given a free hand.

What do these people want? If it happens that their goal is to create a permanent underclass, they are doing many things right. This is not at all the objective they claim for themselves. They pose as champions of the people. But they are making a wholesale attack on the basic institutions of the country, by policy and by the spread of pernicious distrust that undercuts the authority of institutions they do not control. This has led to an important reconfiguring of society on the basis of nothing worthier of respect than anger and resentment.

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica is a time capsule of information about American cities and states. Its article on Iowa notes that

the percentage of illiterates (i.e. both those unable to read and write and those unable to write) ten years of age and over, according to the census returns of 1900, was only 2.3; of all the other states of the Union, Nebraska alone made such a good return.

Iowa was very much a part of the zeal for education that characterized the early Midwest, an inheritance from its activist settlers. Now the old Iowa is under attack by these “conservatives.”

Americans are generally unaware of the singular development and importance of higher education in their own country. What impulse has built, maintained, and continuously developed all these institutions? Why are they typically beautiful? In 2015 the National Institutes of Health published a study showing that the life expectancy of white Americans who did not finish high school was lower by ten years than that of those who completed four years of college. This figure was arrived at without reference to the colleges the graduates had attended or their fields of study. Eliminating race as a variable excluded other considerations that affect span of life. It is reasonable to assume that income and status enter into this striking result. To the extent that they do, they are another demonstration of the importance of education in America and of the need to make it more broadly accessible. This is an issue of social justice and of public health as well—we would celebrate a medical breakthrough with comparable impact.

Despite these benefits, we are in a period when the value of education is disputed. Regrettably, it has become expensive enough to be regarded by some as a dubious investment of time and money. Its traditional form and substance do not produce workers suited to the present or the future economy—as these are understood and confidently imagined by its critics. No one could have foreseen twenty years ago the economy we have now and no one is quite certain what will happen in the next five years. But there is a quite aggressive push to conform, to narrow, students’ skills, priorities, and expectations to meet the demands of the dreary future anticipated by these supposed realists, which will probably eventuate only to the extent that we embrace their “reforms.”


American higher education is of the kind historically called liberal, that is, suited to free people, intended to make them independent thinkers and capable citizens. “Liberal” comes from the Latin word liber, meaning “free.” Aristotle, a theorist on this subject of incalculable influence until recently, considered education a natural human pleasure, essential to the perfecting of the self, which he says it is in our nature to desire. Obviously when he taught there was no thought of economic utility that would subordinate learning to the purposes of others, to the detriment of individual pleasure or self-perfection. Training in athletics, music, then philosophy were to be valued because they are liberating.

Literacy, as the basis of education, has a special history in the United States. It reached extraordinary levels in New England in the eighteenth century, substantially higher than in England or France, and higher than in contemporary America, if standards, definitions, and circumstances do not differ to the point that comparisons are meaningless. The Puritans are said to have attached the utmost religious significance to the ability to read Scripture for oneself, male or female. Much basic teaching was done in the home, no doubt an earnest business, with real emotional rewards for success. From the seventeenth century their communities also accepted the responsibility of maintaining schools. Their thought on the matter is a variant of Aristotle’s. Literacy gives access to the knowledge for which the soul yearns.

There was a region in America where literacy was enthusiastically propagated. And there was another region where it was jealously, by law, restricted to one race. This fear of the possible impact of literacy on the enslaved is another instance of the association of learning with freedom, with the awakening of the autonomous self. The Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Confederation Congress in 1787, just before the ratification of the Constitution, excluded slavery from the upper Midwest and established fundamental rights—habeas corpus and religious tolerance, for example. Of education, it said, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The Morrill Act, signed by Lincoln in 1862, established the practice of the donation of land by the federal government to create and support colleges and universities.

Before the Morrill Act there were already a substantial number of small colleges along the frontier. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, so patiently curious about the US, lists more than twenty non-state-supported schools, mostly denominational, that were founded in Iowa in the nineteenth century. In this the state was typical of the region. Government support accelerated a tendency that was already extraordinarily strong and truly exceptional. Little we take to be true about life in that time and place suggests a culture that would create and sustain all this higher learning. True, the state schools taught courses in agriculture and the “mechanic arts.” But treating these as fields of study at this level dignified and advanced the work by which the great majority of people lived—work that elsewhere would be done by peasants or the enslaved.

The Morrill Act specifies that this emphasis should not exclude “other scientific and classical studies.” It would be consistent with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century learning if Hesiod or Virgil inspired this georgic vision of enlightened rural life. The act passed because states that opposed it had seceded, and for the same reason it called for the teaching of “military tactic.” After the Civil War the land grant system was extended to the South on condition that the colleges should be integrated, or equivalent schools should be created for Black students. These colleges became the basis of historically Black higher education. There are now about four thousand degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States. These schools have been a distinctive influence and resource for the country through many generations.

Comparison with other countries is oddly difficult, a consequence of varying definitions of the word university and of differences in the ways education is organized. It is possible to say that there are more than 160 universities in the United Kingdom, 380 in Germany, about one hundred in Canada. The figure for France is somewhere between one hundred at the low end and 3,500 at the top, an illustration of the problem. In any case, the European norm is very different from the scale of institutional higher education in the US, even when these figures are multiplied to correct for the larger American population.

These comparisons, inexact as they are, are sufficient to make the point that American culture, with all the changes the country has passed through over the years, has maintained a consensus about the importance of higher education. Through what has been, by world standards, a very distinctive tendency to broaden openness to nontraditional students—women, epochally—and to vastly and continuously enlarge curriculum, the strong presence of colleges and universities has had a profound influence on the life of the country. The whole phenomenon depends on our preparing children to have a part in it when they come of age. Whatever the benefit university conveys, it is in trust for them until that time. To put the matter another way, society can very largely determine the course of lives by respecting or denying the importance of childhood. If there is any good faith behind the talk of freedom and democracy, this fact should have weight. Education is a special case within the larger issue of the inequities that arise from social injustice as it has an impact on children.


The governor has been very intent on achieving equality as she understands it for Iowa students. She and her legislature have provided a grant of public money for every child who is approved by the state to attend a private school, the money to be released when the child is accepted there. About 18,000 families have been approved. This figure would be easier to interpret as reflecting on public education if the percentage of those already attending private schools were made clear. Almost twice this number of students, 34,000, attend private schools in Iowa, and the subsidy is available to them. Polls indicate very strong approval of public education in the state. (About 500,000 students are enrolled in Iowa public schools.)

It should be noted that “private” in this context can mean religious in some—or any—sense of the word. The constitutional issues that might arise from this use of public money seem to be of no concern. As for the character of these schools, actual or imagined, the implicit promise seems to be that contact with ideas and people some find problematic can be avoided, that they can be and will be excluded on what are called religious grounds. So public money will be used to deprive some children of the kind of education the governor deems beneficial while other children are deprived of the education that comes with encountering a world not yet structured around polarization, the blight on democracy that insists on itself as a defense of values.

Consistent with this current “conservative” passion for dismantling things, including gun laws, of course, the governor and the legislature of Iowa are stripping away legal limits on child labor. At the same time, they are undermining Iowa’s long-respected public school system. A number of states with Republican governors are also doing things of this kind, a fact Governor Reynolds finds validating. Originality is not aspired to, and neither is responsiveness to local conditions. Iowa is proud to be the Florida of the north.

All this is being done in the name of freedom. It is always fair to ask when rights are being claimed whether they impinge on others’ rights. The question certainly arises here. We know that the employment of children does not reliably bring out the best in employers. Abuses have been found all over the country. Migrant children, unprotected or worse, work under sometimes intolerable conditions. It seems wrong to distinguish children by nationality, as if they were not all equally deserving of protection. Still, it is jarring that Iowa children will also do work previously prohibited as dangerous, at hours previously prohibited as incompatible with their schooling. They are making the most of a new opportunity, according to the governor, to “develop their skills in the workforce.” Not incidentally, they will also be easing the labor shortage from which the state suffers. The minimum wage in Iowa is $7.25. In Illinois it is $13.00, in Missouri $12.00, in South Dakota $10.80. Surely these figures suggest another possible solution to the shortage of workers, a better way to compete with surrounding states than to expose children to the possibility of injury, or to the costly lack of a high school diploma. There is much talk about choice in Iowa, but many children will find that, for them, important possibilities have been precluded. The governor has signed a bill that will limit the number of credits a public high school can offer for the study of languages and the arts.

Comparison with other countries is useful in order to make clear what the design of American education has been to this point. In many European countries children are tested at about age eleven to determine whether they should be prepared for university and, if they pass, whether from that point on they will study either math and science or language and literature. Most eleven-year-olds fail these tests. There is no second chance. The practice must be based on the assumption that someone’s competence or promise can be measured meaningfully at this young age. An important cultural difference is reflected in this. These tests, which shape entire lives, reinforce divisions in society that would be reflected in any child’s relative advantage or disadvantage. Americans proceed from another conception of human potential. Certainly one definition of freedom is the chance, at least, to discover one’s aptitudes and affinities over time. This is a freedom incompatible with child labor at a scale that would make it a significant factor in the economy, as it must be if there is to be any rationale for it at all.

American public education undertakes to do as much as it can to serve every child. We all know that it fails too often. But it also succeeds, sometimes with students who are late in realizing what it was all for. The specializations American students choose for themselves are delayed until they are adults. And we give them an array of options that make their choices real. In important ways, however imperfectly, we institutionalize individual freedom. This may seem inefficient from an economic point of view. But, as such things go, our economy does very well indeed, despite this long indulgence of humanism, or because of it. How rich do we have to be before we can enjoy that “happiness” our forebears saw as the reward of knowledge? This might well be a form of the happiness Jefferson had in mind when he tantalized us with that word. His life—his violin, his library, not to mention his university—does seem meant to epitomize learning, to make him an exemplar as well as a benefactor. That his ability to live this life was based on wealth and status that came with his being an owner of human beings gravely compromises his achievement.

The laws that are being rolled back in Iowa specifically limited the hours children could work on school nights. In other words, the laws now being “reformed” acknowledge the importance of students being able to live up to the requirements of their schooling. Encroachments on this protected time are being called an assertion of parental rights, but the rights of children are obviously at issue here, and must be protected prospectively if they are to have any meaning. The children themselves would be unlikely to understand the impact on them of the choices that are being made for them, and would have little say in the matter in any case.

The various pressures being brought to bear at the same time both on child labor restrictions and on public schools are no doubt largely opportunistic though related. The lower the prestige of these schools, the less presumptive harm to children who do not succeed in them. State governments can intervene in public schools, hector, threaten, and substantially control them. Private schools are too disparate to be the objects of sweeping denunciation, are often “Christian” or denominational and therefore too thorny to take on even if there were a political reward to be had from doing it. And in Iowa they involve too small a constituency to be worth riling up.

Now that state money will come into such private schools as there are in Iowa—forty-one of the ninety-nine counties don’t have even one—it will be interesting to see if the governor and her like have a comparable interest in interfering in them. These schools can be selective, which is a positive word now, though the honor and glory of public education is that it does not select. No doubt there will be no state-imposed restrictions on the teaching of languages and arts in the private schools, assuming they have adequate faculty, which they may not, considering that, according to the governor, they pay a fraction of the salaries paid by public schools. An element in all this is the fact that we have let the word “public” seem to mean something like “second-rate.” This is very inimical to the open and generous impulses that make a society democratic. It leaves the schools vulnerable to the gross disrespect they are being shown by these “conservatives,” who are also “populists.”

Iowa children aged sixteen to eighteen will now be allowed to work in meatpacking plants, in roofing and demolition, with waivers or exemptions. All this assumes parental consent. It also assumes at least one parent or guardian who is aware of the situation the child will be dealing with. Iowa is a state where many of the homeless are employed, a state with a high and rising eviction rate. The leading predictor of eviction is children in the home. Iowa has a population of 3.2 million. In 2023, 661,506 households received food aid, an increase of 171,285 households from the previous year. The word “households” means that to determine how large a portion of the population is reflected in these numbers it would be necessary to multiply by at least two or three. These figures are being addressed by the governor Republican-style, by reducing eligibility for assistance through a technological system that will monitor continuously to find any disqualifying uptick in recipients’ financial well-being. This will require the hiring of more than two hundred new employees and perhaps a private firm, substantial expenses that will be repaid in savings to the state. Iowa has a budget surplus of $1.9 billion.

Do the most conscientious parents, in such circumstances, actually choose freely, or choose in any meaningful sense, to let their child make up for a labor shortage that could be addressed with higher wages and better working conditions? Children from disrupted families, who would be likely to struggle in school in any case, will have their problems gravely compounded. If they manage to stay in school, the resources to deal with their gaps and deficiencies will be depleted by the governor’s new policy of channeling public money into private schools. Public schools will lose more than $6,000 for every child who withdraws from them. Interestingly, after the third year of the program the governor’s subsidy will be given to the families of children already enrolled in private schools irrespective of income. In their case, no fretting about cost to the state, certainly no means test.

If these worker-children do not manage to finish high school, they will always be poorer for it in income and status and mobility of every kind, and they will be deprived of any chance at that mysterious decade of added life. Social inequities can always be and usually are institutionalized and exploited. The escape from them in the US, besides law and protest, has been education. The governor of Iowa prefers reforms that will lead directly from public school to apprenticeship and the workforce. This will, of course, minimize distracting aspirations. There is no indication that she or her legislature intend to impose reforms of this kind on private schools. They are not what parents with options would be likely to choose for their children.

These policies are one consequence of the apotheosis of the Taxpayer in American politics. A subset of the population in Iowa and in the United States is prosperous enough to pay most of the direct costs of government, and on these grounds they are seen as both entitled and unfairly burdened. Those children whose cheap labor is meant to make the state economically competitive, those employed homeless who somehow manage to work despite all, contribute immeasurable sums, considered in very real terms, as wealth lost to them because of policy decisions that make poverty inescapable. These taxes can come near confiscation. Thus the poor become the burden on the Taxpayer that the governor is so determined to relieve. Her concern reaches beyond her state. She has cut $10 million from SNAP food relief for Iowans, though the program is paid for by the federal government. She has also cut $10 million from Medicaid. This is ideologically consistent, gratuitous, meager, and offensive to me as a taxpayer.

How to close the gap between the lives foreseen for these children on the one hand and the initiation into what is, after all, relative privilege and well-being on the other? There are 1,167 two-year colleges in the United States, among them community colleges that can ease the way financially and otherwise to a degree from a university. Still, many feel, and many are, excluded. Universities are necessarily more or less selective. Some young people exclude themselves, feeling that advanced schooling is unattainable by them. With all the prodigious wealth and good intent America has invested in making higher education accessible, it can still seem exclusive.

In keeping with the spirit of these times, a problem has been identified and then exacerbated. “Elitism.” We cannot enjoy the cultural and intellectual riches other generations have stored up for us and our descendants because the education they offer is both elite and not elite enough. There has been much discussion lately about the admission policies of a clutch of old private universities in the Northeast, the storied Ivy League. I went to Brown, then to graduate school at the University of Washington. I taught for twenty-five years at the University of Iowa. The experience was invaluable in every case. The public universities can mitigate the problems of privileging a limited part of the population as they have done historically and are doing now, by expanding access. But while there is great interest in the problem of selectivity, there seems to be very little interest in a solution. If it is to be seen as a problem that a tiny part of a vast system admits a tiny percentage of its applicants, and them quite arbitrarily, then we can no doubt worry about it forever.

These schools have the right to be what they are. And we all have a democratic obligation not to defer uncritically to words like elite and selective. By the usual measures, status and income, graduates of other schools do equally well. Their research and their expertise are cited in the media constantly. To put such emphasis on a tiny presence in American education is to create a sense of dearth, as if real education were not to be had anywhere else. This notion strengthens the argument that the public universities are or ought to be handing out work permits. The old project of creating a free people has no place in this view of things. The changing definition of education, what it is, what purpose it serves, eases the way to policies that curtail access to it.

In keeping with their lockstep “conservatism,” the Iowa governor and her legislature have launched a campaign to embarrass the public grade schools. Of course there is now great perturbation about what can or cannot be included in their libraries. This intrusion of the state government on traditionally more or less autonomous communities has the tenor of a moral crackdown. New laws have been enacted to bring unruly librarians to heel. Educational standards for new librarians have been lowered. The governor says, of course, that the legislation “sets boundaries to protect Iowa’s children from woke indoctrination.” It is as if parents zipping up their five-year-old’s jacket feel a qualm of fear because of potential classroom exposure to sinister ideas, not because their state now allows permitless concealed and open carry.

This is part of a general pattern of using stigma to cloud issues. A quasi-political movement has made itself important in recent years by accusing anyone it sees as an adversary of decadence, of turpitude, and of a demonic tendency to mire others in moral and political squalor. Slur becomes suspicion becomes possibility becomes outrage and alarm. Then it becomes policy. Slander has been strangely effective in changing public behavior. A conversation could be had about the appropriateness of materials available to children. Instead we have a scene that looks like moral panic, like a witch hunt, to borrow a currently popular phrase, an assumption behind it being that public schools have been tacitly recruiting children to the dark side, to “wokeness.” This lamest of all neologisms at least has the rhetorical advantage of being undefinable. No need to go into particulars about the source of the indignation, whether it is an issue that might seem debatable or manageable to cooler heads. Above all, no need to consider the real terror associated with classrooms in this golden age of Second Amendment rights.

There is, simultaneously with all this, much official talk about human trafficking, especially of children, to be exploited sexually or as workers. Certainly this is a grave problem. But these “reforms” that make fourteen-year-olds into units of labor, that give them a new economic value, can only exacerbate the problem. A cynic might suspect that this great solicitude for the well-being of children is meant as a distraction from the fact that the intention of the governor and legislature is precisely to exploit the labor of children. Perhaps there is an assumption that employers, being Taxpayers, can be trusted with these young workers, who will, by the way, reduce pressures on them that might otherwise force them to raise wages. In effect, many of these children will be impoverishing their families by making the low-wage system sustainable. Surely, if the word means anything at all, this is exploitation.

In the Northwest Ordinance, the same Article III that encourages education also says:

The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.

The invasion of Indian “property, rights, and liberty” was well under way in 1787, of course. This language is worth considering because it is an instance of our tendency to abandon, to offend against, our better intentions. The colleges that sent missionaries for abolition into the Midwest in the 1830s—Yale, notably, to its great credit—were themselves not integrated by race or gender one hundred years later.

We hold the freedom of others in trust, for the occasions when they need to assert it, or when something new arises out of it, perhaps a larger vision of what a human life can be. By law the United States took the rights of the Indians in trust, with what consequences we all know. Bad faith in this regard has no boundaries. Either we truly acknowledge the unalienable rights of others to our respect and our restraint, or they have no rights. This is never truer than it is for children. A presumptive respect for what they might become would assure them good food and plenty of sleep, and never count the cost. It might take care that they had a stable home and a parent unharried enough to be fairly sure everything is all right with them. A fair wage would have these consequences. It might protect the precious time they would spend on daydreams, those lovely works of the human brain that give rise to art and invention and aspiration. And the children staggering under the burdens of privilege, driven by the fear that they will fall short of success as others define it, might put down their backpacks and daydream, too. Then this weary country would be new again.

An earlier version of the caption on the stereograph of Grinnell College dated the tornado to the wrong year.