Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 980:
THE GI BILL

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 980.

Today, we make a wise investment in schooling. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I went to college in 1947. The students around me were, on the average, ten years older than I. Most were returning veterans. Three years before, Roosevelt had signed Public Law 346, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act -- better known as the GI Bill. It gave ex-GI's tuition, books, and living expenses for college.

The bill was met with a predictable outcry against federal spending. It would provide shelter for a few slackers who didn't want to go back to work. But then, we expected only ten percent of the GI's to take advantage of the bill.

Edwin Kiester tells about a premature headline in the Saturday Evening Post in 1945: "GI's Reject Education." A year later one million ex-soldiers were back in school. I graduated from Oregon State in 1951, the year after they'd graduated their largest engineering class ever, by a huge margin.

Of course schools everywhere groaned under the load. They threw up tacky prefab quarters in their mud flats -- squalid quonset-hut housing for married students. No Joe College days with those guys! If America expected a few slackers, they got an army of the hardest working people I ever met. Colleges tried to cope with their numbers by running the work load up to the sky in hopes of failing enough to make room for the rest.

But those students had seen war. This hardship was a piece of cake. I was surrounded by officers and infantrymen back from the valley of the shadow of death. One classmate, in his late 40s, had been a general. Their faces were sad, their emotions in check. And they honored me with simple academic equality.

Art Winship had suffered polio in the service. He rode his wheelchair back and forth to classes. Handicap access was unheard of in those days. The four of us nearest him grabbed his chair each day and lugged him up two flights. That was not charity. Art's disability was one more shared cost of a terrible war. Those people understood community.

So the nation educated the survivors of war. People for whom college would've been an unimaginable privilege in 1939 were now in school. As the youngest member of that class, I missed out on many rites of youth, but I also saw history.

Never has the government made a wiser investment. In one stroke we democratized education, gave new seriousness of purpose to our universities, and brought a generation back into the American mainstream. By 1956 I was back from my own turn in the army, doing graduate studies on the GI Bill, and trying to sew shut a similar rent in my own life. What America had done for a whole generation a few years before she now did for me, as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Kiester, E., Jr., The G.I. Bill May Be the Best Deal Ever made by Uncle Sam. Smithsonian, 1994, pp. 128-139.

K. W. Olson, The G. I. Bill, the Veterans, and the Colleges. (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 1974)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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