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
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
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