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1952 Ronald Reagan film ridicules the value of university education

December 13, 2020

Society is taking a very hard look at universities these days. With the huge losses they are suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic, scrutiny is being put on them. Do they have the value they presume? Are students well served by their years at University?

This has been a question that has been asked for a very long time, but in particular in the United States when enrollments exploded in the late 1940s. Americans had a lot of mixed feelings about becoming a nation of educated folks. We rapidly went from one of the least educated “advanced countries” to the most educated in a short period of time, as judged by fraction of population with college degrees. The United States no longer has that title — Canada is #1 now — but it is still in the top 10.

So is it new and alarming that Americans are questioning the value of investing in a college education? Part of me says yes, and I think universities bear some responsibility for that, but another part of me says no, it has always been that way in America.

I was watching an old movie recently starring Ronald Reagan: 1952’s “She’s working her way through college.” It’s about a former burlesque dancer, played by Virginia Mayo, who makes her way to Midwest State College and creates quite a stir for everyone, including a lowly Associate Professor of English and Theatre, played by Ronald Reagan. It’s a so-so film, but as a college professor myself I was fascinated by its portrayal of college life and college politics of the early 1950s.

The movie lambasts the Board of Directors of the university. It makes fun of football players who only want to take the easiest classes. It portrays the classroom as rather dull and suggests that extra-curricular activities are the real saving graces of college. These are all largely unfair but familiar themes even today.

And then about halfway through the film the student body sings a song called “We’re working our way through college” (see below for lyrics). It’s a song that more or less questions the whole value and absurdity of having to go through college. A major theme is that none of what they learn will be useful, and they are only wasting the “old man’s dough.” But they’ve got to do it since companies require college degrees even though they are useless for the job at hand. But it has a playful tone and suggests they are having fun anyway and are drinking the “midnight oil” rather than burning it.

In other words, nothing’s changed. And maybe nothing will change. Society will playfully make fun of universities for decades more to come, but universities will go on because underneath the good-natured teasing and sometimes malicious attacks, real value is recognized. That is my hope.


Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1937. Sung in 1952 movie “She’s working her way through college”, starring Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan.


We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
It helps a lot to know
You’ve got a nice diploma,
But will it pay the mortgage on the home sweet home-a?
We’re getting an education
To run a filling station,
For they never take anyone but college men.

Oh, you’ve got to know your Cicero,
Your Hannibal and Caesar,
To turn the crank
And fill the tank
And say, “How many, please, sir?”
And the mathematics is the thing we’ve gotta know,
Working our way through college on the old man’s
Dough, re, mi fa, sol, la, ti…


We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
And do we study, do we toil?
Don’t you think it!
And do we burn the midnight oil?
No, we drink it!

The study of economics
Will never fill our stomachs
If we finally have to be insurance men.
Oh, the Sigma Chi may rate you high
And ask you to their rushes,
But no one’s gonna ask you when
You’re selling Fuller brushes.
Hooray for history and Greek and algebra!
We’re working our way through college
With a Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!

REFRAIN 3 (added for 1952 film)

We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
It’s swell to tell
What parallel
And parallax is,
But after graduation
Will it pay our taxes?

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