'The History of American Higher Education'

Author discusses his new book on the evolution of colleges and universities in the United States.

December 16, 2014

American higher education today looks nothing like it did a few generations ago, let alone at the founding of the country. A new book, The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture From the Founding to World War II (Princeton University Press), explores how colleges evolved. The author is Roger L. Geiger, who is distinguished professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University. His previous books include Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth and Knowledge and Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace.

He responded via email to questions about his new book.

Q: On the surface, the earliest American colleges have evolved into very different institutions. How relevant do you consider the origins of American colleges (generally as small religious institutions) to understanding them today (generally as secular research universities)?

A: Before 1860, American colleges existed in a pre-industrial society that had limited use for advanced education. To capture elements of continuity over three centuries, I focused on connections with society through culture, careers and knowledge. The only career directly linked with pre-industrial colleges was that of clergy, and only in churches that favored educated ministers. Even this role was superseded by theological seminaries. The growth of knowledge became ingrained with the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Most colleges honored this ideal, but only wealthier institutions were able to employ learned instructors. By the 1850s expanding knowledge could no longer be crammed onto the undergraduate classical course. Culture, in contrast, was integral to the ongoing mission of colleges.

Through the 18th century, graduation from college conferred a privileged social status of gentleman, but deference toward social superiors withered with Federalism in the new republic. Students then took it upon themselves to fashion the cultural distinction they wished to acquire from their college experience. Literary societies and rebellion against college authority were original expressions of student class culture, soon followed by fraternities and a growing slate of organized activities. With the relaxation of college discipline after the Civil War, student organizations and activities ballooned into the “collegiate revolution” at the end of the century, symbolized by fraternities and football, but including singing, debate, journalism, and a multitude of class functions. For most Americans, this tumult of student-led and student-run activities defined the identity of colleges and college-going; but this was largely a legacy of the student culture of the early colleges.

Q: Was the founding of American colleges notably different from the way European colleges and universities were created?

A: European education systems were characterized by state-sponsored universities with well-developed systems of secondary education serving as gatekeepers. After the American Revolution, the efforts to create republican universities sought to emulate something like the European pattern: namely, institutions supported by the states, offering advanced and professional subjects, and training leaders for the republic. Republican universities failed on all of these counts by the early 1800s. Further, the United States had no system of secondary education, and thus no clear demarcation between secondary and higher education.

After 1820, colleges were established at a quickening pace, sponsored by churches. To matriculate students had to learn some Latin and a little Greek — in any way they could — but nearly all denominational colleges had to include a preparatory department. The uncertainty of admissions to colleges and professional schools distinguished American from European education systems and was long an impediment to improvement. The proliferation of high schools from 1890 ultimately resolved one problem, but proprietary medical and law schools remained open to all comers. The Flexner Report (1910) spurred university medical schools to require two years of college science, but law schools that required college preparation, did not gain ascendancy until the 1930s. European systems, with effective gatekeepers, maintained very high standards, but for a small portion of the age group. The United States, with little or no gatekeeping, quickly became the most highly educated nation (see below).

Q: How did the land grant colleges define public higher education?

A: Justin Morrill [the lawmaker who pushed the legislation creating the land grant system] wanted practical subjects — the practical arts, and especially agriculture — to be taught in institutions of higher education on the same level as the liberal arts and sciences; and he wanted those institutions to be accessible to the industrial classes — those laboring in the commercial economy. The Land Grant Act deserves credit for achieving the first goal. Only a few of the land grant colleges initially embraced the university model and dedicated themselves to advancing knowledge in both liberal and practical arts, but led by Cornell, Wisconsin, and California (and non-land grant Michigan) they set the standard for public higher education.

Ironically, the “Agricultural and Mechanical” colleges, which focused principally on the practical arts, lagged in academic development by more than a generation. Once securely established, the adoption and cultivation of more-or-less applied subjects distinguished American universities. With respect to access, the land grant ideal was probably more significant than the institutions. The original land-grant colleges contributed little to expanding access, but they exemplified the principle that higher education should be open to all, although largely fulfilled by other institutions (see below). Finally, agriculture has a special relationship to the land grant movement. Abject failure characterized the first decades, but when the Hatch Act (1887) established agricultural experiment stations, agricultural science began to blossom. The Smith-Lever Act then established a conduit to practicing farmers through cooperative extension. The unique federal partnership in agriculture resulted in the world-leading position of American agriculture and agricultural science.

Q: As American research universities were born (some as such and others evolving from colleges), what were the key points at which their model was going to become distinct from European universities?

A: Andrew White combined advanced education in practical and liberal arts at Cornell; Charles Eliot at Harvard opened the curriculum by undermining the classical course; and Daniel Gilman at Johns Hopkins installed a system of graduate education and research that was less intense than German practices, but more flexible. These initiatives coalesced into the “academic revolution” around 1890, creating the American research universities. Just 14 of these universities dominated academic research and doctoral education, but each discipline had a national society and publications that were open to all qualified practitioners. When foundations began funding research in the 1920s, additional resources heightened these activities. The existence of large, interactive scientific communities complemented those few universities dedicated to advancing knowledge. The decentralized university system provided both competition and recognition of merit.

Q: How did "mass" higher education come into being in the U.S. -- and how did it do so (in the period of this book) without providing equal opportunity to female and minority students?

A: The chapter on “Mass Higher Education” traces the emergence of junior colleges, teachers colleges and urban universities — the new institutions that accommodated a large portion of the surge in enrollments following World War I. These developments were made possible by burgeoning numbers of high school graduates, and by the openness of American higher education — the lack of barriers to extension campuses, night schools, elevated normal schools, or freshman-sophomore courses in high school buildings. Urban universities in particular responded to student demand by opening branch campuses and offering practical curricula in business, law, and other practical subjects.

There was considerable backlash against mass higher education by supporters of traditional colleges, but this never diminished enrollments. African Americans increased attendance significantly in the 1920s and 1930s from a miniscule base, despite being confined to segregated institutions in Southern and border states and suffering blatant discrimination in the North. Jewish students achieved higher education in considerable numbers, although not in the institutions that many preferred. Ethnic minorities in large cities were more likely to seek employment than continue their education. Women were well represented in all forms of higher education, especially after 1920. They faced discrimination in the workplace, which denied them opportunities to utilize their education.

Q: Can you provide a hint about the next volume and your approach to the post-World War II era?

A: I have had a good deal to say about higher education since 1945 in two books (Research and Relevant Knowledge and Knowledge and Money) and many articles. American higher education grows wider throughout the 20th century, forming too many stories to be captured in a single narrative. There are broad, underlying currents that deserve explication, but they are everywhere contested and obscured by systemic noise. Still, the historical changes have been dramatic. To transcend mere description, a history of the postwar era would have to be thematic and much less comprehensive than The History.


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