Mar 31 2014

History of American Higher Education

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A Brief History of American Higher Education

Our modern notion of the university has deep roots in the institutions of higher learning found in the ancient and medieval worlds. The University of al-Karaouine, for instance, founded in 859 in Morocco, is generally accepted as the oldest university in continuous existence. The University of Bologna, established in 1088, claims that distinction in Europe.

The history of higher education in the United States, while decidedly shorter and less illustrious than in either of those countries, nevertheless owes much to its predecessors, particularly elite institutions of higher learning in England and Germany.

Our “Pilgrim Fathers left England,” observed Alfred North Whitehead, “to found a state of society according to the ideals of their religious faith; and one of their earlier acts was the foundation of Harvard University in Cambridge, named after that ancient mother of ideas in England, to which so many of them owed their training.”

Thus the history of higher education in the United States begins with Harvard (1636) and other colonial colleges, including William and Mary (1693), King’s College (now Columbia University, 1754), the College of New Jersey (Princeton University, 1746), and the College of Philadelphia (The University of Pennsylvania, 1754), among others.

Frederick Rudolph reminds us that early American colleges were “in no sense popular institutions,” but rather served “aristocratic elements in colonial society.” Today, that elitism is still apparent in their domination of university ranking systems around the world and their dizzying endowments (in the tens of billions).

Following the American Revolutionary War, the ideals of the European Renaissance permeated the typical college curriculum, which was steeped in ancient languages, humanistic learning, and the Judeo-Christian Bible. Rudolph observes that the first year of study typically included work in “Latin, Greek, logic, Hebrew, and rhetoric,” to which were added natural philosophy in the second year and metaphysics and moral philosophy in the third, before finishing up with a final year of intensive review.

During the nineteenth century, colleges and universities proliferated as the nation expanded geographically. They flourished in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, and even as far west as Washington and California. Driven in part by the missionary movement, many American colleges and universities once were bound by denominational affiliations, many of which have been significantly loosened, or dropped off altogether, in our own time.

Sadly, what has also suffered diminution in the twenty-first century is the nineteenth century notion of the American college as a social investment endowed for the public good. In that spirit, state governments around the country began to break the elite monopoly of knowledge that characterized our founding institutions, and sought to put higher education within the reach of every free citizen by helping to finance it.

It was during the nineteenth century also that universities began to subdivide into separate schools (some of which we would recognize today, such as law and medicine) and to establish the first graduate institutions. Founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia, for instance, was offering graduate degrees by 1831 and was an early innovator of the elective curriculum.

The American Civil War had a devastating impact on the landscape of higher education. Rudolph reports that over 700 colleges “died between 1850 and 1866,” including fifty-five Catholic ones, due to the aforesaid proliferation of colleges, the competition for students that resulted, and the challenges of keeping them fiscally sustainable (despite wages for faculty that kept many of its members impoverished).

The rise of science in the curriculum dates from this period, as well. Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened in 1865, for example, and the Morrill Federal Land Grants Acts that preceded it aimed “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.”

Every state in the union received land to establish an institution where the “branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts” could be taught. It was the dawn of vocational and technical higher education in the United States, and forever since business and government have been bound together in the education enterprise.

By the late 1880’s, small private colleges had to compete with an increasing number of publicly funded normal colleges (dedicated to producing teachers), which heightened the educational tendency toward vocationalism. The American university at the turn of the twentieth century was a force for social mobility—a place where disparate fields of endeavor could co-exist and students could earn a doctorate degree through specialization.

Noting the trend to mimic German universities and award an increasing number of Ph.D. degrees, the American philosopher William James attacked, as “a sham”, the prominent notion that there should be no instructor at Harvard University who did not hold the doctorate:

“Will any one pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? Notoriously his moral, social, and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the classroom; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever. Certain bare human beings will always be better candidates for a given place than all the doctor-applicants on hand.”

Presciently, James rightly argued in 1903: “America is thus a nation rapidly drifting towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast estate. It seems to me high time to rouse ourselves to consciousness, and to cast a critical eye upon this decidedly grotesque tendency. Other nations suffer terribly from the Mandarin disease. Are we doomed to suffer like the rest?”

It seems so, for not only has the doctorate become the preferable teaching credential, even at community colleges around the nation, but now American universities have become such large and unwieldy enterprises that traditional models of faculty governance essentially came to an end in the twentieth century, as well.

Thus, there arose the first stirrings of a professional class, known as administrators and professional staff, led by a chief executive officer who worked with a governing board (usually comprised of wealthy donors) to manage daily operations, raise money, control the finances, and get ever-more work out of a faculty wrongly perceived to be inclined toward idleness (i.e. a lazy worker).

For the sake of example, the president of University of North Dakota, Thomas F. Kane, assured those in attendance at his inauguration in 1918 that the wayward “[faculty] of the university are going to earn their salaries. We are going to drive them hard.”

Following the Gilded Age, the number of wealthy benefactors making campus gifts, endowing chairs, and having buildings (or whole universities) named after them increased dramatically. Some of those appellations we recognize today: Vanderbilt, Pulitzer, Rockefeller, and Brown.

In fact, all of these changes in the scope and intention of the university were driven by practices that members of the governing boards had learned as entrepreneurs in industry, business, and finance. As a result, Rudolph observes, “professors were already on the road from being fellows charged with ultimate responsibility to being hirelings of those men of the world who increasingly dominated collegiate governing boards.”

Perhaps aided by the rapid expansion of higher education following the adoption of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (known more widely as the G.I. Bill of Rights), the administration at most colleges went originally from just  “a president, a treasurer, and a part-time librarian” to the sprawling administrative bloat that now accounts for steeply rising tuitions across the nation.

Writing at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Stanley Aronowitz likened American universities to knowledge factories and suggested that the centralization of the academic system is just one symptom of a broader “incorporation of America.” Aronowitz argued that corporations “vocationalize” universities, as less affluent institutions sell “chunks of the curriculum” to corporations in return for “trained workers.”

Fear not, though, for hope remains with faculty members who understand that the main function of higher education is not teaching per se, but providing students with “an intellectual environment that will encourage the learner to dispense with intellectual authorities and to become her own authority.”

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!