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The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II

reviewed by Adam Laats - July 17, 2015

coverTitle: The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II
Author(s): Roger L. Geiger
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691149399, Pages: 584, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Sorry, 1968. Your campus revolutions were only the latest in a long string of revolutionary changes in American higher education.

Roger Geiger argues that our modern system of higher education is the result of a steady stream of profound changes from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th. Certainly, some things have remained the same. To use Professor Geiger’s terms, American higher education has always been about knowledge, careers, and culture; however, the meanings of those terms and the relationships among them have always been shifting—sometimes dramatically.

The mark of many successful revolutions is that the presumptions of old regimes come to seem almost inconceivable. An early revolution in American higher education, Geiger argues, was the epochal development of college as the presumed proper home of new knowledge. He writes that before the 1740s, students and professors assumed that the proper goal of higher education was to pass along inherited wisdom, not to challenge that knowledge with cutting-edge thinking. With the intellectual revolutions personified by John Locke, Isaac Newton, and John Tillotson, college classrooms came to be seen as dispensers of new knowledge.

The wider American Revolution also had revolutionary effects on colleges. Troops passed through Harvard Yard on their way to the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The Continental Congress met, at times, at Princeton’s Nassau Hall. Indeed, as Geiger relates, only Dartmouth avoided closings during this tumultuous period. And after the war, American colleges acquired a new prestige in an emerging Republican project. As Geiger puts it, “colleges offered hope of reproducing the natural aristocracy of learning and talent that the founders themselves exemplified” (p. 91).

As fundamentally aristocratic institutions, early American colleges struggled in the first decades of the nineteenth century to come to terms with the egalitarian spirit unleashed by the Revolution and the Second Great Awakening. At the fledgling University of North Carolina, for example, students horsewhipped the presiding professor in 1799. In the first decade of the 1800s, American colleges confronted thirteen major student rebellions. In response, faculty doubled down with burdensome scheduling requirements for students and mandatory demonstrations of Christian piety. Such efforts only increased student rebelliousness, leading to repeated campus conflagrations. Harvard’s Great Rebellion of 1823, for instance, led to the expulsion of forty-three of seventy graduating seniors. In Charlottesville, student riots included the shooting and death of an unpopular professor. On two occasions the state militia occupied the campus to control rioting students.  

As the nineteenth century progressed, American Higher Ed was transformed by momentous changes that Geiger describes as a triple revolution. During the Civil War, the Morrill Act introduced land-grant funding. In response, colleges and universities scrambled to add practical arts, such as engineering and agriculture, to their existing liberal-arts curricula. Though such changes unfolded over a course of fifty years, they profoundly altered the presumed purposes of higher education. In addition to preparing an elite corps of Christian gentlemen, modern universities provided training in practical and remunerative technical professions.

Just as significant was the academic revolution of the late nineteenth century—it permanently changed the landscape of higher education. Some of the basic tasks of the modern research university (e.g., a primary focus on research, the granting of terminal graduate degrees) trace their origins to this period. Most famously, the opening of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 promised to raise American higher education to the European standard with a graduate school based on the German model. The academic revolution went beyond graduate degrees. Schools ditched their traditional requirements of Latin and Greek. Faculty organized themselves in recognizably modern academic departments. Students no longer followed recitation schedules, but rather, chose their courses from a set of elective options. As with other successful revolutions, the changes in the last few decades of the nineteenth century simply became the definition of proper higher education. When Gilded-Age millionaires such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie sought to fund new collegiate institutions, they presumed those schools would take the form of modern research universities.

Perhaps just as important as the academic revolution, Geiger argues, was the near-simultaneous “collegiate” revolution. In the last years of the nineteenth century, a new student culture established itself on campus, as a necessary component of college life. Fraternities, clubs, and sports bubbled up from student organizations to become part of the structure of higher education itself. Football, for instance, soon became a major part of a university’s identity. By 1900, Geiger writes, it had become “too important . . . to be left to students” (p. 375).  

Despite this long history of revolution and transformation, Geiger’s history also reveals some issues of perennial concern in American higher education. It has never been easy, for instance, to determine the real levers of power in leading schools. In 1883, to cite just one of Geiger’s examples, Purdue’s third president Emerson White found himself booted from office when he tried to ban fraternities.

There have always been a competing array of answers to the central question: What is college for? (Training for professional careers? Finishing for young gentlemen? Intellectual sophistication? Social prestige?) Some of the most compelling questions have waxed and waned over the generations. In the late 1800s, for example, with land-grant money on the table, several states and schools struggled to figure out what “agricultural higher education” looked like.

Political pressure came from groups such as the Grange, and financial pressure came from competing demands on schools’ budgets. Often, the drive to establish workable plans for agricultural colleges was more dream than reality. When Isaac Roberts showed up at Iowa State to teach agriculture, he found no agriculture-related books in the library. In Chapel Hill, UNC President Kemp Plumer Battle was relieved to have his university’s land-grant money taken by other schools. Certainly, it reduced his budget, but it freed him from what he called “the constant demand to build stables and workshops” (p. 304).

With all these changes, Geiger identifies three shifting themes that have defined American higher education; schools have always been devoted to some conception of knowledge, careers, and culture.  The meaning and balance of these themes may have changed over the centuries, but together they have always played a leading role in guiding school leaders. In early schools, careers often came as an afterthought. The boundaries and definition of proper knowledge, too, looked very different in 1680 than they would two or three hundred years later. Certainly culture on campus and in the wider society changed significantly over the years.

As pillars of American higher education, though, knowledge, careers, and culture remained central.  Professor Geiger’s exploration of these themes, as they developed over time, is a truly remarkable piece of scholarship. This book will undoubtedly take a well-earned central place on the bookshelf of scholars of higher education, and should be required reading for every college president, faculty member, student, and parent.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 17, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18035, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 9:51:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Adam Laats
    SUNY Binghamton
    E-mail Author
    ADAM LAATS is Associate Professor of Education and History at Binghamton University (SUNY). He is the author, most recently, of The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is currently working on a history of evangelical Protestant higher education, tentatively titled Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education.
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