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The University and the People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest

reviewed by Michael Schapira - January 20, 2012

coverTitle: The University and the People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest
Author(s): Scott M. Gelber
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press, Madison
ISBN: 0299284646, Pages: 246, Year: 2011
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Universities are in a period of uncertainty, turmoil, or crisis depending on one’s relationship to institutions of higher education.  Reformers of many ideological stripes are jostling for the attention of powerful institutional players such as college presidents, large foundations, governmental and non-governmental agencies, politicians, newspaper editors and their readership.  Is this pressure an unwelcome infringement on academic governance or a welcome occasion for some necessary reorganization?  In Scott M. Gelber’s The University and the People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest we get the feeling that we’ve been here before, and are presented with the complex legacy of educational populism on the American university landscape.  As with any salutary piece of historical scholarship, readers will come away from the book with a more nuanced appreciation of ideologically driven critiques of the university, past and present.  Whilst populists certainly exhibited strains of demagoguery and partisan posturing, they also advanced many key issues that preoccupy us to this day: how to expand access to higher education while preserving its status as an agent of empowerment; how best to reconcile elitist tendencies in the university with the United State’s democratic aspirations; how to conceive the proper limits of academic freedom and intervention from political parties; and how to determine the relationship between sites of learning and teaching and the world of economic production.  This historically grounded perspective has much to say to the politicized pressures felt on today’s campuses.

The University and the People focuses on the brief period around the turn of the 20th century when rural agitation congealed into a full blown populist movement that saw the birth of a political party (the People’s Party, 1892) and the installation of populist figures in state governments, boards of trustees, offices of university administration, and in the professoriate.  Gelber’s account untangles the vision of progressive higher education articulated by these figures as well as those debated on editorial pages of newspapers associated with the movement.  He does an admirable job sifting through the often polemical nature of this material (primarily drawn from Nebraska, North Carolina, and Kansas, where the movement was strongest) to demonstrate two key aspects of Populist ideology: a belief in “the capabilities and virtues of ordinary citizens” and the belief that “a small number of elites tended to monopolize resources at the expense of farmers and laborers” (p. 12-13).  Contrary to the conventional view that populists were hostile to universities due to virulent anti-elitism (a view attributed in large measure to the enduring influence of Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform), Gelber argues that these two beliefs found common cause in the wake of the 1862 Morrill Act, which expanded higher education through the creation of land-grant state universities and triggered a discussion of their role in furthering the American project of democracy.

One of the key tensions that emerged from academic populism was the call to expand access to universities for farmers and laborers, but not in a way that diminished their status as institutions of personal, political, and economic empowerment.  Gelber notes that many leaders in the populist movement attended university themselves and were not willing to abandon its traditions wholesale.  Thus the call for greater relevance to their rural constituents yielded a series of important discussions that were to have lasting influence on American universities.  For example, some populists believed that “higher education could promote a more egalitarian society by providing farmers with the social and political status previously associated with educated cosmopolitans” (p. 52).  This led to robust calls for expanded access, but fewer calls for radical reforms of the curriculum.  Yet others in the movement focused on the particular demands of agrarian laborers and demanded a radical reprioritization of subjects towards those deemed most useful for this constituency.  These calls brought about experimentation both in the internal organization of universities and in the creation of new institutions with a more vocational focus (as seen for example in reorganization of the Kansas State Agricultural College, which subsequently became Kansas State University).  

It is not difficult to find reverberations of this debate, along with others covered in the book (e.g. how to finance the university, how much radical critique from the professoriate should be protected), amplified in current anxieties over the future of higher education.  As Gelber notes, “populist warnings about oligarchic college graduates can seem quaint, but recent trends in college access provide reason enough for serious consideration of the movement’s concerns” (pp. 177-178).  A university education is no longer a guarantee of increased opportunity, and with staggering competition for admission to a small band of elite schools, populist calls to balance access with opportunity return with striking force, albeit with a set of students more representative than the aspirations of rural white farmers.  As this becomes intertwined with debates concerning academic priorities (e.g. should certain programs in the arts and humanities be cut in times of austerity) and the introduction of for-profit universities and online learning, we could do worse than to revisit the successes and failures of a movement that generated a good amount of the language of reformers today.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 20, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16660, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 7:59:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Schapira
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL SCHAPIRA is a doctoral candiate in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. His current research concerns the public character of universities in eras of economic and social transition.
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