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American Academic Cultures

reviewed by Sarah Zipf & David Guthrie - May 10, 2019

coverTitle: American Academic Cultures
Author(s): Paul H. Mattingly
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022650526X, Pages: 434, Year: 2017
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Michael Cole (1998) suggests that culture is not a singular thing that can be studied in isolation; instead, culture must always be studied in context and with regard to the artifacts of the time. Paul H. Mattingly’s American Academic Cultures does precisely this. It examines the cultures of American higher education through an examination of the people and artifacts associated with the unfolding history of the academy. Within the biographies and cultural histories that Mattingly includes, the reader is invited to find “insights into the present-day conundrums of American academia” (p. 1).


Mattingly’s definition of academic cultures is not altogether clear, but he readily admits that the act of the defining culture is “imprecise” (p. 2). This imprecision allows for the creation of a synthesized, not strictly chronological, history of American higher education (p. 2). Mattingly does indicate, however, that academic culture is concerned with the internal and external social influences and corresponding responses from colleges and universities throughout history. For example, Mattingly includes a short explanation about how the notion of the Ivy League came into being, including with respect to the deliberate actions these institutions took to limit access to certain students (p. 259). He also offers an historical view of admittance based on religion, gender, race, and socio-economic status, and weaves the elitist thread from the founding of our institutions to the present-day problems of access and equity in higher education. Ultimately, Mattingly argues that “the past affords the present an opportunity to study how different sets of assumptions condition social assumptions and expectations that are both inherently unique and yet passed on to later generations” (p. 1).


The distinction between current times and hundreds of years ago can be divided by significant ideas and changes, all of which are connected to shifts in culture. With this in mind, Mattingly’s book traces seven generations of academic cultures: (a) evangelical, (b) Jeffersonian, (c) republican/nondenominational, (d) industrially driven postgraduate/professional organization, (e) progressive (urban-driven) pragmatism with a substantive liberal arts/teaching countercurrent, (f) international academic discourse that critically probed America’s pragmatic mentality, and finally (g) a federally driven set of initiatives that activated both pro- and anti-pragmatic stances.


Mattingly’s book unfolds chronologically through fifteen chapters that take the reader from the colonial period through the 1960s. Not unlike other higher education histories, he examines institutions (e.g., Harvard, Cornell, Columbia), people (e.g., Eliot, Hutchins, Kerr), and topics (e.g., curriculum, the rise of science, and government influences). Readers will also find that Mattingly focuses the bulk of his analysis on the 19th century, highlighting such things as waning religious influences, the emergence and historical relevance of land grant institutions, the progressive movement, and much more. Perhaps Mattingly’s unique contribution, however, is his interest to explore connections among specific historical people and developments in American higher education, their associated academic cultures, and the concomitant, larger American socio-cultural realities.


His efforts in these regards are, at best, uneven, likely owing to the overwhelming complexity involved in such an effort. More specifically, although the book chapters loosely align with Mattingly’s seven generations, as outlined in the introduction, this is not always evident when reading each chapter. Mattingly’s clear hope is that “the chapters here are each self-contained analyses of a historical subject that bears on and refines a generational progression” (p. 6). We were, however, less than convinced.


In addition, and as noted at the outset, generational cultures are not clear-cut periods of time. Instead, there is an overlap of ideas and influences in which “historical assumptions of a period” have formed (p. 6). These assumptions must not be isolated when taking such a long view of American higher education. Perhaps Mattingly’s approach is most realized when reading the book in its entirety (rather than just individual chapters) as this allows the reader to make connections between the various threads of American higher education cultures. Still, readers will be required to do some heavy lifting.


The only chapter in the book that may function as a compelling stand-alone read (with Mattingly’s approach in mind) is Chapter Thirteen, “Federal Policy and the Postwar University.” This chapter thoroughly examines how societal changes and the World Wars affected American higher education directly and in clear ways. Mattingly clears a path for understanding future disciplinary hierarchies and the conflicting goals often faced by institutions when it comes to monetary support.


Unlike other books on the history of American higher education, Mattingly also includes some creative contributions. Perhaps the chief example in this regard is his discussion of the architectural choices embraced by American colleges and universities throughout history. These architectural choices, according to Mattingly, represent the beliefs, practices, and ideas of a specific time period. For example, M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr College (1894-1922) “created a series of Gothic quadrangles with crenellated towers and stone enclosures, echoing the enclosed, medieval atmosphere of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England” (p. 153). This style of architecture promoted a sense of history, linking higher education in America to that of Europe.


From the gendered libraries at Oberlin College (p. 148) to the Beaux-Arts style found on the American University campus in Washington, D.C. (p. 195), Mattingly provides short discussions about this often-overlooked aspect of American higher education as a “distinctive cultural icon” (p. 113). Readers of this section will find an interesting analysis of how culture is physically represented in American higher education via architectural design.


Mattingly firmly believes that historical analysis can shape responses to current problems. The confluence of national discourses on diversity and equity and issues of access and civility in academic cultures seems like an apt topic for follow-up volume covering 21st century issues. As Mattingly argues, these issues have existed in some form throughout the history of American higher education. Looking at these developments historically provides a useful and complex framework for continued study of these trends.


Cole, M. (1998). Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22793, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 1:10:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Zipf
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    SARAH ZIPF is a PhD student in Higher Education at the Pennsylvania State University. Sarah’s professional experience as a financial aid administrator shapes her research interests in adult students, online education, and equity.
  • David Guthrie
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID GUTHRIE is an associate professor in the higher education program at Penn State University and a research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. His continuing interests concern the confluence of religion, higher education, and society.
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