Higher Education in Transition
reviewed by Merle L. Borrowman - 1959
American educational history remains a relatively unexplored frontier. Into its regions, where lies a mass of unorganized data concerning higher education, a few giants have ventured. Morison has mined the mother lode at Harvard, Curti and Carstensen followed briefly the central vein at Wisconsin, Hofstadter and Metzger gathered choice nuggets in the stream of academic freedom, Butts and Schmidt have searched for ivory in the jungle of liberal arts colleges, and Ross and Eddy have partially reaped the golden grain of the land-grant colleges. A handful of other competent explorers have briefly homesteaded at the site of specific institutions, and the biographies of such early pioneers as Eliot, White, and Gilman are available. The records of all such lonely venturers into the frontier have fallen into the hands of Professors Brubacher and Rudy, who now attempt an over-all map of the territory.
Such a map has long been needed; the last general cartographer, Charles F. Thwing, left the field a half-century ago. Quite aside from its particular merits, which are considerable, Higher Education in Transition is thus without a single rival. If one wants to get a general view of the history of American higher education, he simply must turn to this volume. Where else can he find, within a single binding, a description of three centuries of higher learning in which he is told of curricular struggles, administrative problems, student life, and the attempts to define the distinctive functions of liberal arts colleges, state universities, professional schools, and extracurricular activities? Let us, then, all gladly acknowledge our debt to these authors; those of us who know the chaotic state of source materials in the field will also acknowledge our respect for the industry required in examining so wide a range of sources and the imagination needed in imposing a reasonable order on the material. Having said this, a reviewer is entitled, presumably, to express his own subjective delights and misgivings about the book.
These authors are at their best when they focus clearly on the development of specific ideas and when they select discrete institutions or ideological groups to epitomize those ideas. For example, in discussing the idea of a state university they look in considerable detail at Virginia, Michigan, Cornell, and Wisconsin, each of which is portrayed as representing a specific element in the evolution of the general concept. In discussing the development of the graduate school, Johns Hopkins becomes the prototype. There is, of course, a danger that through such a treatment one may easily over-generalize or seem to give too little credit to other institutions. But there is compensation; through this technique sufficient detail can be brought in that at least one institution comes to life.
In those chapters made up of reports of a single incident here, a faculty report there, and a statistic from some other place, one often senses a mosaic of nothing living and whole. The story is dehumanized and disembodied. There is sharp contrast, for example, between the chapter on the state university and the chapter on fraternities and athletics. Even greater is the contrast between the latter chapter and the work of Hofstadter and Metzger on The Development of Academic Freedom in the United I States. In the academic freedom story, people with whom we can identify come to life in situations we can easily reconstruct. One reads on avidly to see what will happen to the characters in the plot and even, through empathy, to himself. Though one is inclined to protest that, after all, Hofstadter and Metzger were writing a specialized study in which there was greater room to work, nevertheless the Brubacher and Rudy volume does come to life in the same way when the authors select for emphasis a single institution, person, or ideological struggle. Perhaps a better picture of the whole would emerge if fewer representative cases were elaborated and humanized rather than an attempt made to cover the field in an encyclopedic manner.
This is a problem which has trapped many historians, and one can forgive these authors if they do not always escape it. They are also caught with good company by another trap into which many educational historians have stumbled. One is more surprised to see them caught here, since they do report the data needed to avoid it. This is the assumption that earlier educational institutions can be classified in the same elementary school, secondary school, and higher education categories we now recognize. Brubacher and Rudy occasionally cite authorities who considered the colonial colleges secondary schoolsin my judgment the more adequate conceptionand who recognized that until the last half of the nineteenth century the academies, high schools, normal schools, seminaries, and colleges were competing institutions. Only gradually, and quite recently, was the secondary school slid in between the vernacular grammar school and the college to make an articulated system.
Since the authors at times explicitly recognize this fact, one is amazed to see them repeat the old assumption that certain subjects were dropped down into the secondary school. They note, for example (p. 13), that in 1720 geometry was studied in the senior collegiate year at Yale, that by 1743 it was offered in the sophomore year, that by 1825 it had become a freshman study, and that by 1855 it was required for admission. Now I have not checked the increasing age of Yale students in this period. The data Morison gives us on the age of Harvard students in the seventeenth century make it clear, however, that most students then took geometry at the approximate age of current high school sophomoresperhaps they were as young as fifteen, maybe a year beyond that. We also have the complaints of Francis Wayland against sixteen-year-old college students in the 1830's. A casual reader of Brubacher and Rudy might well infer that in terms of age and previous years of schooling the scholar of 1850 took geometry four years earlier than his eighteenth century counterpart. The fact is that he was probably of about the same age and previous educational experience.
The matter of geometry is a detail which, of itself, is relatively unimportant. It is important, however, that when we turn to an earlier generation for their ideas about secondary and higher education we keep clearly in mind the kinds of institutions and students they were talking about. I suggest, then, that we would think more accurately of the colonial and early national college, and perhaps evaluate more adequately contemporary arguments about secondary education, if we abandoned this talk about "pushing down" collegiate studies. Actually, there were no precise earlier equivalents to modern secondary and higher educational institutions. In a sense the "people's colleges"high schools and academieswere rivals to the colleges. As they became more numerous the colleges abandoned the field and moved up, with respect to both curriculum and age of student body. Early nineteenth-century arguments about the terminal liberal education functions of the college might be more relevant to the current debate about secondary education than is discussion of the college preparatory function of the Latin Grammar School. The latter was, in some respects, an elementary school.
No doubt Brubacher and Rudy merely slipped with respect to inferences their discussion of geometry suggests. In general they seem to be well aware of the arguments advanced above. They will have made no small achievement if their book constrains all readers, as it did this one, to ask, "But is this really the meaning of America's long experiment with the higher learning?"
MERLE L. BORROWMAN
University of Wisconsin