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Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890-1915

reviewed by Charles Dorn - January 03, 2011

coverTitle: Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890-1915
Author(s): Daniel A. Clark
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press, Madison
ISBN: 0299235343, Pages: 256, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

While reading Daniel Clark’s Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890-1915, my mind flashed back to the time I first encountered a nineteenth-century cartoon entitled “An Unequal Match.” The cartoon depicts two men: a short, bespectacled one standing in front of a building labeled “College Nursery” and wearing smallish boxing gloves that read “Dead Languages” and “Culture” and a tall, imposing, muscular one positioned in front of the “City Business House Enterprise & Co.” and wearing the larger gloves of “Practice” and “Hard Experience.” The cartoon's caption reinforces who will have the upper hand in the ensuing fight: “Young Man, you'll have to get stouter gloves than those, and train in a harder school before you compete with me.” As the image, as well as Clark’s study, makes clear, Americans’ perception of higher education has changed a great deal over the past century.

As with most compelling historical studies, Creating the College Man is oriented around a fascinating puzzle. How is it, Clark wants to know, that a college education went from being perceived by many Americans in the late nineteenth century as undermining a young man’s potential success in a life of commerce to being accepted in the twentieth century as a central element in preparing a man for a successful place in the business world? I share my memory of encountering “An Unequal Match” in this review both because the artist’s depiction provides a starting point for Clark’s analysis and because it suggests the power of images to shape our thinking of (among a great many things) the role of higher education in American society.

Images are central to Clark’s interpretation of the relationship between masculinity and higher education. For Clark, however, pictures are not only worth thousands of words, they are joined by them, for his central argument is that mass magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, and Collier’s Weekly provided the United States with the “first truly national media” through which a “new image” of the American college was crafted. This new image, according to Clark, included colleges and universities providing students the social status-oriented “culture and refinement” with which higher education was historically associated as well as the “manly experiences” and “male bonding” associated with athletics and fraternity life (p. 14). As a result, Clark claims, colleges were central in “fashioning a new national cultural narrative of masculine authority” (p. 14). As he writes, “My prime concern here is the cultural construction of the college experience (and a generic college man) as a vital component of a broader American transformation in middle-class and masculine ideals” (p. 9).

This study’s most striking claim is that rather than simply reflecting societal change during the early twentieth century, mass magazines “actively crafted” a “new vision of manhood,” one that included and to a great extent relied upon college attendance. Controversial, therefore, is Clark’s assertion that “college was remade in the pages of these periodicals to conform to transforming economic and cultural demands, reconfigured in alignment with the emerging identity of a new white-collar managerial middle class” (p. 14). This claim is at the core of Clark's study and needs to be interrogated for two reasons.  First, the claim suggests Clark can support the argument that, even early in Americans’ experience with mass media, magazines had the capacity to influence people’s perceptions. Second, although he explicitly states that he will break with the traditional historiography of higher education by not examining “an institution (or set of institutions), the rise of a profession, or the makeup of college and university boards,” Clark signals through this claim that he has uncovered archival documentation demonstrating higher education officials’ and administrators’ awareness of the changes being wrought by this new mass media as well as their proactive responses to it. Clark deftly handles the former, conducting an examination of the rise of the “magazine revolution” and Americans’ rapidly expanding interest in this form of mass media. He is less successful, however, with the latter.

Clark’s success in this work is primarily the result of his significant engagement with the mass magazines that provide his central archive. The book is particularly insightful in its analysis of the rise of extracurricular activities on college and university campuses. In a chapter entitled “Athletes and Frats, Romance and Rowdies,” Clark uses the cover art for the college man’s issue of the Saturday Evening Post as an especially poignant illustration. In this image, a uniformed football player stretches out his left arm to grip the shoulder of his other self, a scholar dressed in academic regalia, who in turn reaches out with his right arm to grip the football player. The depiction joins what Clark calls “two heretofore antagonistic ideals of American manhood,” which are, of course, those represented by the two men in “An Unequal Match”: the “genteel scholar” and the “vigorous man” (p. 81). Yet Clark goes beyond explicitly symbolic representations such as these to examine both magazine fiction concerning the “college-educated, self-made, corporate man” and the advertising campaigns that marketed the clothing styles to be worn by the new “college man” (p. 134).  

By the end of the book, however, it remains unclear as to whether the images, stories, and ads published in mass magazines actually influenced college officials’ and students’ decision-making. Indeed, after issuing his bold introductory claim, Clark backpedals a bit, writing in the conclusion to his second chapter that “[T]he power of this medium [mass magazines] eludes direct measurement” (p. 76). Similarly, in the conclusion to his third chapter he writes that “these shifts in college life had been occurring independently on the nation’s campuses for several years prior to the explosion of middle-class magazine coverage” (p. 116). Finally, he provides little to no archival evidence that would lead the reader to believe that individuals working and studying on college campuses in the early twentieth century altered their behavior as a result of reading mass magazines.

Even with this weakness, however, Clark’s work is an important contribution to our greater understanding of the developing role of higher education in the United States. Whether mass magazines dictated the terms of that role or were simply one element of the sweeping political, economic, and social changes occurring during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seems less important than the ways that they illuminate popular representations of colleges and universities at a particular moment in our national life.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 03, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16269, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:22:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Charles Dorn
    Bowdoin College
    E-mail Author
    CHARLES DORN is Associate Professor of Education and Chair of the Education Department at Bowdoin College. His work has appeared in the American Journal of Education, Diplomatic History, Teachers College Record, and History of Education Quarterly. He is the author of American Education, Democracy, and the Second World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and is currently at work on a historical study of the public purposes of higher education.
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