American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 190-216
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The Post-Welfare State University
Jeffrey J. Williams
Throughout its history, the American university has been a makeshift institution, incorporating various models at hand and adapting to different social needs. Though one might trace its roots to the cloister of the medieval university, it developed according to the iconoclasm of Protestant sects, dotting the land through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with Congregationalist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist colleges and serving the need of producing literate ministers. Though the American university inherited the classical curriculum of Oxbridge, it adopted the model of central administration from the Scottish university, by which a president ruled, often as the only professor (aided by one or two tutors) in the early college and later ceding his teaching duties to captain the entire enterprise. Though it borrowed from the model of the German research university in the later nineteenth century, the US university expanded to include applied disciplines like agriculture and engineering and professional schools like medicine and law, shifting from the training of ministers to the training of engineers and professionals of the great Industrial Age. And though it has always adverted to high-minded pursuits, it has consistently negotiated with business, particularly from the late nineteenth century on, in the training it has offered its students, in the mission it has promised its constituents, in the practical use of the knowledge it has produced, and in the sources of its funding.1 Sometimes, in accounts of the university, it seems as if the university has developed from a singular and continuous "idea," arising full-fledged from Cardinal Newman's Idea of the University (1852) or Kant's Conflict of the Faculties (1798). But, in the actual history of the American university, if there is a principle, it is adaptability.
One can trace five moments punctuating the plot of the American university, the moments ceding to the next sometimes in a gradual evolution and sometimes in a precipitous shift. The first was the sectarian college, which was small, structured like a boarding school (with one or two instructors and 20 or 30 students), ill-funded, and [End Page 190] rarefied, educating less than 1% of the general population. The sectarian college dominated from the inception of Congregationalist Harvard in 1636 and through the eighteenth century, competed with new state universities in the wake of the Revolution, and burgeoned with the religious revival of the early nineteenth century—which saw the founding of more than 200 colleges, especially in less-settled regions to spread the Gospel, many of them eventually failing.2 The sectarian college was a supporting institution for perhaps the primary, though decentralized, institution of the Colonies and new Republic—religion.
The next moment saw the dominance of the state university, with each state forming its own university or university system and, in a distinctly American way, eschewing an overarching national authority to spread horizontally across the Republic. (George Washington had proposed a national university in 1790 and James Madison did so in 1810, but the idea languished in part because of lack of federal funds and in part because it went against the American idea of states' rights.)3 Beginning at the cusp of the nineteenth century, state universities started modestly, usually on precarious financial footing. For instance, the University of Missouri, the first state university in the new territories west...