- The University and the People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest by Scott M. Gelber
The University and the People examines the influence of Populism on higher education at the turn of the 20th century. Author Scott Gelber looks at the ways in which “academic Populists”—Populist leaders and editors as well as administrators, trustees, faculty, and students with ties to the movement—pressured public universities to redress issues of cost, access, and curriculum. Committed to the belief that higher education should be a public good open and of use to all Americans, not just elites, academic Populists played an important role in the expansion of vocational education, extension schools, and tuition assistance programs like work study and cooperative ventures.
This well-organized, deeply researched book shows how academic Populists in Kansas, North Carolina, and Nebraska in particular worked to redefine the meaning and purpose of U.S. higher education in the late nineteenth century. Gelber converges primarily on the South and the West because Populist grassroots activity and state university enrollments were both greater in these regions than in the North. Each chapter focuses on “contextualizing and analyzing the ideology of … academic Populists,” describing their efforts to change admission policies, tuition structures, and curricular content at various public universities (13). While the book carefully explicates sundry policy debates that transpired on the local level, it also provides the reader with a broader cultural perspective. Gelber peppers The University and the [End Page 215] People with references to novels by Willa Cather and Edward Bellamy, nonfiction by Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey, and the real life school experiences of literary figures like Theodore Dreiser and Hamlin Garland. In addition, Gelber discusses the shortcomings in Populist ideology when it came to advocating for women and African Americans. If academic Populists addressed the education of women at all, they tended to suggest “young women take vocational courses in order to increase their productivity, preserve their moral fiber, and prepare themselves for the possibility of widowhood” (113). Similarly, despite their professed egalitarian ideals, Populists either ignored or endorsed racial discrimination. As Gerber reminds us, this was a movement that “emphasized the educational disadvantages facing the sons (and sometimes the daughters) of white farmers” (67).
One of the more interesting findings of the book is the fact that many of these sons wanted little to do with the vocational curriculum for which their elders had lobbied so hard. Once they arrived at college, the ambitious rural poor discovered that they did not want to take agricultural courses and return to the farm; they wanted to go into commerce, engineering, or a professional field so that they could achieve middle class status. The number of graduates of land grant colleges who became farmers in the 1890s hovered around two percent. “Few students attended college in order to perform manual labor or maintain a sympathetic connection with agricultural or industrial workers,” writes Gelber (118). Thus, under pressure from academic Populists, a number of state universities altered their curriculum and created new academic departments, only to find these programs under-enrolled as the sons rejected the vision of the fathers.