- The Many Purposes of American Higher Education
For years, thirty to forty in fact, the standard text for the history of American higher education remained Frederick Rudolph’s 1962 The American College and University: A History. Written during a flurry of interest in the subject during the 1950s and ’60s, Rudolph’s text told the story from the colonial era to 1960. He drew on colorful episodes to demonstrate larger trends and pioneered in making student extracurricular life and athletics a subject for serious historical reflection. Rudolph painted a bleak picture of the state of American colleges in the nineteenth century, dismissing them as academically weak pawns in denominational squabbles. In 1965 Laurence Veysey then penned the classic The Emergence of the American University, which teased out four rival understandings of higher education he saw arise with the subsequent creation of the U.S. research university in the late nineteenth century: “mental discipline,” utility, research, and liberal culture. Subsequent research in the 1970s and ’80s by scholars such as Colin Burke and David Potts (whose new book is reviewed in the second part of this essay) overturned such a stark contrast between a languishing educational system in the early to mid-1800s and a thriving, contested one that emerged during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. These researchers uncovered how nineteenth-century colleges grew out of partnership between churches and localities and served well the basic needs of these constituencies.
Subsequent to this research, two new texts attempted complete summaries of the history of U.S. higher education. Christopher Lucas’ 1992 American Higher Education: A History added to earlier accounts an extensive treatment of the deep European background of the American system, but it did not work in a [End Page 77] significant amount of the new scholarship. In 2004, John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education became the first book to incorporate a wide array of post-Rudolph research into a single narrative. Thelin’s extremely readable volume has since become the standard text in many courses on the subject for its comprehensive coverage of different types of institutions and students as well as its attention to the funding and cost of higher education. In Thelin’s own words, his “professional passion is to write history for non-historians,” and his work therefore focuses on bringing the story alive by making frequent references to the present rather than by providing a comprehensive new analytical framework.1
All these developments may not be familiar to many general U.S. historians because often historians of higher education reside in education departments rather than in history departments. Consequently, the history of American higher education has not always made its way into larger narratives in a manner commensurate with its real significance—despite the attention that older historians such as Richard Hofstadter believed it merited. Roger Geiger has therefore provided an invaluable service by producing a detailed, up-to-date, 30,000-foot overview of the field “from the founding to World War II” (ending just before the major changes ushered in by the GI Bill). Unlike Thelin, Geiger writes for historians as much as for educational practitioners and provides a new analytical framework for understanding the history of higher education (discussed below). Overall, he demonstrates how U.S. higher education developed in response to changes in the wider society—and how it in turn came to be a major influence in that wider society.
Remarkably for a work of this scope, Geiger’s history is simultaneously expansive and detailed, summarizing overarching trends in clear language while also telling intricate, often entertaining stories at the level of individual institutions. Accomplishing a project of this magnitude requires both an exceptional breadth of knowledge and the capacity for bringing order to that knowledge so as to make it accessible to others. Geiger excels at...