How did American higher education evolve?

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tags: higher education



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American higher education today looks nothing like it did a few generations ago, let alone at the founding of the country. A new book, The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture From the Founding to World War II (Princeton University Press), explores how colleges evolved. The author is Roger L. Geiger, who is distinguished professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University. His previous books include Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth and Knowledge and Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace.

He responded via email to questions about his new book.

Q: On the surface, the earliest American colleges have evolved into very different institutions. How relevant do you consider the origins of American colleges (generally as small religious institutions) to understanding them today (generally as secular research universities)?

A: Before 1860, American colleges existed in a pre-industrial society that had limited use for advanced education. To capture elements of continuity over three centuries, I focused on connections with society through culture, careers and knowledge. The only career directly linked with pre-industrial colleges was that of clergy, and only in churches that favored educated ministers. Even this role was superseded by theological seminaries. The growth of knowledge became ingrained with the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Most colleges honored this ideal, but only wealthier institutions were able to employ learned instructors. By the 1850s expanding knowledge could no longer be crammed onto the undergraduate classical course. Culture, in contrast, was integral to the ongoing mission of colleges.

Through the 18th century, graduation from college conferred a privileged social status of gentleman, but deference toward social superiors withered with Federalism in the new republic. Students then took it upon themselves to fashion the cultural distinction they wished to acquire from their college experience. Literary societies and rebellion against college authority were original expressions of student class culture, soon followed by fraternities and a growing slate of organized activities. With the relaxation of college discipline after the Civil War, student organizations and activities ballooned into the “collegiate revolution” at the end of the century, symbolized by fraternities and football, but including singing, debate, journalism, and a multitude of class functions. For most Americans, this tumult of student-led and student-run activities defined the identity of colleges and college-going; but this was largely a legacy of the student culture of the early colleges...




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