Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr, Review of Daniel A. Clark, “Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890-1915” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).

Aug 22, 2010 5:29 pm

Luther Spoehr, Review of Daniel A. Clark, “Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890-1915” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).

[Luther Spoehr teaches courses on the history of American higher education at Brown University.]

Daniel Clark begins by quoting a grumpy Andrew Carnegie: “A college education unfits rather than fits men to affairs.” Clark, a historian at Indiana State University, then spends the rest of his monograph showing how popular new, mass-audience magazines, including “Collier’s Weekly,” “Munsey’s Magazine,” “Cosmopolitan,” and the “Saturday Evening Post” contributed to dramatically changing that stereotype. “American mass magazines,” says Clark, “spearheaded a cultural reconstruction of college and middle-class masculinity…in the years surrounding 1900, as they emerged as a central national cultural forum, our nation’s first truly national media.”

Clark thus posits an answer to the important question of how and why the undergraduate college experience, previously limited to tiny fraction of the population, increasingly came to be considered an important, even essential, part of middle class life. In 1900, less than 4% of college-age youth attended college, but that figure has approximately doubled every 15 years or so ever since, and nowadays we hear that everyone should aspire to a college degree. Although Clark places too much emphasis on mass magazines as causal factors, he is entirely successful in showing that college life was moving closer to center stage in American culture at the turn of the twentieth century.

A perennial and central issue in interpreting the relationship between popular culture and social change is determining whether the culture is driving such change or merely reflecting it. By using verbs such as “spearheaded,” Clark tends toward the former, and this tendency is accentuated by the fact his book on “creating the college man” is more interested in the “man” than it is in the “college.” That is, the context in which he places his arguments and evidence is the by-now familiar historiographical site featuring the “crisis of masculinity” at the turn of the century, while the changes already under way in the colleges themselves—and which gave the magazines something to write about—receive relatively little attention.

One would not guess from Clark’s book that after the Civil War (and well before 1890), many colleges were abandoning the prescribed classical curriculum in favor of electives (pioneered by Harvard President Charles Eliot in 1869) and more utilitarian courses and courses of study (“I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” said Ezra Cornell in 1868). The classroom changed, too, as faculty-enforced drill and recitation gave way to lectures and even seminars. Finally, extracurricular life, particularly athletics, became for many men (the overwhelming majority of college students were male) by far the most important part of their college days. Robert Grant (Harvard 1873) later cheerfully celebrated the “C Man’s” advice to students:
“Avoid probation” is the tag he whispers to the young,
“Or otherwise some college team is likely to be stung.
A skillful choice of studies makes one’s afternoons all free;
The chief merit of electives to the man who aims at C.”
Such are the words of wisdom he utters from his throne,
For the C man owns the college and sets the college tone.

The four mass magazines that Clark studies brought changes already occurring on campus to the public’s attention. No longer was college portrayed as the refuge for sissies and near-sighted, bookish weaklings hiding from real life. Rather, in an increasingly organized, bureaucratized society, as Americans worried about how young men could prove their mettle, the college came to be seen—and increasingly presented itself—as the appropriate arena for learning about manhood. Clark argues convincingly that “the single most potent appeal of the college experience would be the way it could seamlessly unite the various discordant facets of ideal masculinity in transition. The college man could be the vigorous athlete and the civilized scholar, the genteel leader and the modern professional. He could find fraternal bonding and ‘instant’ tradition, while indulging in a raucous sporting culture. He could simultaneously prove his self-worth through athletics and work (as a student or after graduation).”

Clark’s systematic survey of the four magazines demonstrates a large and increasing amount of ink being spilled on college-related topics. The “Saturday Evening Post” even ran “College Man” issues; its 1900 version included articles by, among others, Stanford President David Starr Jordan (“The College Man’s Advantage in the Coming Century”), former president Grover Cleveland (“Does a College Education Pay?” [answered in the affirmative], and Princeton President Francis Patton (Should a Business Man Have a College Education?” [he agreed with Cleveland]. Short stories, many aimed at capturing the excitement of college athletics, especially football, further glamorized the campus scene. Indeed, says Clark, “the rise of manly sports on college campuses no doubt was the key factor in the transformation of the image of college.”

Clark’s most vivid evidence comes from the clothing advertisements: as the twentieth century’s first decade unfolded, rugged, jut-jawed college men (the Arrow Shirt man’s cousins, perhaps?) wearing fashionable, ready-to-wear suits, became the new models for young men—whether on campus or working as managers in the new firms and corporations. Daube, Cohn, and Company even produced a line of “Harvard Clothes,” which “traded on the cachet of the Harvard name and its myriad associations with upper-class refinement and culture.” (Imagine the lawsuits that would result from such a marketing strategy today.) Clark concludes that the magazines’ “embrace of college, especially with regard to advertising images, ended up twisting the appeal of college into associations appropriate for a new age of consumption.” What was being marketed, in short, was not so much education (at least as generally understood) as a particular kind of maturational experience, one that would give a young man a leg up on the corporate managerial ladder in the new world of big business.

Of course, not everyone was expected to be able to take advantage of such experience. Women, even educated ones, were expected to be accessories; immigrant men (in this era of the New Immigration from southern and eastern Europe) were quite literally not part of the picture these magazines painted. And yet, rhetorically at least, college was not explicitly confined to the “right sort” of fellow. Clark does not discuss the widespread alarm among many elite college leaders after the century’s turn when a growing number of Jewish students began arriving on their campuses—alarm that led to many years of exclusionary policies. Nevertheless, what Clark rightly refers to as “the seeds of democratic openness” inherent in American ideas about “merit” (based partly on older conceptions of “the self-made man”) were there, waiting for the right moment to be used by the excluded.

Overall, Clark’s book is a valuable addition to the growing historical literature on the meaning and significance of higher education in America. Despite its repetitiveness (due partly to its thematic organization) and omissions, it clearly and thoroughly illuminates crucial sources of popular images of college life. Such images remain familiar to this day and, whether we realize it or not, shape our own expectations and perceptions of what college is and should be about.

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