A Brief History of American Higher Education
Part Three — The Democratization of Institutions and Ideas
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, there were numerous threats to academic freedom including a handful of celebrated cases.
· In 1895, Edward Bemis was forced to resign from the faculty of the University of Chicago for speaking against monopolies and in support of the Pullman strike.
· In 1900, Edward Ross was forced to resign his post at Stanford through the intercessions of benefactress Jane Stanford for eugenics remarks that would provoke volatile debate today as well. Mrs. Stanford exercised her authority over the protestations of Stanford’s president and faculty.
· In 1915, the president of the University of Utah summarily dismissed two professors and two instructors prompting 14 of their colleagues to resign in protest, which became the first investigation led by the newly founded American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
The mission of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is to advance academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education; to promote the economic security of faculty, academic professionals, graduate students, post‐doctoral fellows, and all those engaged in teaching and research in higher education; to help the higher education community organize to make our goals a reality; and to ensure higher education's contribution to the common good. Founded in 1915, the AAUP has helped to shape American higher education by developing the standards and procedures that maintain quality in education and academic freedom in this country's colleges and universities.
It is through their efforts that the standards applied to academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance across the Unites States have been developed and refined. Every faculty handbook has been shaped by their collective influence.
Protecting the ability of scholars to report what they have observed and discerned is foundational to a developed democracy. For a fascinating history of the AAUP, I commend University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors by Hans-Joerg Tiede.
In 1917, John Erskine proposed creating a two-year program on classics in translation at Columbia. Erskine reasoned that the Great Books were written for general audiences in each generation, but that language and approach made the classics distant and elitist. The faculty initially rejected it.
World War I gave Erskine a chance to test his theories as Director of the Education Department for the Y.M.C.A. and the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Flush from his success on the front, he persuaded the faculty at Columbia University to allow him to teach General Honors, a two-year seminar devoted to the Great Books.
Among Erskine's early students at Columbia were future University of Chicago faculty members Richard McKeon, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and Mortimer Adler.
During his first year as president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins hired Mortimer Adler as a faculty member. Adler suggested replicating the two-year Honors Seminar of his own Columbia student experience. Beginning in 1931, Adler and Hutchins led the seminar at Chicago for two decades. It was in Chicago that the course drew national attention for its use of Socratic method and for the many celebrity guests the course attracted, including Lillian Gish, Orson Welles, and Gertrude Stein.
At Columbia and Chicago, the “Great Books/Great Ideas” curricula were an elective track for a select group of students, and in Chicago, the curriculum moved into the University Extension program in the 1940s, a berth created decades earlier by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (more on that in the next installment).
At St. John’s College, originally King William’s School, founded in 1696 in Annapolis, the great books were successfully expanded into a universal curriculum. St. John’s is one of our nation’s oldest academic institutions, but it struggled for many years to remain viable. To quote an earlier iteration of their website:
Rather than close the school the board decided on one last desperate measure. In 1937 they brought in Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, two academics [from Erskine’s class at Columbia and then the faculty at Chicago] who had revolutionary educational ideas, to completely revamp the curriculum. Buchanan, who was appointed dean, thought that the traditional liberal arts could be used as a formal structure for learning; he devised a course of study with the great books as the basis for discussion classes. Another important feature of his plan was the inter-relatedness of the disciplines; he proposed a college with a unified, all-required curriculum and no departments or majors.
St. John’s has expanded to two campuses, the second site in Santa Fe utilizes a reading list that incorporates many more Eastern classics than the Annapolis campus. The twin colleges have undertaken a bold campaign, Freeing Minds, to create long-term financial viability and access through an aggressive fundraising effort.
Following the First World War, the American Legion began to actively lobby for benefits for veterans. These efforts were redoubled during World War II leading congress to adopt the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 with strong bipartisan support Broadly known as the G.I. Bill, the Act provided a variety of financial rewards including low-interest business loans and mortgages; up to a year’s unemployment pay; and tuition support for high school, vocational training, and college.
At the Act’s conclusion in 1956, 5.6 million G.I.s had completed vocational training, and 2.2 million had attended college. A series of subsequent initiatives have been called G.I. Bills including those after the Vietnam War and Post 9/11.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 created the largest influx of new students in American higher education history. Many institutions created temporary “barracks” to accommodate this wave of new students, which stimulated particular growth at regional public institutions, preparing them for the next growth spurt that would occur when the baby boomers headed to college.
The G.I.s who benefitted from the Act were disproportionately White, because the Act accommodated Jim Crow exclusions creating an even greater educational divide between Blacks and Whites. Likewise, many banks engaged in discriminatory lending practices that excluded many Black servicemen from benefits they had rightfully earned. It would be another two decades for fair access to be legally guaranteed.
The Great Society
Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society produced many of our nation’s most progressive efforts for positive transformation. These included the creation the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, Job Corps, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, and the three most significant pieces of civil right legislation in the 20th century.
These were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Related legislation included the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Higher Education Act of 1965.
The Higher Education Act has been reauthorized eight times. The ninth reauthorization has been due since 2013. The act contains eight large-scale sections, called titles. Title IV is focused on student assistance. This created federal loan and grant programs that made a college degree possible for millions of students who had previously been denied access due to their economic status.
The most significant of these aid programs, is the Pell grant. Originally called the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, the program was renamed in honor of Senator Claiborne Pell. Unlike loans, Pell grants do not need to be repaid. They are need-based and are awarded to students whose families are in or near the bottom financial quintile. Over 5 million students are attending college or technical school with Pell support. This year, the maximum Pell award is $6,495.
The grant has not kept up with the cost of education, nor has it kept pace with inflation, which is why there is a coordinated lobbying campaign led by numerous national higher-education organizations to Double Pell with the next reauthorization and to tag it to inflation moving forward. This would make college truly affordable for many of our poorest families. The aid would follow the student, which guarantees student choice, and would make many degree programs “free” for the students who have the least capacity to pay.
The Higher Education Act profoundly changed the face of higher education. It created access for millions of deserving students who had been excluded in the past. It was one of our nation’s greatest acts of democratization, and the expansion of Pell would make good on its initial promise for generations to come.