History of American College Education

In 1976, the late, famed American historian Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith published a classic collection of documents critical in the development of the US university: American Higher Education, a Documentary History. Smith has now teamed up with NYU historian Thomas Bender to produce a sequel to the original volume, American Higher Education Transformed, 1940-2005 (Johns Hopkins U Press, 2008). The new book,

includes such seminal documents as Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Science, the Endless Frontier; the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Sweezy v. New Hampshire; and Adrienne Rich’s challenging essay “Taking Women Students Seriously.” The wide variety of readings underscores responses of higher education to a memorable, often tumultuous, half century. Colleges and universities faced a transformation of their educational goals, institutional structures and curricula, and admission policies; the ethnic and economic composition of student bodies; an expanding social and gender membership in the professoriate; their growing allegiance to and dependence on federal and foundation financial aids; and even the definitions and defenses of academic freedom.

The daily e-zine Inside Higher Ed has just published an interview with Bender about the book. Asked how he felt the tone of the documents changed over the course of the 65 years covered, Bender replied:

I would say that there was a sense of anticipation at the beginning, looking forward to new challenges related to the position of the U.S. after the war. Their sense was that higher education would (and should) be moving to the center of American society. Hence it must be modernized, democratized, and expanded to meet that challenge…. Midway the complexity and tensions, contests and constraints produced a very different tone. There is little self-confidence toward the end of the story, the result of a sense of being displaced from the center.

Asked which of the 172 documents included were his favorites, Bender said:

I guess I favor some of those documents that might not be widely known without their reprinting: Margaret Rossiter on women in science and W.K.H. Panovsky on “big science”; Allan M. Cartter and William Bowen on faculty supply and demand — and why Cartter, who was right, was ignored, and why Bowen, who was wrong, was embraced; or Adrienne Rich and Lani Guinier on women teaching women and underrepresented students; William Cronon on liberal education and Sidney Hook on Allan Bloom’s failure to grasp the fundamental aims of liberal education; and, finally, the fascinating economists’ argument for tenure by Michael McPherson and Gordon Winston.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.