Detail from "Academic Gowns, American Usage," chromolithographic print by Julius Bien & Co., 1903.
Published: September 6, 2013
In recent weeks, President Obama has proposed sweeping changes to the way government helps to finance students’ higher education, and an unprecedented system of collegiate rankings – all in the name of greater access and better value for the “consumer.” But others object to a consumerist mentality in the realm of higher education, and the application of “business” models to its institutions. So in this episode of BackStory,Peter, Ed, and Brian take on the history of higher ed – exploring earlier battles over the nature and purpose of the collegiate enterprise, and what they mean today.
Sociologist Michael Sauder talks with Ed, Peter, and Brian about a controversy over college rankings – over a century ago.
The Practical Humanities
Historian Caroline Winterer tells Peter about a debate over practicality and purpose in higher education after the Civil War, and how the humanities offered a solution.
Professors, Professionalism, and Profit
Ed talks with historian Caitlin Rosenthal about an early wave of for-profit universities in the mid-19th Century, and a road not taken in the realm of “practical” higher education.
The Dishonor Code
Brian chats with journalist Carlos Santos about violence and disorder in the early years of the University of Virginia, and the threat it posed to Thomas Jefferson’s vision for American higher education.
The Guys discuss a central irony of Jefferson’s educational vision – intending the University of Virginia to be an entirely secular institution, it was only as students became more religious in the mid-18th Century – as the second “Great Awakening” swept the country – that they became more serious too.
The Guys take calls from listeners with questions on the history of higher education.
PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. Last month, President Obama announced his plans to improve the affordability and accessibility of a college degree.
BARACK OBAMA: At the time when higher education has never been more important, college has never been more expensive.
PETER: He pointed to the skyrocketing cost of college. In the past three decades, it has risen, on average, more than 1,000%. But don’t get too nostalgic for the old days. Just consider what it was like for the students who attended college 200 years ago.
CAROLINE WINTERER: There were so many students who absolutely hated it. They just couldn’t stand learning all this Greek and Latin. It was torture.
MALE SPEAKER: So what did those young men do to keep their spirits up? They would shoot at each other. Luckily, weapons were so primitive they rarely hit each other.
PETER: A history of higher education, today on BackStory.
Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American history guys.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: In 1910, a bunch of graduate school deans convened a meeting to talk shop. On the agenda was one especially tricky issue– how to gauge the quality of the undergraduate schools who were sending them students for their graduate programs.
PETER: Their solution sounds pretty simple to us today, but at the time it was radical. A ranking system for all the nation’s colleges and universities. The deans wanted this ranking to make a difference, so they turned for help to the US government. A Bureau of Education official named Kendrick Babcock was given the job of putting it all together, and Babcock took up the project with a vengeance.
MALE SPEAKER: Its service will be nationwide. One standard will be applied to all. Its chief instruments will be impartiality, insight, and publicity.
BRIAN: The following year, Babcock completed his survey. He had created a five tier ranking of 344 schools. But before the report could be released, it was leaked to the public.
Michael Sauder is a University of Iowa sociologist who studies college rankings, and he says the response from college administrators was fast and furious.
MICHAEL SAUDER: I mean, nobody wanted to be in the fourth tier, and there were some lower ranked schools that just wanted to be left out altogether.
MALE SPEAKER: We had an earnest protest against such publications of the kind under discussion, and earnestly request that our institutions be omitted from any similar publications in the future.
PETER: This is a letter from the president of the low ranked Mississippi agricultural and mechanical college writing on behalf of 10 schools in his region. But it wasn’t just bottom tier schools who objected. Syracuse University had been placed in the second tier, and its chancellor pointed out that that guy doing the ranking had never actually set foot on the Syracuse campus.
BRIAN: Which was true. Despite his high minded intentions, Babcock’s methodology left a little to be desired. The entire ranking was based on hearsay from people at the grad schools themselves, the very people who commissioned the survey in the first place.
MICHAEL SAUDER: Basically what he did is he visited the most prestigious schools that granted graduate degrees and had informal discussions with administrators about what they thought of the schools that these students were coming from.
PETER: You’ll remember that this was a government report, but that doesn’t mean it was confined to some back office of a federal building. No, this controversy made its way all the way up to the White House. In 1912, under tremendous pressure from disgruntled schools, President William Howard Taft issued an executive order banning the ranking’s publication.
MICHAEL SAUDER: Taft basically said, OK, let’s not release it. Woodrow Wilson’s coming into office here next, and he was president of Princeton University. He said, I’ll just pass the buck onto Wilson and let him decide.
BRIAN: But either because of or despite his academic pedigree, the new president wasn’t interested in stirring up a hornet’s nest. Wilson, too, kept it under wraps. The government’s foray into the rankings game was over before it had really even started. And that’s how things remained for 100 years. Until now.
BARACK OBAMA: We’re going to start rating colleges not just by which college is the most selective.
PETER: Last month, President Obama unveiled a comprehensive series of higher ed reforms designed to address skyrocketing tuition rates and the student loan crisis. Part of his plan includes a brand new ranking system.
BARACK OBAMA: What we want to do is rate them on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.
BRIAN: If this ranking ever does see the light of day, we can be sure that it, too, will ruffle a few feathers. And that, says Michael Sauder, is because we’ve never really agree on what value in higher ed really means.
MICHAEL SAUDER: The value of a university degree is very difficult to rank. It might well be unrankable.
The Practical Humanities
ED: So today on the show, we’re looking at the ways Americans have thought about higher education through the years. What is college for? Who is it for? We’ll consider Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a new American approach to higher ed, and the reasons his model didn’t catch on. We’ll tell the story of the first big boom of for profit colleges, and we’ll take calls from you, our listeners.
PETER: We’ll begin in the 18th century, a time when classical civilizations loomed extremely large in the worlds of contemporary Americans. And when it came time to create a new nation, the founders looked to Greece and Rome for inspiration for the design of public buildings, as well as for the structure of government itself.
Caroline Winterer is an historian at Stanford who has written about how this obsession with the ancients shaped the mission of higher education. Far from being institutions that fostered the creation of new knowledge, universities were places where very old knowledge was passed along. But, says Winterer, that doesn’t mean that the classics were irrelevant. Far from it.
CAROLINE WINTERER: The study of the classics before the Civil War is highly utilitarian. We would even call it vocational, because it prepares people for the skills that are useful at the time. It teaches you to be a really good logician, for jobs like being a lawyer, and it helps doctors to learn medical nomenclature. And also, it helps people to communicate with other learned people in the world when the language of international learned communication is still Latin. And if you write something in English, it often has to be translated into Latin.
So again, learning Greek and Latin was not just a kind of ornament for lazy gentlemen who never did anything. It was really, really, really useful knowledge in the way that computer programming is today.
PETER: Caroline, we have a favorite premise on the show, and that is that the Civil War changes everything. I don’t know why that is, but Ed Ayers keeps talking about it. It seems like the Civil war did a lot to American higher education. Could you explain that a little bit?
CAROLINE WINTERER: Well, the Civil War transforms American society, and then the universities change in response to that. So suddenly you have an enormous explosion of population after the Civil War. You have massive urbanization, you have the movement of many people into the Western territories, which are then incorporated as states.
So the number of universities and colleges begins to swell. And even older places like Harvard, which had been founded in 1636, added totally new parts to the universities. You had the advent of the first graduate programs. You suddenly had to add a whole bunch of administrators. Presidents no longer needed to be ministers. Now they had to be fundraisers. A lot of listeners will recognize this as the universities that we have today.
PETER: So Caroline, I wonder, in the wake of these transformations, there was an argument being made against the classical learning that it was a positive impediment to what had to be done. The classics were on the defensive after the Civil War, weren’t they?
CAROLINE WINTERER: They were. No less than Andrew Carnegie himself went on the attack saying that universities are not about the distant past. Universities are about the future.
Now, that rhetoric is so common today that it is difficult for us to see that that was a really revolutionary thing to say. Before the Civil War, universities were all about the past. It was about preserving this wonderful fund of knowledge from the ancient world. And now universities are supposed to be about training young people for the jobs that are going to come in the future.
PETER: What do the classicists do to counterattack all this relevant stuff?
CAROLINE WINTERER: Well, they launch a full frontal assault on all of this language of reality and utility and modernity. What they say is that we actually offer something that is higher than mere utility. Anybody can screw widgets into whatever the thing is that you screw widgets into.
PETER: I don’t know. You’re out of my depth.
CAROLINE WINTERER: But only we, the classicists, and the other humanities that are now getting added on to the university, we can offer something that’s higher than that. We can offer spiritual redemption that will actually purge our souls of all of the horrible things that come along with urbanization and industrialization and massive capitalist interventions.
PETER: Right. So in many ways, you’re talking about the late 19th century as a kind of a success story in which the repositioning of classical studies, which is now not trying to emulate and recreate the classical world, but to study the classical world the way we study everything has really set the terms for the modern academy generally. Is there something lost, though, from that early culture of classicism?
CAROLINE WINTERER: Well, what was lost in this transformation was a cadre of people who had all gone to college and who all knew exactly the same thing. And that created a sort of amazing alumni club of Americans, some of whom we meet in places like the Constitutional Convention. So when one person stood up and said, and here’s how they did it in ancient Rome, everyone would nod and follow along in the discussion. This gets lost in the post Civil War university.
And there’s all these attempts to put a Band-Aid on it. So they invent things like the Western Civ course, right, in the early 20th century. And they say, well, all of this thing we’re calling Western civilization began in ancient Greece, and that we are the endpoint of this wonderful trajectory. And if everybody takes this Western Civ class, then we’ll go back to the 18th century, when everybody could understand everybody all the time.
And that way of thinking is very much premised on what then looks like this golden age before the Civil War. But we always have to look at the costs associated with that. There were so many students who absolutely hated it. They just couldn’t stand learning all this Greek and Latin. It was torture. Why would we want to torture young people?
We want them to like to go to school. And where is the scientific experiment that says that we all need to know the same things in order to be able to talk to one another?
So I think that it’s very important, always, as we move forward with debates on what American universities should do, to remember that there never was a golden age. There never was a time when everything was perfect. Colleges and universities always reflect the society that produces them, and there have always been these kinds of debates about what students should know, and why they should know them, and what should be taught in the university and what shouldn’t be taught.
PETER: Caroline, thanks very much for joining me today.
CAROLINE WINTERER: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.
PETER: Caroline Winterer is a professor of history at Stanford University. She’s the author of The Culture of Classicism, Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life.
ED: It’s time for a quick break. When we get back, drinking, dueling, and riots. 19th century college students give Animal House a run for its money.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
Professors, Professionalism, and Profit
PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re looking at the history of debates about higher education in America.
ED: If you look at a list of the largest universities in the United States today, the schools holding down first and second place are not what you might expect– the big state schools in the Midwest or the south. Instead, they’re for profit colleges. As funding for public higher education has stagnated, the growth of for profits has taken up the slack. These schools now account for 9% of higher education enrollment.
PETER: But what’s interesting is that this isn’t the first time for profits have enjoyed this sort of boom. In the years following the Civil War, hundreds of so-called commercial colleges sprung up around the country. These were the years, you’ll remember, when young people were flocking to cities to take on all sorts of brand new jobs in offices and factories.
Hundreds of so-called commercial colleges sprung up across the country. Some were designed to be franchises, like Bryant and Stratton College, which hoped to open a branch in every city with more than 10,000 people. By 1886, nearly 50,000 students were attending these schools.
ED: Caitlyn Rosenthal is a historian at UC Berkeley who has written about the history of for profit education. She says the early commercial colleges taught accounting, penmanship, and bookkeeping, all the skills a student would need in the new industrial world of the late 19th century.
CAITLYN ROSENTHAL: They really emphasized the practical. And they didn’t just emphasize that in their language. They had mocked up offices so when you came to learn how to handle bank notes and practice to be, say, a bank teller, you would sit in their fake office and use their fake money to do transactions. They also tended to have pre-printed account books specialized, so you could run a whole imaginary economy. It was intended to be very hands on.
ED: Now, did these schools have a good reputation?
CAITLYN ROSENTHAL: The reputations are very mixed. There’s not a lot of good data on them early on, but in the early 1870s, the US Commissioner of Education for the first time puts a special section in their annual report on commercial colleges, and he opens this up with a kind of defense of commercial colleges. He says that it’s believed by gentleman of excellent judgment that some of these schools are just purely business speculations. However, he says that these bad schools– the cost of them is worth the benefit of the other schools that are really trying to train people up in business relations.
ED: Now, were young men and young women of modest means able to take advantage of these commercial colleges?
CAITLYN ROSENTHAL: So I think the colleges did reach a large number of men and women of modest means. Typically, if you wanted to learn to keep books, you would become an apprentice, and securing an apprenticeship in a bank or accounting house or even a business often relied on a lot of family ties and connections. In a lot of ways, this was an alternative way to gain some of those skills.
ED: And in fact, they had a clever financing plan where you could sign up for as many classes as you wanted to take. It was kind of like a gym membership today is my understanding.
CAITLYN ROSENTHAL: Yeah, they called it the life scholarship. Bryant and Stratton offered a life scholarship, and for $40, you received a scholarship that they advertised as perpetual and indefinite, which meant that it was like an all you can eat education. And if you needed to keep taking classes longer, then you could, until you were able to make yourself attractive to employers.
ED: What happened to these colleges?
CAITLYN ROSENTHAL: Well, originally I thought that they just disappeared. So I got into this because I studied the history of accounting and information systems, so I was interested in how were we having enough bookkeepers to manage these huge new multidivisional corporations that occur? So I had never heard of, for example, Bryant and Stratton, and I was writing about them in the course of my research.
And then I saw in a footnote somewhere else that Bryant and Stratton still existed. And not only that, but they had 18 campuses still in operation.
ED: There are billboards here in Virginia for them today.
CAITLYN ROSENTHAL: Just before coming on the radio, I went on their website, and I’m just kind of amazed by the spread of the colleges.
CAITLYN ROSENTHAL: So I think there is an alternate history of these kinds of commercial colleges that might have happened. If you hadn’t seen the rise of Wharton and HBS and the other kind of what I’ll call fancy business schools of today, these commercial colleges might have become more prominent. They certainly had high aspirations.
Among the early alumni are people like Rockefeller and Carnegie and B.F. Goodrich. They really have a kind of prestigious business pedigree. And then around 1880, you have the founding of Wharton, which usually claims to be the first business school. And then Harvard Business School is in the first decade of the 20th century, I think.
ED: That’s right.
CAITLYN ROSENTHAL: And those schools paint business education in a totally different way. It’s about learning a grander set of management skills, and about making connections with other elite businesspeople. And I assumed that the rise of one coincided with the fall of the other. Like, these small commercial colleges had boomed to fill a gap that was later taken over by business education becoming important in the big universities. And it turns out they continued to operate all the way along, offering a very different set of skills to a different set of people.
ED: Caitlyn Rosenthal is a historian at the University of California Berkeley. We’ll post a link to her article on early commercial colleges at backstoryradio.org.
The Dishonor Code
PETER: Now, a few decades before that late 19th century boom in vocational schools, American educators had watched the progress of a rather different experiment in higher education. That was the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. When it opened six years later, UVA was supposed to be an academical village– a forward looking community with no religious affiliation, a place where Virginia’s brightest young minds could go to study with the world’s most serious scholars.
BRIAN: But the students who came to this new school– well, they didn’t quite live up to Jefferson’s expectations. Carlos Santos is a journalist who’s written about the school’s tumultuous early years. I asked him to help me understand the culture of violence that dominated student life in the early 19th century.
Carlos, I teach a lot of students here at UVA, and, you know, the kind of discipline problems I run into are people checking their email, Twitter, occasionally watching entire movies during my lectures. I understand life was pretty different back in the first couple of decades at UVA.
CARLOS SANTOS: It’s really hard to fathom how violent the students were. The slightest insult– a mean look– that was enough to set them off. They had hair trigger tempers, and they would bite each other, they’d fight, they’d hit each other with fists, rocks, sticks. They would use knives, they would shoot at each other. Luckily, weapons were so primitive they rarely hit each other.
Sometimes they’d set off bombs. They did it to professors a number of times. The students were so violent that Jefferson at one point was brought to tears, and it was because of their violence. And he saw that as something that might bring his school to its knees.
BRIAN: What efforts did the professors and administrators– I know there were a smaller number back then– make to rein in some of this violence and chaotic activity by the students?
CARLOS SANTOS: Right. They tried. The professors tried a number of things, and they all just failed miserably.
BRIAN: What were some of them? I want to make sure I don’t repeat these errors.
CARLOS SANTOS: I don’t think they would work today either. Early morning rising law. That law, which was enacted a few years after the school opened, required students to get up at 5:30 in the morning.
BRIAN: All right, I can predict this is not going to work.
CARLOS SANTOS: It didn’t. They hated it. It was the most hated law–
BRIAN: What was the thinking? I mean, honestly, what was the thinking behind the early morning rising law?
CARLOS SANTOS: Well, the thinking was that if they had to get up that early in the morning, they wouldn’t carouse all night. Honestly, that was it. And of course, the belief that–
BRIAN: Only a bunch of professors would conclude that.
CARLOS SANTOS: Next one was the uniform law. That was another hated law. You know, students loved to dress in this faddish clothing. They had colorful jackets and pantaloons and crazy hats, and the professors didn’t want them to do that for two reasons. One, critics of the university believed it was the playground for the rich and violent, and they dressed very expensively. And the professors didn’t want that image.
So they made them wear just simple gray uniforms. Just a gray jacket and gray pants. And the students hated it.
The other reason, of course, they wanted to wear these gray uniforms is when they were in town or wherever they were, professors could ID them right away. So if they were in trouble, they could say, ah, that’s one of ours. Of course, that didn’t work either.
BRIAN: So I have read about this kind of unruliness, and sometimes even mob violence at other colleges like Princeton. Was there anything that distinguished UVA from other universities?
CARLOS SANTOS: The riots– for example, Harvard had its rotten cabbage riot about bad food, and they’d break out windows and fight the local police. So I think UVA had more of a– because it was a southern institution, southerners, at least according to people who have studied them in depth, at that time, were more willing to fight. And they also carried this sense of honor with them.
That sense of honor meant that they had to be treated with the utmost of respect, because honor was bestowed on them by other people. It didn’t come from inside themselves. So how they were treated in public made them men.
So there was no distinct difference from other riots in other colleges. I just think there was more violence than any other college.
BRIAN: But it does seem like UVA was different in that it was not religiously affiliated. Did that make a difference?
CARLOS SANTOS: I don’t think it did to the violence, but of course, that was the reason the violence mattered. There was a public relations problem going on at the University of Virginia. Jefferson, who’s beloved today, of course, was despised by many people back in his lifetime. And he made no more friends when he started the University of Virginia and said there would be no professor of theology.
This was in an era when the law had just been pushed off the books where it was a crime to not believe in the holy trinity. And so for Jefferson to start a school that had no religious affiliation was anathema to many people, especially in Virginia. So they began to criticize the school when they saw all this violence, a murder of a professor. They wanted it shuttered.
BRIAN: Did you say murder a professor?
CARLOS SANTOS: Yes. A professor. The violence actually culminated in the murder, in 1840, of John Davis, who was a professor of law. On that particular night, around 9:00 PM, while they’re shooting off guns and lighting tar barrels and ringing the rotunda bell and just behaving like wild students, one student– his name was John Semmes– he was from Georgia– for some reason loaded a pistol.
Professor Davis was tired of all the noise and racket and explosions and shootings. He was just weary. I’m sure you would be, too.
And he came out and grabbed this short guy. Semmes turned around, shot at abdomen. The bullet entered his abdomen, went down his groin, and into his leg. It took him several days to die, but the professor eventually did die.
And Semmes took off. They eventually captured them with the aid of students, believe it or not, because usually students banded together. But they were so horrified by this they finally went after Semmes. They got him.
He was from a very rich family, but they brought him back to Charlottesville. They put a $25,000 bond. He made the bond– $25,000, which back then was, of course, an incredible fortune– and never came back.
BRIAN: Carlos, thanks so much for taking us through this early history of the University of Virginia. I feel much better about my students tweeting.
CARLOS SANTOS: Thanks for inviting me.
BRIAN: Carlos Santos is the author, with Rex Bowman, of Rot, Riot, and Rebellion, Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America.
ED: So Peter, you know, Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia– one of the things he wanted to be remembered for is often held up as sort of the beginning of the modern university. Sort of a vision of what higher education could be in this country. To what extent does UVA become a model?
PETER: Ed, it doesn’t. Oh, it’s a controversial institution from the get go. That is because it was secular. That’s its chief claim to fame.
But there was a lot of agitation against the university thinking by people– good Christians– who thought this was a very, very bad idea, and that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on it. It was a failed experiment in giving privileged young men of Virginia– maybe even a scholarship student or two– access to the best knowledge, the best learning in the world.
BRIAN: So Peter, how did the brilliant Jefferson so miscalculate about the kind of students it was going to attract? A bunch of cutups, apparently.
PETER: Well, he didn’t have any boys in the house, so he didn’t have that learning experience at home. But Brian and Ed, you know, the funny thing that does happen is that things do stabilize. As Carlos was suggesting, he mentioned killing Professor Davis. But what really changed things at Virginia was the Second Great Awakening. And the irony here is that–
BRIAN: What was that second?
PETER: It’s the great revival of Christianity, the Second Great Awakening that takes place over the early decades of the 19th century. And it hits big in the 1830s at Virginia. So even while their students are still acting out, there’s the beginnings of a new culture on the campus– a more evangelical, religious culture.
It’s an irony, because Jefferson wanted to keep Virginia separated– his university separated from religious teachers. This was not going to be a conventional religious college. Not that they did better in terms of maintaining order on campus.
All over the country, it’s the success of revivalism in finally creating that kind of serious student that Jefferson had been looking for, but now serious about things that Jefferson wondered about himself. That is, these were serious Christians.
ED: So Carlos was talking about all the violence in the South, and that’s certainly the case. Honor really did saturate the culture. The main enemy of honor was the Evangelical Church.
PETER: That’s right.
ED: And so the churches established universities across the south, the colleges across the south. Places you think of– Wake Forest, and Duke, and Emory, the great Southern universities– all are basically religious in origin, and they are in tension. They’re trying to train to break the spirit of these young men. That’s what Jefferson missed, going back to your idea, Peter. What was actually going to make these guys behave in ways that they had been raised not to behave?
PETER: Well, it wasn’t the Enlightenment, because they didn’t get enlightened. But they did get Jesus, and it was the revivals. And that’s the irony, because this was supposed to be a secular place. Jefferson needed serious Christians at his school for it to fulfill his original vision.
BRIAN: So Peter and Ed, what model of higher education does become the successful model for training America’s citizens in a democratic republic?
PETER: Well, I think, ironically, Brian, it’s actually following the cues of the expanding society of preparing people for work in the world. You begin with a seminary, a divinity school as a component, and then you train people for law, and then you graft higher learning on top of that.
ED: And Mr. Jefferson wouldn’t like this answer, Brian, but I think the answer is Harvard, which grows in this way that Peter’s talking about– incrementally adding new dimensions and layers and capacities on the old ecclesiastical foundation. I think Harvard’s path becomes the path of American higher education, Peter, which is a gradual diminution of the religious impulse.
PETER: Yes, absolutely.
ED: It’s not that they are founded as secular institutions, except this very weird place of Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago. Generally, colleges are founded denominationally, sustain that for a while, and then gradually become secularized. I bet if you look around at American higher education today, 90% of the schools have their origins in a Catholic or Protestant religious origin.
PETER: Right, yeah.
ED: And so what you find, even as those new branches develop, the old core of religious tradition fades away.
BRIAN: So yet again, Mr. Jefferson is just a bit too radical.
PETER: Yeah, and we can use him now, we can turn back to him for inspiration because of his devotion to things that matter to us. That is, if you think of UVA as, at least in his vision, the first great graduate school, it wasn’t. But that idea that people would do the kinds of things that we scholars do– it’s something that we can identify with and take inspiration from.
ED: It’s time for another break. When we get back, we’ll go to the phones.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory story. We’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, a history of higher education. We’ve reached the point on our show where we turn to listeners who have reached out to us about today’s topic at backstoryradio.org or on Facebook. We’ve got a call from Oakton, Virginia, and it’s from Nancy. Nancy, welcome to BackStory.
NANCY: Well, thank you. The question that I had for you– I was looking at colleges myself in the Dark Ages. I was doing my college search in 1967. And at that time, the top tier colleges were almost universally male on the east coast. Amherst College, the small liberal arts colleges were male, Harvard, Yale, Princeton. I ended up applying to University of Pennsylvania, and that’s where I graduated from, because they had a women’s college.
I guess my question is, why did it take so long for the east coast establishment universities, the big name universities, to admit women? For example, Stanford University, when it was created I guess in the late 1800s, was absolute. We were going to take women from the get go. And the first coed school in the country, I guess, was Oberlin in the Midwest. Why the Midwest and the West? Why were they so much more progressive and accepting women as undergraduates?
ED: Nancy, that’s a really good question, which, in all honesty, I’ve not really considered in this light before. Certainly it’s amazing that women are not admitted to those schools until the late ’60s, early ’70s. But there’s certainly a tendency the farther west you go for it to be more integrated.
Now, it’s interesting. I’d be curious what my colleagues have to say about the similarity between that and the greater likelihood that women could vote in the west. Does this just suggest a more democratic spirit, or some other explanation, Brian?
BRIAN: Well, I think you’ve put your finger on it, Ed. I think just to be clear, women were able to vote in state elections almost from the beginning in most of these territories that became states in the West long before the national right to vote in 1920. And I think women were admitted to colleges for the same reasons out there, which is, there were a dearth of women. It was hard to attract women out to the west.
And these were new institutions and new states, and they tended to be much more democratic both in allowing women to vote and in admitting women. Now, it wasn’t always easy for the women who were admitted. They were not treated equally– let me put it that way– inside the classroom. But certainly they were there, and that made a big difference.
ED: And we wouldn’t want to overlook a different kind of tradition, Nancy. I know you’re asking about coeducation, but there were many colleges for women, of course, in the east, and would have been more, then, in the West. And I wouldn’t be surprised if actually there wasn’t a higher percentage of women in college in the east than in the west.
BRIAN: I find one of the most remarkable statistics is the fact that in the 1920s, the percentage of those enrolled in higher education– the percentage of women– was almost even with men.
BRIAN: We often think of history as this kind of steady march, and certainly, the percentages of women had been climbing ever since they kept statistics on this up through the 1920s. But in the 1920s, women had almost achieved parity, and then the numbers started slipping. They slipped because of the Great Depression, and then they slipped because of the GI Bill in the Second World War, and all the men returning from the war.
To go back to some of the explanations as to why it took elite eastern universities so long to admit women, I certainly– now, I graduated in 1975 from a so-called elite university, and they had recently gone co-ed. But one of the reasons that administrators cited for not having admitted women was they were convinced that women would not succeed in the business world, which was, I guess, a fair estimate, given the kind of discrimination that existed at the time, and that those women would not to go on to make gazillions of dollars and donate back to the university.
NANCY: But do you really think that was the reason? I mean, how is it that a place like Stanford University, and yes, the wealthy family driven by a very strong willed woman, Mrs. Stanford, that they not only produced women, but they produced doctors, successful women who did great things. And it took, what, 70? Almost 70 years for the east coast establishment to see the kinds of wonderful things that Stanford and other coeducational institutions across the country that were peers– or maybe they didn’t think they had any peers in the rest of the country. I don’t know.
ED: I do think it would have been a long time before Harvard would have considered Stamford in their league.
ED: It’s hard for us to recognize, but a lot of the young men at his colleges did not want women there. Now, that seems, as they say, counterintuitive to us, because we’d assume young men are always looking for young women. But at University of Virginia, for example, there were a lot of resistance to women coming there and, ironically, distracting young men from their studies.
NANCY: That’s what I thought you were going to say all along, right there. Because I heard that.
ED: Well, good. Let’s just pretend that I said it at the beginning, then.
BRIAN: Yeah, and Nancy, I’m going to get in a lot of trouble for this, but I think a lot of the Eastern Ivy League universities were just very self satisfied.
NANCY: Well, does that go for the University of Virginia?
BRIAN: Yes, especially on the University of Virginia because, frankly, it was not a top university before it admitted African Americans.
NANCY: And women.
BRIAN: And women.
PETER: Yeah. Well, we have, as we like to say– and we wish we could say it about more things– come a long way. It’s a new world, and it’s got to be better, right guys?
BRIAN: That’s right, Peter. Thank you very much, Nancy.
NANCY: Thank you very much. That was really interesting.
PETER: Thanks, Nancy. Bye bye.
BRIAN: Bye bye.
PETER: We’ve got a call from Lisa in Washington, DC. Lisa, welcome to the show.
LISA: Hi. How are you? I was just wondering how you think the purposes of education have shifted, I guess across the 20th century. I remember going to the university and the focus being on how I would participate as a citizen, and being literate in media studies, and all sorts of liberal arts sorts of subject matter. And now I sense that the focus is more on our students becoming global marketplace players, getting jobs, a very utilitarian sort of approach to education.
PETER: Right. Well, we liberal arts types have always been fearful of creeping vocationalism. That goes way back, these concerns, wouldn’t you say, guys?
ED: Well, you know, I think, Peter, if you think about it, college was designed not to be vocational. I mean, it was very aggressively– listen, if you’re one of the 1% or 2% who are actually going to college, unless you’re getting ready to be a preacher, the whole idea is that you don’t have to do this. So I don’t think we want to have the idea that in the 19th century, it was anything other than a path for people whose families had largely made it to keep making it.
PETER: Well, I want to complicate things a little bit, because I think that the attraction to what seems like the useless knowledge has been a powerful one in America, and it is a driver of social mobility. That is, if you can acquire that kind of liberal arts education, the veneer of gentility, then you’re going to be a player. So I wouldn’t want to say that people studied Latin because they just had a love of ancient languages. It was always in some sense instrumental.
PETER: So Lisa, let’s have you, when you talk about your own motivations to get something more than a vocational education, to really get a genuinely liberal education, what do you think were your motivations?
LISA: Well, I think I went into it, like probably a lot of young people, I went into the university just excited to get away from my mom and my parents and live independently. And then when I got into these classes with these great professors, I feel like the whole world opened up to me through Political Geography and through my sociology of ed classes, where I’d have a professor say, well, what’s the matter with cheating? What is cheating, anyway?
Just working with these big ideas and thinking, wow, I’ve never really thought about what cheating means. Just those sorts of ideas. And I wonder about why when we think of skills, we always hear about technology skills, but we don’t hear about, well, we need to really focus on people being able to decipher what the media is selling them. You know what I mean? It’s always a particular type of skill.
ED: I’d like to give kind of a slightly more optimistic interpretation of all this. The fact is that as large a percentage of college students major in the humanities as they have, except for the early ’70s. What has changed is that we’ve more than doubled the number of students going to college. We’ve doubled the percentage of women going to college. This is since 1970. We’ve doubled the students of color going to college.
And a lot of those folks are first generation. And as a result, they are studying more vocationally based subjects, especially business. And I guess it seems to me that if you are the first in your family to get a shot at college, studying something where there seems to be a guaranteed return on your investment seems like a rational choice. So I think that one way to think about this is that a broadening, a democratizing of the student body, leads to a vocationalizing, if I may, of majors.
And it’s also the case that kids who are in college today had as a formative experience the downturn, while they were in high school, of the great recession. So I think that we’re seeing, just as we think of kids in the ’50s being conservative, kids in the ’60s being radical or whatever, that their formative experience is, boy, you better be careful, because the world is a fragile place economically.
PETER: But I love people like Lisa, the kind of person I really enjoy having in a classroom, people who are there for what you have to offer– that transaction between teacher and student. And I think that’s what we in the liberal arts worry about especially is the quality of those transactions, those conversations, those connections.
I don’t think it’s a new problem. In some ways, it’s a perennial problem. That is, how you make the magic that makes college worthwhile that you can look back on it the way Lisa looks back on her college years.
ED: I’d say through the magic of radio.
PETER: Thanks, Lisa.
LISA: All right, thanks.
PETER: Hey guys, we got a call from Toronto, Canada. And it’s Boyd. Boyd, we’re doing a show on higher ed. What have you got for us?
BOYD: Yeah. I’m wondering about professors. Who have they been? What has been their background? And in particular, how has that background shaped higher education in America and who has access to it?
PETER: Yeah, OK. So I’ll just kick it off, guys. I’ll just say where did we used to come from in the old days? Since most higher third level education was for the training of preachers in the colonial period, often, students, and then, as a result, professors who always have to start somewhere, came from relatively modest backgrounds. I think that’s maybe the golden age of American higher education, if you’re worried about class and status issues.
ED: You know, I think, Peter, that that’s right. I think that as they became increasingly professionalized in the 19th century, and you certainly think about the Ivy League, I do believe that a considerably high status was almost a prerequisite to being a professor at Yale or Harvard. What do you think, Brian?
BRIAN: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that certainly began to change in the 20th century when salaries went up for professors, for one thing, and a disproportionate number of professors came from the middle class. So the good news is they weren’t just the 1%. The bad news is they’re really not the 25% of lower middle class or poor people.
PETER: I have a slightly different image, and that is, I think, you haven’t mentioned the GI Bill. I think many of our professors when we went to graduate school– and we’re all pretty old– had benefited from the GI Bill, and that was actually probably the first generation of professors that could claim to be middle class.
BRIAN: Yeah, I think that’s right. The real disjuncture occurred, really, in the 1960s, I would argue. That is when we really opened the doors to many more impoverished Americans, or Americans who came from poverty. But the professorate did not change that much. It remained primarily middle class in origins.
BOYD: Well, and that was a large part of what I was wondering. Because I’m a first generation– I’m actually a first generation high school graduate, a first generation university graduate, and the first one of my family ever to contemplate pursuing a graduate degree. And now I’m a professor of US history at a university here in Toronto, York University.
But my experience was largely in graduate school that most people there were the children of professors, right? Lawyers beget lawyers, doctors beget doctors.
PETER: Don’t get personal about this just because I’m third generation, OK? It’s upsetting to me.
ED: They’re sensitive, Boyd.
BRIAN: Yeah, but Ed and I offset Peter, because my parents didn’t go to college. And when I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, my dad used to write me letters. But he would address them to Brians Baloghs at Johns Hopkins, because he kept saying, what kind of name is Johns? What kind of place are you going to, anyway?
ED: What I tell you is that I’m a university president, Boyd, and it seems that I’m meeting people all the time who are proud that they are the first in their family who went to college. And for them, academic life was a great vehicle of upward mobility.
BRIAN: Well, I think the data are on Boyd’s side on this one.
BOYD: I actually I have a little bit of data. And you know, the numbers are quite shocking. Only 8% of Ph.D.s or something like this– you know, it’s very single digits of the numbers who are actually first generation college graduates who go on to pursue Ph.D.s.
BRIAN: Boyd, I know we have to wrap up this call, but I do have one question for you, which is, did you experience any kind of discrimination or culture shock coming from a working class background as you made your way through the hallowed halls of academia?
BOYD: I think that I did, but that it was really these kind of structural discriminations, right, that are much harder to identify and to quantify and to name, right? One of the memories I have that was strongest is actually between high school and going to college when I was filling out my FAFSA forms for federal aid. I remember there was a problem with it, and I ended up, for a brief period– about 48 hours– being told that I was going to have no financial aid to go to college.
And I just remember not having anyone to turn to, and being completely alone in the sense that I can’t navigate this. This is beyond my skill, and I have no one that I can turn to to help me navigate through this thing. So it’s those kind of moments that winnow the field, right? That make it so that so many people don’t even consider the professorate as a career.
ED: And so many studies confirm what you’re saying is that that moment right there is when we lose so many people. So I hope BackStory– those of you of ambition out there who might not know how to fill out the FAFSA form, we want to help.
PETER: Yeah, we’re here for you.
BRIAN: Yes, call Peter Onuf. He’s available 24/7. Thank you very much, Boyd.
BOYD: Thanks so much.
ED: Bye bye.
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BRIAN: That’s all the time we’ve got for today. As always, you can find more on today’s topic at backstoryradio.org. All of our shows are posted there, along with a link to our free podcast.
PETER: Again, that’s backstoryradio.org. We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Jesse Dukes. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Special thanks this week to Scott [INAUDIBLE] and Milton Greenberg.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.