Friday, July 22, 2016

Geiger - The History of American Higher Education

How leadership capacity is cultivated is one of the central challenges for those who seek to create a vibrant democratic society. Roger Geiger's The History of American Higher Education provides considerable background about how education was used in the early days of America to cultivate leaders and how it has expanded to nurture broader leadership among its citizens in the modern day.

There are a number of commendable attributes of Geiger’s The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II (2015). The two things that are most helpful are 1) that the essence and sequence of the entire book is nicely summarized in the last chapter which is only 13 pages of the total 552 and 2) the book recounts the origins and roots of higher education in ways that reinforce the capacity building role colleges and universities played in building the embryonic democracy and fledgling economy of America. On the second point, this book could be helpful to those presently serving at international higher education sites because it both admonishes and warns through its historic narrative.

There are other histories of American higher education, some of which do a much better job summarizing the breadth of higher education rather than what Geiger does, which is to address the way issues of academic or intellectual insight were cultivated over time. The recounting of intellectual history is important for educators to understand, particularly because this history heavily impacts perspectives and approaches today. However, it would be very unfortunate if readers believed that after reading Geiger’s account they knew the essentials of American higher education history.

One of Geiger’s most important contributions is in summarizing the trends over time that shaped higher education to be what it is today. Starting with the medieval trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and informed by the mental, moral and natural philosophies of Aristotle, early American colleges were intended to prepare ministers and statesmen for public service. These colleges appealed to privileged men and learning took place in intimate encounters of eating, living, and studying together among faculty and students. As Geiger characterized, “The creation of an independent republic, the United States of America, presented the founders with the challenge of defining the nature of its government and the conditions that would allow it to flourish.” (16% into digital text) “…the survival of republics depended on the virtue of their citizens – the capacity of individuals to put the public good – the res publica – above their personal interests. For patriots, education seemed the best means of instilling virtue in the citizenry.” (17% into digital text) The importance of this mission guaranteed that the states would seek some degree of control over their colleges, a commitment grasped regardless of the fact that no public funding had gone into these colleges in the early days.

Early American colleges were all affiliated with one or another of the religious groups that had immigrated to America to find religious freedom and pursue a life in a new and developing land. Because they were among the first institutions in the new country, Geiger prominently profiles the colleges that would eventually be recognized as the “Ivy League.” Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia are noted most often as they established trends, differentiated purposes, and competed for eminence as credible places of learning. Although King’s College (later to be known as Columbia) was founded by powerful Dutch Reform families, it was the first to declare that its doors were open to all Christian believers, and it became the place where the upper ranks of New York society were cultivated. This purpose of entry into the emerging American elites was characteristic of most collegians well into the end of the 19th century and this social advancement was achieved through acquisition of connections, character, circumstances, and individual ability.

American universities were heavily influenced in the early years by the likes of John Adams and George Washington who connected the role of education with cultivating republican government. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a state university (UVa) that offered professional and advanced studies. While the advocacy of such visionaries resulted in a quick start, higher education went through various ups and downs throughout the 19th century, sometimes the result of politics or economic conditions and sometimes more the result of the changing and uncertain role played by colleges. Students themselves also sought to shape their experience, resulting in shifting perceptions of the role of colleges. Particularly in the middle to late 19th century, controlling students’ behavior became increasingly important and this was commonly accomplished by imposing religious fervor and piety on campus. As attendance expanded to include students beyond the privileged elite, the types of institutions to serve them proliferated and resulted in many small colleges sponsored by different religious groups. The dual purposes of liberal education versus preparation for work and career emerged as a tension at this time with some institutions attempting to serve both purposes but others specializing and offering competing approaches.

Geiger’s history documents many important trends that shaped American higher education including how institutions opened to female students, cultural minorities, and students from more humble economic backgrounds. He also cogently summarizes the trends in types of institutions and their purposes over time, including the move from elite education for public service to multifaceted institutions dedicated to liberal education, career preparation, and advancement of knowledge through research. Citing Edwin E. Slosson’s 1910 Great American Universities, Geiger offers three categories of universities that reflect the prominent trends in American higher education – the elite colonial colleges of Columbia, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale – the western state universities of California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, - and, the postbellum new universities of Chicago, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Stanford. (57% of digital text) However, he primarily describes these trends through the lens of faculty and the college president. Reference to the emerging presence and role of Deans of Women and Men as important influencers of campus culture and learning in the late 19th and early 20th century is superficial and fleeting. And, he completely missed the fact that student’s out of class experiences were addressed in increasingly formal and scholarly ways following the American Council on Education’s publication of the “Student Personnel Point of View” in 1937.

Geiger occasionally mentioned Deans in relation to their role in controlling students on behalf of the President.  He gave credit or blame for the growing “collegiate” culture to fraternities and athletics asserting that the “unspoken reality of fraternities was that they attracted students concerned with worldly success and social status.” (38% through digital text) The lack of recognition of the role of the student affairs deans as educators is a significant oversight. In addition, in this reviewer’s perspective the overstatement of the importance of the role of fraternities in shaping campuses neglects the important recognition of the growing focus on learning in and out of the classroom. In fact, Geiger took this lack of recognition to a point of denigration by saying “…college presidents increasingly defended their purpose as forming the ‘whole man.…, a rationalization that disguised the bankruptcy of their educational mission, a surrender of intellect to the ascendant value of the high collegiate era, which enthroned the principal features of manliness.” (62% of digital text) He later acknowledged that this collegiate life “had infused enormous vitality into the student experience. Moreover, it had made college attractive to a far larger population by promising social advancement and productive careers.” (67% of digital text) It is the opinion of this reviewer (and partially supported by Geiger’s text) that the growing importance of higher education in the post World War years was significantly derived from connecting research to the advancement of knowledge, the vitalization of the collegiate experience through in and out of class life, and supported by broadening access to students from all sorts of backgrounds. These three trends are perhaps the most important and distinguishing characteristics of American higher education in the 21st century.

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